Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. Try these secrets from five pro photographers on capturing authentic emotion and intimacy with real couples.
Photographs of couples are a dime a dozen, but authentic portraits of people in love are rare. For generations, everyone from Man Ray to Robert Doisneau has attempted to capture romance on film, but it takes more than professional camera skills to create an iconic couple shot. With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, we interviewed five outstanding Shutterstock contributors about collaborating with lovebirds.
Read on to learn how they help couples feel comfortable in front of the camera, on location or in the studio, and end up with natural, dynamic imagery. Forget stilted snapshots; these artists all work with real couples, not actors or models, and here, they spill their best tips for catching those elusive moments of magic and spontaneity. In honor of the season, they also share a few of the romantic pictures and stories they’ve gathered along the way.
1. “You can never be in a bad mood during the shoot! I try to make jokes and make them laugh.”
LilacHome (Anna Gribtsova)
Image by LilacHome (Anna Gribtsova). Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark IIl camera, 35mm f/1.4 Sigma lens. Settings: Exposure 1/500 sec; f2; ISO 100.
Image by LilacHome (Anna Gribtsova). Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, 35mm f/1.4 Sigma lens. Settings: Exposure 1/100 sec; f2; ISO 800.
What’s are the stories behind these photos?
The man in the first photo is an Argentinian artist, and the woman blogs about the life of a Russian girl in the US. His pictures are exhibited in New York art galleries, and she works at Tiffany’s on 5th Avenue. They are very different, but love has no boundaries.
I made the second photo on the morning of a couple’s wedding. They were getting ready together, got into a bathtub, and started having fun in this pile of foam! It turned out to be such a fun morning of such an important day, and I am sure they will never forget that.
Image by LilacHome (Anna Gribtsova)
Photos that capture real emotions, especially happiness and joy, can be preserved for many years to come. They can act as a time machine; even if you see these pictures in ten years or more, that same feeling will return. In order to make such a photo, a photographer needs to believe that such moments are priceless. From the very beginning of a shoot, I try to help the couple forget that they are my customers. We talk about all kinds of stuff. We get to know each other, and I tell them about myself.
You can never be in a bad mood during the shoot! I try to make jokes and make them laugh. You can take pictures and have fun at the same time, so compliment the couple and encourage them during the photo shoot. Even if they don’t feel at ease just yet, your encouragement will make them more confident and relaxed.
2. “Try to help your couple feel comfortable before taking pictures.”
Image by Katsiaryna Pakhomava. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, EF35mm f/1.4L USM lens. Settings: Exposure 1/640 sec; f1.8; ISO 320.
What’s the story behind this photo?
These are my friends, and my work with stock photography began with the birth of their son. As a result, they became my favorite couple. This photo is a good example of how things can go the opposite of whatever you planned.
These guys live in another country and came for a couple of days, so we had only one chance. The park was closed when we arrived, and it was the end of summer, so the sun was setting quickly, and there was no time to go to another location.
I quickly decided to shoot at the park entrance and chose the best angle. I had told them to buy soap bubbles in the nearest store, and, from the first minute of the shoot, everything was fun. It lasted only twenty minutes, but in the end, everyone was very happy, including my little daughter, who was lying in the stroller.
Usually, I try to meet couples prior to our shoot to have a talk. I learn about who they are and how long they’ve been together. I don’t simply bombard them with questions; I’m trying to become their friend. My taking a genuine interest helps people feel at ease about opening up to me.
Try to help your couple feel comfortable before taking pictures. Just before taking pictures, it’s natural to feel nervous, so reassure them that you will be there to help. Try to prepare in advance and make a layout of what you are about to shoot (use Pinterest for your ideas). It usually happens that you’ll end up with a couple of shots that you’ve planned for, and the rest will be different, but preparation is still necessary for your own confidence.
A call before the shoot is obligatory. Discuss clothing and locations so everyone is well aware of what to expect. Continue your conversation during the whole shoot. Be kind, and proactively help them to pose. While you’re talking, try using real-life examples–about yourself, family, and friends. People love sharing their stories. In five to ten minutes, you’ll be laughing together. When people forget that they are in front of the camera, their smiles become sincere.
I love to shoot couples with small children. Sometimes, children are shy around unfamiliar adults, so ask the mom or dad for assistance. When shooting couples with children, you should always act quickly, even if the child has not yet changed clothes, as their mood may deteriorate, and then it will be too late.
3. “Do not be disappointed if the first photos seem rigid and false. This is normal.”
Image by David Pereiras. Gear: Canon 5D Mk III camera, Sigma ART 35 mm. f/1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f3.5; ISO 320.
What’s the story behind this photo?
This is a shoot I did with a real couple around the concept of moving into a new home. We used a house that had just been bought by friends of mine, and it was still empty.
