Okay, photographers! Today, we’re going to teach you how we shoot in crowded places, congested areas and big cities, and still make it look like we’re the only people there! When we first posted Haley and Tom’s Central Park engagement session, we got tons of questions about how we made New York City look empty. Since then, we’ve gotten even more experience shooting portrait sessions in some of the busiest spots in the world, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris and The Charles Bridge in Prague.
The good thing about photographing in crowded places and high-traffic areas is that there are some epic locations with amazing backgrounds to shoot. That’s why they’re highly trafficked, right?! The downside, of course, is that so many people are there! They’re constantly moving and coming from so many directions all at the time (they never seem to stop!) that it feels almost impossible to get big, wide, pulled back images that showcase the landscape and landmarks of an area without having a bunch of people in the background? After some troubleshooting (and patience!) shooting in crowded places, we’ve definitely figured out some tricks to make it work! So here are our top tips for how to shoot in crowded places:
1. Consider Shooting at Sunrise
When it comes to to highly trafficked, popular tourist destinations, we’ve found that waking up before the sun really helps control the crowds. Depending on the popularity of the location, it might not eliminate other people altogether, but it WILL give you a much better chance! You know we love to schedule our portrait sessions for the best light, so we’ve found sunrise can often give us great light AND way less people to work around. Most tourists don’t wake up before the sun, so if you and your clients can plan on meeting a few minutes before the scheduled sunrise, and START the shoot AS SOON as the sun rises, you’ll likely have less people to work around than if you wait until the traditional “golden hour” — and you’ll still get great light, too! But more and more tourists do start to pop up pretty quickly, so the faster you can work in the morning, the better!
As you can see in these photos on the Charles Bridge in Prague, even though we started at sunrise, there were STILL lots of people to shoot around, as you can see in this behind-the-scenes photo! YIKES! That’s why you should read on!
If you can’t shoot at sunrise for some reason, shooting in crowded places is still doable, it’s just going to be tricker! We photographed our Central Park engagement in the afternoon and still loved the result!
2. Shoot Close-Ups When the Foot Traffic is the Heaviest
Shooting close-up shots of your clients when you’re shooting in crowded places has several advantages:
a) If there are people all over the spot you want to shoot, shooting tight will help you get great portraits of your clients without wasting any valuable shooting time just standing around waiting for a crowd to clear.
b) Being constantly interrupted by tourists can really disrupt the flow of the session. Shooting tight will allow you to get a nice flow going, which will help your clients feel more comfortable and build their trust and confidence.
c) Super tight shots help add nice variety to your client’s blog post, gallery and album, like these:
If you’re shooting at sunrise, you’ll want to get your big, wide, environmental shots first, when the area is the least congested. Any time you see a clearing, TAKE IT!
If you’re shooting later in the afternoon, starting with close-up, tight shots of the couple to get them comfortable and figure out the foot traffic flow of the spot is a great idea.
For this New York session, for example, we started their session with close-ups in a less-congested area to get everyone comfortable, and got some good solid frames under our belt, before moving into busier areas. That really seemed to get everyone on the same page and we avoided any kind of awkward start that could’ve (potentially) hurt our confidence or affected our clients’ confidence in us. Remember, trust is one of the most important factors in getting clients to open up and look comfortable.
We grab close-ups when we anticipate that the foot traffic is going to last a while, so we don’t waste any time. Our typical tag team system when we’re shooting in crowded places is Amy will do the tight shots up close, and then Jordan would be waiting way behind, watching the people. As soon as it’s clear, he’ll yell to Amy, she’ll jump out, and he’ll grab the wide shots. We try to be as efficient as possible with this system so we don’t waste any time! Since Amy already has them in a pose, we’re able to pull this off quickly. If we have a few extra seconds, since Amy is just off camera, she will coach them into a second or third pose, and Jordan would keep shooting.
3. Be Patient
There are some spots in crowded places that are worth waiting for, and others that aren’t. When we find ones that aren’t, we move on quickly, but when we find ones that are, we try to be patient enough to wait it out. We keep reminding ourselves that we are in an epic place and have a few iconic shots in mind that we just have to get, because we would kick ourselves later for not waiting a few extra minutes until the coast is clear to get an image that we might not ever get –– or at least not for a very long time.
Plus, when you’re shooting in an iconic place, regardless of the light or the crowds or anything else, your clients expect to have shots in iconic spots. You can’t do a shoot in Paris and leave out the Eiffel Tower, right? Do your very best to get at least a few killer shots with great light and posing (and without people in the background) in those landmark spots. But, if all else fails, at a minimum, take a few safety shots, even if there are people in the background, so you at least have memories for the clients. If the foot traffic just never subsides, your clients will understand — because they were there — but what they (rightfully) won’t understand is why you didn’t take any pictures at all.
4. Pose Clients Close to a Natural Divider and Angle Your Camera
This is one of our best tricks for making it look like we have the whole place to ourselves, when really there are people EVERYWHERE! Natural dividers could be the walls of bridges, fountains, fence lines… anything you can find that would prevent another human from walking directly behind your clients. See how in the (above) image in Prague, it would be really awkward for a tourist to walk between Melissa and Braedon and the wall? If you get your clients close enough to a natural divider, it’s going to naturally help keep extra people out of your shot.
