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Step-by-Step Guide to an Engagement Session

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This post is part of a series called How to Shoot Perfect Portraits.
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(sigh) L'amore ... Boy meets girl, they like each other, they love each other, and they decide to get married. Although not often done until about 10 or so years ago, the engagement session has become part of a couple's - and wedding photographer's - photography needs.

Aside from the wedding day itself, these photographs are really important and useful to the couple. They showcase their love and can be used for "Save the Dates," wedding decor, and other things related to their big day.

For the photographer, it is an additional opportunity to have your work presented before the big day as well as get to know the couple's dynamic when a camera is present. So, here is a step-by-step guide of planning, shooting, and delivering an engagement session.


The Gear

Chances are you're also the wedding photographer for this couple and the engagement session is either part of your package or is an add-on. In either case, know that they've made an investment in you for the long haul. So, don't do this session and especially their wedding with amateur equipment (slow lenses, point-and-shoot, etc.) and don't bog yourself down with too much equipment.

This is most likely the first time they will see how you work and see your work with themselves in it. Come prepared.

Now, before you see this list, remember that you don't need the very best to achieve professional results, but quality is quality and your skill level should be able to meet the challenge and adjust to changing conditions.

  • 2 - Canon 1D Mark IV bodies
  • 16-35mm f/2.8 lens
  • 24-70mm f/2.8 lens
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 lens with "IS" ("VR" for you Nikon guys)
  • 2 - 580EX II w/compact stands and umbrella swivels
  • radio triggers & receivers (PocketWizard Flex system)

The important part isn't the flagship cameras, but the glass. Notice that it's professional grade and fast. This keeps my ISO low and my shutter speed high for cleaner, sharper images in more situations. Canon has a good line-up of f/4L lenses if the f/2.8L versions are too pricey.

Since I usually work alone, I keep everything light and compact. It also keeps a small footprint, drawing less attention to itself than a larger production - a good thing if pesky security guards or park staff are around. If you have an assistant, you can bring more stuff.

Now, onto the actual steps!


1. Location, Location, Location


This Franciscan monastery was one of the many familiar locations that would work. (Photo: Daniel Sone)

If you're going to be doing an engagement session that isn't in a studio, then you should have a few good places where you can shoot at the ready for your couple to choose. Preferably, these should be locations that offer good light and plenty of shot variety. You should also have some places that don't require permits and are public property, like parks.

Many times couples don't know where they'd like to have their session, it is very helpful to everyone if you have some places that are familiar to you. Pick places that have character, textures, dramatic lighting, and are safe.

A helpful tip is to look at what other photographers have done for their sessions or Google "engagment session [insert location]" and discover some new places.


2. Meeting the Couple

Aside from your portfolio, the meeting with the couple is where you seal the deal. Providing additional samples of your work and deliverables such as prints or books goes a long way. With so much being online and digital, it is a nice touch to have some tangibles for your couple.

Talk with them and find out about their story, their wedding, and their plans afterward. Listen to their stories carefully and take notes on the details so that you can find a personalized theme or location. Get each person's perspective because although their stories are similar their details will vary.

When asked about your ideas for the shoot, keep your photographic abilities and equipment capabilities in mind. Don't promise them a Leibovitz-style shoot if you don't have gear or crew to do it. Keep these ideas within your style, approach, and abilities.

This interview not only is a sales pitch of sorts, but also a way to gauge your client to see if they're the right fit for you. If they just want you to copy someone else's work, then they may not be the right fit. If they don't care about the session or don't respect you, then politely have them look elsewhere.

Nightmare clients are simply not worth the headache, even if they pay well.


3. The Contract

Always have a contract, even if they're your friends or relatives. This is a professional service and a contract is a document that clearly states what each side is to expect from the other. This is especially true if money is being exchanged for your photography services.


