We’d all love to have a full hour or two to just hang out with our couples and take our time to nail every shot. We’d love to ramble around and switch smoothly back and forth between energetic and quiet moments.
Surprise: sometimes that doesn’t happen.
Sometimes, due to schedules or traffic or weather or who knows what, you don’t get to start shooting until way too close to sunset, or way too close to that rain cloud looming over there. When you’re a natural light photographer, you’re on the clock. Once the sun is down, it’s down, and if you can’t reschedule, you need to work with the light you have. (Or you only have 15 minutes for portraits at a wedding!)
This is what happened to me a little while ago, and I took some time to think about it afterward, sitting in the car, trying to warm up my frozen fingers.
A year ago, this would have stressed me the fuck out. I would have panicked, demotivated myself before I’d even started, and not known what to do. But since then, I’ve learned so much about posing, directing, shooting, etc. that it didn’t really phase me. I always prefer to have more time, sure, but I’m confident now that I can still deliver quality work when I’m pressed for time.
(*quick disclaimer: don’t expect these tips to miraculously give you the ability to deliver 100 images in a 10-minute session. That’s bananas. You can’t fully replicate your full portrait experience in 10 minutes, but you can salvage it.)
Here’s how I do it:
Know your camera
When the clock is ticking down, the last thing you want to be doing is fumbling with your camera settings and trying to “figure out” what works.
You need to know your camera inside and out: what it can do, what different settings will give you, and how to change those settings quickly, almost without looking at them. Not only are you short on time, but if you’re chasing sunset, the light is going to be changing on you quickly too. You can’t just “set it and forget it,” or the second half of your session could come out very underexposed.
Prep your couple
Granted, this should be done well in advance. They should know what they’re walking into long before they get there, late or not. But you don’t have to tell them they’re late; they already know. What you do have to tell them is not to panic even a little bit; you’ve got this.
Text them while they’re on their way (please don’t text and drive) and let them know that this is going to be fast but you’ve got it fully under control.
I give every couple a little spiel before their session to reiterate some key points and get them in the right mindset. When we’re in a time crunch, I give them the short version. No use spending valuable minutes waffling. Basically, main point: there’s going to be constant movement. We want as much variety as possible, and movement is how we’re going to get there.
You and your couple are both going to keep moving.
Shoot for variety
Instead of delivering a whole gallery of basically the same image, you can get a lot of variety if you focus on it.
Instead of giving your couple 10 different things to do, give them 2 or 3 and work to get different images out of each of those directions. Shoot wide, mid-range, tight. Shoot vertically and horizontally. Rotate around them to get a different angle. Let them stay in the moment while you do the work. Changing poses costs you time in explanation/demo/adjusting.
If you shoot with two cameras (and therefore two lenses), even better! I only had one body with me this time, so it was 35 mm all the way.
Practice this style of shooting during your normal sessions (in a less frantic manner) so that it’s second nature when situations like this pop up.
Have a system
Speaking of poses/directions/whatever it is you do: develop a system for it.
I have my own, one that I’m constantly adapting and evolving, but my process is pretty solid at this point. I don’t freeze up behind my camera any more, wondering what to do or say. That comes with practice. I’m not perfect; there will always be times where I need a moment to assess where we are and what’s working, what isn’t, and that’s ok. You should always be reading what’s in front of you and making informed adjustments. But the less you fly by the seat of your pants, the more confidently and efficiently you can move through your sessions. No matter how short they are.
Don’t be afraid to ride the ISO
I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but riding your ISO isn’t the end of the world! Yes, I prefer to keep it low to avoid noise in my images, but a little noise is better than a uselessly underexposed image, or a blurry portrait that you didn’t really intend to be blurry.
As you’re losing daylight, and you find your shutter speed dropping to dangerous levels, bump the ISO. You’ll be fine.
And test this out ahead of time! See how far you can push your camera before the images are unusable; it’ll give you a reference point. I actually didn’t have to push the ISO far at all for this session, and as an aside… Nikons do really well in low light. Just saying (:
Find the light
Anyone who shoots outside knows about back-lighting. When the sun is bright and there’s no shade to be found, putting the light behind your subject gets you a more natural look and prevents them from squinting.
Around sunset, it’s all glowy and golden, but what happens when you’re edging past sunset and toward blue hour?
I actually learned this one from my friend Joni–almost a year ago to the day!–and it’s been a lifesaver. It seems so simple, but it’s one of those not-obvious obvious things, especially here in California where the sun sets over the ocean and we love looking at it. Turn around.
Having the ocean in the background is groovy, but not when it’s pitch black. Swing around, and get the remaining sunlight onto your couple’s faces. This will net you a few extra minutes (and a lower ISO setting, if that makes you anxious).
Plus, more variety! If you’re back-lighting the whole time, your background is going to be mostly the same. Turning around gives you a whole extra 180 degrees to work with!
In the interest of transparency, here are the timestamps for each block of images in my most recent breakneck portrait session. I actually shot two sessions at the same time, alongside my new friend Rachel Lucus, but I’m showing you one of them for simplicity’s sake; you can see the other in a future blog post! I also spent more time with this couple than the other, but even still, all told it was…less than 6 freaking minutes. We did most of our shooting on the beach, then there’s a gap while we climbed back up the cliff, then 1-2 more minutes at the top.
And here they are! Scroll through, enjoy, see if you can find examples of the tips I was talking about, and then see if you can spot the cute booty grab that I giggled over. (I said, “Can I get a booty grab?” And they both went for it at the same time. And if that doesn’t just speak to me as a person…)