10 tips for picking an engagement session location | helpful hints series
Engagements sessions! I love them! Why? They document a particular time in your lives and help me get to know you better! When we get to the wedding day, we will use some of the same poses from the engagement session, so things won’t feel awkward or forced. Together, we learn what you’re like in front of the camera, your best angles, and how to make the most of them. Is your style silly and wild, or soft and romantic? And all of that makes for better wedding day photos! Ultimately, engagement sessions from my perspective are about getting you in front of the camera and practicing together. But for you, if we're going to all the effort to do an engagement session, why not make sure it's extra-awesome and really reflects the two of you as a couple? The very best way to do that is with your engagement session LOCATION!
There are some classic, go-to engagement session spots in the DC area... the Jefferson Memorial, the US Capitol, etc... but why not go a little bit more out of the box and do something different? Tons of my couples turn to me for advice on where to shoot their engagement session, and I LOVE to help. Not sure where to start in choosing your own location? Here's the advice I give my couples and the questions I ask as we narrow down options and make our ultimate choice!
1. Have a "why" for your location and tie it back to something in your life
One of the goals of an engagement session is to personify what YOUR love looks like, and to help me get to know you. As an added bonus, this makes your photos more interesting and memorable in the long run. Think about what works for you as a couple, and choose something you're both drawn to. Are you big craft beer fans? Let's plan a visit to a brewery or brewpub. Homebodies? Let's stay in and curl up with a blanket and bowl of popcorn on your sofa at home, or better yet head to the kitchen and whip up a tasty batch of cookies, complete with aprons and flour on your hands. Did you both love camp as kids? Let's grab some high-waisted shorts, vintage t-shirts, and head to a swimming hole with s'mores supplies or even a tent for playful sleep-away camp vibe!
2. Busy locations... are busy. That can be bad... or it can be rad!
It’s important to be mindful of areas that have heavy traffic on the weekends and some locations, like a cute row of stores, ice cream, and coffee shops (like Adams Morgan, below), may be packed in the afternoon on a weekend. My job as a photographer is to assure you it’s normal, wait it out, and time the photos appropriately. Magic can result!
But if this doesn’t sound like your scene, I totally get it. Some couples are more private, and if you're nervous about having your photo taken in front of people, a busy spot like Union Market, the Georgetown Waterfront, or the overlooks at Great Falls may not be the best fit for your session... because other people like visiting those places, too. A hidden gem of a neighborhood park, quiet side street of your favorite neighborhood, or getting out into nature at a state park might be a better fit.
Also keep in mind if you're including your pup in your session, that this may be a case in which we really do want to avoid a location where other dogs are likely to abound, like your neighborhood park. Otherwise we'll be competing with Fido, Fifi, and Sparky to get Spot to look into the camera!
You know where is almost always private and we can totally control our surroundings? Home! It might sound unconventional or a little boring, but home is the ultimate personification of you! And no, your home doesn't need to look like it was styled by Martha Stewart to be great for photos. Almost all of my family and newborn clients do in-home sessions... because when you have kids, who wants to trek out to a park? Home really is a wonderful choice, and nobody else will ever have engagement photos in your same location!
3. Welcome to DC, where commercial photography permits are a thing
Oh, buddy... permits in the DC region! The struggle is real. Unlike many other places across the country, the need for a permit is pervasive in DC. Between how much of our land is controlled by the National Park Service or another federal entity, and security/terrorism, many many places in our area technically require either a paid permit obtained days or weeks in advance, or other advanced notification and permission for commercial photography (defined as any time the photographer is being paid or is otherwise a professional). To make this slightly more frustrating, many entitles have poorly-defined, contradictory, or unevenly-enforced permitting procedures and policies. As a place to start, I always advise my clients to search the website of the venue(s) they're considering. Some places like Union Station have very photography-friendly policies. Others, like the Smithsonian, simply don't allow commercial photos at all.
Then there are the many in-betweens... private locations will vary from one to the next, and technically any public property in DC not controlled by the feds (so, local parks like Yards Park in Navy Yard) require a permit from the DC Office of Film and TV. Again, these policies are unevenly-enforced, and costs and turnaround times vary. If you have ideas about where you want to shoot, ask me! I can usually find (or find out either from a fellow photographer, or from the venue itself) what the rules and costs are.
