As I've often said, even the best photography gear won't make an awkward bride and groom look good together. Nor is this an area that comes easy to a lot of photographers. I've seen many take to setting up lights, using funky lenses and using all manner of Photoshop actions and textures to compensate for their inability work with the client. This is definitely an area where practice and know-how are necessary; either you get it right in-camera or you don't.
Unfortunately, the word "pose" is often a bad word among more photojournalistic photographers. All too often, I'll hear them instruct the client, "Act natural!" Which leads me to wonder, "What's natural for two people on the other end of a big lens attached to a pro camera going "snap, snap, snap" in rapid succession?" The answer is usually, "What the hell are we supposed to do?"
Don't get me wrong, I'm as photojournalistic as they come. I love to see natural moments, expressions and interactions unfold. It's just that frequently those "natural" and "spontaneous" moments need a little prodding. For me, posing a couple is about getting them into a position that looks good visually and then providing the spark that lights up the shot and makes it feel natural. Merely posing the couple according to a script or a book (even my Lookbook) can lead to forced looking shots that look just... well... posed.
For now though, we're just gonna talk about the pose. I'll save the natural looking part for later. Here's ten steps to better poses:
1) Look at the shape being created by the bride and groom.
The more interesting the outline of the bride and groom, the more interesting the shot. If what you see when you look at their outline is just a rectangle - two bodies just stuck together - you've probably got a boring shot. What I like to see are legs and arms away from the body, head bent, bodies angled etc.
Notice how in this shot, the uneven height where the couple are standing, the separation of their faces, the groom stepping up, knees bent, his hands on the bride's waist, her hand on his shoulder and the positioning of the bouquet all combine to make a dynamic pose.
2) Arms should never lie flat against the body.
When ever possible, arms should be bent and away from the body - if even just slightly - so that you can see daylight between the arm and the body. This not only makes for a more interesting photo, it also make the person look thinner - which is never a bad thing.
3) Keep the hands out of the front pocket.
Guys instinctively will plop their hands in their pockets. If the groom is with the bride, it often makes him look uninterested. Holding hands or touching creates a greater sense of connectedness.
If you are going to have the groom place his hands in a pocket, don't let the hand disappear completely. Have him hook his thumb outside the pocket to keep the hand partially visible. Consider having the groom hook his hand on his belt instead of putting it in the pocket so that it doesn't get lost.
4) The hands are the key to a great pose.
While we're on the subject, don't let the hands disappear whether into a pocket or behind a subject. One of my favorite poses has the bride place her left hand behind the groom's head. Not only do you create a wonderful connection with the shot, but you also see the sparkly engagement ring and wedding band as well. Place the hands and the body will follow.
I mentioned earlier that the arms shouldn't lie flat. Instead, I suggest placing the hands on the waist or hips whenever appropriate. This bends the arm, and breaks up the dreaded rectangle.
5) Avoid kissing.
Let me ask you this, when you have two people kissing in front of you, do you stare intently or do you turn away and think, "Get a room!" I'll guess that PDA is as distasteful to you as it is to me. So why is it that every wedding shot is of the bride and groom kissing? Odds are it's because the bride and groom don't know what else to do - and you're not providing sufficient alternatives.
Instead of kissing, I'll tell the two to get as close as they can - without kissing. That always leads to fun interactions and usually a spontaneous laugh - which you'd better be ready for! Or I'll let them kiss, but the shot that I want is the moment right after the kiss. That's where you see the fun looks and natural expressions. Don't be like most photographers and start checking out the LCD at this point. Keep your eye on the camera so that you can capture the magic as it unfolds.
6) Kiss somewhere other than on the lips.
Try the cheek, shoulder or even neck. Create a fun alternative to the full make-out session. Get playful. Have the groom looking at you and the bride in profile kissing the groom. Odds are she'll leave lipstick on him. Stick with the shot as she laughs and wipes it off.
7) Place them on different heights.
