If you use social media, the chances are pretty good that you've seen at least one of the many photo montages circulating the Internet entitled "bad wedding photos", "awkward couples photos" or some variation thereof. If not, just Google it, because some of those images are pretty hilarious.
Of course, there aren't too many photographers who are so unsuited for their art that they would actually take truly awful couples photos under the auspices of professional photography. But there's a fine line between bad couples photos and good couples photos, and if you regularly shoot these types of images it's worth knowing the difference.
Couples photography can be tricky because no one really wants to look at corny shots of googly-eyed lovers swooning over each other. That's not because people are fundamentally grouchy, it's because couples photos really ought to be described with adjectives like "sweet," "cute" or "lovely," not "cheesy," "embarrassing" or "gag-worthy." So how do you avoid stepping over that line?
The first thing you can do is think creatively. That clichéd image of two people staring into each other's eyes, no matter how tastefully you set it up, is still just another photo of two people staring into each other's eyes. So avoid that shot, unless it happens very naturally. Instead, try the following ideas, and then expand upon them until you've developed your own style for taking natural-looking (uncheesy) couples photos.
This should be a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised at how many photographers try to rigidly control their photo shoots instead of letting their subjects take the lead. Remember that couples photos in particular are not about two people as individuals - they are about two individuals who have chosen to be a couple. The way your subjects interact with each other is what will make a strong photograph, and it's hard to achieve this when you're constantly barking orders at your subjects. Instead, give them suggestions and see what happens. If you have some time, go to a scenic location (preferably a place where the couple has a history) and just ask them to behave naturally. Don't get me wrong, it's OK to try out poses and ask your subjects to move to a certain location or stand a certain way, but make sure that isn't all you do. You need to give them some freedom to be spontaneous, too, or you may end up with a lot of posed photos that look, well, posed.
Sometimes no matter what you do you can't seem to get that natural, unforced shot of a couple. Many people just feel awkward around cameras, and many more people feel awkward expressing affection with other people present (even people who aren't packing a huge SLR). If this happens, take a break. Encourage your subjects to spend the time talking about subjects they love, or to remember a big moment in their lives (a marriage proposal, a romantic vacation etc.) Then when you get back to the shoot, ask them to continue the conversation. If they're focusing on each other, you're going to see a lot more of that natural interaction. And they won't be focusing on you.
Use a longer lens
It's difficult to relax and act natural when someone is sticking a camera in your face. A zoom lens will give you a chance to step back and give your subjects a little bit of space. You won't become invisible, of course, but the longer lens will help make the couple feel more like a twosome and less like a twosome with a third wheel.
Props have the dual benefit of adding that extra little bit of interest to your images while giving your subjects something to focus on (besides you and your camera). Subjects who are occupied with a prop will be more relaxed and natural in front of the camera. Props can be fun, too, which means you may also be able to get some humorous and/or candid shots.
Hearts are obvious props to use in couples photography; so are flowers. I know what you're thinking: "hearts and flowers, that's hardly creative." Yes, it is true that these classic symbols of romance have been around for centuries, but the fact is that they are so entrenched in our collective psyche that they're really more mainstream than cliché. Used tastefully, there are plenty of creative applications for hearts and flowers. Try drawing some hearts in the sand on the beach, or take a long shot of your couple with flowers in the foreground. Don't overdo it, though, because even creative use of hearts and flowers can get old pretty fast. Instead mix it up a little and use them only when you feel like your image needs that extra something.
Other props might include a ring, a shared umbrella on a rainy day or even words and letters: "love," "forever," the couple's names or an ampersand placed between the two of them can give your image a sweetness that it wouldn't otherwise have.
You don't necessarily need to show your couple from head to toe, no matter how lovely they look. You don't really even have to show their faces (it's true!) Are they holding hands? Try zooming in on their fingers. Are they barefoot on the beach? Take some shots of their feet in the sand. Sometimes their body language can say a lot more than what is on their faces.
Long shots can be just as beautiful as zoomed ones, so step back and shoot your subjects from a distance, too. This can be particularly useful when shooting a couple who just isn't able to relax. The further away you are, the more relaxed they will become, and the more difficult it will be for your viewer to tell that your subjects were a bit on the reluctant side.
Try (Almost) Everything
Don't be afraid to try new things, even those things that you aren't sure will work out - bearing in mind of course that not every couple is going to be comfortable with every one of your ideas. And most importantly, of course, avoid anything that might be cheesy, embarrassing or gag-worthy. The last thing you want is for your couples images to go viral on some social media collection of "awkward couples photos."
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