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Photography

Shooting a Surprise Proposal

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A few weeks ago I was called upon by an old friend to shoot him proposing to his girlfriend at an out-of-town location I had never been to before. It was a challenging shoot, but yielded some awesome results. In this tutorial, I'll show you how I did it and what you should do if you ever get the opportunity to take on a similar assignment.


Packing for the Trip

My background in photojournalism, so I have a pretty small kit designed to handle whatever you can throw at it. The twist with this shoot is that I knew I would be doing some posed portraits after the proposal.

My standard kit includes:

  • Nikon D700 full frame DSLR
  • 70-210mm f/4 lens
  • 50mm f/1.8 lens
  • 24mm f/2.8 lens
  • Speedlight

It turned out that I could have eliminated the 24mm because I didn't use it. Had it been a proposal in a more confined space, I would have needed it. In the park, however, I opted for the more flattering 50mm.

I also could have eliminated the speedlight because I shot natural light until it was time for the portraits, and at that point, I used my more powerful manual flash. That being said, bring yours along no matter what. You can't be sure when you're going to need fill flash outdoors on a bright day.

I also thought I needed some more sophisticated lighting for the portraits. I knew I would be hiking around a park and hauling around gear, so again, I went light with my compact lighting kit with all the doubled up equipment removed.

The lighting kit consisted of:

  • Vivitar 285 flash
  • Compact folding light stand with umbrella bracket
  • Radio triggers
  • "Back up" sync cord that gets used more than the radio triggers
  • 42" silver lined umbrella

When under stress, I always opt for simple, so I could have left the radio triggers at home. It just personal preference (and maybe my cheap triggers), but I always seem to reach for my sync cord because I know it will work.


The Pre-Planning Meeting

If you're doing a surprise proposal shoot, you have to see the place it's going to take place first. I'd never been to this park before, so I met the boyfriend there a few hours before the proposal would take place.

This is the park where the proposal took place.
This is the park where the proposal took place.

We chose the exact spot where he would do it. This is easier to plan than it sounds. We chose which direction they would each face and all of that. This was all dictated by the position of the sun.


Prepping for the Shoot

After our brief meeting, I was left alone for over an hour in the park while he went and picked up his soon-to-be fiancée. During this time, I marked out my spots. I found a great concealed place to shoot from behind a row of plants.

By looking at the sun and how things were positioned, I knew I wouldn't be needing fill flash. This made working out my exposure easier. I switched my camera to manual and took a few test shots. I had plenty of time to examine the histogram and work out what I should be shooting at. I even dialed in a manual white balance.

This is the main view of where the proposal would take place.
This is the main view of where the proposal would take place.

I also worked out my approach. I knew that eventually I would start walking toward the couple after the initial proposal, so I wanted to practice that a few times, too.

Finally, I did a little scouting for the portraits.


Time to Shoot

After getting a few strange looks while I was hiding in the bushes, I got a text message and knew it was time. I'll walk you through what happened next visually.

He decided to blindfold her, which made my stealth attack unneeded. It actually let me get into position faster. I highly suggest this if it works for the couple.
He decided to blindfold her, which made my stealth attack unneeded. It actually let me get into position faster. I highly suggest this if it works for the couple.
A tender moment before the actual proposal. I shot it tighter first.
A tender moment before the actual proposal. I shot it tighter first.
After I got my first shot, I zoomed out and shot a wider image. With a short event like this, it's essential that you create some variety in your images. No one wants 20 pictures that look the same.
After I got my first shot, I zoomed out and shot a wider image. With a short event like this, it's essential that you create some variety in your images. No one wants 20 pictures that look the same.
Do not follow my advice about visual variety when it comes to capturing the most important moments. Take several images of the key moment to make sure you absolutely have it. Don't fiddle around with focal length at such an important time.
Do not follow my advice about visual variety when it comes to capturing the most important moments. Take several images of the key moment to make sure you absolutely have it. Don't fiddle around with focal length at such an important time.
When shooting proposals, the knee photo is not the last photo. A proposal is an interaction between two parties. You need to make sure you convey the feelings of everyone involved. Don't get too focused on one person.
When shooting proposals, the knee photo is not the last photo. A proposal is an interaction between two parties. You need to make sure you convey the feelings of everyone involved. Don't get too focused on one person.

Time to Reveal Myself

After the most important part was over, I started moving in. I didn't yell, and I moved as quietly as possible. I wanted to avoid detection as long as I could.

They were way too into each other to notice me.
They were way too into each other to notice me.

This completely paid off because I captured what I think is the best image of the day.

This was my favorite image. It perfectly says "proposal" without being too obvious or cliché.
This was my favorite image. It perfectly says "proposal" without being too obvious or cliché.

Mimicking a Portrait from the Past

Next, we wanted to shoot a few portraits. First, I let them chat and enjoy each other for around ten minutes while I got in position. I always find it help to announce when you're going to take a few minutes to move things around or set up. Let them know they can ignore you and talk amongst themselves.

One of the portraits they requested was a modern take on an old image. The boyfriend has a beloved photo of his parents from around the time they got engaged. We tried to mimic the pose as best we could.

This is a great idea for an engagement shoot, though keep in mind that professional engagement shoots weren't done very often 20 or 30 years ago. You may be trying to imitate a snapshot.

proposal10

For this image, I tried to use my umbrella. Unfortunately the sun was just too bright. I resorted to using my flash bare. It's not the softest light, but I feel that it matches the look of the rest of the shoot because it look like direct sunlight.

White Shirts

If I learned one lesson from this shoot, it was to think a little harder about wardrobe. The boyfriend's shirt caused me a world of pain during the portrait session. I was incredibly hard to keep from blowing out. If you have the chance, request your subject wear a blue shirt or some other dark color.

In order to minimize the white shirt, I often posed the boyfriend in profile so the area of his shirt was smaller. I also posed the girlfriend in front of the boyfriend to hide it. My final technique was to just let it blow it out when I thought it wouldn't look too bad. The last trick works best when there are other white objects in the frame


Other Portraits

For the last round of portraits, we walked around the historical park which had some wonderful old houses and structures on it. I loved including houses in the photos because it suggests that the couple is building their life together or creating a happy home. I wanted to be quick and spontaneous and the light was pretty good because it was late in the day, so I ditched the flashes and worked with natural light again.

Experiment with poses where only one person is looking at the camera. You can see in this shot, I just let the white shirt blow out against the other whites in the background.
Experiment with poses where only one person is looking at the camera. You can see in this shot, I just let the white shirt blow out against the other whites in the background.

In this next image, I tried under exposing for the white shirt, and this created a very moody photo that draws your eye right to the couple. I did dodge them up a little, but not much.

proposal12

This last image is one of my favorite portraits from the session. There's all sorts of symbolism used to convey an engagement or even a wedding. Some is even borderline cliché (a couple walking down a path with their backs turned to the camera). But this image is different. Take a look.

proposal13

The empty porch is a perfect symbol for a new couple. it's something they can fill together. This couple also lives in the South, and front porches have a lot of meaning their, too. They're a cultural touchstone. I think the image looks even better in black and white.

proposal14

Go for the Moments

There's a lot of technical things to keep in mind when you're shooting a once-in-lifetime fast-moving event. However, the most important thing to remember is capture good moments. It shouldn't be hard. This couple is in love and starting their journey together. They will be incredibly happy. Whatever you do, don't get in the way of that.

Most of the portraits you see in this tutorial are more or less undirected. I just said, "stand there, face this way." Then I let them do their thing.

If you have any questions or thoughts about shooting a proposal, please leave them in the comments below!

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