Choosing the perfect location is an important part of the portrait process. It’s also a very difficult one. In fact, if a deeply meaningful location doesn’t immediately pop into your head you might be absolutely stumped. Most of my clients stare blankly at me when this question comes up, and many just defer to me for the final decision. But choosing the right location for your portraits can be what makes them truly meaningful instead of, “just some pictures of us.” So how do you pick the right place?
If you’re struggling with your portrait location there are a few questions you can ask yourself to get started.
Where did we first meet? If it’s nearby, the place you first met might be a great place to start.
Where do we spend the most time together outside of our home? If you love to go window shopping together, then a jaunt downtown might be perfect. Whereas, if you prefer to sit by a bonfire at the cottage, your cottage might be the right location.
What do we like to do together? By choosing an activity you enjoy it becomes easier to narrow down locations. For example, if you like baseball like me, you can have your portraits done at a local ball diamond. If you like to go canoeing, like Amy and Tom, you can head to your local boat launch.
Would we rather be on the water, in the forest, in our backyard, in our favourite coffee shop, or on our favourite street? Obviously, if you prefer to be indoors to in the forest, having your portraits done on the Bruce Trail might leave you feeling and looking out of place. Narrowing down the places that make you feel most like yourselves will help you eliminate the wrong backdrops.
Sometimes the answers to these questions bring back fond memories which make it easy to pin down a location. But when they don’t, and we need to do a little bit more digging, I consider my clients’ personalities, their favourite colours, how many people will be in the photographs, and their style. For example, if your home has a rustic charm then a skyscraper will not make the right backdrop, but a simple beaten path could be great. If I’m photographing a large family, though, that trail through a dense forest will make it difficult to get everyone in one photograph, but an open field on an overcast day is perfect.
This is the type of workflow I go through when choosing a location, and I bet you can do it pretty easily too. First, start by determining whether you’re natural or urban landscape types. This will narrow down the types of locations to consider. If you like natural landscapes you’ll be looking at areas like the beach, the woods, an open field, or a local park. If you’re into the urban landscape you’ll be considering places like your local downtown shopping district, an alley, a fall fair midway, or somewhere you can get a good view of the city lights behind you.
Do you have a good idea of which you prefer? Let’s get a little more specific…
Probably 80% of my clients choose a natural location. Whether it’s by the water, in an apple orchard, or the woods, many who come to work with me in the Bruce Grey Simcoe areas deeply connect with the outdoors. If you’ve decided to go with a natural landscape there are so many options and characteristics to consider. You’ll need to consider the season, whether you’ll use props, and whether your location of choice will give you enough space for your family.
The time of year will have a huge impact on your backdrop. You’ll find that in natural landscapes colours can be a bit dull. Unless you plan to literally lay in a blooming flower-bed in mid spring your photos will be reasonably monochromatic (whether that is blue, green, red, or brown). Personally, I love the brown tones like in Karli and Scott’s fall engagement session, but I find that many people get scared by the idea that their photos will not be filled with colour.
The truth, however, is that most people want vibrant photographs, not colourful. In fact too much colour in the background can be distracting and pull attention away from you, the subject. If you choose a meaningful location, your photographs will immediately become more vibrant. If you absolutely want pops of colour, you can add them with your wardrobe like Karli did with her scarf, and with other props.
Props and posing
In most natural landscapes there aren’t many opportunities for naturally-occurring props. There are only so many trees you can lean on or sit against. This means you are, for the most part, limited with regard to posing. Often either everyone in the photograph will be standing or sitting at the same time. Bringing your own props is a great way to break this up. A blanket is a popular item with my clients, especially when quilted by someone special. And it will keep your butt free of grass stains. I’m also fond of picnic baskets, hay bales and vintage orchard tools like ladders.
I almost always recommend a natural landscape for groups with 4 or more adults. Being as many of these types of environments are are wide open and offer lots of room to branch out and move around, photographs with large groups tend to seem less claustrophobic than they are with 4 people crammed into a small space. If you’re inviting your extended family for a portrait session be sure to consider how much space your location offers. An open space like a farmer’s field or a park backing onto a tree line might be best.
In comparison to natural landscapes, urban environments are full of colour and attitude. You’ll find brick, graffiti, and cool architectural details to frame your photos. Here are some things to look out for…
The lighting will be best for your photoshoot when it’s diffused. That’s why we photographers love to shoot in overcast weather or just before the sun goes down. In urban areas there is a lot of opportunity for shade, but you’ll find a sharp contrast where that shade ends and sunlight begins. Your photographer should be able to work around this particular problem. However, when choosing your favourite brick wall as your backdrop, earlier or later in the day are best, and be sure to consider which side of the building the sun will be on so that you’re not squinting directly into it in all of your photos.
If you’re looking for pops of colour in winter, like Jenna and Jérémie were for their engagement, a colourful brick wall might be your best option. You won’t find much colour anywhere else as the trees have no leaves and snow covers practically everything.
Another advantage to urban environments is the variety of levels. What am I talking about? Raised sidewalks, stairs… railings… half-walls… All of these things make posing a little bit more fun. Significant height differences can at times make for really awkward portraits… Like with Tricia and Greg. Greg is nearly a full foot taller than Tricia. But when we came across a fire escape we found the perfect opportunity to reduce the height difference. Tricia is even leaning down a little bit so Greg can kiss her cheek.
Indoor locations are great for creating a cozy feeling in photographs. If you’re planning a session in your home, there are a couple things you should consider.
First, how big is your space? In order to create dynamic photographs in your living space you and your photographer will need room to move around. Be sure to clean up and remove clutter like tables that might be in the way or chairs you won’t be sitting in to make your space feel bigger.
How much light is there? Unless your indoor space features huge windows and lots of sunlight at the time of your shoot your photographer may need to bring lights which will make the space feel even smaller and could be difficult to work in.
For these reasons I usually only recommend a session in your home for two adults and children who can reasonably sit in your lap. As you add more bodies to the mix it becomes increasingly difficult to fit everyone in the portrait.
In urban environments especially you might need to acquire permits for your session. I once got out of this by telling the security guard who questioned me that we weren’t having a photoshoot and instead were “just taking some photos.” We got rather lucky and he jokingly said, “That’s what I thought…” I absolutely do not recommend this plan of attack. Be sure to get your permits in order before planning your session time in case there are any hold-ups.
If you absolutely cannot make up your mind try to find a location that offers a variety of backdrops rather than choosing more than one location. For example, Moore’s Estate in Owen Sound is a widely popular photo location for weddings, engagements, and grad photos. I’ve photographed a number of couples here in fact. It offers diverse backdrops including the manor, barns, stone walls, a hedge maze, gardens, and open fields. No two photographs are the same, and every time I go I find a new corner to work in. I’ve found that most people immediately head to the back for the big ol’ British manor backdrop, but the entire property is photogenic. One of my favourite spaces is the old greenhouse which you can see in Jenna and Adam’s photo above. Not only is it secluded, but it offers lots of colour, texture, and depth in photographs.
Choosing a location for your portrait session can be a nuanced process. Nailing down the right backdrop can make the difference between vibrant portraits and just some pics of you. You should pick a place that has meaning to you. Whether it’s where you first met, your favourite place to be together, or the place you play, a meaningful location will make for dynamic photographs. If you’re struggling, consider your style! If you’re partial to the great outdoors a natural landscape might be best. But if you like the hustle and bustle consider an urban backdrop. Each have their advantages, and you should take into consideration the time of year and how many people will be in your photographs. For example, a wide open field on an overcast day is the perfect spot for a large family, and a cityscape will offer you your best chance at bright colours in your winter engagement photos.
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