While the wedding ceremony and festivities can often be packaged into a tidy weekend, the engagement period usually lasts several months, and it is comprised of the planning, booking, preparing, tailoring and hiring, all of which lead to the actual marriage.
The extended time period makes it quite a challenge to cover the engagement from beginning to end, as a wedding photojournalist would do with a wedding. So, to capture the couple during their committed but not-yet-married period, it makes a good deal of sense to joint them on a venture to a scenic spot for a portrait session. However, this should not be considered merely a chance to recreate those traditional, cheek-to-cheek shots with a soft focus that find their way into the local weekly newspaper. Portraits can be so much more.
A number of WPJA members have ventured entirely outside the box in composing creative engagement shots. These innovative photographers catch their couples in highly unusual settings or moments, sometimes even being obscure in the process. The result is stunning and memorable images. The members who create these images are taking the rulebook of traditional engagement portraits and throwing it out the window.
“Basically, with all my photos, I don't have any rules,” states WPJA member Ben Chrisman.
And while these wedding photojournalists will still likely oblige mom and dad's requests for some traditional-style close up engagement portraits, most will also include a number of eye-opening images that flirt with the creative edge.
One approach of portrait sessions involves setting up shots in predetermined environments; another involves locations that are conducive to great spontaneity and creativity. Marc Andrew, a Minneapolis, MN, USA-based wedding photographer, has found that choosing the right backdrop for his engagement sessions is a critical part of the process since, in his view the environment often becomes another character in the photos with the couple.
“I try to find unorthodox spaces to document within, and I'm sort of fanatical to find no two that are alike,” he says. “If you go to the same spaces over and over, you can wind up with the same pictures.”
Andrew finds that there's no shortage of unique and interesting spaces in which he can capture creative portraits, though he does admit to having a slight affinity for taking couples to somewhat distressed areas like abandoned warehouses or unused barns.
However, for his WPJA award-winning photo, Andrew brought his couple to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and an installation that was essentially a large, open-air box. Utilizing all the lines and the space of the structure, he captured a peaceful moment of the couple enclosed within the walls yet with an open sky above.
“With that shot, I tried to pre-visualize what to do, but you have to see how the couples interact,” Andrew explains. “That's when you can start playing with different shapes and forms.”
There are a number of uncontrollable variables that still will keep the photographer on his or her toes in the quest for great images.
One of those unknowns is the availability and angle of natural light. Chrisman uses the ever-changing position of the sun as an asset by getting different shots throughout the day of the engagement portrait session. And he does, in fact, make it a day, usually starting around 3 p.m. and ending sometime around 9 p.m. or later, visiting special client-selected locations.
“I just ask them to go to a couple of spots that are meaningful to them, but from there, I'm just chasing the light,” he says.
When the sun starts to set and the shadows get long, all the better. “I'm a sucker for shadows and silhouettes,” Chrisman concedes.
One evening in San Francisco, CA, USA, Chrisman found himself with clients running up and down the city's hilly streets in a quest to extend the sunset as long as possible. At one point, the couple stopped close to a porch, but instead of catching them in the sinking sunlight, he instead captured their silhouette in a kiss.
Such photos serve another purpose: they give potential clients a chance to envision themselves in creative poses in a way that traditional, close up shots can't because they're focused on the people.
“I push it as far as I can creatively take it. It spurs me creatively to try to come up with something different every time,” Chrisman says.
A creative portrait session can also develop into a great way to learn about the couple's personality. While you may have some sense of who they are through the initial interview and conversations, here is an opportunity for formalities to fall by the wayside. They’ll let their guard down, and you’ll observe them simply being together. The photo session is their chance for whatever it is that connects them to shine. And through careful direction, you can help enable that. As a result, that special something that defines their bond will be captured in the photographs.
Discovering what indefinable thing that links two people together does not need to be tricky. It’s a matter of observing their personalities. Plan the session around their likes and interests? Ask ahead of time where they enjoy spending time together? What do they do for fun? For romance? Ask yourself what do you see in them that maybe they haven’t noticed themselves? The B&G will be delighted when they find out you’ve picked up on a particular quality they possess but hadn’t realized before.
An added benefit to the couple letting loose and having fun during the photo session is that you will get greater insight into what sort of wedding to expect. You will also learn how to best photograph them on the big day.
There's usually a strong understanding between the couple and the wedding photojournalist that while, yes, the portrait session is staged to a degree with the setting or some mild posing, the better, more unique shots come from the unplanned interactions.
“I tell them beforehand that this is going to be a collaborative effort between me and them,” Andrew says. “If you can get them to trust you, you can create these authentic photographs with people laughing and being playful.” Such emotions just can't be set up.
—by Paul Ziobro for the Wedding Photojournalist Association