Lessons Learned: My First Engagement Shoot

I met Nick and Jenn in August 2013, almost immediately upon arrival for my freshman year at SUNY Oneonta. I lived across the hall from Nick; I remember walking into his room during move-in, and actually wanted to introduce myself to his roommate (also a musician, like myself) - I didn't anticipate being friends with Nick at the time. Shortly after that, I met Kevin, the Syracuse University fanatic who lived next door to Nick. As Nick and Kevin bonded over their "‘Cuse fever", I infiltrated their duo. Very quickly, due to a combination of close proximity, freshmen year anxiety about making friends, an unlimited dining plan, and a seemingly endless amount of fast-forming inside jokes, the three of us became a trio of fast friends. Seven years later, I still consider Nick and Kevin two of my best friends, although I don’t see them nearly enough. But I digress.

Jenn and I became acquainted shortly after meeting Nick and Kevin, also during that two-week “oh-my-god-I’m-a-freshmen-and-I-need-friends” period that most 18 year olds experience upon starting college. I recall sitting down in Hulbert Hall for breakfast early one morning with Nick and Kevin (thank god for 8am classes…), and having Jenn sit at our table, along with her roommate. We all hit it off, and I distinctly remember not wanting that breakfast to end.

Our morning breakfasts that semester made the college transition all the more painless, and are some of my fondest memories. It’s also worth mentioning that, during those first few breakfasts, is when I watched Nick and Jenn evolve from “Hey-we-live-down-the-hall-from-each-other-let’s-hang-out” friends to, well… lovebirds. A couple. And when I say it happened quickly, I mean it happened quickly. About three weeks into the fall semester, Jenn and I were walking from breakfast to our 8am classes. We were in the farthest buildings from the dining hall, so when the rest of the group broke off, I said, 

“So… Nick Costo.” *Nudge Nudge.*

The blood that rushed to her face was enough to confirm my and Kevin's joint suspicions. That night, we told Nick that he had to move on what were the (obviously) mutual feelings between the two of them. I went home that weekend to see my then-girlfriend, and when I returned to campus the following Monday, Nick and Jenn were an official couple. That was September 2013, and as of writing this in September 2020, I can only say that watching their relationship develop and thrive over seven years (five of which were as a long-distance relationship) has been a joy and a privilege.

When I found out last year that Nick had proposed, I had a smile on my face for hours. I congratulated both of them, and excitedly told them I couldn’t wait for the wedding. It’s funny how time flies, because when I texted them both a few weeks back asking if they were free for me to drive upstate for a visit, I couldn’t fathom how the wedding was only a year away.

2020, as rough as it has been, really is flying…

Upon my arrival on Friday night, we hugged, I got the tour of the house, we cracked a beer, etc. Talks of how everyone is doing, significant life events, plans for what we wanted to do that weekend - all typical “catch up” that is always appreciated. Then it was pointed out that the wedding was 366 days away. My photographer brain kicked in, and I asked if they had their engagement photos done. I was (unsurprisingly) told that they weren’t planning on doing them. It was it this point where I said something to the tune of, 

“Nonsense. Bring something nice to wear for Apple Picking tomorrow.”

I’d like to admit something here: until 2019, I had never been to a wedding. Until this past weekend, I could count on one had how many set of engagement photos I’d seen. Frankly, I didn’t exactly know how to capture the anticipation and excitement that engagement brings. But to see two of my best friends going without a set of engagement photos… it didn’t sit right. I know they would have never asked, and sometimes you just have to decide for them. It was purely impulsive, as photography usually should be!

And with that, I’d like to share five things that I learned on my first engagement shoot. I truly think that, while these are specific to my experience photographing an engagement shoot, these tips are nearly universal to all of photography, whether that’s portraiture, architecture, landscapes, product, etc.


1.) Have your inspiration on hand.

Like with all other areas of photography, it’s much easier to picture your shots if you’ve been inspired by

others. Nowadays, with Instagram and Twitter Hashtags at our fingertips, it’s almost inexcusable to *not* have a gallery of “Inspo Images” saved as a collection in your Saved Photos. After deciding we were going to shoot their engagement photos the following day, I spent about an hour that night scrolling through the #engagement, #engagementphotos, and #engagementtime hashtags, studying and saving any that inspired me. I also do this for my landscape, sports, travel, and portrait shots.

