Most photographers will tell you that among the many hats you’ll wear as a professional, one of them will be similar to that of a rodeo clown – a brightly coloured distraction from the tense situations which often crop up during weddings and family sessions.

For most families, any event which requires them to spend a good deal of time together, in their Sunday best, and on their best behaviour, can bring out the worst in people. Weddings are a time of heightened emotions, and family sessions are stressful for parents who are just hoping for one hour of cooperation from their toddlers. Knowing how to defuse the tension of a given situation can help you keep your shooting schedule on track, and make you the hero of the day.

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Distraction

When you’re standing holding your camera while the bride and her mother squabble, it can be hard to think about anything except how utterly awkward it is for everyone listening. The bridesmaids are suddenly very engrossed in their flowers, and the groom looks like he wishes he was anywhere but here. As the photographer, you are the director of the events as they unfold, and one surefire way to break up an argument is to direct activities elsewhere. Even if it’s not really how you’d planned it, pulled the bride away for a quick shot of her and her best friend can give everyone a moment to calm down. Even better, if you’re shooting with an assistant, tasking them with talking to the mother of the bride about how beautiful her dress is can help to ensure that when you return they don’t pick right up where they left off.

Humor

A well-timed joke, a funny face, or some self-deprecating humor can help wedding parties and families to shake off any tension that is simmering just under the surface – especially the kind that has everyone making weird faces or standing in awkward positions. Laughter unites us all and is contagious. A giggling bride will often set off her bridesmaids in no time, which can also make for some great photos. Tell the littlest members of the wedding party or family session that you’re playing a game, and that that game is to make the grownups laugh. You’ll get the double benefit of a more relaxed group, and some great candids.

Time Outs

The key to giving everyone a break is to make sure that you don’t come off sounding like you’re trying to parent everyone. It should be used as a last-ditch effort to remove the tension because it will take you taking a deep breath and being straightforward with your client. Practice saying “It seems like it might be a good time for us all to take a break.” to yourself in the mirror, with your shoulders back, and a smile on your face. This can be uncomfortable, as most of us don’t feel good when we’re reminded that there are other people witnessing our personal nitpicking or family feuds, but that discomfort can also help to bring everyone back to the moment. Take a minute to get everyone a drink of water, or to have a five-minute dance break, or do a quick makeup check, then get your shooting schedule back on track.

The key to using all of these tips is practice and preparation. Having a few silly jokes (even a good groaner works here!) memorized, making sure your second shooter knows your game plan if you use distraction, and practicing being assertive will ensure a smooth day, even if you’ve got to iron out some of the wrinkles yourself.