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How to Make Your Images Look Effortless

Tec Petaja

It’s cool when something you love, something you think is beautiful, becomes a part of your personal brand. People often say my work feels natural and effortless, which is humbling, because it’s honestly one of the things I try to cultivate in my work.It’s a weird thing, though, to figure out how to help people feel “natural” in front of the camera. Obviously, it’s not easy to get someone to show the most unfiltered, real version of themselves once they’re thrown in front of a lens. Totally normal, relaxed humans can turn into awkward robots when they’re asked to pose for an image, especially if you’re working with regular people and not models.So, how do you go about creating a sense of real effortlessness in an image?First, it’s best if you don’t overthink it. The truth is, I’m not seeing anything you’re not seeing; I’ve simply developed a few key ways of emphasizing an effortless look in my work.

As photographers, we have a checklist formed in our minds (or handed to us by the client) of all the images we “should” capture. Because of that, it’s totally possible to get so zeroed in on getting the shot that we actually miss the moment happening in front of us: the bride’s nervous energy on the way to the ceremony, the groom taking a quiet moment to himself, the look in her eyes when he makes her laugh. Those shots aren’t on “the list,” but they are the reason my clients want me there in the first place. I don’t do a lot of posing because I feel like too much direction can interfere with what’s happening right in front of me. 

The less I focus on getting “the shot,” the more I can stay present in the moment.

In every image, I want my colors to feel warm, clean, and real. I’ve always believed that getting my coloring right is a huge part of capturing the natural beauty in front of me. It’s amazing how colors speak; an effortless look is conveyed in far more than just the way the couple is posed or the location where the shot takes place. Because color is so important to me, I’ve worked with Richard Photo Lab over the years to hone the look and feel of the color in my images; we’ve got it down to such a fine-tuned system, I do very little post production (if any). They have something called a “Color PAC” which has really fleshed out the color profile that makes my images look the way they do. (We’ve got a lengthy section dedicated entirely to talking with the folks at Richard Photo Lab about color PACs and everything else you need to know about working with a film lab in my new online course Wedding Photography with Tec Petaja, which goes on sale this week!)

Shooting the same thing over and over again can be super draining. I know you feel me on that one. There are only so many ways to get the “getting ready image” or the “kissing at the altar” shot without feeling like we’re just repeating ourselves. Here’s the worst thing about it: that mundane-ness is part of what makes images look stiff and forced. When there’s no spark or magic there, and it’s just more of the same, it’s difficult to make the image look effortless and natural.The good news is it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s actually a pretty simple fix. We are creators; we can always innovate. We were born for that. It can take a little work to re-think the familiar, but it’s always worth it in the end because the truth is, what we’re capturing is pretty magical. At no other point in time or history has this couple ever exchanged this moment in this place. We just have to revamp the way we see it.

When I’m shooting portraits, I look for a richness of foreground and depth of field. This might mean shooting the couple through some foliage—maybe there’s a tree with beautiful blooms; shooting the couple beside a tree is fine, but shooting them up close against the tree with a branch coming forward, nearest to the eye, and the couple tucked back—that’s more interesting. Or, I might put my lens halfway against a wall to get a nice blur in the foreground with the couple in focus behind that.

If you’re bored with the shot, change it up. Make it interesting to your own eye, and the end result will be better, more natural, and more beautiful. Play with different angles instead of shooting everything straight-on. Take risks and see what happens. For me, this approach has brought more of a “lifestyle” vibe even to my wedding and engagement work, which creates a wonderful crossover between the wedding and commercial aspects of my portfolio. It’s not, “super wedding-y images” and then “other stuff.” It’s all images that have the same spirit: effortless, honest, warm, and classic.

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Wedding Photography

Tec Petaja

Tec’s experience in wedding photography and his approach to capturing effortless imagery.

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