A simple handshake or verbal agreement is nice ... until things go wrong. Get everything in writing. (Photo: Svadilfari)

Your contract should have clear language, be easy to read/understand, and not be very long. It should include the following:

  • Client information
  • Time, date, and duration of the session
  • Session location
  • Payment terms, amount, and schedule
  • Deliverables (prints, disc, etc.)
  • Liability limits
  • Copyright and usage terms
  • Legal jurisdiction

Both parties must sign the contract. If this is being paid or contracted by someone who is not the couple itself, it is wise to obtain additional signatures and model releases from those who will be photographed. That way, everyone involved has their contractual obligations.

Don't make your contract intimidating by making it very long, with tons of fine print, or a lot of legalese. This can intimidate your client and may make them uneasy about working with you. If your contract starts looking like a credit card agreement, revise it.


4. Get Paid

You should collect a deposit at the time of the contract signing. Since you're devoting a chunk of time and resources to this client, other business must be turned away. If they "no show" or reschedule on your last-minute, you've lost time and money. People tend to adhere to their obligations better if there is some sort of penalty.


(Photo: 401(K) 2012)

Typically, this deposit is non-refundable and 50% of the agreed price. This deposit helps ensure that your client shows up and you show up. The balance can be collected the day of the shoot or whatever your contract has stipulated.

Do NOT begin work or transfer any rights until the appropriate payments have been made. Stipulate any consequences for late/non-payment in your contract.


5. Follow-up

Assuming you've contracted with this couple, follow up with them and recap what was discussed. Provide them with copies of their contract as well as any related documentation. Be sure to send out those copies promptly to your client.

If there are months or weeks between your contracting date and the actual shoot date, keep in contact with your client regarding ideas, locations, changes, or potential changes. This not only keeps you on task, but shows your client that you care.


6. Scout the Location

Even if you know a location like the back of your hand, it never hurts to go back there again. Visit the area at the time your session is scheduled so you can take note of the light, weather, and if the place is crowded, accessible, and other things.


The lighting in these corridors varies greatly depending upon the time of day. (Photo: Daniel Sone)

Take your camera and snap photos of spots that have potential to work well for your session and see how many interesting angles you can get from each spot. Take good exposures so you can reference them later. This will help you dial-in your settings faster on the day of the shoot.


A quick n' dirty method of judging how the light will edge my subject as well as the contrast ratio between highlights and shadows. I had to know when ambient was fine and when to use fill-flash. (Photo: Daniel Sone)

Pay attention to the parking situation, insects and pollen, and all these little details that could affect the technical and logistical aspects of your shoot. If your client is allergic to flowers, a botanical garden may not be a good idea. If it's very crowded with people or other distracting things, it may not work either.


Open courtyard providing multiple angles with little obstructions. The dappled light could prove useful. (Photo: Daniel Sone)

Take time to wander beyond your prime locations and investigate the surrounding area. You may find some extra spots, giving you more options.


This spot was a gem. Gave me 5 good angles totaling 11 shots in the final edit. (Photo: Daniel Sone)

7. Mind the Details

I haven't done as many engagement sessions as I have done weddings, but paying attention to your client's details and the details in your photographs is invaluable. Doing these kind of shoots isn't just about the shot, but making the experience pleasurable to your client.


That little mirror and hair comb I provided proved formidable allies in the battle with the balmy air. (Photo: Daniel Sone)

With your photo kit, take a cosmetics kit too. You don't need to necessarily have make-up in it, but it should have items that resolve shiny foreheads, misbehaving hair, and the like. Consider the following items:

  • Hair ties or bobby pins
  • Disposable haircomb
  • Facial tissue
  • Small mirror
  • Moist wipes
  • Safety pins

Your client will appreciate the fact you have these when the need arises to retouch make-up, discipline hair, or even "tailor" clothing. Just toss these into a side pouch in your bag and you're good to go.

Aside from that, keep an eye for distracting elements in your photographic composition. Having flag poles or street lights sticking out of people's heads or a busy background is fast way to ruin an otherwise great photo.

