This is a guest post by our friend Maggie of The Editorialite.
A ring glistens on your finger, a wedding date floats on the horizon, but before you walk down the aisle, you want to capture this fleeting enfianced moment in time with a photo shoot. Whether you’re hoping to use the image for your Save the Date or just want practice in front of the camera before the big day, engagement photo sessions have become de rigeur.
For my now-husband Chris and me, our engagement shoot was particular meaningful; we were getting married in our native Boston, Massachusetts; however, the majority of our relationship was spent in Charleston, South Carolina. Over the four years we spent there together, we fell in love with the city as much as each other. Even the marriage proposal—in the cupola of the Wentworth Mansion, a historic, luxury hotel that provides sweeping views of downtown Charleston–celebrated our adopted hometown.
Several months before the wedding, we made the difficult decision to leave Charleston for career opportunities in San Francisco, California. I won’t get into how complicated it was to plan a wedding in Boston from Charleston while in the process of moving to San Francisco other than to say I racked up a lot of frequent flyer miles.
Knowing we were leaving made it important to us to have a Charleston engagement session that commemorated and honored the city where our college infatuation turned into lifelong love.
During the process of looking for a photographer, planning the session, and executing the shoot, I learned a few valuable lessons that made the difference between having engagement pictures I was lukewarm about, and engagement photos that made me want to jump up and down with joy.
I’ve broken these lessons down into 5 steps on how to get spectacular engagement photos.
Where to start?
1. Decide if you want posed or natural-looking photos, and approach your search for a photographer accordingly.
If you want natural looking photos, search for photographers whose subjects look comfortable, unguarded and exude their individual personalities rather than romantic clichés.
For Chris and me, natural-looking images were a nonnegotiable. My laidback fiancé gave me creative control over the wedding planning with two caveats: he wanted ice cream cake at the reception and non-cheesy engagement photos. I happily obliged
With his wishes in mind, we began poring over local photographers’ engagement galleries online. After looking at one uncomfortably staged and absurdly posed picture after another, it began to seem like a genre plagued with cheesiness. Then we came across Hyer Images; couples interacted naturally, grasping hands or leaning in for a sweet, impromptu peck. It was just two people in love caught seemingly unaware in the camera lens.
While engagement sessions will to some degree never be completely natural—when you’re out for a sunset stroll you’re not normally followed by a photographer snapping photos and shouting directions—certain photographers are better at cultivating and capturing natural feeling moments than others. You can identify these photographers by studying the subjects in their photos.
2. Define your taste in photo style, and choose a photographer accordingly
When you click through photographers’ galleries, look beyond the couple featured to notice the aesthetic differences in photography style. They range the gamut from very trendy, with lots of Photoshop effects—think fisheye lens or supersaturated colors–to more straightforward, classic styles.
Our second major consideration was photo style. Chris and I and were drawn to images that had a romantic, atmospheric look, but we didn’t want anything so stylized that it would feel dated in 10 years. Once again, Hyer Images fit the bill. Their images had an almost dreamy quality while still feeling timeless. We had our winner.
Whether your taste falls to one extreme or somewhere in the middle, know the pros and cons of each photo style, and then choose one that makes sense for you.
You’ve picked a photographer. Now what?
3. Strategize & Prioritize with the Photographer
It’s important to sit down and brainstorm what you want to get out of your engagement session. Then, share your priorities with your photographer and have him or her help you strategize how to achieve your goals within the given constraints, like time and money.
I called Hyer Images to schedule our photo shoot, but I didn’t stop there. I made a list of what I wanted to get out of the session and reviewed it with Billy, the photographer. Between email and the phone, we were able to address all my priorities.
Initially, I had 4 iconic Charleston backdrops that I wanted to shoot at, several with our dog, and 3 wardrobe changes. When I reviewed my list with Billy, it became apparent that I was being overambitious given the time constraints of a 3-hour photo shoot. It takes time to get to each location, set up, change outfits and retouch makeup. By the time you actually start shooting and get past the first few awkward frames, you’re nearly out of time.
Without the budget to extend the shoot time and preferring quality over quantity, I prioritized my list; shoot at one iconic Charleston backdrop with the dog and then shoot the two of us alone at the top of the Wentworth Mansion, where we got engaged, allotting time for one outfit per location.
Whether you saw a certain shot of the photographers that you want to emulate, need your photos to work as Save the Dates, or want to feature a prop, let your photographer know ahead of time. Then, strategize with him or her to find a plan that will give you great photos. When in doubt on where to edit your list, defer to the photographer. He or she is a professional with the experience and knowhow to get you the best photos possible.
On to the Shoot!
4. Plan & Prep ahead of time.
Planning ahead pays off. From wardrobe and location to hair and makeup, have everything prepared and ready to go long before the day of the shoot to preempt last minute catastrophes.
As a fashion journalist, the photo shoot wardrobe was important to me. I wanted our outfits to be chic and coordinated without looking too matchy or contrived. I found a vintage tangerine sheath dress that was perfect for our photos, and–because we began planning the wardrobe a few weeks before the shoot–we had time to find the perfect citrus-hued necktie for Chris to wear.
Next, I contacted the location on our shoot list that was private property; the Wentworth Mansion. Getting managements permission to shoot ahead of time preempted any access issues we would have had by showing up unannounced.
Three days before the shoot, Chris and I did a quick mini dress rehearsal, trying everything on to make sure we had what we needed and were happy with the outfits. I then put together garment bags containing everything we needed for each look, careful not to overlook small items, such as jewelry, belts (black or brown makes a big difference for men), and even bras that were needed for each look (nothing’s worse than realizing too late you need a strapless).
Assembling our complete outfits ahead of time sounds a little OCD, but it saved me a lot of stress the day of the shoot; I didn’t have to worry about forgetting a shoe, locating a cufflink or the horror of realizing too late that a dress needs dry-cleaning.
When you’ve planned and prepared for the shoot ahead of time you’re more likely to get everything you want out of it. Plus, you’ll enjoy the day more when you’re not running around like a crazy person trying to get everything ready.
5. Enjoy yourself!
You want to look in love, not stressed out in your photos. The best way to do this is to let everything go (you can’t do anything about it at this point anyway), relax and connect with your fiancé.
Once I finally got to the shoot, rushed after my hair blow out appointment ran late, I was feeling more flustered than romantic. Luckily, I had a great fiancé to turn to. He reminded me to let it go. There was nothing I could do at this point about a lipstick I forgot at home or a storm cloud rolling in. It sounds cheesy—fortunately, it didn’t look cheesy on film—but I had to remind myself to be in the moment, connect with my fiancé and channel the feelings of love that brought us here.
It’s easy to feel stressed out, nervous or awkward in front of the camera. If you feel this happening, stop and reconnect with your fiancé. Even if these means taking a couple minutes away from shooting to sit or walk with your fiancé and recall an inside joke or the story of your engagement, it’s worthwhile.
Your authentic feelings will come across in your pictures without any elaborate production necessary. These moments of real emotions are what you’ll cherish about your engagement photos for years to come.
All photos courtesy of Maggie and their photographers, Hyer Images.
About Maggie: Maggie Winterfeldt is a San Francisco newlywed, journalist and author of the fashion and lifestyle blog The Editorialite. Her work has been published coast to coast, from the Carolinas to California, and can be read regularly in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Style Section.