How to Capture Emotion in Wedding Photography

If you read my article on documentary wedding photography, you know that it’s increasingly important to learn how to capture emotion in wedding photography.
Wedding photography is no longer just about documenting who was there.
As wedding photographers, we are now expected to tell a story about the depth of love our couples share and the joy they experience on their wedding days.
Of all the wedding photography tips that I share, emotion will have the biggest impact on your storytelling skills.
You can have mediocre lighting and composition skills, but if you can make a viewer feel something, your image has an impact.
In this article, I’ll use over a decade of experience photographing weddings to help you learn how to recognize and photograph emotions.

Why Capturing Emotion in Wedding Photography is Important

With the growing trend of relaxed wedding photography, couples are increasingly requesting candids.
What they really want is images that remind them of how they felt on their wedding day.
While weddings are still often a production designed to please and impress wedding guests, couples are recognizing the importance of a memorable day for themselves.
From timelines to budget allocation, brides and grooms are redefining what matters most to them: showcasing their love.
While it’s important to attract the right photography clients for your wedding photography style, most couples appreciate an ability to capture emotion.
Being able to show a couple their joy and excitement will be valuable to them throughout the ups and downs of married life.
Before we dive into specific techniques for communicating emotion through your photography, let’s talk about the emotions that are present on a wedding day.
By learning what to expect and when, you can predict emotions, better preparing yourself to capture them.

Understanding Wedding Day Emotions
The first thing to do is start to understand wedding day emotions.
Once we know the emotions to look out for, we can learn to anticipate times ripe for capturing them.
Joy, love, anticipation, and nostalgia are a few of the most common wedding day emotions.
Couples feel joy at the fact that their relationship made it to the aisle and that so many family and friends gathered to celebrate them.
The wedding guests are often filled with joy that the ones getting married are so happy.

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Love is heightened on a wedding day as the couple reflects on everything they love about each other.
Weddings also cause other couples to reflect on their own love story.
Meanwhile, anticipation mounts as we get closer to that moment of walking down the aisle or the nervousness of a dance or speech.
And speaking of speeches, the father of the bride tugs with nostalgia as he shares stories of his daughter and many others in the room.
Stories are told of when the couple first met or the adversity they overcame as people are moved to laughter or tears.
As a lover of emotion, I appreciate all the rituals and traditions that help draw out our feelings at weddings.
Significance of Genuine Emotions

When your couple looks back at their wedding photos, you want them to see what they felt.
We wedding photographers must learn to capture emotions genuinely because that will have the most impact on our couples for years to come.
That doesn’t mean we can’t set the stage for emotions and create space for them.
In fact, so much of the wedding timeline is crafted to help heighten emotions.
It’s like the perfect roller coaster ride where every twist and turn is designed to induce excitement.
But there’s a fine balance between genuine emotions and staged emotions.
I once witnessed a videographer I was working with interrupt the mother of the bride to weigh in with his opinion on which bracelet the bride should wear.
Now, instead of being able to capture the emotions of an intimate moment between mother and daughter, I was capturing fake politeness as the bride tried to weigh up all the opinions.
It’s important that we stay out of the way and let emotions run as naturally as possible.
In the next section, we’ll talk about how to prepare for wedding emotions and plan for great candids.
It will be important that you determine when planning crosses a line into making candids more like staged photographs.
We want our couples to look through their wedding albums and relive an amazing day, not a fake one.
Every one of us knows the difference between our own fake smile and a real one.

Preparing for the Wedding Emotions Ahead of Time
We’re talking about capturing candids, which means we want unscripted moments.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t set ourselves up for success.
I often say, “Have a plan, but don’t get married to it.”
Or, as one of my brides reworded it, “Marry the man, not the plan.”
Having a plan and a storyboard for an image we want to create is different than directing the scene to create that exact image.
Storyboarding is a way to have a vision for a great image.
Then, we can use that information to be in the right place at the right time with the right attitude.
Connecting with Your Couple