Photoshop's Content-Aware Fill is an excellent tool, but it is much easier to ask someone to move or to recompose rather than retouching.


8. Permissions & Permits

Some places are open to the public, but are actually private property. Parks, museums, gardens, churches and more may have rules regarding certain kinds of professional photography.

Make sure you have the appropriate permits to do your session and allow enough time for the permitting process to go through. Any permitting fees should be paid by the client. Not directly, but through the total cost of the session.

Make sure you speak to the appropriate personnel and know who the on-duty manager will be at the time as well as their contact information should there be any issues or questions.


9. Arriving Early

Both you and your client should arrive at the location early in order to have time to make any last-minute adjustments and have a little pre-shoot brief. If your client wants to do multiple wardrobe changes, take a look at their selections. Help them narrow their selection to a few pieces that will fit within your session time.

Arriving early also gives everyone time to relax and get used to being around one another in this collaborative effort. I am a photojournalist, but I still need to interact with my couple in order to keep them on task and elicit real expressions from them. I don't do a lot of posing, but I still need to provide my couple context and goals so that a good collection of images can be made.


10. Start Simple

At the beginning the couple is very aware of the camera and they'll tend to default to their "cheese" smiles that they have been programmed to do since childhood. During these first few frames and few minutes, you're also very camera aware trying to get your settings right and some good shots.

During this opening phase, be very encouraging to your couple to be themselves and how they naturally are with each other. The point is to get your couple to forget you're there and to forget that the clock is ticking. Everybody needs to have fun and enjoy this experience.

I personally like to operate with the 24-70mm lens at this time because it keeps me close enough to easily adjust any poses, but the 70mm gives me enough reach for when I need to back off a little or zoom in really tight. I like the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens because it has a very close focusing distance, allowing for some "macro" detail shots.


28mm (Photo: Daniel Sone)

50mm (Photo: Daniel Sone)

70mm "macro" (Photo: Daniel Sone)

On the other body, I'll keep the 16-35mm just in case I need to pull back for more of an environmental shot. I don't use it too much because it distorts at the wide end. However, on the 1.3x crop sensor of the 1D Mark IV, I pretty much have a 50mm f/2.8 when I rack it to 35mm. It is easier to max the zoom on the 16-35mm to get that 50mm feel than it is to find it on the 24-70mm mid-moment.


11. Work the Composition

As you and your couple begin to relax, your photos will steadily improve and you'll notice little nuances and interactions begin to surface as they lose awareness of you.

Stay in the camera and keep shooting, moving around to get various angles. Your job is to capture their dynamic. Some couples are bland, some are playful, others tender or romantic.

Once this dynamic is in place, start using good composition to make sure that the emotion and dynamic - their story - translates into the photo.

I heavily use the rule of thirds, visual triangles, lights and darks, and leading lines to control the attention of the viewer and balance it with the expressions of my subjects to create storytelling imagery.

I also break these rules, but only if I have a really good reason or I have another rule in place to offset the fact I did a "no no". For example, you should never place your subject in the middle of the frame, but sometimes the symmetry or leading lines will make that fact not matter.


Yes, they're smack in the center, but the lines lead to them. (Photo: Daniel Sone)

12. Provide Variety

Humans are creatures of habit and that can be hazardous to your shoot. If you have tons of photos of your couple doing the same thing, it gets boring very fast.

Keep in mind that your couple aren't the only people who will see and want these images. You should keep your shots interesting, but throw in some of the more traditional stuff that older parents and relatives tend to enjoy.

This variety is good for both the client and yourself. Firstly, you're not boring yourself and you won't bore your client and reduce the risk of them calling back asking, "do you have anything else?"

So, if you notice your couple just keeps doing the same thing over and over, intervene and inspire them to try something else. You can also change locations, wardrobe, or whatever to get the variety you need to deliver.


