How to Shoot a Wedding (Pt. 4): Portraits

How to Shoot a Wedding (Pt. 4): Portraits

In this blog series, How to Shoot a Wedding, we’ll be exploring, one by one, all of the “must haves” that need to be captured throughout the wedding day to create a well-rounded shoot. We’ll discuss the reasons each is important, examine some common challenges wedding photographers face in these situations (and how to overcome them), and provide a few insider tips for how to shoot like a professional. So grab your camera bag and let’s dive in…


Click here for part three: The First Look

Now that you’ve gotten the bride and groom-to-be together for their first look, you (hopefully) have some time to do their portraits before the ceremony.

J. LaPlante Photo | Colorado Wedding Photographer | Planet Bluegrass Wedding | Bride and Groom by River

These are arguably the most important photos of the entire wedding day. It’s what people envision when they hear the words “wedding photography.” Back in the early days of photography when your subjects had to hold very still for a period of time to have their picture taken, there wasn’t really any such thing as candid photography. All you could do was plop your bride and groom down in front of the camera, count them down from three, and take the shot. As a result, the wedding portrait hearkens back to the pre-Civil War days, and has endured the wear of time, today remaining the most iconic imagery from any wedding day.

So you’d better get it right!

Always Scout Your Venue

Much like the first look, the foremost challenge here it to isolate the couple from prying eyes. You’ll most likely have a very short amount of time to capture these images and if Uncle Steve and Aunt Jane decide to drop in to spectate and take photos of their own, it’s going to slow you down. Also, the couple needs to be comfortable in order to make good portraits, and being heckled by groomsmen isn’t conducive to being natural in front of the camera.

Pre-wedding scouting to the rescue! You’ve already found some good spots away from the hoi polloi, determined your shooting angles, worked out your lighting schemes and discussed how you’ll be posing the couple. Of course, this is all going to change to one degree or another due to weather/lighting conditions and other variables, but you have a solid framework for your plan of attack.

Lighting

Okay, down to the nitty gritty. Midday sun. It tends to suck. But there are plenty of workarounds if you use a little creative ingenuity. For example, you can use flash to overpower the sun.

J. LaPlante Photo | Denver Wedding Photographer | Chatfield Botanic Gardens Wedding | Bride and Groom Portrait

In most situations, speedlights won’t be powerful enough to achieve this task unless you’re able to position them very close to your subject. You can always jury-rig more than one speedlight together to increase output, but the better option is to use a portable studio strobe. These are very powerful lights and can be outfitted with any number of light modifiers. A soft box is generally the go-to for creating portraits with nice, soft light.

J. LaPlante Photo | Colorado Wedding Photographer | Spruce Mountain Ranch Wedding | Bride and Groom in Field

But you want to get more creative than that, right? So after you’ve nailed a few “safe” shots, it’s time to start thinking a bit outside the box. There are an infinite number of things you can do in this situation, but here are a few our “go-tos.”

Mix It Up

Try underexposing the scene and placing the couple in the brightest area of the image.

J. LaPlante Photo | Colorado Wedding Photographer | Shupe Homestead Wedding | Bride and Groom with Longs Peak

Or underexposing even further for a silhouette.

J. LaPlante Photo | Denver Wedding Photographer | Standley Lake Wedding | Sunset Wedding Photo

Make use of the surrounding environment. Is there somewhere indoors where you can get a little more creative with your lighting and composition?

J. LaPlante Photo | Detroit Wedding Photographer | Fox Theatre Wedding | Bride and Groom in Fox Theatre

J. LaPlante Photo | Denver Wedding Photographer | Mile High Station Wedding | Bride and Groom Silhouette

J. LaPlante Photo | Denver Wedding Photographer | University of Denver Wedding | Bride and Groom Silhouette

If not, try to find a spot that’s shaded, like in a grove of trees, under a bridge, next to a building, etc.

J. LaPlante Photo | Colorado Wedding Photographer | Wiens Ranch Wedding | Bride and Groom by Barn

J. LaPlante Photo | Colorado Wedding Photographer | Pueblo Convention Center Wedding | Hindu Wedding | Bride and Groom with Graffiti

J. LaPlante Photo | Ogunquit Wedding Photographer | River Lily Farm Wedding | Bride and Groom in Woods

Think about how you can push your images beyond the commonplace. As I mentioned in last week’s installment, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received for how to take my photography to the next level was this: “Get low, get high, get close, get far.”

J. LaPlante Photo | Denver Wedding Photographer | Mile High Station Wedding | Bride and Groom on Bridge

J. LaPlante Photo | Denver Wedding Photographer | Trinity United Methodist Wedding | Bride and Groom Church Portrait

J. LaPlante Photo | Denver Wedding Photographer | University of Denver Wedding | Bride and Groom Silhouette

J. LaPlante Photo | Denver Wedding Photographer | River North Art District Wedding | Bride and Groom in Front of Mural

Using Movement

Throughout this process, you also have to be very conscious of your bride and groom’s comfort level. Remember, they’re not professional models and they’re relying on you to make them look good. So if the first few shots don’t, in fact, look good (the first few shots almost never look good), here’s what you tell them: “Wow, these look great!” The less self-conscious they are, the better your portraits will turn out.

