Friday, February 26, 2010

Composition, Perspective, and Lighting

My husband and I --we-- are wedding photographers. Sometimes I feel silly saying that, knowing that I don't have any traditional training or credentials. But experience over the past five years, taking over 250,000 pictures, has given us the opportunity to build the skills that qualify us for the title. 

Our own wedding actually sparked from the adventures we found in photographing other people's weddings together. Looking back on those first few (or maybe even more than a few) weddings we photographed, we laugh at our work and wonder how we ever made it to this point. But our progress has come from a simple desire to learn and improve--a desire I know many of you share.

So here are three things we have learned that can make the difference between a good snapshot and a great photograph.

First, pay attention to composition: consider how you want to frame your photograph, decide what you want to include or not include, and be deliberate in where you position the subject.

Take a look at this photo:

I am embarrassed to admit that we even took this picture. It is from the very first wedding that Jason and I photographed together. (Blake and Megan, thanks for still being our friends!) 

What did we learn from this tragic photo?
  • Don't cut people off at the ankles. (Or the knees or elbows or neck)
  • When photographing a group, don't center the heads in the middle of your frame, leaving a whole lot of nothing up above.
  • Watch out for stray lamp posts, tree branches growing out of heads, or other distracting background items. (This might also include electrical cords, outlets, or animal tails)

Now, here is a much better group shot from a wedding we photographed last year:
Ah, the satisfaction of a well composed group picture. :)

Second, perspective:  Move. Move your body and your eye. Move higher, lower, to the right, to the left, behind a branch, somewhere different.

Here is a typical snapshot perspective of a few bridesmaids:

I chose this photo because it is from a wedding Jason photographed before he and I started shooting together, and I am in it! Yup, that's right--Jason is looking through his lense here at his future wife, the bridesmaid on the far left of his viewfinder, baby! (Spencer and Ivy, thanks for giving Jason and I that day together--it was life changing for all of us!)

But I think you'll agree that this next photo is much more appealing to the eye:
 By stepping to the side of the group in this photo, Jason was able to bring the attention to the groom and create much more depth to the photo. By moving his location and changing his perspective, now he is able to give a much different and interesting viewpoint.

Third, and maybe the most important, lighting: take the time to determine what your light source is and how to use it to your advantage. Natural lighting gives a richness to photographs that is very difficult to duplicate with other light sources and is pretty much impossible to get with an on-camera flash. However, direct sunlight will give harsher, more dramatic (but often unflattering or distracting) shadows on faces. Most often you will find the best results come from a diffused natural light--sunlight filtering in through the clouds or a window perhaps.

Here is an example of using natural light at home--first the bad example:

This is my daughter, Naomi, while trying on a pair of swim goggles for the first time. She is in front of a large window with a simple white curtain filtering the light. But because the light source is behind her, her face is totally dark. All we had to do was turn around so the window was in front of Naomi, putting the beautiful natural light on her face; and we got this:

There are many more elements of composition, perspective, and lighting--I could go on and on with thoughts about each. But for now, I hope these few pointers will give you a small jump-start into the process of improving your own photographs. I know it can be difficult to think about all of these things when you're trying to capture the fun and fleeting moments with your kids, but the more you practice, the more naturally it will come.

And now, just because I love to share a great photo, here are a few of my favorite wedding shots...


  1. Courtney, Beautiful photos! My husband and I are also photographers (not professionals but have been doing it for several years together). I'm wondering if I could refer someone to you for her wedding? It is in June and we're unable to do it, as we're taking a break for a while due to a new baby and me being in grad school. If you're interested, email me at

    Thanks, Ashley

  2. Thanks for this post Courtney, I loved it. You made it sound so simple, but they were things I don't ever think about. Now I need to go practice!

  3. I'll have Devon read this post. wow, Both of you have grown so much in photography from the beginning!! wow.. Congrats!

  4. Great post! Do you have a website or a photo blog?