Reflections on my own Engagement Portraits / by Brian Surguine

Recently, I got engaged. There's a flurry of excitement when friends find out - "OMG CONGRATULATIONS WE'VE BEEN WAITING FOR THIS FOR A LONG TIME" - which is always fun to watch. We're starting to put together our wedding website, so we needed engagement portraits.

Typically, part of my many-faceted job as a photographer is to understand what each couple wants and help them feel comfortable in front of the camera. Every couple is different: some are completely transparent and are immediately willing to let you in to their intimate moments while you point a camera at them, while some take a bit of warming up. Marsie and I - even in our own photos - felt extremely awkward posing for the camera.

The engagement photo stereotype: lovey couple. Missing: Golden hour.

The engagement photo stereotype: lovey couple. Missing: Golden hour.

Originally, the plan was to set up an elaborately staged photo on the shore of Lake Michigan, but weather and holiday-season exhaustion quickly dampened those plans. We were shooting in a drizzle in very rapidly fading light; I wanted to capture the beautiful moodiness of the dark, overcast evening. (When I mentioned that I wanted to shoot in that light, some of our family looked at us with a look that said: "Are you sure??")

Sea and Rain, James McNeill Whistler (1865, France)

Sea and Rain, James McNeill Whistler (1865, France)

While planning for the shoot, I remembered a James McNeill Whistler painting I liked to admire in the University of Michigan Museum of Art: Sea and Rain. Whistler paints a solitary figure partially shrouded by mist in a beautifully understated harmony of muted colors. Knowing how Marsie might not feel comfortable posing for the camera, I set out to recreate Sea and Rain for our engagement pictures.

Web compression doesn't do this one justice: I love the subtle tones of gray in the original.

Web compression doesn't do this one justice: I love the subtle tones of gray in the original.

This one is my personal favorite. For this shot, I set up a medium format camera on a tripod and set a 3 second shutter at f/10. It's a very atypical engagement picture - I got some puzzled looks with this one.

I love how this one feels slightly surreal.

I love how this one feels slightly surreal.

This one is Marsie's favorite. Because of the long shutter, we had to stand very still - resulting in sharp silhouettes and foreground, but beautifully blurred water. This image is a simple study in grays and blues, and I like how the vividness of the blue water and sky really contrasts with our dark figures. We like how the image doesn't feel forced, but captures our personality as a couple, in one of our most-frequented locations on the shore of Lake Michigan. Both are pictures we'll enjoy for a long time.

Ultimately, this was a wonderfully enjoyable experience for me as a photographer. I've long held that the wedding industry creates and reinforces certain stereotypes - I've been guilty of doing that myself - and while these stereotypes work for some, they are definitely not one-size-fits-all. But after seeing the results from my own portrait session, I find myself excited to try more stereotype-defying engagement portrait ideas in the future.