Engagement + Proposals

Pulling Off the Elevated Editorial Engagement Shoot

October 25, 2019

By Jen Huang

Photos © Jen Huang

When I first started shooting weddings, I had not even considered offering engagement shoots. It wasn’t until my clients started asking me about engagement shoots that I began to offer them. The engagement photos that I remember were the kind you’d see in The New York Times: a couple wearing sweaters, embracing on a rock in Manhattan’s Central Park. As a matter of fact, a handful of my clients wanted their engagement announcement in the Times, which came with strict rules: the couple had to be sitting next to each other and their eyes had to line up horizontally. Usually we took photos in an iconic New York neighborhood like the West Village or South Street Seaport. Our shoot consisted of about an hour of walking around, avoiding taxis and parked cars, trying to find interesting backdrops for them to cuddle in front of. 

My first engagement photos weren’t terrible, but they weren’t very inspiring. I would usually ask couples to kiss or hug in more or less the same arrangement while I tried to find clever compositions. I rarely, if ever, asked about attire or hair and makeup in advance. My couples showed up in whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted. At least I knew the most beautiful light was right around sunset, so I would suggest the timing. 

Over the years, as I began to grow tired of the monotony in my work, I started to experiment and change my methods, to insert myself in the process and to create the look that I’m known for now: artful, meaningful, romantic, light-filled portraits, where one image is strong enough to tell the whole story.

Changes to my work started once I began to see my role as not just a photographer but a creative director. As a wedding photographer, you don’t have a team of full-time assistants, designers, stylists and directors around you. However, some of the finest portrait work that we know today (think big fashion photographers) is created with a huge team of creatives. For the everyday human getting married, it’s not possible to hire an extravagant team, so if you want to create the big-ticket photos, you have be the team.

[Michael Busse’s Approach to a Creative Couple’s “Anti-Engagement” Shoot]

That doesn’t mean that you need to aim for Annie Leibovitz-level productions, but it does mean taking a bigger role in the creation of the engagement shoot—and, of course, increasing your rates to cover that. Engagements used to be a “wedding package” add-on for me, but now they exist as a separate project. For many of my clients, my engagement shoots look more like elopements, or editorial wedding shoots. They’re longer, full-day affairs, involving multiple wardrobe changes, a full-time hair and makeup artist, a beautiful paid location and various props and details. 

I had wondered why none of my clients wanted a more involved engagement shoot like this until I realized that I actually had to start offering it first. I began to dream for my clients, giving suggestions and options. Little by little, I found that my clients were genuinely surprised by my suggestions, that they loved my ideas but never realized it was within their reach. After sharing their “dream” engagement shoots (which I now present as “Editorial Sessions”), they went on to inspire other inquiring clients. Naturally, it gained momentum from there. 

It’s not a new concept. When I visited China many years ago, my family that lived there explained that in Asia, most couples would book a full day to do a couple’s portrait session with rented outfits and painted backdrops. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but I realize now that while the photography style in Asia is very different from mine, the idea is the same: to build a dream for a couple.

The only thing I’ve changed is that I try to create novel concepts from client to client, rather than reusing the same rental clothing or props (and, as always, I prefer shooting in natural light and in natural environments). 

Of course, this type of engagement session won’t work for everyone. The time commitment is huge—it’s almost like a mini-wedding. I spend hours on the phone with clients to understand their vision and style. I connect with vendors, prepare schedules and props. I conduct a mountain of research so that I can find the best locations, great outfits and new concepts.

[Upselling Albums to Wedding Clients and Playing the Long Game]

And creating an engagement shoot like this is expensive. Many of my current clients have the budget to make these shoots glamorous, but when I first started shooting, I paid for everything myself. I used profits as an investment and purchased expensive fabrics, attire, bridal hair accessories, styling tools, a trove of antiques and even furniture. I continue collecting everywhere I go because I’m passionate about creating new content instead of recycling old. 

This isn’t something you would do unless you actually love the process, which I do. All of this is a lot of work and a huge commitment, but it’s very close to my heart and it keeps me motivated and inspired.

I also shoot simpler engagement shoots for clients that don’t want a giant production. But even in those cases, I’m there with them throughout the planning process. I scout locations, I create a story, I advise on wardrobe and accessories and provide referrals for hair and makeup artists. I also work with my couple to find the style that resonates most with them. Some of my couples are glamorous; some are casual. In those cases, it’s important to make sure casual doesn’t look too shabby, and glamorous doesn’t look too overdone. That’s where I come in, to edit and curate the shoot so that it will look the best that it can.

[3 Trends Impacting the Tastes and Styles of Engagement Sessions]

Some of my shorter engagement shoots are still part of larger wedding packages and are generally more popular among those who prefer something simple and classic, but I find that many clients find me specifically for my elevated engagement shoot experience. Some couples who have already been married but want to be photographed by me actually book my engagement sessions as anniversary shoots. 

Many of my clients come to me knowing what results they want, but they’re not exactly sure how to put it all together. They’re relieved to know that I can tell the story for them, and that increases my value as a photographer.

Remember that your client is looking to you as an artist. They choose you because of your unique aesthetic. Have confidence in yourself, and provide the direction that your clients need in order to create work that reflects your personal style and vision. 

Jen Huang is a fine-art wedding and portrait photographer who, over the last decade, has photographed in over 20 countries and on six different continents. A photography educator who offers a variety of instructional and inspirational materials, she recently came out with a new book, The Master Guide to Fine Art Wedding Photography.