Tips + Techniques

Jason Vinson on Making the Ordinary Look Epic

June 8, 2021

By Brienne Walsh

© Jason Vinson

As the father of two young toddlers and a former mechanical engineer, Jason Vinson is uniquely good at solving problems on set quickly and decisively. Named one of the top 25 wedding photographers in the world by Fearless Photographers, he runs his photography business, Vinson Images, with his wife, Chasnie, out of Northwest Arkansas and is a senior staff writer for Fstoppers, as well as a DVLOP community leader. During Rangefinder + WPPI’s recent free webinar, After Dark: Wedding Portrait Breakout Sessions, Vinson showed photographers how to approach creative portrait photography by acting when inspiration hits, preparing clients for the possibilities, and finding easy and creative ways to add light and drama to a scene. (Vinson will be one of the featured speakers at WPPI 2021, which takes place this summer, August 15-19, at The Mirage in Las Vegas.)

What sets Vinson’s creative portrait photography style apart from his peers is that he makes the ordinary look epic. When shooting a wedding, he doesn’t scout locations or plan in advance for his shots. Instead, he draws from a deep well of creative ideas to execute shots as they develop over the course of the event.

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In the recent RF+WPPI webinar, After Dark: Wedding Portrait Breakout Sessions, Vinson kicked things off by listing the arguments some photographers make against getting creative while shooting a wedding, including that they don’t have enough time or that they don’t know how to convince their clients to get on board with their ideas. The photographer counters these arguments with his own solution, which is to channel all of his creativity into portrait breakout sessions. It’s worth noting that for Vinson, “breakout portrait sessions” is a fancy way of saying “unplanned portrait time.”

[Read: Off-Camera Flash Photography: 5 Techniques for Dramatic Portraits]

And while a lot of photographers rely on natural light for classic portraiture, Vinson often waits until the sun sets to get the images he envisions. “Once that sun goes down, your possibilities to light the scene really go up,” he notes. “In the blank canvas of darkness, you can light a scene however you want.” Which is why he particularly loves shooting nighttime portraits in the rain—”lit up correctly, they can be magical,” he says.

When lit correctly, portraits in the rain can be magical, says Vinson.

Vinson also loves a good challenge, like turning a boring hallway at a wedding venue into an epic entrance, by placing two lights, one with an orange gel and the other with a blue gel, strategically around the bride as she stands in the doorway (see video clip below).

The final image: from boring hallway to an epic entrance.

Sure, this looks easy on video. But how do you convince a bride, in the middle of her wedding, to step away from her family and friends and pose for an unconventional shot in an ugly location? Vinson has three surefire ways to get a couple on board so that getting the breakout portraits you desire during a wedding are easy to carry out:

1. Portrait breakout sessions: get clients excited before they book.

Vinson, whose style has been described as “documentary,” notes that 90 percent of what he shoots at a wedding is completely undirected. This includes candid shots of the couple getting dressed, listening to toasts and dancing to the couple’s favorite music. “We want couples to remember what it felt like in the moment and not remember us telling them what to do,” he says. The other 10 percent of what he shoots is posed portraiture, including breakout portraits.

He always shows a couple iconic breakout portraits from past weddings to get them excited about having their own unique imagery. If they’re not down with being pulled away for a few minutes from the reception to try something experimental, he figures they won’t even book him.

2. Know your gear, have your gear.

Having your gear kit, and knowing how to use it, means the difference between getting “golden light” portraiture on a rainy day and having to fake it in post-production. “When situations arise, not only do you know how to quickly set up so your couple doesn’t need to wait, you also know what you can do with your surroundings,” he says. His own gear bag includes a Sony A9; three lenses, including a 24mm, 35mm and 85mm; a Flashpoint eVOLV 200 PRO, which he uses for 95 percent of his shots; a Elinchrom 500TTL; a “wallet” of Magmod modifiers; and StellaPro CLx10, Clx8, 5000Pro and 2000 lights, which can be used in wet conditions.

3. Always be working.

It can be tempting, Vinson says, to take a break when the couple is eating or waiting for members of the bridal party to finish getting dressed. Rather than eating or sitting down, Vinson uses those minutes to create unique imagery. For example, a silhouette of a bride backlit against a lamp, standing against brightly colored floral wallpaper.

“Once the couple is on board, you have to choose the right moments to take your breakout portraiture,” he says. More involved scenarios? No problem, says Vinson.

Complicated creative portrait photography sessions tackled in minutes

Vinson’s portrait breakout sessions can get super creative, like this image of a couple standing in a shower of discarded face masks!

You might not think it possible at first, but it is possible to add “wildly creative” portrait breakout sessions and set-ups into your shoot repertoire that can be arranged outside of the wedding reception in a matter of minutes, says Vinson. For example, he recently shot a portrait of a couple standing in a shower of discarded face masks (see video and image above). To set up the shot, he placed an Evolve 2000 Pro with grids on either side of where he wanted his couple to stand, and then backlit the area with an Evolve 3000 placed on the pavement of a parking lot and partially obscured by a barn door to keep light from spilling on the ground.

[Read: How to Freeze Rain with Off-Camera Flash]

After experimenting with having his wife, Chasnie, throw a handful of masks at the spot, which was “anti-climatic,” he realized he needed four different sets of hands to fill the space of the portrait with flying masks. He asked four guests standing outside of the venue to participate, and then grabbed the married couple. In a matter of three seconds, he had an iconic image of the couple laughing as masks floated around them.

For another portrait breakout session, he had wedding guests blow bubbles at the married couple as a storm blew wind down the street where they were standing. “Always be open to letting images progress,” he advises.

Setting up the bubble portrait (final image below).

“One of my couples got married on a day that was so foggy it was basically like living in a cloud,” he recalls. Rather than give up in despair, Vinson positioned the couple outdoors in a field and framed them between some trees. He then placed a big flash with 600 watts of power behind the couple and lit them so they were silhouetted in a dreamy, smoky landscape with a back fog feel (below).

Watch: Back Fog Feel set-up.
Back Fog Feel: Final image.

With all this creative portrait photography energy flying around, Vinson also likes to point out that he makes sure to never do the same shot twice. If a couple likes one of his previous images, he finds a way to replicate it in a completely unique way. “Part of my creative process is to go and be inspired in the moment.”

Check out the other free webinars in our Reset series that focus on creative portrait photography:

How Susan Stripling Creates Portraits that Pop

John Gress on Transitioning from Window Light to Flash

Caroline Tran’s Posing Pick-Up Points for Family Portraits