I have so many friends who have the good fortune to travel the world, but they always come home frustrated because they either try to take portraits in obvious places, standing on top of the landmark with thousands of people all around, or they don’t show the things that they found interesting or personal about where they were.
So let’s dive in to solving for these common location fails.
Your Clients Have All of the Answers, so Ask
Usually clients will pick a location for their portraits either because they have spent meaningful time there, meaning that they have memories that make them feel happy or sentimental, or because of design elements of the location, like they just think it’s pretty but they don’t know why.
The latter is easier to solve for, of course. You just find the pretty places and shoot there. Nikki had her Senior Portraits taken at a super secret resort in Arizona because her father was an executive there, she had grown up there, and college was going to take her far away, so her reasons for being at this particular place ranged from her love of the pool to the bougainvillea to even a particular barstool that she used to sit on while she watched her father work. So we dove right in.
Find Great Light
Of course the best time to shoot is early morning and late afternoon. I get it. The shadows are much less harsh, the light is golden. But in Nikki’s case, she needed to shoot at 11 am, so we found spots that we were able to work to our advantage.
In this case, the window light was outstanding. People always talk about northern exposure light as their window light of choice because the sun isn’t beaming in directionally, but when the sun is overhead, every window has a “northern” exposure.
Use Design elements
Repeating lines, like these pillars, are a great place to start. Arches are great, too, or a line of trees…anything that draws you in to the picture. Nikki was in the shade here, so the light grazed across her face, and it was perfect. No reflector necessary.
Find a WOW backdrop
This fountain was the first thing that visitors saw when they came into the driveway, and Nikki’s favorite thing about the resort. My first thought was to put her way in front of it, so that she would be bigger than the fountain, but since there was raised curbing, it didn’t look right, so I put her on the curbing.
I used a long (200mm) lens to compress the distance as much as possible, and put the fountain, which was massive, off to the side and a little bit out of the shot so that it didn’t dwarf her. You can tell by the shadow that it was high noon, so I had her pick up the back of her own dress and drop it for a little bit of fashion flair, while an assistant hold a gold reflector opposite the sun to allow her AND the background to be well exposed.
I love using art as a backdrop because it’s interesting and usually lit well. We were wandering around and I saw this print on the wall. It looked like her hat and necklace, so I put her a couple of yards in front of it and turned her face to the light.
Afterwards, her mom started crying. They had chosen this print together when Nikki was a little girl!! If there had been a light on the print, I would have backed Nikki up, put her under the light and turned her face to it.
Use Elements of the location to frame your subject
When I first started shooting, I had all kinds of crazy ideas that I’d throw out there like mad, but I would always ask my clients what they wanted to do, too. Invariably they would roll their eyes and look at me like they were on their last legs and say, exhaustedly, “Can’t you just take a picture of me leaning up against a tree?”
Well, the answer to that was “Yes”, kind of. People leaning up against trees look weird. They also look tiny in reference to the tree. But if you take them off the tree and make the tree the background, it looks much better, and if the trees just so happen to arch together, that’s a win all the way around. In this shot, Nikki is a good ten feet in front of the tree on the left, and the arching tree is just about parallel to her.
Listen to their ideas
Like everyone in Arizona, Nikki wanted a shot of herself in the pool with her clothes on. But it was 1 in the afternoon…ugh.
I knew that everything would be blown out, so we gathered some of her favorite flower, the bougainvillea, and put it all around to that there would be a tiny tinge of color, and then held the reflector between her and the sun. I can’t say that I’m super proud of this, technically, because at 6, it would have been a lot different of a shot, but, she was so happy to do this shot that when she got out, we got this:
Which I loved and she ordered a gargantuan gallery wrap of.