13. Wrap It Up

Although your goal is to get your couple to forget the clock, you shouldn't. Your contract has a set time frame and you shouldn't go too far outside of it because your client isn't obligated to pay you. However, in the name of good customer service and the potential of your best shot being the one that is 15 minutes past your contract time, you usually should.

By this time your client should be totally relaxed and having a great time. If you go over your time limit by a little and your couple has enjoyed themselves, then they'll be more than happy to conclude the session.

Take a quick peek at your watch and say, "Oh, we were doing so well that we went over our time. Here let's just get a few more before we go." Then just snap a few more frames before your actually end the session.


Gotta be in the viewfinder to catch the apex of the moment. (Photo: Daniel Sone)

Ending the session like this shows the couple you actually enjoy what you do and aren't in it just for the money and it shows that you're there for them, going the extra mile. This translates into positive reviews and word-of-mouth marketing (hint hint).


We're not only past our session time, but reaching the AF limits of my camera. It was very dim (1/30sec, f/2.8, ISO 6400). But I can't pass up a moment like this. (Photo: Daniel Sone)

14. Organizing & Archiving

So, the shoot is over, but the job isn't. I make sure all my gear is accounted for and head back to the studio to begin downloading the images. I apply basic metadata, rename the files, and do a multi-location back-up. I don't clear off my cards until all the data at all the locations has been verified.

Make sure you compare the contents of your cards with the contents of the archive to make sure every photo was copied. Sometimes duplicate filenames are ignored when downloading from multiple cameras and cards.

Because this part is tedious and time-consuming, I highly recommend using the fastest cards and fastest transfer interface you can afford. I use SanDisk Extreme Pro CF (UDMA) and SDHC (Class 10, UHS) cards via a USB 3.0 reader and connection. These little things save so much time.


15. Processing & Deadline Monitoring

Make sure you don't wait too long before beginning the editing and post-processing part of your shoot. You have stipulated a deadline for when the photos would be ready and delivered to the client. Make sure that you've given yourself enough cushion to account for technical difficulties, other tasks so that you can be on time.

I take around 3 weeks to turnaround the images because my sessions are about 2 hours long and my deliverables (prints, etc.) aren't very complex or high in volume. This window gives me enough time to personally tend to each image I'll work on as well as compensate for any down time (power outage, other jobs, etc.) that may creep up.

It is this step where time and project management is crucial because it is the part that takes the longest. If you spend too much time, you're making less money. If you spend too little time, you'll miss your deadline and potentially breach your contract.


16. Keep in Touch

I usually send a quick follow-up email or make a phone call to the client, thanking them for letting me be a part of their journey together. I also keep in contact with them two or three more times during the post-processing phase so that they're reassured the project is progressing.

To keep your couple and their friends and relatives interested, you may want to grab a handful of images and make a blog post, giving a sneak peek into the session. Do this in conjunction with the phone calls and emails as proof that you're actually working on the images. It's not that your client doesn't trust you, but seeing is believing.


17. Deliver in Style


Doing a personal inspection of the custom disc case. It costs a little more, but I'm sure it won't get clumped with their other DVDs.

Presentation of your photos is almost as important as the photographs themselves. It shows that you care and are attentive to detail. It also adds value to your client's investment, especially if you're providing high quality materials that are customized to them.

I tend to be more expensive than other single shooters out there, but I don't just provide prints or a disc. I provide prints on the same professional paper I use for my own artwork and the disc comes in a customized case, personalized to them. I use high quality materials and couple it with personalization and personal attention. Even the paper on the follow-up letters aren't ordinary copy paper.

Combine this with great photographs, and enjoyable experience, and professionalism and you have a winning combination.


Conclusion

I hope this step-by-step guide on doing an engagement session helps you with your business. I didn't provide specific shooting tips but more pointers on things that will improve the overall experience and prevent obstacles that could bring your session to a grinding halt.

Remember that good preparation is the foundation of every photograph and professionalism is the foundation of every great photographer.

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