A Guest Post by
No matter what their skill level, most photographers do everything they can to avoid cheesy, awkward and generic couples portraits. But there are a few creative elements to think about while you’re at the location and also when editing your images that will make them a bit more special.
A Tip for Getting Started
If you’re new to couples portraiture, or your subjects are a bit self-conscious, it’s good to start the shoot with a longer lens. This allows you to stand back and allow the couple to interact normally with each other, which means that you can get some great natural shots that you may struggle to capture if you were right in their face. Of course you will be getting some close shots of your couple later in the shoot, but this is a good way to warm up and break the ice with your subjects.
Locations don’t have to be iconic or super amazing. It’s surprising how often the most unsuspecting backyard or building can actually be quite a creative setting. Things to look out for are texture, form and pattern. Integrating these elements can also lend in telling a story about the couple, and create a narrative in your images.
Trees and Foliage:
There are so many portraits out there that use trees in uninspiring ways – people sitting on branches, or peeking around the trunk at each other. To me, these fall into the “cheesy” category. But there are ways you can use trees as a creative and textural element in your composition, without dominating the narrative. Framing couples in the branch formations or space around the tree allows it to be important in the composition without distracting from the couple. This is particularly effective if you stand quite far back from your subjects. Also, if the canopy is quite bushy, or it has interesting leaves and flowers, the textures and patterns of these elements can be used as a background if you position your couple in front.
This is the same for foliage. Bushy, full foliage with pattern and texture makes a great background. Depending on the look you’re going for with your subjects, using a smaller aperture to keep the foliage in focus creates a dynamic graphic element in the composition, while a larger aperture softens the background and creates a dreamy feeling.
I enjoy using buildings, indoor and outdoor, as a framing device. Doorways, archways and windows are great to position your couple in and give the composition a dynamic aspect. It can often given the image balance and symmetry, and can be applied to both indoor and outdoor sessions. Carefully positioning yourself and your couple in front of these elements can produce great graphic compositions, and if there are lots of doorways and archways around, then you’ll have lots of options for differing shots. Interesting details and patterns in the architecture – such as light fixtures or support beams – can be positioned to interact with your couple and create a bold visual impact.
Varying your own position is also very effective – standing far back and capturing full length, or angling yourself from the ground upwards can produce different moods and aesthetics. Also keep a look out for textures in buildings – whether it is brickwork, peeling paint or corrugated iron. Similar in the way you can use foliage as textural backgrounds, building textures can add mood and wistfulness to your image.
Once you’ve got a good collection of images, editing is the next task, and at times it can be quite daunting. If you struggle to think of creative ways to present your images to make them stand out, there are a few things to consider which can make a good image a great image.
Sometimes it’s as simple as cutting out the distractions. If you have a great shot of your couple with the expressions you want, but you’re less than thrilled with what’s happening with the background, don’t be afraid to crop in really tight. This is also an opportunity to create some alternative formats. Cropping to a square format can also lend to an artistic result.
When you’ve had more experience and you’re feeling confident with compositions, consider breaking the rules with cropping. Cut off torsos or heads if you think there’s something interesting going on in a specific part of the image.
This is a good little trick if you have lots of great shots you want to use, but you don’t want too many individual images that look very similar. It’s also effective in creating a more striking final composition. Simply make a new blank image in Photoshop, and pair appropriate images together side by side on the canvas – you will probably need to use Free Transform to place them (Crtl+T). It should be clear to you what images work together. A good option is placing a close-up portrait orientation next to a wider landscape orientation. This instantly makes your images look like art, and is also a great story telling technique
A very faint coloured filter can change so much in your image and alters the mood dramatically. Warming the tone can instantly romanticise a couple’s portrait. Create a new layer, and fill with a warm colour such as orange. Have a play with the blending mode (soft light is effective for this) and reduce to opacity way down to 10-15%. It’s a subtle adjustment, but the results speak for themselves. To create an even softer effect, reduce the overall saturation of the original image.
In Photoshop it’s called noise, but I still like to think of it as grain. Once you’ve done your overall adjustments, applying some noise over the image is a great way to add subtle texture and gives your image an “arty” look.
Copy the whole final background layer. On the copied layer, go to Filters > Noise > Add Noise. Bring the amount up quite high, to 10 or 12. Then in the layers panel, you can reduce the opacity to set the level of noise to your liking. This is how I usually do it, although alternatively you can choose the noise amount you want when you apply the filter. It’s good to do it on a layer so you can unselect the noise layer to quickly see the difference the effect has made and if it suits the image. If you don’t like it, delete the layer!
Add a Border:
It’s so simple! Adding a border can make such a different in the overall look of the final image and raises the bar in presentation. It certainly makes your image look more like an art photograph, and also acts as a frame. Simply go to Image > Canvas Size, and then extend the canvas. Usually a centimetre or two is enough, and make sure you’ve set the extension colour to white. Whether your images will be viewed on a screen or printed, a white border is a great addition.
Here’s a sample that combines these five techniques:
I hope this post has given you some ideas on how to think outside the box when approaching couples portraiture. Once you know what to look for on your locations, and after applying a few simple alternations in Photoshop, you’ll be surprised how creative you can be!
Alice is young award winning photographer and all-round creative living in Melbourne, Australia whose interest in digital capture knows no bounds. Her work can be seen at @alicelaidlaw), Twitter (@AliceLaidlaw) and Pinterest (Alice Laidlaw).. You can also follow her on Instagram (