Tricky + Sensitive Family Situations: Be Honest with and Trust Your Photographer

Let me just start this post with a simple statement: I’ve seen it all.

Truly, there is no family situation that could shock me, throw me off guard or surprise me. And you know what? That’s a good thing!

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Before their wedding day, I have my couples complete a fairly lengthy and very detailed questionnaire and on it is a question asking them to describe any sensitive or tricky situations that may come up on their wedding day (particularly during family formal portraits). I ask that they share with me if anyone has a disability that would affect how I interact with them, if anyone has a physical limitation (often the grandparents) or if there is any potential for hostility and drama.

YIKES. Right?!

Nope, actually it’s not scary at all. I want to know it… all of it! Knowing these things allows me to carefully navigate the rough seas of family dynamics on a wedding day.

Listen, every family has their thing. My husband’s parents are together and he has one brother but he only had one living grandparent at the time of our wedding and we wanted his grandfather’s girlfriend included in some photos but not all. My immediate family consists of my mom and step-dad - my only brother is deceased. I do however have all four of my grandparents - my mom’s parents and my bio-dad’s parents.

I don’t think any couple should ever feel self conscious or nervous about their family situation on their wedding day - but they should be honest and straightforward with their photographer! I know how hard it can be to admit to someone that your family has a unique dynamic or a combination of special circumstances and needs. I think couples are too quick to feel ashamed because they often feel like they may be judged on their family’s baggage.

But the thing is, we’re not here to judge. Your photographer is here to capture memories, document once-in-a-lifetime moments and make your family feel loved and cared for.

If you still don’t believe me, please know that I’ve worked with: countless families with divorced parents, grandparents in wheelchairs, deaf and blind family members, people of all different political beliefs, highly religious and conservative family members, general hostility between parties, children and adults with autism, family members battling terminal diseases, couples who have lost siblings or parents, families who have experienced a recent and painful loss of a loved one, parents who cannot stand to be in the same room, those dealing with psychological disorders, hostile family members, family members who identify as LGBTQIA, step and half siblings, family members with a criminal background, people with chromosomal disorders, family members with substance abuse disorders, and of course the, simply put, drama-creators.

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It is hard enough to walk into a hectic, high stress situation where I don’t know anyone but it’s even harder to take command of that moment while making everyone feel comfortable and cared for. Brushing all of these secrets and needs under the rug isn’t helping anyone. Being honest with your photographer allows them to anticipate all of the potential negative interactions and cater to the special needs of your family and wedding party.

So, when your photographer asks - spill the beans. It allows them to serve you better on your big day.

Why I Choose My Clients' First Look Location

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Sometimes when I meet with a client before their wedding or when I arrive and talk to their coordinator they’ll let me know that they’d like the first look location to be at XYZ spot. Maybe it’s some gorgeous wooden doors on the back of a barn or the grand hotel lobby steps. They’re usually spaces that look absolutely exquisite in person (to an untrained eye).

Unfortunately, it is really common for those incredibly breathtaking spaces to be the worst spots for a first look.

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What makes a good first look location?

Light

The most important thing that I consider when choosing a first look location is the lighting. It’s absolutely key that we capture these reactions and emotions in the most flattering, even, beautiful light. This means we’re saying no to spots with dappled and uneven lighting, tungsten or orange lighting, a total lack of natural light, any kind of fluorescent lighting, any direct overhead artificial lighting or harsh backlighting that creates haze.

If you just read that and thought… huh?? Let me provide some examples!

  • Dappled lighting: most common in the shade under trees - the light will move with the slight breeze or any time the subject moves creating hot spots or bright, overexposed on the face and body

  • Uneven lighting: one partner is in the sun and the other in full shade or one is inside under artificial lighting and the other is outside in natural light

  • Tungsten or orange lighting: any kind of artificial light from bulbs, lamps, candles, etc.

  • A total lack of natural light: a space with no windows or access to the sunlight at all

  • Direct, overhead artificial lighting: recessed lighting, chandeliers, fluorescent tube lights

  • Harsh backlighting: the sun directly behind the couple coming straight at the camera

Privacy

It’s a personal policy that I do not allow family members or the bridal party to watch or participate in a first look. I know some photographers will encourage parents to look on or the wedding party to stand behind the couple to cheer but personally, I find it extremely distracting for the couple. They will only spend a few precious uninterrupted moments together on their wedding day, the first look is filled with joyful anxiety and most importantly, it’s just a private moment to begin with. I want my clients to be able to focus solely on being in each other’s presence and feel free to express whatever emotions they wish without onlookers. Finding a first look location that is private is very important to my couples.

Scenery

In all honesty, this comes last for a reason. For most non-photographers, finding a beautiful location for the first look would come first but that’s what this whole blog post is about, right?! The scenery or decor of a location is something I take into consideration but only after I’ve secured a private spot with good light. I’ll always choose locations with backgrounds that are lighter and brighter when I can but sometimes, simplicity is best! It’s all about the reaction, right? We want the focus to be on the couple and the emotions that they are experiencing - not the grandeur of the landscaping or architecture.

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When I arrive on a wedding day, I take some time to scout out potential first look locations and connect with the couple or their coordinator about this. Sometimes the venues will have a designated “first look location” that they advertise to their clients. If my couple, the venue or the coordinator have a very specific spot where they anticipate the first look taking place, I will check it out and then explain the problems and outcomes to whoever is involved in the decision making.

If my couples are absolutely firm on a particular spot, I will share my thoughts with them and just make sure they understand some of the potential outcomes. If they express to me that they’re aware of what I’m saying but still want to stick with their plan, then yes… in that case, I would shoot in their desired location. It’s their day.

But, admittedly, it’s rare that I share my concerns with a couple and they still protest and stick with their original idea. Luckily, I work hard to build trust with my couples so that they know their best interests are on my heart when I make requests.

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As an engaged couple, I encourage you to put your full trust into your photographer and allow them to choose your first look location based first on light.

As a photographer, I encourage you to educate your clients and feel empowered when you choose the spot where they’ll see each other for the first time on their wedding day!

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