Analyzing a scene

Whether I'm scouting for locations in advance of a wedding or I am introduced to a new location and need to take photos immediately, my method for analyzing a scene is always the same.

 

The number one thing that influences where and how I take a photo is light.
I don't want to dwell too long on using natural light because I believe that to a certain degree, it is common sense. But I’ll try and cover the more common scenarios that crop up throughout a day.
For most of this I will talk about outdoor photography and leave indoor lighting for another day.

Now obviously the weather has the biggest factor on available light. Is it sunny, cloudy, raining, misty or snowing? If it is sunny then how high is the sun in the sky?

 

Lighting - Cloudy

Of all the lighting conditions I love cloudy days the most. Clouds have a wonderful ability to naturally defuse sunlight. As a result shadows are reduced along with bright highlights, creating an even glow across the skin. I am also able to shoot from any direction I choose (assuming I like the background) because no matter what direction you look from, the strength of the sun remains relatively the same.
At first glance it looks like a dull day and the unprocessed photos can look a little flat. But after processing the photos with the appropriate white balance and curve adjustments, what was a dull and cloudy day can look like a warm, rich and inviting photo. Yes it will never look like a sunny day because your eyes are very preceptive at recognising shadows produced by direct sunlight, but it can look just as beautiful.

 

First look - Cloudy day - All objects act as a frame, even the out of focus background.

 

Lighting - Sunny

The most challenging outdoor lighting conditions for me are sunny days. Well, challenging may be a strong word to use here. I guess awkward is more appropriate.
With sunny days the time of day plays a huge factor. At noon the sun will be highest in the sky and generally that leads to very harsh, unflattering shadows on peoples faces. For example your brow will cast a shadow over your eyes casting them in darkness which never looks pretty, not to mention you will probably be squinting because of the brightness of the sun. If the sun is harsh and high in the sky I will generally try and look for shade somewhere. Why? Because the shaded areas will have softer light, similar to cloudy days. That’s not always an option though and sometimes the shade available isn’t big enough or has lots of small sun spots like the shadow produced from a tree. I think that isextremely distracting especially when the sun spots fall on a persons face.
If shade isn’t an option I will try and keep the sun behind the subjects back. This will produce a full shadow over their face keeping the skin tones very even (the shadow can be lifted afterwards in post-processing) and looks far better than shadows only over the eyes. It also has the benefit of allowing the subject to fully open their eyes because the sun is behind them.
Sunny days can look great, but because of the restrictions that occur due to harsh light, I am then limited with the angles I can take photos from.

 

Portrait - Cloudy day - Plain background, using the blue overcast to help highlight skin tones and the couple

 

The lower the sun is in the sky the easier is it to work around. It can still be just as harsh, but because of the direction of the light it can add more texture to objects and with the longer shadows it produces it allows me to have a little bit more freedom compared to shooting at, or close to noon.
An hour or two before/after sunset/sunrise you get the golden hour. A beautiful time to shoot in when the sun is softer and if you are cleaver you can extend it to a short while after the sun has disappeared. If you are after stunning backlit photo, then this is the time you should aim for. Don’t expect to get those kind of photos during the day. Unfortunately during summer the sunset/sunrise times are well outside of most peoples standard times to book a wedding photographer.

 

First look - Cloudy day - Hedges converge around them drawing you towards the couple, while the overhead tree breaks up the empty sky.

 

Background

Whether the background takes up 90% of the photo, or only 10%, it will always be there. At least for the way I shoot.
Backgrounds are an amazing way to frame a couple. Sometimes I see what I want straight away, another times I need to walk around and let the background reveal itself to me. With cloudy days, I’m not restricted with the direction I shoot from, so if I see a background I want to use I can. Sunny days are a different story. Depending on where the sun is it can make or break a particular photo. Also depending on how it hits the couple I may need to abandon a background that I wanted to use in favour of getting a more flattering photo of the couple. If the sun is working with me then great, the photo should look stunning. But if it is working against me I need to ask myself, “does the moment shared between the couple outweigh the bad lighting, and can I fix the less than ideal lighting at the processing stage?”.

Now I know some people may assume that when I say “background”, I mean a stunning location. But that’s not the case. Yes I can and will use a stunning location as a background, but generally you need to travel to such places.
For me, “background” literally means anything behind the subject. Anything and everything is up for grabs. Even if the background is rendered out of focus, it is still a part of the photo and can influence how you perceive the photo as a whole.
A lot of the time I will try to use the background as a way or guiding your eyes towards the couple. Sometime it is a plain and simple background highlighting the couple by the differences in color or contrast. Other times the background acts as a frame, closing in on the couple creating a feeling of being lost in their environment. These types of background are generally not that obvious to the couple because it only makes sense once you look through my lens. The beauty about these types of backgrounds is that every photographer will see them differently, rather than the obvious backgrounds that everyone photographs a thousand times.

 

Portrait - Raining - Dominant hedges on the right close in on them, like they are sharing a moment away from everyone else

 

Foreground

I don’t use this all the time as it can be over done and some people find it distracting. But personally, I love using something in the foreground.
The most obvious affect it imparts on a photo is a sense or “watching”. Like you are observing the couple, which in turn enhances the intimate moment between them.
But that is not the only reasons to use a foreground in your photo. Another reasons is to help frame the couple. Just like the background, the foreground can also act as a frame. Not only that, but when using a foreground along with the subject and background, you are creating three layers adding more depth to the photo.
The foreground can also be use to help disguise something in the photo that may be ugly, distracting or even to just add something into what might have been a blank part of the photo.

 

Portrait - Cloudy - Simple hedges in the back & foreground rendered out of focus creating depth and a sense of watching.

 

Context

If the photos are “behind the scenes” of getting ready or documenting the ceremony or any other parts of the wedding, then context is extremely important.
What are they doing? What is around them that reinforces the act they are preforming? Who are then engaging with or who in their company is observing them? What are their surroundings like and can it be used to enhance the story?
Context is everything and using the background, foreground and light to enhance points of context can create story rich photos. Of course you don’t need hidden context in every photo. Sometime a close up of someones face carries enough context to make the photo.

 

There you have it. These are the main things that run through my head when looking for photo opportunities and locations. If people are interested I will expand on this, covering the different lighting conditions for availably light indoor photography.