Notice in these two wide Paris shots below, there’s no way a tourist is going to walk behind Megan and Joe because of where we placed them.
Their feet are so close to the fountain (a natural divider) in the shot above that nobody is going to try to walk behind them. Now we only have to worry about people getting in between us and them. It’s much easier to only have to worry about people in front of your clients, as opposed to in front AND behind. With a little patience, you can make it look like you have the place all to yourself. Fortunately, oftentimes, other tourists are courteous enough to walk behind us and not photo bomb the shot. We always appreciate that! Others think photo bombing is still funny.
Again, in the shot below, nobody could possibly squeeze between them and the wall, which gives us a nice, clean background with the Eiffel.
Here’s another behind the scenes picture of our honeymoon shoot in Prague. You can see the foot traffic was heavy, even at sunrise!
So our best bet is to get them close to a natural divider, and angle the camera towards it. Here you can really see how angling your camera toward the natural divider makes a difference! Same shot! Same crowd. Just a slightly different angle. Take a look at what’s in the background of each. It’s such a slight change to the background, but a huge change to the final image.
5. Communicate Clearly to Clients
It’s already hard enough for our clients to hear us when we’re behind the camera, but when we factor in city traffic, crowded places, wind, people on foot, bicycles, carriages and street musicians, it’s tough to hear. Really tough! So, we makee sure to give posing instructions at close distance, then back up to shoot. We’d even use hand signals (like a thumbs up) when our clients were supposed to pose, or an open hand up (like a stop sign) when we wanted them to stop and wait a minute for people to pass. Also, we made sure to drop the camera when we were giving instructions instead of muffling our voices from behind the lens. It helps so much when our clients can see our lips when we’re talking. That might sound basic, but it’s true and really makes a difference.
Here’s a spot where gave them posing directions up close, and then patiently waited for pedestrian traffic to clear.
All alone in Central Park? Worth the wait!
6. Give Couples a Count Down
When Haley and Tom were on a bridge or in the middle of a busy intersection, we only had a few seconds to nail the ideal shot before foot or car traffic picked back up, but we also needed them to stay in one pose long enough for us to compose the shot multiple ways. If they fell out of the pose, we didn’t have time to correct them and pick back up before traffic got going, so we’d all have to wait again for the next opportunity, which would’ve meant wasted time — and maximizing every second is critical during a natural light portrait session.
So, instead, we gave them countdowns to make sure they’d be able to hold the pose long enough without us having to say anything. For example, we’d say, “Okay, count to ten in your head while you kiss,” or “Hold each other close and count to five in your heads.” That kind of specificity isn’t necessarily the most romantic, but it gets us exactly what we need in a chaotic setting, so that we could get moments like this (top) to look like moments like this (bottom). The countdown is so worth it for the final product. p.s. We see you, Maroon Shirt. We see you.
7. Show Clients Why It’s Worth It
It can be frustrating for clients to stand around in the same place for a long time –– especially when it’s really hot or really cold! We totally understand that, which is why it was important for us to show our clients what we were seeing through the lens so they’d be on board for waiting a little longer until just the right time. When you’re on the other side of the lens, like we were when our friend, Anna, took our Spanish Moss and Driftwood Beach anniversary portraits, even when you know the background is beautiful and you trust the photographer completely, when you’re not the one looking through the lens, it’s impossible to know just how good it really looks. So, when we have an idea for a pulled-back shot of our couple but can’t quite get it until everyone clears, we show them the back of our camera so they can see what we are seeing (and why we were waiting). That creates buy-in from our clients and gave them an incentive to shiver in the cold, or sweat in the heat, for a bit longer. AJ Brides are hard core!
We had a lot of questions specifically about the shot of our couple in the street. (above). We promise, no humans were harmed in the making of these photographs! We had several people ask us if we literally ran out into the middle of the street and stopped traffic! The quick answer… is no! We would never advise risking the safety of our clients or ourselves for a shot. No matter how cool it might look! And we’re pretty sure the native New Yorkers wouldn’t have stopped for us anyhow!
The trick to this shot was finding two short (that’s key) parallel crosswalks that were relatively close to each other. One for us, and one for them. When the pedestrian walk sign would turn on, we would wait and see if a taxi was at the front of the intersection at the red light or if it was just a regular car. We really wanted that “New York” look, which meant it was worth it to us to wait for a few lights until we got a yellow taxi cab (even if it is a Prius!) If the light turned red, and just a regular car was at the front of the intersection, we would wait it out, and try again, until the red light stopped a taxi cab right in front of the intersection. Haley and Tom would run into the center of the crosswalk, in the front crosswalk, while we would run into the parallel crosswalk that was directly behind this one. We instructed them on posing ahead of time, so that they knew exactly what to do when the time was right. Then, Jordan would shoot while Amy would audibly count down the number of remaining seconds left on crosswalk timer, so everyone knew how many seconds we had left before traffic would resume. We got about fifteen seconds per traffic light. So for as much as we’d like to pretend we stopped traffic for these shots, it was a little less glamorous than that! Hopefully this helps de-mystify our favorite shot from this session. The moral of the story? Patience, our friends! Patience! It makes all the difference in the world! Your patience during portrait sessions in crowded places will be well worth it!