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Four Types of Engagement Sessions

Today's post is an excerpt from the book Engagement Portraiture: Master Techniques for Digital Photographers, by Tracy Dorr. It is available from
Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

When planning an engagement session, you will h
ave many stylistic options available to you. No matter what style you choose, however, you will have two main avenues for executing it: a formal approach or an informal approach. Although the formal session is usually shot in a more traditional studio setting, I suggest that you try to think more broadly of “formal” as your approach to dealing with the customers. The same goes for the “informal”approach.

Choose your location wisely. Traditionally, formal shoots often take place in a studio setting with lights and backdrops. Pose your couple carefully and pay attention to everything from posture to hand positioning and hairstyling. You have total control in these situations, so take advantage of that. Photograph by Nicole Knauber.


The classic, traditional engagement photo is a formal portrait. In the 1800s, portraits were necessarily serious and formal due to the extremely long exposure times that were required by the photographic technologies of the day. As higher film speeds became available, portraits took on a somewhat happier vibe; the subjects were smiling and more comfortable, but still formal and looking directly into the camera. Since the digital revolution, photojournalism has deeply impacted the style of portraits clients desire, but there is still a large market for a more formal approach to an engagement portrait. If your clients are interested in a more formal approach, or if you are more comfortable shooting that way, you will need to decide if the session will be done in a studio setting with multiple backdrops or props, or if you will go on location. Formal shoots are typically created in a studio sitting, but if you do choose to go on location, think about more formal locations—like a church or museum, as opposed to a beach or heavily urban setting that will define your shoot before you even begin. The location you choose will directly impact the formal mood of your photos.

Formal sessions are not limited to a studio setting. Creativity may lead you to an unusual location that fits the couple’s personality. Scout out the location to make sure it will enhance the formal mood, not detract from it. Photograph by Evan Laettner.

When posing your couple, make sure to look for every flattering nuance and try out several different poses. They should generally be looking into the camera and their body language should be les
s relaxed. Think of an upright posture, folded hands, turned-in bodies, and seated or standing shots. Their bodies and faces should be angled toward the camera, not straight-on like a mug shot. Even though you don’t need as many exposures for formal portraits as you would for a more candid session, you still have the opportunity to use the digital media to your advantage. Keep shooting. Feel free to experiment with as many different poses and combinations as you like.

You can always choose only the best one or completely delete anything that didn’t work. Ultimately, you are ensuring that the couple will have more selection in the end. Clients looking for a formal sitting will be more detail-ori
ented and will be looking for perfection. You don’t have the same kind of creative liberty to make artistic “errors” as you do in photojournalistic portraits.


An informally styled engagement session can either be posed in a relaxed manner or it could
take place as a totally photojournalistic shoot. You can also develop a combination of the two if you are skilled at directing and interacting with your clients. If your studio’s shooting area is limited in size, these types of sessions may work better on location. Additionally, the more relaxed atmosphere of an outdoor setting alleviates the stiffness of a traditional studio setting, something that is integral to a more informal approach. A session that is still traditionally posed but executed in a more relaxed, informal manner is the most widely accepted type of session today. In this type of session, the clients may still be rather traditionally posed, but you will develop the poses as you go. You should give the clients direction and talk them through each pose, but allow them to be comfortable and to be themselves. This contrasts with a purely photojournalistic type of session, in which you provide little or no posing direction but concentrate, instead, on capturing your clients as they really are.

Informally posed sessions are a popular choice. They allow you to modernize an old concept and flatter any couple or location. Photograph by Evan Laettner.

Informal sessions differ from photojournalistic ones because you will still be giving direction throughout the shoot. You may say, “Hold hands and walk toward me,” or “Put your hand on his cheek” in order to achieve the desired result. The clients will

have some room to experiment and act on impulse, but you maintain control by giving direction. You are not trying to achieve technical perfection with these poses, just create a nice moment with excellent lighting, an attractive background, and an appealing overall mood. Photograph by Evan Laettner.


The couple will decide for themselves what they want to wear for their engagement shoot, but you may find yourself in the position to give advice. They may call and ask your opinion, show up with several outfits and ask you to choose, or you may be mor
e proactive and recommend certain choices to them in advance. If they show up with several choices, consider what outfits will best fit the mood and style of your location. (Asking which is their favorite is never a bad idea either.) If you are in conversation with them prior to the shoot, begin with a series of questions. “What style are we going for with this shoot?” “Where would you like to do it?” “Do you want to be relaxed and be yourself, or are you looking to do something different that you ordinarily wouldn’t do?” If the answer to that is yes, then ask, “Are we thinking more fashion-forward?” “Totally uninhibited and creative?” “Textured and urban inspired?” Depending on their answers, you should be able to decide between the five-inch heels or sandals and between evening wear or jeans. For example, if you plan to shoot in the forest or in a park setting, high heels will dig into the soft ground and a very short, tight skirt will not allow the woman to conveniently sit or crawl up onto something. (This is especially important if you are shooting in a place that carries potential risks, like a junkyard or back alley.) If you are shooting on a city sidewalk, or in a theater, or at a museum, then go for the heels.

Let the couple’s personal style influence how you shoot and what angles you choose. Photograph by Kelly Moore. What if the walk to your location is long and the woman’s shoes are acutely uncomfortable? That would be wise to discuss in advance. If the couple wants to be experimental, then comfort is a must. They must be able to do anything that comes to mind and experiment with wild poses or locations. The type of wardrobe the couple chooses will also directly define the mood of your photographs. If the wardrobe completely compliments the location you chose, then the finished product will be incredibly cohesive. Encourage them to tell a story with their outfits and showcase their own personalities.

Sometimes an unexpected mix of two opposite things creates a unique vibe in your image. Formal attire in the desert would not be everyone’s first choice, but here Dave and Quin Cheung demonstrate that two contradictory styles create one highly fashionable and impactful image. The style, location, delicate posing and bold red color all work together seamlessly and tell one really intriguing story.


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