July 15, 2012

wedding photography: portraits of the bride & bridesmaids

Continuing with the theme of photographing great portraits on a wedding day when there aren’t beautiful surroundings: when I have the time at the bride’s house, I will always try to get individual portraits of the bride with each bridesmaid.

I like doing this early in the day already at the bride’s house, because everyone’s energy levels are still up. Everyone is still excited, and emotions are still high. No one is hungry; with shoes that hurt them. So, with that idea in mind, I like getting as many of these portraits “in my pocket” while I can. We may not have the time again later on in the day when the schedule starts to run tight.

In the recent article where I showed how I use a fast telephoto zoom to eliminate background clutter from the image. The shallow depth-of-field throws the background out of focus, and the long focal length compresses perspective. This compressed perspective you get, by shooting at the longest focal length, makes the background “stuff” appear larger, and hence even more out of focus than with a wider lens. Conversely, you can say that the tighter view allows less of the background to appear.

This time I remembered to take a pull-back shot as well, to show where we were:

I had to stand behind the opened gate, to get the angle and distance I needed. There is a red fire hydrant to the left, behind the bride. There is also a yellow traffic sign behind them in the distance. I positioned myself so that the yellow sign and red fire hydrant would be behind them in the final image.

By shooting tightly, the background is not intrusive and is pleasantly out of focus.

The idea here is that you can make this type of portrait nearly anywhere, by finding the correct angle to shoot from. Specifically placing yourself and your subject in relation to the background is the key. Yup, it needs some shuffling to the left and right, and some crouching, to find that shot.

While I try to bring some spontaneity to the portraits, I do direct a bit.

I start off with fairly straightforward photos of the bride with the bridesmaid.

Then I ask them to turn to each other and talk to each other. Sometimes there is an emotional reaction, or laughter. Even if they think it is silly and goofily over-act, there is still a photograph there. If they think it is a silly idea, a look at the camera’s preview usually is convincing that the photos do indeed look great.

Then, as a third part of the sequence with the bride and bridesmaid, I ask them to give a big hug for the camera, with both facing the camera. This is usually the preferred shot over the first one where we started.

It’s a formulaic sequence perhaps, but in there, I nearly always get a photo with some expression that will make a nice memory of the day for them. Sometimes that spontaneity needs a bit of a nudge.

I used off-camera flash here to give me control over the light.

Because of the fence, I couldn’t quite place it in an ideal position and distance from them. I would’ve liked the softbox closer, and less at an angle from them. But this is a small compromise, since the final images look great. I used the flash in manual mode to keep exposures consistent.


camera settings & photo gear (or equivalents) used with this photo session

  • 1/250 @ f/4.0 @ 100 ISO … flash in manual mode


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{ 17 comments. } Add a Comment

1 mike July 16, 2012 at 5:33 am


Do have have your subject centered between yourself and the background do get the best compression and bokeh?? Also if the circumstances allow will you always shoot at maximum focal lenght(200mm in this case).thanks


2 Neil vN July 16, 2012 at 11:14 am

Mike .. maximum focal length will obviously give me the most compression, but I use whatever is practical. In this instance, there was the gate which could’ve partially blocked my view if I had stepped further back.

Neil vN


3 Erwin July 16, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Hi Neil
Do you always use an assistant ?
I work alone most of the time and find that this limits the use of OCF for me since it simply takes too much time to setup and break down



4 Lou July 16, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Id like to know as well.



5 Neil vN July 16, 2012 at 6:33 pm

There was a second photographer at this wedding, but she went to the groom’s house. So it was just me.

I keep everything nearly assembled in the back of my car. All that is necessary is to pop the attachment with flash onto the light stand, and attach the Lastolite softbox. Very quick.

It would be a mistake to try and assemble everything on the day, right then and there.

Neil vN


6 Matt July 16, 2012 at 10:35 pm

I would have been panicking, here. You take the most mundane and unattractive locations and forge them into something amazing. Well done. Do you a spare $2500 you could lend me for the Nikon 70-200? :)


7 Hoang Nguyen July 17, 2012 at 8:44 am

Hi Neil,
Thanks for sharing your knowledge and great articles. If your subject is lying on grass, do you need to lower the softbox as well (i.e. reduce the height of the light stand)?


