It’s funny how some of the moments that have impacted us the most as photographers come from the most unexpected places or at the most unpredictable times. Sometimes we don’t even realize their influence until much much later. For me, that mother of the groom at that wedding all those years ago was one of those moments.
My husband Chris and I were shooting her son’s wedding and at one point during the day she pulled us aside. At this point my mind was racing thinking about what was so important she felt like she had to tell us then and there. She proceeded to say that she wanted to personally tell us how much she loved her son and new daughter in law’s engagement photos from their engagement session a few months prior. She thought they were just beautiful. And then, it came. What she said next changed everything. She said, “I loved the photos because they were just SO THEM.” She didn’t mention the beautiful light or gorgeous scenery. She didn’t compliment us on the flattering poses, the exposure or anything like that.
The “So Them” Factor
Weeks went by and what she said still stuck with me. It was one of the most amazing compliments I felt like I could receive as a photographer. I wanted all of my couples and their families to look at their own photos and feel the same way she did about her son’s. I wanted to truly capture what I have come to call the “So Them Factor.”
The “So Them Factor” is the story, details, and personality that makes an individual and couple unique and therefore special. I wanted to capture the way Ava scrunched her nose when she was genuinely laughing so hard at her fiancé Steve’s jokes – something she has always done since she was a little girl. Her grandma does the same thing. I wanted to capture how Haley would randomly kiss Gavin’s hand as they walked together hand in hand – something she started doing when he was really sick a few years ago. For them it was a way of saying “I love you” with no words. I wanted to capture how big Emily and Brad’s smiles were as they squeezed one another hands back and forth as they sat next to one another – something they had done on their first date and continued to do throughout the years. I couldn’t have thought up direction or poses to elicit these authentic responses. But by knowing a couple and not giving too much direction, I gave them the space to be authentically themselves.
Authenticity versus Over Posing
What has helped me in capturing my couple’s uniqueness and chemistry – their “So Them Factor” – has been truly getting to know my couples. And not just getting to know how they met and hearing about the proposal. But by spending quality time with them and really observing and listening to their story; who they are and what makes them special as individuals and together as a couple. What they have been through, what they have overcome, their victories and imperfections and at the end of the day what makes them THEM. I then use this insight as I am photographing. So instead of telling a couple, for example, to face one another with hands on one another’s waists, his hands lower than her's and for her to turn her head 90 degrees and then both of them laugh really hard, I could tell them to hold one another tight and think about the time when he called her phone and was gushing about how much he loved her only to realize her grandma had answered her phone. Instant genuine laughs as they recall this memory. Conversation between the two. Authentic smiles.
As another example, maybe I see a golden retriever during their shoot and we all start recalling the story they told me during their consultation about how she tripped over a stranger’s dog leash in NYC and the person that helped her up was him. That’s how they met and their story began. These are all things that make them unique and special. They are all part of their story that is theirs and theirs alone.
I have found that for me, giving my couples too much technical or impersonal direction during a shoot and over posing them drains the uniqueness of a couple. It no longer matters who the couple is but becomes all about the pose. But when I really know the couple and they feel comfortable, I can give them permission to be themselves … permission to relax, have fun, and celebrate their story. I can capture them with no walls up. They have genuine laughs, hold hands the way they naturally would and occasionally position themselves with one another with minimal direction from me. They aren’t over thinking how they should stand or look or breathe. They are being authentically themselves in the moment, and THIS is what I want to capture. Because as the end of the day, when they look at their photos, I want them to say “these photos are beautiful and so US.”