Gone are the days of a perfectly posed photo; today’s engagement sessions are about capturing the moment and being comfortable in front of the camera. Photographers are finding new ways to draw out the personalities and passions of engaged couples, incorporating unique locations, favorite haunts, wardrobe changes and fun props. At the end of the day, it’s all expressing yourself. “Everyone wants to be unique, but it’s important to represent who they are as a couple,” says Los Angeles–based photographer Brian Saculles. Here are eight surefire ways to ensure your engagement photos reflect your love story.
1. LIGHT IT UP: Get to know what photographic style you can expect from a photographer before you book that person. For example, Orange County–based Rich Lander of Chard Photographer shoots his clients’ engagement sessions exclusively using natural light at the golden hour, that time of day when the light from the low sun is soft and warm. Orange County couple Vanessa and Eugene Hoang chose their photographer, Matthew Saville of Lin and Jirsa Photography in Tustin, because he was adept at taking the nighttime shots they desired. Looking at photographers’ work online will give you an idea of the type of images they produce.
2. GET CONNECTED: A photographer’s personality is as important as their photographic style. “If you’re quiet, you might not like a loud photographer or vice versa,” Lander says. Checking out photographers’ social media content, such as Instagram stories, can be a starting point to determining if your personalities mesh.
3. LOCATION, LOCATION: Make the location unique by selecting a place that reflects your life together—think about where you met, your favorite hobbies or how you spend weekends. Saculles worked with a couple where the fiancé flew planes as a hobby, so Saculles got permission to shoot the pair on an airport runway, which was no easy task. “[The airport authorities] gave us five generous minutes, because there are so many FAA rules,” recounts Saculles. “Shooting for five minutes at noon was not ideal but you have to make it happen.” Photographer Jessica Grazia Mangia worked with a couple who wanted their photos to have a Roman Holiday theme, to replay the night they met at an outdoor showing of the movie in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. Mangia, who is from Italy originally, was uniquely qualified to scout a location with an Italian vibe. She secured a Vespa from a vintage car rental company for the finishing touch. The scene can also be an everyday occurrence, like walking the dog or being at home. “Home is their comfort zone, a safe haven and a place where they can just be themselves,” notes Ventura photographer Michelle Ramirez. “So being in their ‘safe place’ helps bring their personalities out in photos.”
4. PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: When the Hoangs planned their September 2017 wedding, they weren’t excited about the idea of engagement photos. But since an engagement session came with their photography package with Lin and Jirsa Photography, they decided to go for it. The experience, as well as the photos, turned out positive. A location with architectural beauty was important to the couple, and they wanted a nighttime setting. Their romantic, dramatic engagement session took place at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles (right). “We’re both not used to having our photos taken,” Vanessa says. “We were getting comfortable being in front of the camera.” Unlike photos taken on the wedding day, engagement photo sessions aren’t constrained by tight schedules and specific locations. They give clients a chance to get to know how a photographer works, learn their lingo and practice posing techniques. “We’re working out the kinks in a low-pressure setting,” Lander says. “The experience itself is more valuable than the photos. It elevates the wedding photos.”
(photo by Lin and Jirsa Photography)
5. SET THE SCENE: Sam Lim of Sam Lim Studio and Yingka Chou of Master Plans Events & Designs, both from Los Angeles, combined their photographic and event design expertise to form Noblisse, an all-in-one package for pre-wedding photography services. The pair will scout for a location—they recently flew to Utah for a session on the Bonneville Salt Flats—and provide props and wardrobe for an exotic, high-fashion shoot. Including travel, such a session can take an entire weekend. The trend of extravagant photo sessions before weddings originated in China and Korea, Lim says. Since weddings in Asia are less elaborate and last only two or three hours, more attention goes into the engagement photos. Many Noblisse clients are international students studying in Los Angeles, but Lim says the idea is gaining popularity with Americans as well. Part of the appeal is the ability to go all out in engagement photos while opting for a low-key, casual reception for the wedding.
