The judge’s comment on the first-place portrait from wedding photographer Sergio Lopez says it all: “There is nothing ordinary about this black and white portrait. His hair and eyes are black as coal and his eyes radiate with an intense, almost piercing gaze. The addition of the woman’s arm combined with the intense look of the man’s eyes elevates this portrait to another level. I can’t stop looking at it.”
Portraits are part of every wedding, of course, but Lopez’s WPJA contest winner does indeed sear itself into the memory, providing a most unconventional image that rises head and shoulders above the rest.
Wedding photojournalists shooting portraits work within an expanded set of parameters, just like their counterparts in the news world: Some direction and setup is acceptable in order to fully capture subjects in the context of who they are and what they are feeling.
Yet everyone approaches portraits differently. Some photographers will perfunctorily record the traditional formals in a half hour before or after the ceremony. Then, they will just leave it at that while getting back to documenting the spontaneous moments of the day. However, the more adventuresome pros, including the majority of WPJA members, will take the portrait concept and run with it, bringing the art form to new levels of creativity and impact. The results are portraits that often convey the depth of the subjects’ personalities, and can be expressive, and or full of energy.
The key to capturing creative portraits is to gain the trust of your subjects and to get them to buy into your vision. Once they are on board, it gets progressively easier to suggest unorthodox portrait ideas. And sometimes the bride, groom or member of the bridal party will come up with their own off-the-wall ideas for portraits.
“It’s all about relationships, and we could not do what we do without having complete trust from our bride and groom,” says Calgary, AB-based wedding photographer Quin Cheung, who shoots each wedding with her husband Dave. “You spend the most important day of their lives with the couple, and it’s so important for them to come to you and know you’re going to blow their pants off with the imagery.”
During her portrait sessions Cheung also likes to play a bit with her clients, which requires their trust and a willingness to invest in her creative ideas. For example, her award-winning photo of the bridal party in the bus stop: “That was just total spur of the moment,” she notes. “Our inspiration for that was an MTV commercial where all of these rock stars are stuffed into a phone booth. So we cajoled the bridal party into going into this bus stop and smooching their faces against the window.”
“The couple needs to trust us with what we’re doing,” agrees wedding photographer John Prutch, who with his wife Amy works the greater Portland, OR, USA area from their studio just across the river in Vancouver, WA. He adds that knowing your surroundings, knowing your customer and why they chose the place, is key.
“The whole thing is just having fun while letting them know exactly what it is we’re trying to get,” he says. “We’re reassuring the bride and groom that we’ve got an awesome shot, and we’re continually talking the whole time. We’re cracking jokes, we know the names of the people in the wedding party, and people know us by the end of the wedding.”
Prutch’s award-winning portrait has lens flare, dress flare, cool clouds, sky, trees and even a horse. “It was just one of those that came out perfect when it happened,” he remembers. “The bride was a tomboy...she wanted to be barefoot, and she wanted her horse in the background. So we played off a bunch of different ways to have her play in the field. We had her spinning, and everything hit perfectly for this shot. I knew the lens flare was there but I didn’t position her there because of that. The angle was because of the horse. The flare was just extra added ‘wow.’” The bride’s confidence in the photographer became a catalyst for the creativity on both sides of the camera.
Cheung perhaps sums up the trust factor when she says “If we didn’t have a relationship with the couple, I don’t think there’s any way they’d get inside a sweaty bus stop.”
When you take portraits, do you strive to be as creative as possible, or is it something that just happens?
The session that resulted in Prutch’s award winner involved some creative premeditation, and was completed in 8 to 10 minutes. Prutch notes that the ceremony had already happened and the sun was looking good—better than it had earlier when he was doing all of the formals. “We had some nice warm glow, so we had a plan of attack of what we would get in this field and how we would do it,” he remembers.
“We knew going in exactly what it was we wanted,” he says. “Amy and I enjoy shooting from the hip for most of the wedding, but we like to think that we have a very relaxed, carefree formal, and it’s not a stiff pose. Before the wedding starts we do more of a static session—the stuff that grandma likes—and then we’ll play off that if we have the time, using very creative lenses and angles. We also take them out for an informal second session during the reception.”
“I don’t think too hard about how to get a creative portrait,” says the Arizona-based Lopez. “The most important thing for me, is to get along with the clients, to talk to them and keep them entertained. While making a portrait I never step away from them. I never do the big panoramic, grandiose scene because…it sounds ridiculous…but I feel that if I leave them alone, they'll get bored. I'm interacting with them the whole time."
Lopez says that the conversations he launches during his portrait sessions are not trivial. “We talk about politics and religion...I like to make them feel a little bit tense,” he admits. “When I’m doing [wedding] photojournalism I want my subjects to feel carefree and comfortable with me, but when I’m doing the portraits, I don’t want to make a pretty portrait, but rather an interesting one; something different.”
Lopez notes that one of his biggest inspirations is a famous Yousuf Karsh portrait of Winston Churchill. According to Lopez, Karsh only had ten seconds to get the shot. So, as the story goes, when Churchill sat down with his cigar Karsh snatched it out of his mouth, immediately annoying the Prime Minister. The result was that the photographer was able to capture that famous, determined expression. People viewing the iconic photo might think that Churchill was reflecting on the war, but it was really all about his cigar.
“When I’m trying to push the limit with what I can do with a portrait, and I want to get that ‘look’ and I want to get into their eyes with my camera, I want to push their buttons a little bit,” Lopez confides. “Instead of looking at my camera they may be looking at me with an attitude of ‘what are you talking about?’”
His haunting award winner was the result of such a very deliberate attempt to invoke a serious expression, and perhaps a little luck.
“This was a very cool, nice couple,” Lopez remembers “We were talking about family members and guests, and how stressful it is to craft the invite list, and her mom and how she gets along with him...and I saw a little bit of tension there. I was trying to get him to stop smiling. I was trying to make them both a little bit tense at that point, actually. She was looking into the camera, and then she put her hand right there. And normally, my reaction would be to just step back and get her in the photo too, but I thought ‘I don’t need that,’ all I need is the hand there. And he didn’t look at her, but kept [glowering] at me.”
Cheung credits some of her portrait success to collaboration with her husband. “I pre-visualize my images and script them out in my head, but David really flies by the seat of his pants, and what ever comes along he’ll shoot it. So I guess it’s part of putting all of those things into place—creating an environment where the emotion and the spontaneity can occur, encouraging that to happen, and having the right light and the technical ability to capture that.”
As with the stricter side of wedding photojournalism, creative portraiture requires the practiced ability to anticipate and to be in the right place at the right time, a skill that becomes intuitive with more experience and the right chops.
“We’re coming together each with our unique ideas and skill sets,” notes Cheung. “We’ll start with one pose, but then the pose will evolve as each of us works with that person or that couple. We’ll move the light, we’ll walk around and it will evolve into something completely different or extraordinary. It regularly happens when we shoot our portraits, and it’s neat for us to see. It’s a synergy that comes out when we put everything all together and put everything into place.”
“When couples come to visit our studio the first thing out of their mouth is usually ‘we notice that you capture a lot of expression and emotion in your images.’ And those are the couples who hire us,” Prutch says. “They’re attracted to us because they know they’re going to see a lot of emotion in their wedding day pictures.”
And this reminds Prutch of another shot of a couple dancing on a hill in the sunset, with only the silhouettes and shadows coming through to the photo. “Couples are telling me that’s what they want to see in their pictures. They are saying ‘we want to dance on a hill.’”
—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association