Friday Foto Talk: Photographing Couples   2 comments

A couple spends some time near the cathedral in Campeche on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.

I caught this couple spending time together near the cathedral in Campeche on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.

This is a topic I’ll admit I don’t have a ton of practice with.  One reason is my aversion to ever shooting weddings.  That said, I do love photographing couples, either in portrait or candid.  There is very little to it, actually.  All depends on how comfortable the couple is with each other (how long they’ve been together) and how comfortable they are with you, the photographer.  A few tips:

      • The Closer the Better.  For portraits, when you first get a couple in position to photograph, they will most likely be too far from each other.  You will invariably need to ask them to get closer.  Keep a light atmosphere, don’t make it seem like you want them to swap spit or make the shot look otherwise classless.  But get them touching.
      • Focus is Key.  Unlike with a single person, it’s more difficult to get focus right with couples.  You will likely need to use a smaller aperture, with larger depth of field, in order to get both people in focus.  This is a much bigger deal when you position one in front of the other, but watch it even when their faces are side by side.  Try to position yourself so both pairs of eyes are the same distance from you.  Then you have the option to open up your aperture more and go for less depth of field.  Every few shots call for a mini-break and check out the shots on your camera’s LCD, making sure (at minimum) both pairs of eyes are sharp.
      • Create a Relaxed Atmosphere.  Do what feels natural to you in order to get them comfortable.  Be yourself.  Music can work wonders, just make sure you’ve asked them what they like and play that.  Often all it takes is a little time, and a somewhat stiff poses disappear, replaced by natural and attractive ones.  Take that time.  And be ready to shoot away when poses and expressions turn natural.
      • Expressions.  The idea is to avoid the stiff, formal look.  Smiles are great but I’ve found they can look phony if you just ask them to smile (depends on the person).  Do things to get their expression to change.  Try telling jokes, or asking them questions that pique their interest or get them thinking.  In fact, if they are thinking about anything but the fact their picture is being taken, even if it’s only for a second or two, you increase your chances of getting more natural and attractive expressions.
      • Get it Right in Camera:  Move stray hairs, get rid of lint or smudges, and have them position their faces so as to minimize anything less than attractive.  For example, you may need to remind people to move their chins forward slightly to give faces a slimmer look and avoid double chins.
      • Mix it up.   Though I do very little “directing”, you can easily mix things up by changing their positions, asking one to look at the other, or asking them both to look at various places.  Before you start, get in mind whether you’re just going to use one place/background or several.  Also think about whether you want standing, sitting, lying or other positions.  Nothing wrong with keeping it simple and working variety into it in more subtle ways – such as with expressions.
      • Candids:  Although it’s not nice to be a paparazzi, you should consider sneak shots if the light and setting is right.  If you’re found out (which is more common than not), just smile and walk up to tell them it was just too tempting, that they are too attractive a couple, then show them the shot.  It’s usually a lot easier to explain than it is with individuals (though that isn’t hard either).
      • More on Candids:  Candids can work well with smaller apertures, where more of the scene is in focus.  Though the couple receives less attention than with portraits, don’t worry so much about their getting ‘lost’ in the shot.  The viewer will naturally lock on to any person in a picture.  Look for story-telling pictures with couples, think beyond cuddling or gazing into each other’s eyes, go for unusual settings.
      • Background Matters.  See the discussion below.  Just realize that whether you are shooting a candid or a portrait, the background can make or break the shot.
      • Lighting Matters.  I won’t go into artificial lighting (flash) here.  That’s worth a separate post.  See below for a discussion on natural lighting considerations.
An attractive Norwegian couple on holiday on beautiful Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua.

An attractive Norwegian couple on holiday at beautiful Laguna Apoyo, Nicaragua.


If you’re using a natural background or inside in a room, the background will likely be too busy.  It will have too much detail.  If you shoot so both your subjects and the background are in focus, that detail will draw attention away from the lovely couple.  So your depth of field will need to be shallow; that is, you will use a large aperture (small f-number).  But don’t use such a large aperture that one of their faces are out of focus.

If you’re shooting portraits, you can always use an artificial (paper or fabric) background, in which case your aperture can be smaller.  Then you can shoot at an aperture that is sharpest for that lens (usually two stops above wide open).  Make sure to get the lighting right on the background, as well as the couple.

The guy on the left was sweet on this young woman from Ometepe, Nicaragua.  Though I should have had him tuck his shirt in completely, I think it's funny that he apparently hurried to do it before the picture.

The vaquero on the left was sweet on this young woman from Ometepe, Nicaragua. Though I should have had him tuck his shirt in completely, I think it’s funny that he apparently hurried to do it before the picture.


With natural lighting, the more diffuse the better.  A cloudy day is great, as is indoors next to a window, so long as the sun is not shining directly into it.  If you have bright sunshine (and the sun is not setting or rising), go into the shade of a tree or building.  Often you can get great light on a bright day by moving to a place that is at the edge of shade but near a reflective surface (white pavement, water, etc.).

More ideas:  If you can, consider using a reflector to bounce natural light back into the shadowed side of their faces.  An assistant or stand is likely going to be necessary, as is a reflector that’s larger than one you might use with a single person.  Don’t let one person cast dark shadow on the face of the other.   Try shooting them right at the edge of shadow for a little drama.

I hope you got something out of this.  I wrote it partly to remind myself that I haven’t been shooting enough people of late.  But you are the main reason.  Let me know if you have any questions, or have any interest in one of the images.  They are copyrighted and not available for free download, sorry.  This is especially important since individuals’ privacy is at stake.  Have a great weekend!

A couple kisses at sundown at the top of Rocky Butte in Portland, Oregon.

A couple kisses at sundown on top of Rocky Butte in Portland, Oregon.  They didn’t know I shot this until immediately after, and were not bothered.

2 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Photographing Couples

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  1. This was GREAT info!. About 32 years ago I had one of the early Canon Rebels and did my best to relax my future inlaws for a photo along side the National Cathedral in Washington DC. They were very “proper” wonderful people who lived in the area. The first photo I took they were standing like stiff soldiers with arms straight down…all 5 of them in a row. I did get them to relax a bit. Again this was great info as all your Fri. info posts are. I appreciate all your talents and hard work.

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