We prepared the set with all sorts of moving-themed props (cardboard boxes, clothes, carpets, pictures, etc.), and we started making photos that reflected the work, effort, and fatigue that comes with a big move. After that part of the session, we looked for more intimate photos to represent the feelings, the dreams, and the love of a couple moving in together for the first time. And then…this picture came up.
We thought about the possible reflections from the large windows in the living room, and we took several pictures with the couple resting on the glass. The first shots were carefree, but then we asked them to close their eyes and embrace each other. As it was a real couple, we asked them to kiss each other, and they were happy to do it! I think a picture like this with two agency models instead of a real couple would have been more complicated and less authentic. If you want to get real photos and situations for stock, search for and hire real people.
Image by David Pereiras
I think the most important thing is that the couple feels comfortable and they are not nervous about whether they are doing their job well or not, especially if they are not professional models. From the start of the shoot, I always talk with them about some detail of their ordinary lives or their day-to-day work to help them feel at ease.
Do not be disappointed if the first photos seem rigid and false. This is normal. Remember that a photo session is like team training. People need their warm-up time! Focus on creating a relaxed and fun environment, and do not spend too much time adjusting all the technical aspects of each photo perfectly. That will come later. Encourage your models and make them laugh.
It’s possible that after thirty minutes your models will have have forgotten that you have a big, intimidating camera pointing at them, and that’s where the magic starts. That’s how you get those real and authentic moments that advertising and marketing companies are looking for nowadays.
4. “When a couple forgets they’re at a photo shoot, that’s usually when I make my best photos.”
adriaticfoto (Jovan Mandic)
Image by adriaticfoto (Jovan Mandic). Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Canon 85mm 1.2 L lens. Settings: Exposure 1/160 sec; f1.2; ISO 160.
Image by adriaticfoto (Jovan Mandic). Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Sigma Art 35mm 1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/250 sec; f1.6; ISO 250.
What’s the story behind this photo?
These are photos of our friends who live abroad. They came to Montenegro on vacation, and we took the opportunity to hang out and make a set of excellent photos. For the location, we chose a cafe that belongs to a mutual friend, so it was a place where we all felt comfortable.
The cafe was full of people, and the couple caught everyone’s attention. However, they are naturally relaxed people, and it was no problem for them to show their emotions in public. There was a fantastic atmosphere on set, and the shoot did not last long because I was satisfied with the material. I believe that the magic would have disappeared had I asked them to repeat certain frames.
Image by adriaticfoto (Jovan Mandic)
First of all, a photographer and a couple should have an informal conversation to get to know each other better before the shoot. The couple must have confidence in the photographer, so make them feel natural. They shouldn’t think of photography as an obligation or a job. Before shooting, it’s always good to check the light and ambience of your selected location. Prepare in advance, and don’t burden the couple with technical details.
Once everything starts, just let them be in their own world, and wait for the right moment. The photographer should invisible in order to catch moments with real emotions. The wait is worth it. When a couple forgets they’re at a photo shoot, that’s usually when I make my best photos.
5. “I only ask them to stand or sit where the light and background works best, and then I let them be themselves.”
Image by Luna Vandoorne. Gear: Canon 5D Mark II camera, Canon 24-70 2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 70mm; exposure 1/800 sec; f/2.8; ISO 200.
What’s the story behind this photo?
I did this shoot back in 2012, but it still makes me smile when I see it. It’s popular with buyers, too. I found a beautiful wooden cabin in Sierra Nevada National Park, and I thought it would be perfect for a romantic shoot. I got permission from the owner to shoot there, but I didn’t have models, so a friend connected me to this cute couple. We met there on a cold morning, had some tea, and walked around to get a feeling of the space. They shared their story, and we started taking pics. Their connection was so inspiring that, as the photographer, I just had to be encouraging, playful, and fun and let it flow.
Working with real couples takes the pressure off of creating a connection between models. They already have that chemistry, so it’s all about making them feel comfortable and relaxed and allowing the magic to happen. For that, I always spend a little time just talking with them and observing their natural gestures, interactions, and facial expressions. From there, I can figure out if they are a relaxed and romantic couple or an energized and goofy pair. After that, it’s much easier to keep the mood during the shoot!
We always have agreed upon a plan for the shoot, and my goal is to give them the feeling that it’s an actual date. Maybe we go to an amusement park for the afternoon or a cabin in the woods, or perhaps we go on an adventurous road trip or a bike ride and have a picnic on the beach. Giving them something to do is the best way to get natural expressions!
During the shoot, I avoid giving too many cues or poses. I only ask them to stand or sit where the light and background works best, and then I let them be themselves. It’s also important to keep the distance between yourself and the couple in mind. Start with wide shots, and as you build their confidence, you can get closer.
If they are shy in front of the camera, sometimes I ask them to piggy back or run hand-in-hand. For a romantic mood, I might ask them to whisper in each other’s ears. That always brings some laughter too. Movement helps people to get out of their heads and into the moment.