The first thing to do to set yourself up for success is to connect with your couple.
There are many benefits to forming a connection with the couple you’re photographing as a wedding photographer but one of them is that you want them comfortable in front of you.
When you show up on their wedding day, you want them to feel comfortable showing emotion in front of you.
Otherwise, how will you capture the emotion?
By connecting to your couple, you can also learn more about them and the type of people they are.
Then, you’ll know what to expect emotionally from them on the wedding day.
Will they be a couple that cries a lot or laughs all day or will emotions be more fleeting?
Wedding photographers have different methods for getting to know their couples.
Whether you plan to do a pre-wedding questionnaire or an in-person consult or both, taking the time to get to know the couple can make you more efficient and effective on the wedding day.
I find that the engagement shoot is an excellent way to get to know a couple as well as get them comfortable in front of my camera.
Memorizing the Shot List, Timeline, and Key Moments
Now that you know your couple and have created a relationship in which they’ll be comfortable in front of you, it’s time to try to predict when emotions might arise.
The good news about weddings is that they’re fairly predictable, so you can get a good idea of what to expect.
It’s important to get an idea of the timeline and how it might differ from your expectations from previous weddings.
From there, you can determine times that might be ripe for emotional images.
For example, first look moments, walking up and down the aisle, first kisses, and first dances are classic times when love and joy might be at a peak.
At other times of the day, you might not be looking for peak moments but just really fun ones.
For example, during getting ready or the wedding reception, there can be some downtime where you can watch and wait for emotions that come from more simple moments.
The emotions might not be as heightened as during the ceremony but you can still look for laughs, smiles, and tears.
It’s for this reason that I always talk about the importance of memorizing the wedding photography shot list.
You don’t want to be missing moments because you’re staring at your shot list.
Instead, you want to know the timeline and shot list so well that you’re relaxed and able to anticipate great moments.
Otherwise, a shot list can be a creativity killer or a moment killer.

How to Plan for Unplanned Moments
So how, then, do we plan for unplanned moments?
How do we prepare for unstaged and unscripted candids?
Sometimes it’s as simple as shooting the in-between moments.
For example, during bridesmaids’ shoots and groomsmen’s photos, everyone is smiling at the camera.
But right after those posed photos during the transition, someone might make a joke or exchange a hug, resulting in a sweet and tender or hilarious candid photo.
Planning for unplanned moments is all about being ready.
You want to anticipate when the moment might happen and then be patient.
Don’t move on from one thing to another too quickly.
Instead, take the information you know about your couple, the timeline, the shot list, and weddings in general, and use that to anticipate the moment.
You can also learn about the moments themselves.
Sometimes, it’s right after a joke, but other times, it’s the third joke that really gets everyone going.

Photography Techniques for Capturing Emotions

Now that we’ve talked about the importance of emotions and where to find them on a wedding day, let’s dive into photography techniques to make capturing emotions more effective.
We’ll talk through light, composition, and details.
Then, we’ll discuss how your presence can impact the photos both positively and negatively.
Finally, we’ll think about the bigger picture, moving beyond one photo to the sequences of photos that we can create for our couples.
Using Light and Composition
I mentioned previously that you can have a poorly lit and averagely composed photograph, but if it captures emotion, it can still be a strong photo.
That being said, I don’t want you to settle for poorly lit or averagely composed.
One of the first steps is to make sure you know how to see natural light and shadows so that you can use them strategically in your photography.
There are also ways to use use flash effectively whether it’s off-camera flash or bounce light.
You simply need to plan for the best light for any given moment.
Sometimes, the best light is soft and airy for an intimate moment, while other times, it’s dramatic for an intense moment.
From there, you want to dial in your camera settings for wedding photography so that you’re not fumbling with your camera and missing moments.
Next, you can plan out your composition before the moment even happens.
You might not know when the moment is going to happen but often you’ll know where.
If you know where emotions are likely to arise, you can plan out your positioning ahead of time.
For example, right before the dad walks the bride down the aisle can be an emotional moment, and some location scouting can help you determine what type of backdrop you’ll be dealing with.
Or, the father-daughter dance is often an even more controllable environment for that similar emotion.
Planning out your reception lighting ahead of time can allow you to focus on capturing Dad’s tears as he dances with his daughter.
It’s a good idea to review and practice various framing and composition techniques. As these become second nature, you’ll be able to instinctively frame a candid picture better in the heat of the moment.
You can choose composition techniques based on how they’ll complement the story.
For example, you might fill the frame to get close in to an intimate, joyful hug, or you might use white space to leave room for anticipation.
Maybe leading lines or patterns will help draw the eye to the moment, or something in the foreground or background will help set the mood for the image.
Find your lighting and composition, anticipate the moment, and be patient while waiting for it to peak.