4. Be aware of rescheduling policies + consider rain plans
If you went to the trouble of obtaining a permit for your rad location, while you're at it, be sure to check if it's movable to another date in case of inclement weather. If it's not movable (or your photographer sticks with the date regardless), give a bit of thought to a backup plan, like a museum or coffeeshop!
5. Places change. Be prepared!
This one may seem like a no-brainer, but... places look different from season to season, week to week, and even hour to hour! What do I mean? Beautiful fields of grain that are there when we check one week are harvested, leaving us with a barren field the next. City streets may be beautiful one day, and being repaved (or a building demolished) literally the next!
No kidding, this happened to me on a wedding day just a few weeks ago. We were planning to do photos under the beautiful row of weeping cherry blossoms outside the National Geographic Building. The blossoms were in perfect bloom! Then, the morning of the wedding, a crane, orange cones and yellow construction tape appeared for some sort of repair work! Luckily there were more blossoms a few blocks away!
Season to season, places can have a different feel as well -- even urban places! Above on the left, you can see one of my favorite overlooks in Georgetown in September... and a few short months later in December!
6. nervous? Let's plan an activity instead of a photo session
Activities are grand. If you're nervous at ALL, let's choose an activity as much as a location! By choosing an activity -- whether it's biking about your neighborhood like Emily + Michael (above), hanging out over coffee and pastries with the Sunday paper at your favorite corner store, going rock climbing or hiking (if that's your thing), volunteering at your community garden, or putting on some clothes you don't mind getting dirty and having a silly string or squirt gun war! Staying busy gives you something to focus on other than the photos, and helps you get out of your own head. Plus, it reflects something you love... and for many activities, the location more or less takes care of itself, or at least gives you some parameters to work in!
7. Find inspiration in what you want to wear
I tell my couples to match their clothes to their location. If you're headed to a mountain peak or hiking trail, high heels or a tailored suit will be out of place! If you're heading to the Kennedy Center, on the other hand, you'll look pretty out of place in a sports jersey and jeans.
If you're drawing a blank on location, it works the other way around, too! Do you know that you want to be comfortable in jeans and sneakers on your shoot? Think about places where jeans and sneakers are appropriate, whether that's the ballpark or the campus of your alma mater. Hoping for some more formal photos where you're dressed to kill? You probably shouldn't head to the beach, where shorts and a flowy sundress would be more apropos.
8. Your choice doesn't have to be classically pretty for gorgeous photos!
This one requires a bit of trust! If there's a place that you want to shoot, but it doesn't seem "classically pretty," don't feel like you have to rule it out! In fact, I LOVE urban photo locations with a bit of grit. But even beyond that! This is something that I tell my couples for wedding days as well... we can find beauty everywhere! Finding and making our own beauty in a place that has meaning is way more special and you'll have a much stronger connection to your photos than shooting at a garden, vineyard, or park that you have no connection to! So much of a beautiful photo is about LIGHT, and light is everywhere! Laura + Dave, who live in Pittsburgh, met me in Baltimore (where Laura grew up and has fond childhood memories). We wandered around downtown and Mt. Vernon for a few hours, and even though it wasn't a ritzy neighborhood, we made such great photos, like at this crazy-painted bridge! And we made a fun afternoon of memories, to boot!
9. Where do you like to BE?
Everything else aside, where do you like to BE? Do you love relaxing at your neighborhood dive bar on the weekends? Let's go there! Is hiking more your thing, and you'd never be caught dead at an upscale restaurant? We probably shouldn't head to an upscale restaurant for your photos, then. This reminds me of a scene from the West Wing (starts at 1:01 in this clip) where Karen says, "I like land. I like dirt. I like things that live on land and dirt." Toby replies, "I like hotels. I like a good concierge." We probably shouldn't drag Toby to a National Park for his photos... he'd just be uncomfortable! We should probably find a great hotel lobby instead.
10. Life is hard and photos should be fun.
I get this one from the amazing Nessa K, and she's absolutely right. Amen, Nessa! Wedding blogs are lovely and can be a great source of inspiration. For some people. For others, it’s an overwhelming source of unrelatable weddings adding to a never ending to-do list where you fall down a copper-utensil and pompom decorated rabbit hole of frustration wondering “do I really have to do all these things” while secretly wishing you could elope. So, I will say this. It’s your session. If you feel like you really want to incorporate props into a session because they speak to you, do it. If you want to shoot around your home, make it so. Ultimately, you do you.
Happy location scouting!