This goes back to breaking up the big rectangle. If the bride is on a bench, then she's got to lean way over. Have her rest her wrists on the grooms shoulder with the bouquet over his back. By having the bride taller than the groom, you're lightening up the mood and making things different for the two of them. Anytime you break up the norm, that's when surprises happen.
8) No slouching.
All too often the groom will slouch to match the bride's height. Or he'll lean towards her and look off kilter. Nice clean, straight lines make for a more powerful shot.
9) Work the bouquet.
Try giving the the flowers to the groom. The bride often has her hands full with the dress while the groom is busy stuffing his hands into his pockets. By giving him the bouquet, you're giving him something to do - and have fun with.
When the bride is facing the groom and you're shooting them in profile, have her place her wrist on his shoulder and let the bouquet hang over his back. This takes it away from the usual spot in between the two of them. The other option is for her to hold it behind her. Again have her bend her arm or hold it away so that you break up the big rectangle.
10) Keep their distance.
Usually, the bride and groom will want to get nice and close to each other to keep each other safe from your intrusive camera. Yeah, I know that they just got married, but this is a great time to break 'em up! Have the bride and groom stand a couple of feet away from each other. They can hold hands in a traditional style pose or lean over to try and kiss.
After all this, you may wonder how much direction you should be giving to the clients. I actually give a lot. I'll physically grab the clients' hands and bodies and move them into the position that I want it. Trying to explain what I want is usually too time consuming and frustrating for all involved.
When I'm using my Lookbook posing guide - which is great for saving time and cutting to the chase - I'll show it directly to the bride and groom. Once they see what it is that I want, it's a lot easier for them to do it. It also makes them feel more comfortable since they don't have to wonder whether their positioning looks awkward or if they're doing what I want.
When I did my PhotoVision shootout with renowned photographers Parker Pfister, Julia Woods and Hanson Fong, we had a segment where we each had two minutes to pose the bride and groom and get our shots. Because I used my Lookbook, I was able to get more unique looks than anyone else. Being able to show my subjects what I wanted just cut out so much explaining, positioning and, ultimately, time. The goal in the photo below was to make something look good in an otherwise ugly setting.
What Doesn't Work
One thing that clients like to do when faced with the command to "Just act natural" is to start dancing. Sorry, but that rarely looks good. Unless they really know what they're doing and you set up the shot, the results are usually a dud. Let them dance for a moment, but be ready to move on to the next shot if it's not working.
Don't force the pose. What may look good for one client may not work for another. Be sensitive to the feedback you're receiving from your subjects. Just because Jerry Ghionis pulled off a shot with a supermodel bride doesn't mean that you will with your client who didn't quite stick to her pre-wedding weight loss program.
There's also different posing methods out there where one pose theoretically flows into the next. While there's nothing inherently wrong with that, what I'm hoping for is that by encouraging the bride and groom to have fun, my structured pose will lead to something that feels natural and fun. If I just pose them in one look, snap the photo, then reposition them for another, snap the photo, then another, snap the photo and so on, I may walk away with interesting poses, but emotionally boring images. To me, that's winning the battle while losing the war.
Finally, silence is rarely your friend as you're trying to entice your clients into feeling the moment. Once I've directed the pose, I'm constantly encouraging and trying to lighten the mood to the shoot. I shower my subjects with a stream of reassuring feedback - "Beautiful!" "Show her you love her!" "Nice!" "Keep it going!" If you're not providing feedback to your clients, it's hard to create and capture the magic that makes your photos shine.
In the end, the ability to capture the connection between a bride and groom will win you the love of your clients, allow you to book more of the clients you want and at the price you want. When it comes to weddings images, this is the stuff that can make or break your business. It's worth spending the time and energy to get it right!
Designed to easily fit into your back pocket or camera bag, the Lookbook Posing Guide is a swatchbook style guide with 200 bride and groom poses and tips. It's available on the Photographer's Toolkit website.