My mother-in-law recently linked me to this Salon.com article called “I blame my fiancee for this engagement photo,” in which a man complained about the excessiveness of a staged engagement photo session. At the end of his article he conceded that he did have fun during the session, but the commenters of the article asserted that engagement sessions are a part of an over-inflated industry; that because he’s a male he has no say in the wedding plans; and that taking part of this photo session would somehow ruin the couple’s marriage because the fantasy of the photography wouldn’t live up to real life. To all of that I say: bollocks.
First, before we go any further, I’d like to say that I understand professional wedding photography is not for everyone. Some people just don’t feel the need to pay a person to show up and document their wedding day. They think that their money is better spent on an amazing chef, on a rockin’ DJ, or just better off not spent at all. These same folks are content with a friend with a camera who can capture the important photos in a straightforward manner (a kiss shot, a portrait with mom and dad… done!). I do not begrudge these people for their opinions, and instead I say, “Good for you!” Seriously — because what you want is what you want, and if photography isn’t important and is something you do not want, then don’t spend the money on it. It’s that simple.
I can also understand the hesitation to get involved in a photo session where you do such things as, and I quote from the article, “Laugh maniacally while sitting on a large pile of firewood,” or, “Walk through a meadow while holding old-timey luggage.” Let’s face it: there are many, many photographers out there, and a lot of — I wouldn’t say bad, but perhaps cheesy or cliché — photos have been created and pushed out into the world, that unfortunately give engagement sessions a less-than-favorable reputation.
But don’t tell people who have chosen to hire a wedding photographer (or to hire a dance troupe to perform, or to hire an opera singer, or to hire an artist to make an epic cake) that they are suckered into the Wedding Industrial Complex and are wasting money. (It’s rude, you know?) And don’t judge all engagement sessions by the ones you’ve seen before.
I may be a wedding vendor (and thus, in the eyes of some, am a co-conspirator who takes part in the Wedding Machine), but I feel like I’m one of the more practical ones. Also, I’m not a wedding photographer because I want to rip people off; I’m just a person with a passion for photography, who happens to find that photographing weddings is what gives me the most satisfaction and is where I want to focus my business, and I want what is best for the couples who come to me. Therefore, I try to guide my clients into choosing what best fits their needs, and I include an engagement session in all of my packages because I think it benefits them to have a session with me — their photographer — before their wedding day.
Reason #1: An engagement session allows the couple to get to know what it feels like to actually work with me and interact with me. By the time the wedding rolls around, they know what to expect and can relax around me (instead of feeling anxious that I am a paparazzo). I consider the engagement session somewhat of a “rehearsal” to the big day; the couple will understand how I work and that they can trust me to get their best angles and expressions. If they are pleased with their engagement photos, they will know what to expect for their wedding day portrait session; if they don’t like the engagement photos, we can communicate what it is they do not like so that I can be better prepared for their wedding day. A wedding is a once-in-a-lifetime event, so I want to be sure that I capture the couple as they want to be represented in their wedding-day photos.
Reason #2: It allows the couple to get to know each other in front of the camera. Couples interact differently when there are eyes on them. When we shoot the engagement session, I can find out how comfortable they want to be with each other. Some couples do not like kissing in public; some are very low-key and prefer to hold hands and walk and talk to each other during our sessions; some are very high-strung and let out tons of energy and come up with ideas on where they’d like the session to go. An engagement session may well be the first time that someone besides a friend is snapping photos of them, so the experience may reveal some hidden parts of their personalities. When my husband and I participated in our engagement session, for example, I found out that I can get very giddy when I’m anxious.
Reason #3: There are not many excuses to hire a photographer, so wedding photography is the biggest justification to invest in professional photography. A wedding is an event where family reunions, friendly get-togethers, special catering, Sunday-best clothing, and cake (or ice cream or pie!) all converge into one big, happy celebration. Engagement photos are an extension of this. It’s a taste of what the rest of the wedding will be (example: traditional engagement session to set the stage for the traditional wedding ceremony), or if the couple wants to get something crazy out of their collective system before the wedding, it can act as a release (example: couple chooses to dress up as their favorite book or movie characters, but their wedding is wholly them-as-themselves).
It’s just a bonus that the engagement session, which I use as a way to get to know my clients, bears pretty fruit: the engagement photos can be used for their wedding website, save-the-date items like magnets or postcards, thank-you cards for shower gifts, sign-in guestbooks for their wedding day, and the list goes on.
Reason #4: This reason is strictly for me. The truth is, the better I know the couple, the more I love showing up and photographing their wedding. I realized this when I shot Rachelle and Stephen’s engagement session (then Royal Tenenbaums bit right after). We became Facebook friends, Twitter contacts, and read each other’s blogs. By the time their wedding rolled around, I knew the ins and outs of their personalities and I was excited to see how their wedding plans came to fruition. Of course I am able to photograph a wedding with enthusiasm even if I haven’t shot the couple’s engagement session, and I am happy to do so! But I decided after Rachelle and Stephen’s wedding that I wanted to have a connection with each of my couples, so that at the very least they are comfortable enough with me to show their true personalities all day and can focus on getting married.
I encourage my clients to use the engagement session that best fits what they want and expresses who they are, as a couple. (If they have a passion for firewood, they can definitely sit on a pile of it and laugh maniacally; likewise, if they have a penchant for collecting old-timey luggage, they can use vintage suitcases as props if they’d like. But I don’t think I’ve met anyone who really likes these things.) If they have an idea that involves a 1954 Chevy because they are passionate about taking care of their vintage car together, I dig it. If they want to don a wig and a fur coat and pretend to be a doomed Wes Anderson couple because that’s the only movie they owned when they first moved in together, I dig it. If they want to take sweet photos in the park where he proposed to her, I dig it.
So for those halves of a couple who are being pigeonholed into participating in an engagement session, talk to your significant other about what you want your engagement session to encompass. This is your wedding, too, so have a conversation if it bothers you. As for the point made that “fantasy” photography will let you down when the wedding is over — photography is a tool that helps to tell a story. Your wedding is just a well-documented chapter of the story of your lives together. All I can humbly suggest is that you understand that the wedding is an awesome celebration, but keep in mind that your marriage is going to last a lot longer.