It’s taken many years for New Jersey-based wedding photographer Jay Cassario to train his eye into seeing the potential for stunning portraiture in almost any setting. Over time, he’s learned that the best way to capture the beauty and spontaneity of a wedding day is to simply work with the scene you’re given. “Don’t be afraid to use what’s in front of you,” he advises.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he clicks away at random. On the contrary, his approach begins as soon as he gets to the shoot, giving him time to mentally transform any setting into a special memory for his clients. “A lot of it comes down to looking at the environment from the moment I get to the wedding,” he explains. “I’m looking at everything around me rather than just focusing on the venue or where the ceremony will be. It’s about opening up my vision and seeing more of the scene.”
Cassario makes a mental note of spots that will offer a meaningful backdrop for the couple when it’s time for portraits, especially wide-angle shots. “I could shoot a whole wedding with just a 24mm and a 50mm lens,” he says, noting that he typically carries two Leica SL bodies with different wide primes mounted so he can quickly adapt his perspective. Shooting wide “is not just to put the couple in a big scene for no reason,” he explains. “The whole idea is to show off where they are on their wedding day.”
He also pays close attention to backgrounds. “When you take an environmental shot, you have to make sure the couple doesn’t get lost in the scene,” he says. To achieve this, Cassario looks for backgrounds that contrast with the couple in color or tone, and he isn’t shy about lying on the ground to use the sky as a backdrop. With the Leica SL’s streamlined interface, he can quickly adjust his settings and underexpose his shots by about a stop to retain the detail not only in bright sky backgrounds, but also in the bride’s dress. And he’s a stickler for placing horizons well, an easy feat given the SL’s electronic viewfinder. “I like to either have my couple completely under the horizon line or mostly above so that they stand out,” he says.
Another lesson Cassario has learned after years on the job is to stop waiting for the perfect light (it rarely, if ever, exists) and instead find the beauty in different kinds of natural illumination. “Mid-afternoon sun doesn’t scare me anymore. You can learn how to use the sun so that lens flare doesn’t ruin the image but instead draws your attention to the subjects.” His use of light runs the gamut from backlit silhouettes to high-key shots with hard shadows, with every new variation in natural light and every new scene opening up new creative possibilities. “That’s what I love about weddings,” he says. “They’re never the same. At every wedding I try to do something new.”
Jay's Tips for Shooting Environmental Portraiture in Natural Light
1. LOCATE THE KEY COMPONENTS.
Environmental portraiture, for me, is all about storytelling, so a lot of my work shows a large scene with the couple appearing much smaller.
2. LOOK FOR SHADOWS OR CONTRAST.
It’s one thing to learn how to locate shadows and sunlight, but learning how to use them creatively is another. For example, you can use a large shadowed area as a backdrop to help draw attention to the couple, or you can even put one subject in the shadow and the other in the sunlight for a creative portrait.
3. NAIL THE FOCUS.
Using Leica’s Liveview is one trick that I use all the time when backlighting. Other times I’ll place the couple between myself and the sun, blocking the sun out so I can nail the focus. I can then recompose and be more creative with backlighting the couple, or even getting creative lens flare.
4. USE GOLDEN HOUR LIKE A LARGE SOFTBOX.
I like to backlight my couples while the sun is nice and bright, but as soon as it starts to get to the golden hour, I turn and shoot with the sun to my back. Some of my favorite environmental portraits have come not from incorporating the sunset into the shot, but instead using the warm light as a tool to illuminate my subjects.
5. PAY ATTENTION TO BACKGROUNDS AND HORIZONS.
To add separation, try and use natural light to make the couple brighter than the background. For variety, try keeping the sun behind the couple to create a brighter background and silhouette your subjects. You’ll also want to get low to the ground to keep the couple above the horizon, leaving only the sky behind them.
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