When I hear the word romantic, what comes to mind is a dreamy, poetic, passionate image, full of unspoken affection and sometimes, a touch of mystery. However, when it comes to romantic portraits of couples, I don’t want romantic to translate as cheesy or cliche. I think I would want something a little bit more artistic but definitely leaning more on the natural side.
I photograph weddings and often do an engagement shoot with the couple beforehand. For many of my couples, it’s their first time being photographed together in an intimate way where they are expected to be super affectionate and loving towards each other in public. I would feel very awkward if I were in their places. As part of my job, I aim to make the whole experience pain-free for them, hopefully, fun too, and still end up with some super romantic shots without being too corny, cliche or cheesy.
The first 15-20 minutes of the shoot is always a warm-up. I do give them some suggestions which you can find here; Tips for Taking More Natural Engagement Portraits. I then tell the couple I’m just going to start taking photos and that there is no pressure for anything to be perfect. Instead, we will have a warm-up to get used to the camera, to feeling really silly about it all and that they can laugh as much as they like at themselves and how silly they may feel.
They are given permission to feel awkward and laugh at themselves. I encourage them to be themselves and help them throw off any self-conscious feelings. I tell them to just laugh it all off, not to mind passers-by, and to ignore any stares. After all, they will never see those people again.
I take plenty of shots during the warm-up for them to get used to me but I’m always intentional in what I’m looking for – that fleeting glance at each other, the split-second expression, a warm squeeze and cuddle they allow themselves to have. It’s the in-between moments that are crucial to capture. It’s that moment when they start to relax into each other’s arms after the first few seconds of feeling rather tense or self-conscious.
I also talk to them a lot and give them directions as clearly as I possibly can. Reminding them that on the wedding day they will hardly see me at all so for the engagement shoot I ask them to indulge the camera. I thank them for being very amenable having me pretty much in their face during the entire photo session.
Here are my five tips for creating romantic portraits of couples.
#1 – Find or make the perfect light
Romantic light is a poetic light that evokes that cocooning feeling. Early morning and late afternoon light is soft and dream,y so if possible schedule your shoot during those windows. I try and avoid flat light or harsh overhead light which tends to kill any romantic ambience.
By flat light, I mean a light source which is directly in front of them so that it eliminates gradations of shadows and tones of light fall-off on the sides of their faces. Look for directional light, usually coming from the side or at an angle. To achieve this, position your couple in relation to the light, or move around yourself so that you are in the best place to capture the directional light.
If there is no such light, especially if the location is quite dark or the lights are all overhead, I tend to use my flash. Remember to bounce it so that there is directional light coming from the flash. The important thing is to avoid flatness and create an atmosphere of light and shadow.
Window light is one of the best natural directional light sources available. However, don’t make your couple face the window as that becomes flat light on their faces. Instead, position them at an angle or sideways where there is some light on one side of their face and the other side has shadows.
#2 – Consider the location, background, or scenery
The location or setting has a lot to do with how romantic a picture turns out. Sunsets, although in danger of being cliche, especially sunset silhouettes, produce strong and striking images.
Don’t forget that you can leverage location and all the elements within the setting and not completely rely on light alone. For example, what season of the year is it? If it’s autumn, take advantage of the changing colors of the leaves, use the outfits of the season that make your couple feel warm and cozy – long boots, scarfs, hats.
If it’s winter use the whiteness of the snow or the bleak bare branches of the trees to create a romantic story for your couple. Go to a cafe and take pictures of your couple having a nice hot chocolate with marshmallows by the crackling fire to keep warm. If it’s summer, find the early and late light to avoid the harshness of the midday sun or use props such as parasols, flowers, balloons, kites to celebrate the warmth of the sunshine.
When you are shooting in the city, wait until that light hits the buildings or some iconic landmarks, or in the country, feature the soft rolling hills or vastness of the landscape. If you are shooting in the spring, look for cherry blossoms, maybe the first bud of the season, the first crack of ice or the last of the frost. The goal is to put your couples in context and leverage that to create their romantic story.
#3 – Hide and use layering in your shots
In this article on creative ways to improve your photography, I have written about layering. Layering is a great tool for romantic images. It lets you hide behind something and makes you invisible. The great thing about it is that it puts the viewer of the photo in your place as if they are just passing by and happen to catch a glimpse of the couple.
Layering is one of my favorite tricks and can even be done without you hiding from the couple. You can shoot in a completely open space and still utilize layering. Just grab something, put it in front of your lens and pretend that the camera is peeking through a gap. Layering can be as simple as that. I often pick up a leaf and use it as a layer between the camera and the couple. A bit of fabric, cellophane wrapped around the lens, a prism dangled in front of the lens to create a sun flare all add layers…the possibilities are endless.
#4 – Encourage contact between the couple
To me, the epitome of romantic photographs is when it evokes total privacy – there is no one there other than the couple. In normal portrait situations, I would want a connection between the viewer and the subject. Eye contact with the camera is great for that. It draws the viewer in and invites them to have a conversation with the image. However, for romantic portraits, I prefer no eye contact, except between the couple alone.
There is no one there sharing the moment with them; it is their very own special private time. The goal is to capture the scene as if it were true and real. There must be a strong connection between the couple, whether that be looking directly into each other’s eyes, hands touching, or whispering in each other’s ears, but absolutely no contact with anyone else. This is my personal opinion of course and I’m sure it’s different for other photographers.
#5 – Write a story in pictures
A picture that tells no story has no soul. With practically a limitless number of photos you can take with a digital camera, you can write a novel. Go to a session with a story in mind – a beginning, a middle, and an end. That is the way I approach every engagement shoot and wedding that I photograph.
These don’t have to be very specific pictures, that would depend on where you are. Rather, it’s more of a mindset. What would be your opening scene in a novel? Is your couple walking hand in hand, having a coffee, whispering sweet nothings, or reading a book? What happens in the middle of the story? Are they shopping in a market, admiring some landmarks, doing an activity they both love?
How does the story end? Do they walk away from you into a tunnel or cinema? Or do they sit and relax, put their feet up on a bench after a long day? Do they kiss? Or do they have a dramatic ending like a silhouette or looking out into the horizon with the sun fading or the moon rising?
Each couple has their own unique story. When you meet them you will get a feel of their personalities, their likes, and dislikes. Soon, you will be able to piece that story together and it will be like no other.
I hope you find the above tips helpful. Do share other tips for capturing romantic portraits of couples in the comment section below.