Another good tactic for making the bride and groom a bit less camera-aware is to incorporate movement. If they have something to focus on doing, they’ll be less cognizant of you, the photographer, and, in turn, behave a bit more naturally.

J. LaPlante Photo | Boulder Wedding Photographer | Chautauqua Park Wedding | Bride and Groom in Chautauqua Park

J. LaPlante Photo | Beaver Creek Wedding Photographer | Beaver Creek Mountain Wedding | Bride and Groom Snowboarding

And if all else fails, do something ridiculous. There’s nothing like a little genuine laughter to calm the nerves.

J. LaPlante Photo | Ludington Wedding Photographer | Ludington Michigan Beach Wedding | Bride and Groom with Lighthouse

J. LaPlante Photo | Cheyenne Wedding Photographer | Downtown Cheyenne Wedding | Groom Getting Arrested

Okay. Now that we’ve captured some great portraits, it’s on to the ceremony. This is the point in the day where many wedding photographers put a check mark next to line item “bride and groom portraits” on the ole shot list.

But not us! Our absolute favorite time to do the couple’s portraits is at night.

Nighttime Portraits

J. LaPlante Photo | Denver Wedding Photographer | Mile High Station Wedding | Bride and Groom in Front of Denver Skyline

Here’s why: as a photographer, you have exponentially more creative control when it’s dark. Think of the scene as a blank canvas. Your lights have now become your brushes and you have endless options for “painting” the image as you see fit.

So during a lull in the reception, I grab the lighting gear and head out to our pre-determined nighttime shooting location. Meanwhile, Moira retrieves the bride and groom from an endless sea of wedding revelers. Believe it or not, this could very well be the single most difficult task of the entire wedding day. Moira is an unsung hero.

Like before, there are an infinite number of things you can do here. If you put 100 different photographers in the same location with the same bride and groom, they’ll come away with 100 very different portraits.

That said, here’s my mindset when I go into these situations:

First, I think about how I can incorporate the environment. What is it that makes this venue unique? Is it the mountains? The cool architecture? Whatever the case, I tend to gravitate to my 14-24mm to shoot wide for a sense of place. Next, I decide how much of the ambient light I want in my frame. Maybe it’s the remnants of sunset or streetlamps or headlights from passing cars. If I want more ambient, I boost my ISO and if I want less, I lower my ISO.

Now for the fun part. I decide which areas of the frame I want to light manually and how to go about doing that. Do I want to flood the scene with light or carefully place a small accent here and there? Do I want soft light or hard light? Warm light or cool light? Do I want to make a high-contrast image or a low contrast image? There are a ton of considerations here and your equipment is going to dictate what you can and cannot achieve.

This would be a good time to mention that I use a set of Nikon speedlights combined with the MagMod modifier system for these night shots. It comes with a dome (for wide light spread), a grid (for a narrow beam of light), and a set of gels (to change the color temperature of the light).

Stylistically-speaking, I’m a big fan of backlighting my couples at night, especially when there’s something in the air to illuminate, such as rain or smoke.

J. LaPlante Photo | Kalamazoo Wedding Photographer | Kalamazoo Country Club Wedding | Bride and Groom in the Rain

J. LaPlante Photo | Denver Wedding Photographer | Chatfield Botanic Gardens Wedding | Bride and Groom Smoking Cigars

Also, placing the couple against some sort of façade and lighting the façade directly behind the couple is a cool way to make a silhouette.

J. LaPlante Photo | Boulder Wedding Photographer | Planet Bluegrass Wedding | Bride and Groom by Silo

Make sure to be cognizant of the various color temperatures in your frame. If there are incandescent lights, you’ll need to use CTO gels on your flashes if you want everything to match. Or, alternatively, throw on some theatrical gels and go f*cking crazy.

All in all, this is the perfect time in the wedding day to flex your creative muscles. The nighttime portraits are my personal favorite wedding images to shoot, primarily because it gives me carte blanche to do anything my little heart desires.

So now that we’ve taken a bunch of kick-ass bride and groom portraits, we’re going to rewind a bit and shoot the most formal portion of the wedding day: the ceremony.

Next time on How to Shoot a Wedding.

Click here for part five: the Ceremony

About the author
Jesse La Plante and Moira Kennedy are husband and wife wedding photographers who have been shooting weddings in Colorado since 2008. Located just outside of Boulder in Lafayette, they specialize in vibrant wedding photography for couples getting married in Colorado's most breathtaking venues. The duo works primarily in Denver, Boulder and the Rocky Mountains, but travels all over the country - and abroad - to shoot weddings. Get in touch today to find out if they're available for your wedding!

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