What I Wish I Knew: Breaking the Awkward Barrier With Couples

Posted by Bivash Ranjan Munshi on

We are so excited to continue our "What I Wish I Knew" series today. These features showcase the top creatives in the industry along with the mistakes and revelations made early on in their careers. Here are Phil Chester's tips to break the awkward barrier with couples.
Listen photographers, odds are the people you’re about to photograph don’t do this everyday. This is probably the first time they’ve been photographed since they were standing with one leg up against a tree in a park, dressed in an American Eagle polo, hair marinated in L.A Looks hair gel and being told to cross arms and look cool. So their experience in front of the camera isn’t the best. Fast forward 10 or so years and you’re asking them to kiss their fiancée in front of you as you get really close with your 35mm lens. See what I’m getting at?
In order for your couple to open up in front of you, you need to create an environment where clients forget you’re even there. Or, they are so comfortable with you that they don’t even mind you’re there.


Set Expectations

From your website images and text to your first meeting, you need to be setting expectations. When it comes to your website, your couples need to envision themselves in your photographs. If you’re wanting to shoot more intimate moments, you need to be showing those. If you want to be photographing high energy scenes with a lot of movement, you need to be showing images on your site to give your client an idea of what they’ll be doing during your session.
During your meeting with your couple, educate them on what it’s like to shoot with you. I’ll say to my couples “First off, let’s talk about why we’re taking these photos in the first place. It’s easy to get caught up in wedding planning especially when it comes to booking vendors and going through the check lists. So let’s take a step back and look at how we got here. We got here because you two found each other through a sea of life experiences and at some point realized, yep, there’s no one I want to wake up next to every morning more than you. That’s amazing. That’s why we’re having these photos taken. That’s what I want to celebrate and capture. I want to photograph your connection. We’re going to be somewhere beautiful, exploring and hiking for a couple hours simply hanging out. I’ll guide you to certain locations as we’re walking that look awesome but simply let you two love on each other. I’m great at giving direction so don’t worry, I won’t let you look awkward. But I also won't pose you, I want you two to simply get lost in each other.” Not verbatim but something of the sort.
You don’t need to say much more but this will at least give them a taste of how you work (if this is how you work) and put them at ease letting them know that: This shoot is because they’ve found the person they can’t live without. You got their back.


Give Them Homework

About a week before my session I’ll send out a little email to my couples going over a few things. I tell them to make sure they spend a stress free evening together before the shoot. To think of this session as more of a life event then a task. This is the moment we celebrate all the days, weeks, months and years leading up to them committing themselves to each other. It’s freakin’ beautiful! I tell them to make sure they get all of their tasks done earlier in the week or earlier in the day so that they don’t spend their morning of the shoot running around stressing themselves out with things like choosing outfits, doing work or whatever it is that people do.
I’ll also give them a bit of homework. I have them write a letter to each other. I tell them not to share the letter with each other and that I’m going to have them read them out loud during the session. In the letter I say to explain in as much detail as possible why it is you’ve chosen the other as the one. Why out of the billions of people out there, you’ve chosen to spend the rest of your life with them.
They generally get super excited about this and it’s kind of a magic trick to get anyone on planet earth open up in front of you. I’ll have them at some point during the session read the letters to each other, and what happens is kind of beautiful. There’s something really powerful about hearing yourself speak words you’ve written about the person you love. It’s so damn powerful. After they read the letter to each other, give them space to enjoy that moment. They should be pretty mushy and all over each other after that.

Give Them Space

I used to be the kind of photographer that was constantly driving conversation, filling all quiet moments with me saying something because I took the quietness as awkwardness. What I’ve realized is there is a fine line between communicating with your couples at the session and giving them space to get lost in each other. A lot of times I’ll let my couples stay in a space long after I have the photo I want. I’ve realized that people will naturally move into a more comfortable position with each other if you just give them time to. There’s the moment you think “oh crap I’ve had them standing there for way too long.” Wait another full minute. Watch how they naturally comfort each other, or start laughing. If they ask you what you want them to do, just say “everything you’re doing already!”
Give them space by having them walk away from you to some location you want to photograph them at, say a cliff edge or some hill they need to walk up will give them time to talk to each other and interact lovingly knowing you can’t hear them. Couples need these moments as some people are more shy talking with you standing 5 feet away. It’s also a great chance to shoot movement with them walking to the spot and back to you from the spot.



  • I start my sessions by giving a little pep talk if you will. Reminding them that I want them to spend the next few hours forgetting about what they have to do when this session is over. Forgetting about work, appointments, tasks, and simply focus on each other. Think about what it’s like to hold the person you love more than anything in the world. To not just go through the motions because not everyone gets the chance to be in love. It’s a rare and beautiful thing. I tell them I’ll guide them but with anything I say for them to make it their own. And my suggestions are just starting points. This little pep talk will center them and refocus their energy on the point of the shoot and also remind them they can feel free to move around as they want and not stay as stiff as mannequins waiting for your every order.
  • Have a few conversation suggestions in your back pocket to pull out if your couple is feeling fairly shy still. I’ll say things like “whisper something naughty in his ear” not to shoot them whispering into each other’s ears but to shoot the laugh or the reaction to them doing so. Or for a more intimate action saying something like “show the other person how much you love them without words” This will either create something really intimate or lots of laughs. Or LOLs as the kids say.
In closing, the biggest thing I’ve learned over the years in trying to get couples to be more natural is to remind them why they’re being photographed. The second they switch their mode from thinking “oh we’re at our engagement shoot and there’s a tall man with a camera standing really close” to “I can’t believe how beautiful this place is, and I love when you hold me like that and I’m so happy I found you” There’s a massive difference in being completely aware you’re having your photo taken and being lost in a moment.

Thanks, Phil!
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migrated_Phil_Chester_Headshot_medium.jpg13178962068218421775I’m a full time wedding + portrait photograph based in Portland, Oregon. Before picking up a camera I spent 4.5 years in the US Army active duty completing two tours, one in Afghanistan in 2006 and one in Iraq from 2007-2009. I spend my free time hanging with my lady, going on hikes, making music and watching 90’s films that make me feel nostalgic.

To view more of Phil's work, visit him here


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