Though this guide focuses on engagement sessions, many of the same considerations apply to all types of environmental portrait sessions, such as for individuals, couples, and families shot on-location (rather than in-studio).
Stay tuned for another guide about
considerations for non-engagement portraits for individuals or families interested in environmental or studio portraits. Contact me at
for suggestions about these types of shoots in the meantime.
This guide is currently a fluid document which I may periodically update.
If you’re recently engaged, and beginning to think about engagement photography, you probably have a number of questions about how engagement sessions typically work and how to get the best photos possible out of your session. This guide is meant to answer a number of those questions and give suggestions on how to prepare for your portrait session. For your convenience, I have underlined key details, and give a short summary at the beginning of each detailed section.
The WhatLocation, Location, LocationWhat Not to Wear… and What You ShouldMakeup, Hair, and Nails Props and Extras Get TrashedAfter the SessionHow to Get Started
An engagement session can be anything you want to make it, and should reflect the personality of the couple.
First, what is an engagement session? On a most basic level, and engagement session, or e-session as some call it, is simply a set of photographs of you and your spouse-to-be. The photographs themselves can be anything you want to make them, and you absolutely should make them your own – engagement photographs should reflect the personality of you and your fiancé together. Whether that’s a couple of musicians, city dwellers, or a pair of nature lovers, engagement photos normally aim to capture the couple in their element. What is that for you?
Location, Location, Location
Choose several locations that are scenic, interesting, and significant to you as a couple, while considering the overall mood you want set through location, time of day, and weather.
There are plenty of scenic locations for engagement photos, and you should choose a few that reflect what makes you a couple, or possibly have a special significance to you and your fiancé. Good, common locations for shoots are parks, beaches or waterfronts, and old town city streets, but you should never rule out more specific locations, such as a quaint restaurant or pub for foodies, a skating rink for a couple of skaters, or even a movie theatre for two movie lovers. The locations can really be as bold as your imagination, but I generally suggest choosing one or two common locations such as a park with a waterfront, and only one specialized location like a stable or equestrian center for horse lovers.
Was your first date at a drive-in movie? First kiss at the county fair? Get engaged at a vineyard? These are all good locations you should consider incorporating into your engagement session.
The length of time a shoot will take will largely depend on how many locations, the distance between them, and any special needs a specific location may require me to work with during your shoot (such as specialized lighting requirements, etc). On average, however, I find that my shoots typically last from 2 – 4 hours including travel time between locations (should that be the case). I almost always advise that the session is planned around that day’s sunset time; sunset always gives the most dramatic lighting for portraiture, but you shouldn’t think the shoot must end at sundown; dusk and some night photos can also be very dramatic in the right locations. Don't necessarily feel that the weather must be a constraint to plan around - photos in the rain and snow can also be a fun touch that adds to the uniqueness of your photographs.
What Not to Wear… and What You Should
Choose one or more wardrobes that are casual, coordinated, non-competing, and not overly bold. Military should consider some formal shots in uniform, but not all. Couples should wear district but coordinated outfits that reflect their personality.
Typically, my engagement shoots consist of two or three nearby scenic and significant locations. I normally suggest at least one separate wardrobe for each location, though this may not always be the case.
So you have some ideas about locations, but what about wardrobe? I normally advise at least one separate wardrobe for each location, but depending on the feel you want your overall engagement photos to reflect you may wish to have only one wardrobe forthe entire shoot.
Sticking with one wardrobe will give your photos the feeling that the collection is a snapshot of one day in your life; after all, this is the truth of a photo-shoot.
Photo sets with multiple wardrobes mix things up a bit, and seems more like a view of several days in your lives, since we typically only wear one set of clothes each day.
Either option can work well with multiple shooting locations. If you are only shooting in a single identifiable location, I normally suggest also sticking with a single wardrobe; two wardrobes in one location will ruin the photoset’s overall flow. Just remember that one location (like a park) may have two very different spots (woods and waterfront, etc) which can offer suitable difference in background to allow for flowing wardrobe changes.
The best things to wear are casual clothes you feel comfortable in. For guys this typically means un-tucked button down or polo shirts and nice jeans; girls normally wear sundresses or a casual shirt and skirt, well-fitting jeans, or slacks.
Don’t forget that shoes are another detail to think about, and should match the rest of your outfit. As a general rule of thumb, don’t wear or anything with reflective materials, such as sneakers. Maybe you even have a special pair of cowboy boots you want to sport?
The final touches are of course accessories like jewelry or hats. Choose these items to match the rest of your outfit. For jewelry like necklaces and earrings, consider wearing a different set for each wardrobe – even a detail as small as wearing the same earrings in two outfits can stand out in the final pictures.
If you are military, you should definitely consider some formal shots in uniform, but it’s not advisable to have your entire engagement session consist of a formal or military wardrobe. The aim, again, is to look casual and comfortable.
Some tips on wardrobe coordination; this is a very important consideration in ensuring your photos are natural looking! Individually, do not choose overly-busy patterns when picking out shirts, dresses, skirts, sweaters, and the like; a larger pattern such as a large spaced plaid is ok, but anything much more is normally distracting and draws more attention to the clothes than the people wearing the clothes. Color coordinate! Mix and match complementary colors; for example, dark jeans go well with dark blues, any reds, and brighter greens or yellows.
As a couple, try to wear styles and colors that complement each other, but do not compete for attention. Wear clothes that stand apart from each other’s wardrobe; matching clothes will cause each of you to blend into one another, and generally is strange and distracting in photos, as wearing similar clothes always stands out. The only time this is advisable is if you as a couple have something significant that matches, such as bowling shirts or the like.