2.) Be firm, but fun.

As much love as I have for these two, getting them to relax and pose was definitely putting them a little out of their comfort zone, but in a good way. You’ll find it more often than not when working with models; it can be a little uncomfortable at first. They’re unsure of how to pose, how to stand, how to act - overall, they’re afraid of looking unflattering!

What you need to do, as a photographer, is show them and tell them what to do. This is your job as the one behind the lens. 

Above all, being firm with your directions while keeping the mood light and fun is of the utmost importance. Being firm keeps the momentum going and the tempo in check, while being fun is, well, fun!

NOTE: this is why it’s very important to have reference material as described in the first point. I broke my phone out no less than six times during our shoot. They understood what to do almost immediately. 

3.) You don’t need *Perfect* Lighting.

Shooting at golden hour is easy. It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting portraits, landscapes, product, etc. When the sun hits the horizon and showers the trees with this magical orange glow, it’s almost *difficult* to take a bad picture… but what about when the sun dips down below the trees, and you’re left with a shaded bridge in a secluded part of the park? Surely that makes things almost impossible, no?

Wrong. While perfect lighting is always preferable,  it’s not *necessary*. You can take amazing portraits and images at any time of day, simply by capitalizing on the lighting, following the basic composition rules (I’m a fan of leading lines, as you can probably tell), at your disposal and getting creative with your camera settings. 

 For these shots, I would have loved to have some backlit silhouettes with the sun just above the tree line, but instead used the softer, blue-hour lighting to put focus into Nick and Jen, along with using the railing of the bridge to lead the eyes to the two of them, and positioning them opposite one another to add some symmetry to the mix.

It’s important to understand that photos like this are about the COUPLE, not the beautiful lighting. You want the friends and family to look at these pictures and go “You guys look amazing!”, NOT “Wow look at how good that lighting is!"

4.) Make it personal.

Engagement is an inherently personal subject to photograph. It should be - you’re capturing the couple in the throes of what’s supposed to be the most exciting part of getting married, second only to *actually getting married.* It’s your job to capture what years of building a strong bond between two individuals can create. Your photos should show that these two have been through a lot together, and that they’ve decided that they’re happiest when they’re together.

This is a callback to my second point about making the shoot fun. If you ever shoot engagement photos, keep these questions in your back pocket:

  • When did you know you wanted to marry him/her?

  • What is your favorite thing about him/her?

  • Can you talk about a favorite memory you have with them?

  • What are you looking forward to most about the future with them?

  • What is something you want the other person to see in themselves that you see?

These questions serve a purpose. Not only does it help you as the photographer get an insight into how this couple operates, which can be important especially if you’re going to be shooting their wedding, but even more importantly is it gets the couple to forget about the camera for a moment - they can’t be worrying about the camera when they’re focussing on thinking of an answer and talking to their partner. This can create some truly magical moments for you to capture.

5.) Give them everything.

I think this is really important for any type of portraiture. You’re going to capture a wide variety of photos on a shoot, and it just makes sense that you, with your critical photographer eye, aren’t going to love them all. That said, and this calls back to “Make it Personal”, you’re going to capture moments that may not seem interesting to you, but may mean the world to the future bride/groom.You make capture some photos of them “ugly laughing” or making some not-so-flattering faces at each other. Before you banish these to the trash bin on your desktop during the post-shoot “cull”, I encourage you to edit them as you would with all of the others, and deliver them to the client. Let them decide if they want to delete them forever - they may just want to have it printed and put in a photo album.

So there you are, folks. Five lessons I learned from my first engagement shoot. I’ll admit, this shoot made me reflect on my photography more than any other shoot I’ve done recently. I’m not sure why (although I’m sure it’s got something to do with being long-term-single in my 20’s), but I’ll surely be filing these lessons away for the future. Aside from that, I can’t wait to work more with these types of photos. If you’ve read this far, I’d like to thoroughly thank you for reading, and please, shoot me an email if you’ve got any questions! I can also be reached on my Insta. In the meantime, stay happy, stay healthy, and get out to take some pictures!

Lastly, to Nick and Jenn - thank you for letting me share these moments with you. Can't wait for the wedding!

Mr. and Mrs. Costo - Coming September 2021!

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