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Taking prom photos (aka 'Mom, hurry up!')

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  May 7, 2010 01:51 PM

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(Photo by Dina Rudick / Globe Staff)

RAW reader Nancy Nowak wrote in asking for tips on taking prom photos: "What are some suggestions for getting group photos, and also for photos of just a couple?" she asked.

This sounds like a question for those taking pictures before the prom, so I spent some time perusing tips on various photo sites and have come up with what I hope are helpful tips.

1. Try for candids or unusual shots. Think of the best wedding photos you've seen: They usually are not the posed shots. They're the shots of the couple laughing together, interacting with guests, dancing. Of course prom dates aren't getting married, but if you bring the same mindset to your photos of your couple, or your couple and the group of friends they're going to the prom with, you should end up with some nice candids that are more natural than the standard shots.

2. Storyboard. Think of the evening as an unfolding story. You won't get to see most of it, but your son or daughter can fill in the blanks with photos she and her friends take at the prom. Your story can open with your son or daughter getting ready. (Just try not to annoy them on what may be a stressful night.)

If you have a daughter whose date is arriving in a limo to pick her up, be outside when he arrives to grab some shots of him getting out of the limo. Another chapter of your photo story. Get photos from behind of him approaching the door, and her face when she answers the door. Perhaps somebody inside can get a few photos from the other side -- his face when he sees how gorgeous she looks.

If there is a group of friends riding together, their casual interaction and joking either inside the house or out on the street is great fodder for good photos. Use a telephoto lens so you don't intrude -- unless they enjoy being treated like rock stars with their own paparazzi.

3. Watch your background. But of course, you still do have to take the standard posed shots. And when you do, the same rules apply that apply for any portrait: cast your eye over the entire scene, including the area surrounding the couple or group.

Inside, watch out for sneakers on the floor, papers on an end table, a jacket on the couch.

Are you shooting on the street? Look out for telephone poles, wires, a trash can on the sidewalk across the street, a shirtless neighbor on his porch. Stand your couple or group in front of a tall shrub, the limo (just keep an eye on the driver), or an attractive wall. If distracting background stuff can't be avoided, just Photoshop it out later.

Make sure you don't position the prom-goers in direct sunlight so that they are squinting or the colors of their clothes get washed out. Shade is a good option, and you can use the small fill-flash on your camera to lighten the darker spots, whether shooting indoors or out. Outside, make sure there are no shadows falling across anyone's face. Inside, open all the window shades to let in as much natural light as possible.

4. Angle your subjects. This isn't a police lineup, and you don't want photos that look like you took pictures of flat, cardboard-cutout dolls. Have everyone in the photo stand at a 45-degree angle to you; if you're photographing a group, have half stand at an angle in one direction and half at an angle in the other direction. Then have them all turn just their heads to face the camera. And mix it up: First try couples together, alternating genders, then place all the young men on one side and the young women on the other.

Or just let the gang congregate as they want: Arms around each others' waists or shoulders, or arms locked together ... it's their night, so go with whatever feels right to them.

5. Get close. This may be tricky if you don't have a zoom lens, but it's important. Having all of your shots taken from a distance and full-length is boring and could miss some nice details. Vary your distances: Shoot some from the waist up; for other shots, zoom in close on the young couple's face as they talk to each other. (See Dina's photo above.) If they have a close relationship, ask them to hug for you.

Getting close also means shooting the details. Photograph her wrist corsage up close, one earring framed by a lock of hair, his snazzy cufflink or tie clip (maybe with her hand in the frame). And why not photograph her shoes?

6. Watch your depth of field. Although a wide aperture can blur the background nicely (see the photo above), a too-narrow focus field can be unforgiving of movement that can blur part of your subjects. Try it, but also close it down a bit to give yourself a little more depth of field with which to work. And make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to capture the inevitable movement among your group -- especially if they are laughing or joking around or just fidgeting. A minimum of 1/250 is probably about right.

7. Look for unusual angles. Check out the award-winning Suzanne Kreiter photo on the front page of RAW: She positioned herself behind the prom-goers who were posing for a gaggle of family and friends madly snapping photos ... and nicely captured the mood of a fun and exciting prom night.

Can you open the opposite door of the limo and grab some shots of the couples getting in and then sitting next to each other? If you have a lively street scene, how about grabbing an overall shot from a second-floor window?

8. Don't forget Grandma. The prom-ee is going to be anxious to hit the road and start the party, but you must prevail upon him to pose for family shots with parents, siblings, and grandparents. Barter for some privilege if you have to. He may not realize it now, but he'll treasure those photos for years to come.

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