Incorporating Details
Another way to increase the impact of an emotional photo is to add some storytelling elements for context.
For example, in the getting ready room, you might have an emotional moment between the bride and her mom.
It could just be any old day, but if you include the wedding dress in the frame it adds context so everyone knows this is a photo of the anticipation of a wedding.
You can show the setting or other people or zoom in on the hands or the eyes.
Intentionally choose what you want to include and exclude from the frame to tell the most impactful story.
Think outside the box. Flower girls also make great details because they add context and an interesting perspective.
One great way to do this is to re-crop some of your previous images to see how it changes what the photo is saying.
Often, cropping closer to an emotional moment will be more impactful, but sometimes giving more context will tell a better story.
Being Present and Unobtrusive

Now let’s talk about an element of the photo that you might not think of because you don’t see it.
How are you impacting the photo?
The viewer of the image might be able to feel your presence, especially if people are looking nervously at the camera.
But if you’re too far away and using a long focal length, then the viewer might feel like you’re not actually in the moment.
The trick is to be in the moment without being obtrusive.
I don’t like to talk about it as being a fly on the wall, because that’s just creepy.
The awkward person standing against the wall is not going to make everyone comfortable enough to let their guard down and show emotion.
Remember how we talked about building a connection with your couples?
We need to build a connection with everyone in the room, but we need to do it quickly and without interfering.
The goal is to make our presence feel normal, natural, and unobtrusive.
You’ll find your own way to be present in the moments without being distracting.
Chances are, though, you’ll want to work on getting comfortable with getting closer to your subjects.
This takes time and practice, and it also helps to get your timing right. You don’t want to rush in right before the moment peaks, thereby ruining it.
Instead, you want to already be in position so that when the moment peaks, you’re right there ready for it.
The best compliments I get include things like, “You were everywhere working so hard and yet it’s like I never saw you. I can’t believe the moments you captured because I didn’t even know you were taking that picture.”

Giving Guidance and Empathy to Your Couples

Another tip is to give guidance and empathy to your couples.
Couples don’t always know what to do with themselves when a photographer is around.
You can set the stage by explaining that most of the day, you want them to just be themselves.
I personally start this during the engagement shoot by not over-posing or over-directing.
I don’t want my couples looking to me for how they should feel; I want them to feel and experience their day as it unfolds.
In addition to building a connection, you might need to also give them an idea of what to expect and gently nudge them to just be natural.
It can be hard for someone to be natural when you tell them to be natural, but that’s just another reason we have to be patient and present.
You can also set other people in the room at ease by telling them you don’t need them to do anything; you’re just taking candids.
If you give them some instruction such as, “Just keep doing what you’re doing, I’ll just need you dressed by 3 pm for posed portraits. Until then, I’m just capturing candids.”
One other way that you can impact your couples is to be empathetic towards how they’re feeling.
Read the room, but some couples like to hear that it’s normal to feel nervous and that it will get easier throughout the day.
If there’s family drama, you can give gentle support so as to help them feel comfortable with you.
You’re not taking the place of a friend in the room, but you’re being an additional friend in the room.
Storytelling through Sequences
The last emotional photo-taking technique is to think about the overall story.
We talked about using details for context in a single image, but it’s also important to think about other images that will help provide context in the overall story.
This means capturing transitions and details between individual emotions for a more complete wedding photography story.
The overall story is not just one photo but the series of images you deliver in the gallery, wedding album, or slideshow.
Each photo tells its own story, but a sequence of photos can tell a bigger story.
For example, a close-up of the tears during the father-daughter dance combined with a wide-angle shot showing everyone standing around watching can work together to say something more than one photo alone.
Additionally, if you capture both sets of parents and their emotions during the ceremony, you can put them side by side to show a more complete picture.
When you look at the entire image collection, you might see a lot of tears or laughs that, when combined, make the whole day more emotional.
You can also check out this guide to wedding photography storytelling for more on telling stories through candid shots.

Summary of Capturing Wedding Day Emotions

Wedding days are full of emotions, which are great content for your wedding photography.
As wedding photographers, we want to capture genuine emotions so that our couples remember how they felt on their wedding day.
Wedding photography is a powerful reminder for years to come of the joy and love a couple feels at this stage in their relationship.
In conclusion and for your wedding photography homework, I’ll give you a few tasks to help you internalize some of the things we talked about in this article.
That way, hopefully, you remember and can take away some useful tips.
Photographing Emotion Homework

Make a list of the types of emotions you’ve witnessed or would expect to witness on a wedding day.
Then go back and add when these emotions might happen throughout the day.
After that, add information about where the emotions might take place.
Finally, outline some lighting and composition challenges as well as your solutions.

With those steps, you can prepare to photograph candids and pre-plan for incorporating various techniques to make your images more powerful.

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