by Hannah Richter
There are moments in your life as an artist when all of a sudden a light turns on in your mind and heart and you find yourself getting hit hard by this thing called inspiration. And I’m not talking about the “Oh, grab me my paintbrush or guitar or camera – I have an idea.” kind of inspiration but instead, I’m referring to the “Oh, this actually changes how I make art from now on.” kind of inspiration.
For me, one of these powerful moments happened during my own engagement session. I was a budding photographer at the time and it was of the utmost importance that I booked the best of the best – aka Luke Liable. While Luke was busy snapping photos of Joey (my now-husband) and I wrapped up in each other, I felt it. I felt that special kind of inspiration. As I looked into Joey’s eyes, I remember thinking “Wow, I haven’t seen him.” Which sounds silly because I saw him almost daily but in the busy rush of life and wedding planning, I hadn’t stopped to take the time to truly “see” him. I hadn’t stopped to enjoy the utter rush of excitement that I was marrying the man of my dreams (I know, ew, how sappy). I forgot about the camera and the photographer and even the beautiful sunset behind us. All I saw was him. All I felt was love. And it is evident in our photos. And from that moment on, I swore I would never just be a “photographer”. Because as stunning as our photos were, what mattered more was the experience and that’s exactly what I feel every time I walk by our big canvas print from our engagement session – I feel the moment.
So when people ask me “How do you capture emotion when photographing?” I tell them this story. Because meaningful emotion isn’t found in how well you know your camera or know Lightroom (although those tools are clearly helpful). It is much more easily found in the comfort of a genuine and meaningful experience.
And then I give them the following tips:
The worst experience I’ve ever had in front of a camera was when someone told me to “act natural”. I smiled and nodded but internally I was screaming “Thanks for the advice but that doesn’t help me know what the heck to do with my awkward hands.” I think one of the first mistakes people make when they want to capture emotion is they throw out the concept of posing in fear it will feel too rigid. But I’ve found quite the opposite to be true.
When you give direction, people actually feel at ease because they have some sense of what to do with their bodies. From there, it’s important to encourage them and be observant. Let your subject know how they’re doing. The last thing they want is to look stupid. Tell them how good the photos look as you snap away. It allows them to relax a little bit and gives them confidence that they’re doing a good job. I mean, imagine how you would feel if your photographer was completely silent while you awkwardly held a pose? Yikes. Speaking of which, if they look uncomfortable in a pose, ask them about it. If they say “Yes, I’m hating every second of this” change the pose up! Try your best to help them relax because it’s in that space that you can begin capturing them and not their “I feel so awkward in-front of a camera” vibe. Re-cap: Posing is not the enemy – it’s actually your ally! P.S. Something I found super helpful too is letting your couple know before the session starts that if you aren’t telling them what to do, that means what they are doing is great. That way when you’re in the zone thinking about how the composition and lighting looks with them in that killer pose, they don’t ruin everything by breaking the pose to ask you “What do you want us to do now?”
This next tip literally changed my photography career. It’s a two-parter but it’s pure gold. Are you ready?
Ditch the eye contact. By this, I mean don’t only take photos with your subject looking directly at the camera. If you’re working with models, direct eye-contact can work wonders but most normal people get a bit nervous or focus all their energy on how they look and it’s obvious in your photos. Instead, keep eye-to-lens moments to a minimum. Play around with getting your subject to look at their significant other or family members or what have you. This may initially feel awkward but once you blend it with step 4 (spoiler alert), you’re golden. Also, experiment with having your subject look into the distance. But be sure to never have them look above the horizon (aka up to the sky), otherwise you’re risking creating some really corny looking images. No bueno. I recommend guiding them to look towards the ground or even right past the camera. This allows your clients to connect with those around them and to not feel intimidated by the giant camera in their faces.
Take a Breather. This isn’t easily done if you’re working with families or big groups (although it isn’t impossible either) but it is life-changing when working with singles or couples. Once you give them direction and get them into a pose where they are not making eye-to-lens contact, tell them to sit in the pose (aka stay put). It can be hard to embrace a moment when your photographer is telling you to move and change positions every five seconds. Instead, get them in a pose, tell them to exhale to help them relax and then do the following: take 3 to 5 different images of the same pose. Aka, get a wide shot with full-body and scenery, crop them at their hips, get up close for some detail goodness, and so on. This helps your clients not get posing-whiplash and forces you to get creative by creating diversity in your photos.