6. BE YOURSELF: An engagement shoot should celebrate the couple and their unique bond. Husband-and-wife photography team Justin and Shannon Vonderach, aka The Vondys, of Los Angeles worked with one couple who knew they didn’t want a romantic beach shoot. They asked if they could go out and eat hamburgers instead. The concept for the shoot (left) was born: a date night. The Vondys photographed the couple walking their dogs before going out to their favorite Hollywood Boulevard restaurant and comic book store. “It was a dream session,” Shannon says. “We love when people insert their personalities. You don’t have to do what everyone else does. Do what represents you.”
7. PROP IT UP: Fun props, whether it’s a quirky sign, a bike or a couple of beers, can be the perfect way to pay homage to a relationship. One of photographer Brian Leahy’s couples, Linzy May Mahoney and Tim Harbage, met through their positions in Los Angeles’ tight-knit craft beer community. She was the editor of a local food and drink magazine, and he was a brewer at a local company. For their engagement photo session, (lower right) they headed to the Venice canals, where Leahy captured them enjoying one of their favorite double IPAs as a nod to the industry that brought them together. After dating her for almost nine years, Brandon Fithian finally asked Jamie Violette to marry him during a trip to Paris. At their engagement photo session, (above right) captured by Westlake Village’s Jenny Quicksall, the couple brought the book Paris in Love as a literary reminder of the proposal. They also created whimsical heart-shaped signs that recounted how the proposal went down, with Brandon’s sign reading, “He asked,” and Jamie’s sign answering, “She said, ‘About damn time.’”
8. Go With the Flow: You can choose the theme, the location and the props, but sometimes things don’t go as planned (a great lesson for the wedding day, too!), especially when you’re at the mercy of the Pacific Ocean. One of Mangia’s couples wanted a traditional, manicured session on the beach, but fate had other ideas. A huge wave drenched them, ruining the bride-to-be’s bouquet and washing her shoes out to sea. Mangia gave them a choice: reschedule or press on. Since the couple’s schedule didn’t allow for a reshoot, they refocused on being spontaneous and adventurous, so Mangia got shots of them running on the beach and playing in the water. She thinks the images are some of the most breathtaking she’s ever taken. The couple agrees. One of their favorites, of the two of them standing on a rock being sprayed by saltwater, never would have happened before the wave incident. “It’s only a fail if you make it one,” Mangia says. Likewise, Saculles had an adventurous couple who dreamed of a romantic photo of them lying on the sand, straight out of From Here to Eternity (page 98). While Saculles stood on a ladder to shoot, his assistant was given the task of keeping an eye out for waves. Unfortunately, the warning came too late. “A large wave swept over the couple, and they ended bumping heads,” recounts Saculles. “The image I took was priceless.”
9. PETS WELCOME: Don’t forget about your favorite four-legged family members; including them in your engagement photos is a must for any pet lover. “One of the first questions I ask couples is if they have pets. I encourage pets being in engagement photos—after all they are family!” says Ramirez. “Having pets during engagement sessions takes pressure off couples, and they always let loose with their pets.” Whether you and your pooch head for a familiar walk, go for a hike or just settle in for some cuddle time, adding Rover to the mix puts everyone at ease.
(photo by Michelle Ramirez Photography)
10. PUT 'EM TO USE: Once you have professional shots in hand, you’ll want to use them for more than getting likes on social media. Leahy points out that because engagement images are less formal than wedding photos, they are more flexible. Make the most of yours by using them on your wedding website, save-the-date cards, thank-you cards, holiday cards, a photo guest book or displayed at the reception. For a tasty touch, some couples even print photos on cookies with edible ink, or use an acrylic cutout of their silhouettes as a cake topper. Or, use your engagement session as a way to get beautiful art for your home, where you can enjoy canvas prints of your photos every day.
(top photo by Jenny Quicksall; bottom photos by Chard Photography)