Makeup, Hair and Nails
Be sure your makeup, hair, and even nails are cleanly done and presentable. Makeup should look exactly as you would like it to look in person – anything too dramatic WILL show up too dramatic in the final photographs. DO NOT purposely overdo your makeup! Having your makeup, hair, and nails professionally done is optional but not discouraged.
Many brides-to-be choose to have their makeup, hair, and nails professionally done prior to an engagement session, though this shouldn’t be seen as mandatory. Brides often choose to do their own makeup, hair, and nails in order to look their best for the shoot.
I have heard from many brides that their makeup artist suggested making their makeup “a notch more dramatic so they ‘pop’ in the photographs.” The reasoning almost always given seems to be that “you need an extra boost for the makeup to show on camera.” THIS IS NOT TRUE!!! I cannot stress this enough; makeup should be natural and smooth – the way it looks in person is the way it will show in the photographs. In every instance I have ever shot where the makeup was purposely made “more dramatic” and looked “too much” in person, it comes out looking like too much in the photographs as well. That being said, you shouldn’t be discouraged from getting the makeup and overall look you want for your big shoot, if you want something a little more over-the-top than usual.
Being extremely blunt: If you look like a clown raccoon in person, you will look like clown raccoon in the photographs. I truly can’t stress enough; have your makeup look in person as you want it to look in the final photos!!! DO NOT purposely overdo your makeup!
Believe it or not, your nails may even be included in the shoot; I normally like to get shots of the engagement ring, and that oftentimes means close-ups of your hands. Doing your nails isn’t required, but nails that match one or more of your outfits can be a small detail that pulls your set of photos together. A French tip, or pearl coat goes with practically everything.
Finally, blemishes, birthmarks, and scars; If you have any of these you don’t want in the photos, and they’re not concealed, simply talk to me about them if you’d like them removed. I try to make it a point to ask on the shoot if I notice anything like this, but if you’re very concerned about anything like this, please bring it to my attention.
Props and Extras
Sessions can be made even more interesting by including props, like signs with messages, instruments, pets such as horses or dogs, and even transportation like bikes and motorcyles.
Don't forget about anything extra you might want in your pictures - miniature chalkboards or wooden signs on sticks reading "She Said Yes" or "Love Him" & "Love Her" make for a few cute pictures as a couple reminiscint of old cartoons or vintage films or ads. It can also be a fun and romantic project making signs together before the shoot, or even secretly writing messages to be revealed during the shoot for loving and emotional reactions to be captured on film.
Have a pet? Want them to be a part of your shoot? Bring your sidekick along! Pets are part of your family too, so bring your dog to tag along, your bird to sit on your shoulder, or your horse to stride around upon.
Love bikes? Incorporate a tandem bicycle. Ride your motorcycles to the shoot. Imagine photos of you holding close, tightly behind your fiance as you two ride a motorcycle or horse.
If biking isn't your thing and you like cold weather, you might like to go sledding.
Two singer / songwriters might want to have a picnic with their guitars, or shoot in a quaint musical venue housing a honky-tonk piano. The possibilities are as diverse as every couples' interests.
Consider getting some messy engagement photos, such as playing in water, snow, or mud, for some unique and memorable shots.
With current trends like "trash the dress" you may want to get messy during your engagement shoot, especially if you are thinking about getting trash-the-dress photos after your wedding. Kiss in the rain, have a mudfight, splash water playing in a stream, kiss on the beach, or even have a snowball fight - there are plenty of messy but romantic ways to get cute and "dirty" pictures from your session. Just don't forget to bring a change of clothes!
After the Session
You will get your high-res JPEGs on DVD. Prints are chosen and sold separate from your session after you’ve seen your proofs. Professionally printed and bound books are very customizable and available for any number of uses, including wedding guestbooks.
What happens after your engagement session? There are a number of options you have, but you will always receive a DVD of your high-resolution JPEGs which you may use for your save-the-dates and sharing with your friends and family. You also have the option of ordering prints. Finally, I can also produce a printed and bound book of your photographs, customized anyway you like. Normally I am given creative license and make a book that meets and exceeds your vision.
These books are professionally printed and bound, and may be compared to a coffee table photo book in any size from small to large as desired.
The newest trend is to make your engagement photos into the guestbook for the wedding; this is very similar to a yearbook, but with large photos from your portrait session on white backgrounds – guests may then sign their name and leave messages around your photos when they sign in at your wedding. This is also a very attractive option as wedding albums can be made to coincide with the engagement album / guestbook, DVD, and other items you may interested in that I offer for your engagement and wedding.
How to Get Started
Shoot me an email for ANY reason, even just to say hi! firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact me! Any questions or suggestions can be answered if you just contact me at email@example.com. We can discuss anything on your mind via email, phone, or even meet by appointment. The first step in planning your engagement session should be to contact me to coordinate and gather ideas; the sooner you contact me and more detail you share with me, the easier it is for me to make your engagement photos everything you imagine.
Remember; as a photographer, I’m there to capture the emotions of your engagement and document the details of your wedding day. I don’t just offer photography skills, but I also bring experience that can help you through the many creative decisions to be made surrounding your engagement and wedding. If planning your engagement shoot or wedding becomes stressful, just remember that I’m used to the challenges these can present, even if you are not, and as your photographer I will stand by you to help guide you all the way through your wedding day, and even afterwards when it comes time to decide on prints and final album considerations. I’m there to help and work with you.