This one is important. Before I get into how to actually create an experience and thus make room to capture genuine and powerful emotion; it’s important you know the truth: not every client is your winning client. When doing a family session with small children or shooting a model who is freezing cold because it’s winter or trying to round up some rowdy (and most likely drunk) groomsmen, give yourself some grace. Sometimes you gotta make magic with what you have and you don’t have time or the space to have people “sit” in poses. That’s okay! Not every session is going to pull Oscar worthy drama and emotion – it’s impossible unless you curate your clientele to be only a certain type (i.e. only intimate couple sessions or etc). It’s imperative you don’t force your clients to be something they are not to fit your vibe or creative style. Yes, they booked you for you and stay true to that. But if you notice that your couple is really playful and joke-y, don’t force them into these super steamy poses that you can tell make them feel awkward. Fuel their fire and play off of their goofiness. That’s the best way to get them comfortable and to help them enjoy the experience – which becomes the perfect recipe for capturing genuine emotion.
Ah, the magic ingredient.
Like I told you at the beginning, what I remember from my session wasn’t Luke taking photos but it was the moment I had with my fiancée (now husband). In the same way, your job is 100% to photograph people, sure. But if you want to go above and beyond as a photographer (and as a human), consider curating specific experiences that evoke emotion. For example, I have a bank of questions that I love to ask couples during an engagement/couple session. I might ask them to share when the most recent time was that they were proud of their significant other. Then I slip away with a long lens as to give them some privacy and let them share. And while they are sharing, I’m waiting from afar like a hawk with my finger on the shutter button to catch those candid smiles or tears or loving glances. When I get a killer (and completely candid) shot, it now has so much more emphasis because it will remind the couple of that moment and what they shared. Powerful stuff. But hear me, there are a lot of times where I don’t get any great shots from a moment like that because they’re talking and making unattractive faces or whatever. And that’s completely cool with me because I value creating a sentimental moment for them more than using every second to capture content. It’s the price I pay for the truly good stuff.
A moment like this has the power to help the couple relax that much more. They’ve been emotionally vulnerable and have connected with one another and they completely forgot I was there. It normally changes the entire dynamic of the rest of the shoot because they’re remembering that it’s about connecting with each other over saying “cheese” for some person they barely know who has a camera.
This notion of creating an experience takes practice and tact and a lot of creative brainpower but it is certainly worth it.
And it’s not just for couples either. You could pose a family together and have them look at one another and ask questions like “Okay, who is most likely to get in trouble” (if the family seems carefree enough to not be offended by the question) and wait for the kids to point at a specific siblings and then they’ll probably make some ugly faces as they’re yelling at each other and before you know it – laughter. Lots and lots of candid laughter. Which makes for some pretty gorgeous family photos. Sure it was “prompted” but it also is a snapshot of the candid laughter they share on a daily basis that they can cherish forever. Or at least until the next year’s family session!
The same works for that drunken bridal party that you finally managed to round up into a semi-decent pose. It’s really hard to create a “meaningful” experience in moments like that but it is certainly easy to get some beautiful candid laughter by asking questions like “Out of the bride and groom, who is more likely to get a speeding ticket?” or “Who is most likely to burn the house down cooking?” I know for some of you it might feel a little tacky asking questions like that and that’s cool. But remember, a bunch of these people are really good friends so using a prompt to freeze a moment of laughter that symbolizes both their friendship and their wedding day is honest gold for your clients.
And finally, back to couples. In this environment, you have a lot more flexibility to create prompts that really pull out genuine emotion. So yes, you can ask meaningful questions that make them encourage one another or vocalize their love for one another but you can also pull on something they love “doing” together. Do they love going on picnics? Pull that into your engagement session. Are they avid (and maybe even snobby) coffee lovers *cough* like me? Do part of their session at their favourite coffee shop. Do they love canoeing or hiking? Pull that into their session somehow. This will not only create a unique photo opportunity but also will be a familiar and meaningful experience for them which makes your job so much easier!
I’ve shot a lot of weddings. And triple the amount of couple sessions. In this process of learning, I realized that as much as the photographer has a responsibility to create an experience and help make their clients feel comfortable in front of a camera – some people can’t be helped. That sounds awful but it’s true. Don’t be discouraged if you’ve exacerbated every last technique and pose and idea and you still feel like the photos feel a bit clumsy or awkward. That’s okay! It happens! It also takes experience both photography and personality wise to find your flow of a session and how you work. Just do your best to capture your client(s) for who they are and for what your style is. You might not feel like it was your best work but trust me, if you got some beautiful photos of them and their family or significant other, they’ll be ecstatic. Go easy on yourself. The whole “practice makes perfect” saying isn’t only true for the technical side of photography but it’s also true for the “creating an experience/capturing emotion” side too. So enough reading and talking and blah blah blah. Go grab a couple and try something new. Get practicing. Get creating moments. Go capture raw and authentic emotion. You got this!