5 Things I Always Do When Making Portraits

“Do you have a routine when you’re shooting portraits at an engagement session or a wedding?  Do you do the same things, same poses, same photos?”

I received this question from a fellow photographer whom I mentored last summer and wanted to expand upon this a bit today.  As a Colorado wedding photographer who shoots 20 weddings and engagements a year, this question is incredibly relevant.

Is it necessary to have a standard workflow when making portraits?  Or should we, as artists, more or less wing it as we go?

My answer is a blend of both. I do have a mini-checklist that I run through every time I am working with my couples, but I also love to get creative and try new poses, compositions and locations every time I shoot.

Here are a few tips that I always keep in the back of my mind when I’m photographing my rad clients.  Feel free to use them the next time you head out with your camera, or add and subtract your own ideas as you go!

1.  When you move to a new location or background, start off with a “Send to Grandma” shot and then work your way into the more inventive poses and compositions.

Photography tips

All that this photo entails is a simple “look at the camera” pose.  Yes, this sounds basic and common-knowledge.  It might even feel kind of boring to take a photo like this.

However, this is the photo that grandma wants to frame and put up on her fireplace mantle.  This is the photo that your mom and dad want to pin to the fridge.  It’s the simplest photo you can take, with no frills or fancy posing required.

I like to start off each new location or background with a simple “Send to Grandma” photo.  After getting the safe shot, it’s seamless to transition into creating more visionary photographs for clients, and it’s healthy (and recommended) to have a blend of both safe shots and unique ones.

Your clients will appreciate this as well.  A session that’s heavy on the safe photographs provides no creative outlet for you as a photographer; making those rad and distinctive photos is a huge part of why we do what we do.

On the other hand, a session that’s weighted with only the artistic shots may not be best for your clients, who may need the simpler photos for save-the-dates or their wedding website.

Make sure to keep a running mental note of the types of images you create as you go through your session.

2.  Pay attention to hand placement throughout the entire session.

Photography tips

When my interest in photography first began in 2009, I made it a point to read as many portrait photography guidebooks as possible.  I checked them all out from the Denver Public Library, and one book had a tip that will forever be seared in my brain: “Always give your subjects something to do with their hands.”

Scientifically, when we first look at a photo, our brains tell us to look at the subjects’ eyes.  After that, we automatically shift our gaze to the subjects’ hands.

With that in mind, I never leave hands dangling or without anything to do.

Whenever I pose a couple or even a boudoir client, I always give their hands something to do, hold, touch or caress.  It can be as simple as placing a hand on a hip, brushing hair out of your partner’s eyes, or holding onto each other in a cozy embrace.

3.  Incorporate movement in addition to static poses.Advice for photographers

Bringing organic movement into the mix of your portrait sessions breaks up the posey-posey feeling of the shoot.  As mentioned before, balance is key with portraits, and it’s important to get your clients moving about to add dimension to their session.

My favorite way to use movement in sessions?  Simply having my clients stroll hand-in-hand as they look to one another and laugh.  It gives the image an almost-paparazzi feel to it, as if these lovebirds just happened to be walking by the lake and you were there to capture the moment.

Additionally, I love to alternate between having one partner lead the other ahead of them as they walk through a field, across a mountainside, or down the sidewalk in the middle of the bustling city.

Make sure to adjust your camera accordingly for these types of photos, as it’s very common to see camera shake and missed focal points in these images.  I always try to bump my shutter speed to at least 1/500th of a second, and I keep my aperture no lower than f/2.5.  This way, you’ll avoid any blur on the photos as your clients walk towards you, and bumping your aperture also gives less room to miss the focus of the shot.

4.  Think of prompts ahead of time to elicit emotion from your clients.

Photography tips

Each wedding season that I’ve worked, I’ve noticed that every client is different.  Some wear their hearts on their sleeve, and some aren’t overly emotive.  It’s up to us as photographers to get that emotion to show through, whether the couple that we’re working with is a little more on the shy side or a little more on the expressive side.

An hour can also be a lot of time to fill with different poses, compositions, and emotions.  Having a small repertoire of prompts to get your clients to show how they’re feeling on the inside will be clutch, especially if you’re working with a couple who are a bit more reserved.

For these types of photos, I’ll make sure I have a telephoto lens on (my favorite is the Canon 135 f/2L) to get some distance from the couple.  The questions I’ll give to them are personal in nature, so I want to make sure I’m far enough away that they’re still able to have a private moment and feel comfortable enough to really get lost in their feelings.

A couple of my favorite prompts:

“What is your favorite part of your partner’s body?”

“Hug each other as if this were the last time you were doing so.”

“Tell your partner about the time you first knew you loved them.”

The prompts you choose will ultimately depend on your branding as a photographer.  Are you funny, witty, sassy?  Or do you relish in those deeply-passionate moments between your couples?  I fall in the middle, so I like to use a mix of fun prompts and romantic ones.

5.  Always, always try something new.

Tips for photographers

I know, this sounds cheeseball and obvious.  But, as artists, it is so easy to get into a funk of creating the same images over and over.

To stay fresh and avoid falling into ruts, always try something new or different every time you shoot.

It can be trying a new angle, a new composition, a new pose.  It can be trying a new lighting technique, or shooting at a different aperture than you’re used to.

The photo at right was taken at an engagement session at the tail end of my wedding season last year.  At this point, I had shot over 20 weddings and as many engagements, plus family, boudoir, and fashion photos.  Creatively, I was feeling a little sad and unimaginative.

Being aware of this was key.  I made sure to go into this session with an open mind and a drive to do something unconventional.

I saw the blue sky and wisps of tall grass in the field at Bear Creek Lake Park and knew I had to incorporate both into a photo somehow.

Common photography advice says to never shoot from below your subjects, in order to avoid unflattering angles. But, I just had to get this windswept in the fall photo of my clients, the grass and the sky, all in one.  So, I crouched down as low as I could go in the field and positioned my clients in a pose where even an uphill angle would be flattering.

I snapped a few shots before getting the winner, which you see above.  It is without a doubt my favorite from this entire session and I’m so glad I did something against the grain of standard photography technique.

I hope these tips will help you at future portrait sessions of your own!  I also want to know: what do you do to stay fresh when making portraits?  Tell me in the comments, and thank you for stopping by the blog!

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