8 Neil vN July 17, 2012 at 11:17 am

Hoang .. you definitely do have to change the height of your light to have the light come in at a sensible angle.

Neil vN


9 Skipper Lange July 17, 2012 at 8:30 pm

Another great example of getting a great photo almost anywhere if you know what you’re doing & use right equipment. I always wonder Neil how your more-than-one subjects are all in focus with such wide apertures. Is it the distance between you and the subjects? The focal length?


10 Neil vN July 18, 2012 at 10:18 am

Skipper, I direct them until they are on the same plane of focus. You can’t just leave it to chance.

Neil vN


11 evan watts July 18, 2012 at 11:20 pm


I am sure this is in the wring spot, I apologize for that.
When using the white(only)of a wedding dress to meter and use the histogram on a test shot to confirm exposure, doesn’t zooming in affect the exposure? Meaning, when you zoom back out for the entire frame (or move back out if you got closer physically), wouldn’t the exposure be different due to change in overall reflectivity of the entire frame. Would the white dress expose the SAME whether you were zoomed in or zoomed out…or moved in then moved back out. This is confusing me…


12 Neil vN July 19, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Evan .. here is the specific article on metering off the bride’s white dress.

The key here is that you meter for a specific tone … NOT the entire scene. So zooming out will give you a different exposure meter reading, but it isn’t of consequence then, since we’ve already gotten our correct settings by metering off the bride’s dress (and using the histogram method).

Neil vN


13 Trev July 19, 2012 at 6:39 pm


When you use Manual exposure, and you set it, no matter what it is it will always be the exact same exposure if zoomed right in or right out to widest possible.

So, in fact Neil and many of us use manual exposure since it’s a given constant in that nothing will change whatsoever in the actual exposure of the image.

That way, you can zoom right in on bride’s dress [normally white/whitish], get your exposure, and you know regardless of the rest of the scene the subject will be correctly exposed.

Note: There is a caveat to saying you get the exact same exposure all the time in manual once you have set it, and that is of course if the ambient [sun/cloud/whatever] light changes, then of course your exposure will be a bit off.

eg: you are in a constant light source, sun and trees, whatever, you expose for the dress, but then, a cloud moves across the sun, your exposure will be then under, so you do need to keep that in mind, but if ambient light stays constant be sun or overcast, then yes.

Where you are thinking about zoom affecting the exposure is if you are in *any* of the program modes and you zoom, yep, the exposure will take into account dark or light backgrounds.

Try it, set your camera to a program mode, and just zoom in/out if you have different lighting on subject and background, you will see the exposure change. Now put the camera in manual mode, just pick a set of numbers, does not need to be accurate, and merely zoom, nothing will change, the shutter/aperture/iso will remain constant.

Hope this clears it up.



14 Roger Morales July 20, 2012 at 12:45 am

Hi Neil,
Great work and thank you for sharing with us.
You mentioned that the flash was set to manual mode.
Can you tell us what the power setting was and also the distance from flash to subject was?
Did you use a light meter?


15 Neil vN July 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Roger, I didn’t use a light meter. I usually get my exposures pretty close from experience, because I have a good idea of the flash’s exposure, depending on this relationship – distance / power / aperture / ISO. Those 4 factors control manual exposure mode, and it also implies that you will consistently get correct exposure if you keep the 4 settings the same, even if you shoot in different places.

The power setting isn’t relevant detail here. The thought-processs is more valuable than the numeric value. Same for distance. The image should give you an idea of the distance though.

Neil vN


16 Carlos Garcia August 15, 2012 at 1:42 am

Hi Neil, I tend to use f/4 to increase my DOF when taking portraits, is this true for your settings in this particular post? Why not f/2.8?

Best regards,


17 Neil vN August 15, 2012 at 2:43 am

Carlos .. you answered your own question there. With two people in most of these portraits, I needed that extra little bit of depth-of-field.

Neil vN


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