While guiding and directing my couples during a shoot, I try to avoid “posing” them as much as possible. If I focus too much on poses and heavy-handed direction, the essence of the couple is lost. I want to tell their story through my photos. I want to illustrate their one-of-a-kind love. Catchall poses—void of authenticity—won’t get the job done. It’s very important to remember that every couple you photograph is a beautiful pair of two minds, hearts, and souls.
Together, their love is a living, breathing thing—entirely unique to them. This relationship exists because of their togetherness.
It lives in their embrace, their interactions, the looks they exchange, and the gentle touches and crinkle-eyed smiles they share when they don’t think anyone is looking. That’s what I want to capture.
So how do we go from posing to storytelling? We do this by being observant, tailoring the shoot to the couple, and using broad direction instead of specific cookie-cutter poses.
For me, storytelling begins when I first meet the couple. I gather small observations about them as individuals (i.e. “He’s the jokester who can always get her to laugh” or, “She is super shy and will need some guidance and support from her partner during the shoot”). I tuck these mental notes away (or write them down) to reference during their shoot to help me create unique, personal, and authentic photos that capture their story.
Then, I start each shoot with the basics to get couples used to me, the camera, and the overall experience. For example, I often begin a shoot by facing my clients toward each other. I ask them to hold hands or embrace each other, or have them stand side by side and work through a short series of interactions such as looking at each other, looking at the camera, or going in for a kiss. These starting points serve as a foundation on which to build a natural flow and rhythm. Once we’ve established a good flow, I move to more organic interactions. I use broad, general directives that leave room for an evolution of movement, moments, and emotion within the shoot.
The moments that occur as your clients move from point A to B provide an incredible amount of framework and emotion. Feet splashing through a stream on their way to the shore, hands held as they help each other stay balanced while moving from a rocky outcropping down to soft sand at the beach—these transitions help to tell a story while illustrating the natural interactions and small gestures unique to the couple, and they don’t feel contrived or manufactured. So, instead of putting down the camera and walking with your clients to the next setting, stay poised and observe. You’ll find moments in these transitions that allow you to build an even stronger framework for the story within the shoot.
Challenge yourself to go beyond the most common frames within each shoot. Headshot, waist up, full body, and far away environmental are all great, but push past those expected frames. Get closer—almost too close for comfort—as you shoot the tiniest details of a moment so that they fill the entire frame. Focus not only on the obvious (like the engagement ring) but also the more subtle details like lips, eyelashes, or hair wrapping across a face. Zoom in on small things like the beaded sleeve of a dress or the pattern of a shirt. These simple details and tight crops add such a unique variety and texture to the complete story.
Movement breathes life into an image—be it literal movement with blur as your subject runs across a field, or the implication of movement as your subject readies to jump over a puddle.
Movement adds a dynamic layer—bringing character, momentum, interest, and depth to a shoot.
To organically create movement during a shoot, I like to provide clients with a set of multiple directions all at once to complete on their own time while I photograph them. For instance, I’ll tell a couple on the beach to go in for a hug, have the guy twirl the girl around a few times, hold hands and run towards the ocean, and then turn around and run back towards me. I often have them do this same series of actions two or three times in a row. By the end, we’re all laughing at how silly it is, and in that laughter, I’m able to capture movement, emotion and joy while my clients are relaxed and less aware of me or my camera.
Allow yourself time to breathe. It’s natural to feel pressure during a session. You want to appear in control and confident in front of your clients, and you want to make sure you are doing your absolute best to create beautiful images at all times. If during a shoot you lose your train of thought, start to feel stressed, or need a moment to plan your next move, give yourself a moment to think. Tell your couple to hold hands and walk away for a far out shot, and use that time recompose yourself.
I’ve actually been complemented by a number of clients who liked how slow and calm their shoot felt. I always take a few moments to assess my shot, think about what I want to do next, and ensure that I’m not simply clicking the shutter because it feels like it’s been too long since the last photo.
It is incredibly important that you invest time and energy into planning every aspect of a shoot in order to ensure a successful outcome. However, it’s just as crucial that you leave space for the unexpected, and give yourself room for inspiration and ideas to come to you in the heat of the moment. Not every photo can be perfectly mapped out ahead of time. Take inspiration from your surroundings and from moments as they unfold, and above all, never be afraid to try something new. Some of the things you’ll try spur of the moment may not work out in the end, but some of those ideas can result in beautiful images and exciting opportunities.
Watch an example of Erich shooting and directing a real couple in the video below. You’ll find three full-length instructional videos of Erich in action included in his new online course, Wedding Photography by Erich McVey, on sale today.
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