Many cities around the world have popular landmarks that everyone wants to be photographed in front of, especially newlyweds. Take, for example, the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge in Australia, or the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Too often, though, the photos taken there look cliché and unoriginal. Understandably, if you are booked for a wedding in an iconic location, many couples and families will insist on using these traditional backdrops for their portraits. The challenge lies in figuring out how to prevent our work from looking like everybody else’s.
In my hometown of Melbourne, many couples want to photograph at Parliament House. Yes, it’s a beautiful location, but on any given weekend, you can find dozens of couples on the steps waiting for their turn to have a portrait taken there. What’s a photographer to do? I usually choose locations based on light. In fact, after the ceremony and before the reception, I often ask the couple’s driver to follow me. If I stop along the way, it means that I have found a great location (usually because the lighting there is beautiful) as well as a complementary background and something that suits the couple’s personal style.
Sometimes a location can be determined by sentiment (like revisiting where a couple first met, first kissed or perhaps where the proposal took place). If a couple would like to go to such a location for sentimental reasons, always try to take the time to honor their request. But if a couple requests a location for non-sentimental reasons that I think is overused, I usually give them one rebuttal and then offer an alternative solution. So, for example, I might say something like, “I understand why you would like to take some photos on the steps of Parliament House, but how about we photograph across the road at the Windsor Hotel instead to capture the spirit and sensibility of Parliament while giving your portraits a unique feel that not many other couples have? What do you think? We can also capture Parliament House in the background so it would be a little more subtle and mysterious.” In the nicest possible way, I suggest a slightly different location without making the couple feel bad, and I always ask for their approval. If the couple still says that they would like to visit Parliament House, I quickly respond with enthusiasm at their suggestion. Then on their wedding day, I at least try to photograph it differently than everybody else.
Don’t get me wrong: You should still do the obvious shot that they are expecting and be “safe,” making sure your couples are happy, but once you have done that, try thinking outside of the box for your other portraits. It could be as simple as not always having your couple against the background or close to the landmark, perhaps making sure there is only a suggestion of the location and adding a little mystery by having your couple posed far away from the landmark. Use a tighter crop or have the background out of focus to keep your attention focused on the subject. Take a look at the examples of destination weddings here where there is only a suggestion of the well-known location in the background.
Jerry Ghionis is widely regarded as one of the top wedding and portrait photographers and educators in the world. He is a USA Nikon Ambassador and has won more awards than any other photographer at WPPI, where he became the first Grand Master.