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Capturing Authentic Emotion on the Wedding Day


A long while back, I wrote an article for The Photo Life about how to bring out authentic emotion in your couples.

In that article, I introduced the concept of Emotional Grounding, the idea of leading your couples into their core feelings for each other. It’s something Jeff and I have been developing and using with our subjects for a few years. While it’s not a revolutionary idea – we’re not the only photographers who engage with subjects emotionally – putting an actual name to this concept helped us identify and improve how we do it in practice.

My initial article covered part one of the Emotional Grounding concept, introducing an emotionally-engaging style of shooting at the engagement session. Now, I want to talk about part two of the Emotional Grounding concept, how we employ this style during weddings.

The Power We Possess

Since photographers spend so much time with the bride and groom during the wedding, we have a big influence on the pace and the emotional atmosphere of the day. That’s quite a bit of power! And it can be beneficial power. Think of it this way – what if we viewed photographs not just as a way of capturing and preserving moments, but as a way of jogging our clients’ emotions? What if photos weren’t just meant to help them remember moments as much as to re-feel moments?

You might say that’s pretty obvious – if photographs jog our client’s memories of their wedding, then of course they’re remembering what the moment felt like! Emotions are an integral part of memories, after all. But I’m talking about our attitude while we’re shooting. If we treat photographs as emotional reminders instead of momentary captures, then we can help clients feel and preserve their emotions more vividly. Thus, photographs become more valuable in the long run because there are stronger, richer feelings tied to them.

Slowing Down the Day

If emotions are so important, how can we help clients feel and preserve their emotions while we’re shooting? The easiest thing we can do is to slow down. In other words, RELAX. When we can help couples and their families step back, chill their minds, and take a deep breath, we can slow down the atmosphere and give them space and permission to feel what’s going on. We don’t have to take more time doing things – we don’t have to spend three minutes composing a shot instead of one – we just have to give the impression that we’re slow and steady while remaining efficient with time.

This makes a lot of sense in practice, so the best example of this is during “The First Look” (if you don’t have many couples who do a First Look, then I’ll explain how this can be done at other points in the day).

Grounding the First Look

The First Look is one of the points during the wedding day that poses potential stress for photographers. There are a whole host of factors thrown into our mental state. Hair and makeup may have run late, dramatically cutting into photo time. It’s usually during the harshest sunlight, so finding a location with good backgrounds and lighting in two opposite directions (for the bride AND the groom) can be a headache. To top it off, it should be a spot that’s quiet and private – sometimes crazy difficult to find!

So the temptation is to treat the First Look as a formality – a hoop we have to jump through so we can get to more exciting stuff with the couple. But what if we stepped back, slowed down and emotionally grounded our couple? Not only can we make the experience more meaningful for everyone involved, but we can also get great photographs in less time. A win/win! So how do we do that?

Here’s what we do during the First Look. Jeff sets the groom up in a predetermined location, and then tells him that he better start getting emotional ‘cuz his bride is gonna be piiiiiiiissed if he doesn’t!

You really shouldn’t believe a word that I say.

Ok, for reals. Jeff is with the groom in the First Look spot, and I’m with the bride just out of sight. We’ll separately tell them versions of this same thing. First, we talk them through what’s going to happen during the First Look so they’re aware of the logistics – the bride will walk up behind the groom, we’ll stop her five or six feet away and get her set up to look perfect, and then whenever he’s ready (note that we don’t tell the groom when to turn around) he can turn and see his bride for the first time.

Even more than that, we let them know that this moment is not for us; it’s not for photographs or the schedule or anything like that. It’s for them, and it’s important to slow down such a significant moment. So we walk them through their senses, asking them to feel the dry air, the warm sun or the cool breeze; to smell the leaves, the grass, or the ocean; to hear the waves, the cars, or the trees. By tuning into their senses, they ground themselves in that place and time. Their hearts may be pounding with adrenaline or their minds may be racing with emotions, but they will remember what that moment smelled, sounded, and felt like. And we all know how crazy powerful our senses are – they bring us back to our memories, but also to the emotions we felt (the smell of Mom baking, the sound of Christmas presents being opened, the scratch of Grandpa’s beard).

Then we tell them that once he turns around and they’ve seen each other, that moment is for them. We’ll be taking photos the whole time, but we’re going to step back and use longer lenses, so they can feel free to do whatever is natural in that moment. Whether it’s hug, laugh, kiss, cry, dance – anything goes (we actually had a couple ‘meow’ once). The important thing is that we won’t interrupt – when they’re ready to start portraits, they’ll turn to us and we’ll start. But not until then. We won’t even interject if they turn the wrong way or step into bad lighting. That’s a risk we’re willing to take in order to preserve the atmosphere we’ve created.

The remarkable thing about emotional grounding is that the photos actually become MORE efficient when we slow things down. Why? Because our couple is in an authentic place of connection with themselves and with each other, and it’s instantly easier to capture natural, emotional and authentic imagery.

Authentic Emotion vs. Manipulation

One thing I have to note here is that Jeff and I are not master charmers manipulating our couples into crying during every First Look. In fact, we don’t care if our couples cry or not. We’re simply asking them to engage with the emotions that already authentically exist, whether that’s excitement, calm, joy, comfort, thrill, anxiety, nervousness, love etc. We would do an enormous disservice if we manipulated couples into feeling something they’re not, so be careful when approaching someone’s emotions. It’s a matter of trust, and depending on the person, it can be an intimate request to ask someone to feel their emotions, so be respectful whether they let you in or not.

Without the First Look

So what if your couple chooses not to do a First Look? You can still use these techniques throughout the day whenever it feels appropriate. We have stopped and grounded anxious brides just before slipping the dress on, helping them engage with the significance of the moment. Or with the groom while he’s putting on his tux. Or with the bride when she’s with her father. There are countless moments throughout the day, if we’re open to seeing them.

The second most significant time for this kind of grounding would be just after the ceremony, and this works for any kind of wedding. You can lead the couple to a private location after they walk down the aisle (Justin and Mary Marantz champion this method as “The Ten Minute Rule”) or you can ground them while you’re taking portraits, asking them to feel their senses, breathe deeply, and connect with each other (‘you’re married! YAY!’). It’s a matter of reading the day and reading your couple, identifying moments where it’s appropriate to step in, slow down, and ground your subjects.

Just remember that we as photographers can make a unique impact on how the wedding is remembered, not just photographically but emotionally as well. So, if we shoot with emotional grounding in mind, we can make our photos even more meaningful. In fact, we just did a blog post where we asked couples from 2011 to tell us their favorite images from their wedding, and it was remarkable how many of those images took place in an emotionally grounded atmosphere. Not all of them, but enough for me to think that emotional grounding is a meaningful skill to develop. What are other ways we can help couples slow down and remember how they felt during their wedding day?

Written by Erin Youngren

photographer erin youngren

Jeff and Erin Youngren are international wedding and lifestyle photographers running one of the fastest growing boutique studios in the competitive Southern California market. Although based in San Diego, their deeply emotional style and passionate partnership has taken them from the streets of San Francisco to the canals of Venice to the family suburbs of Chicago to photograph extraordinary weddings and incredible couples. As leaders in the photographic community, they are passionate about helping other photographers build viable, authentic businesses, while building a photography community built on integrity and honest leadership.

The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!