How to Shoot Outdoor Engagement Photography

Outdoor engagement photography is one of my favorite aspects of being a wedding photographer. I get to shoot environmental portraits in beautiful places without the constraints of a wedding day. Additionally, I get to spend time with my couple getting to know them and their interests in a low-pressure environment.

These tips for how to shoot outdoor engagement photography will help you make the most of this aspect of your job. In fact, it’s on these days that I hardly consider what I’m doing to be work. Let’s talk through ways to plan for and execute an awesome engagement shoot.

The main benefits that come from a great outdoor engagement shoot are building trust with your clients and providing them with some non-wedding pictures of themselves. Most couples don’t have great photos together beyond a selfie let alone any professional ones. But if you deliver photos they fall in love with then when you show up on their wedding day they’ll trust your expertise and directions.

Scout Before the Engagement Session

It’s rare that I feel the need to scout for an outdoor engagement shoot anymore after over a decade of shooting weddings. However, scouting has been both a fun and valuable aspect of planning for a shoot. The more inspired you are, the more creative you can be, so pushing yourself to find great locations for an engagement shoot can be the first step in making it great.

We always ask our couples if they have a vision for their session. Maybe it’s a season or particular backdrop, are they interested in wildflowers and mountain views or fall colors near a lake? Once you have some parameters you can guide them towards a selection that they’ll enjoy, and if your couples are having a great time that results in better photos too.

In order for this strategy to work, you have to have some location ideas to suggest. You might consider doing some online scouting first and then hitting the trails to explore locations that feel inspiring to you. Pay attention to how a location will look different at different times of the year and different times of the day.

Schedule It Right for Being Outdoors

Next, you’ll want to use the information you gathered to schedule your outdoor engagement photography at the optimal time of year and time of day. Sometimes we even plan two locations and move as the sun does so that we get great light with a variety of backdrops. Use apps like the photographer’s ephemeris to see what the sun will do on any given day.

We can plan or predict the weather or if we’ll get a great sunset but we can do our best to set up for success. Breathing room in your schedule is nice too, you don’t want to be rushing around racing the light. Be sure to account for any extra time needed for driving, hiking, or changing clothes.

If, like us, you love scheduling photography around sunset you might consider telling your couples to bring a snack, water, and a jacket. Give them a little guidance. In fact, that’s what the whole next section is about.

Guide Your Couples Through Their Photography

First you’ll want to give your couple some tips on what to wear, which will vary depending on your style as a photographer and your couple’s style. I usually tell my couples to dress a little nicer than they normally would, I want them to look nice but also to be comfortable. If they want to do outfit changes I suggest one more casual and one more dressy so that they have variety in their artwork and I particularly like vibrant solid colors that pop against the landscape.

I like my couples to feel like themselves, albeit a slightly nicer dressed version of themselves, regardless of who they are, therefore, simple directions work out perfectly for me. If this sounds like not enough direction to you, that’s great because you have your own style too. Guide your couples so that they’ll look great in your photos.

When thinking about guiding your couples you might need to give them more direction to help them be comfortable during the shoot. Are you going to be walking a lot? Then suggest comfortable footwear. If weather is a factor, communicate about that too.

Start the Engagement Shoot Strong

At the start of the shoot, you’ll want to set some expectations so that your couples know what to do with their hands! If you’re going to be posing them a lot, explain what to expect. If you want them to act natural, then tell them what that means exactly.

Your style will indicate what you say, but generally I tell people that I want them together and touching. Whether that’s holding hands or arms around each other, I want to see a physical connection between them and I tell them that even if they feel like they’re close they should get closer because that will look great in the pictures. I also tell them that they’re free to look at each other and enjoy the view, if I need them to do anything I will tell them but if I’m not speaking then they’re doing perfectly.

I tend to not overdirect so I want to make sure my couple isn’t worried. My goal is to get them to gradually feel more comfortable, so I tell them that too. It might feel awkward at first but we’re just getting warmed up so let’s have some fun.

Connecting With Your Couple

All that startup was about getting my couples to feel comfortable both with having their photos taken and with me as their photographer. I spend some time getting to know them and connecting. This is what’s great about an engagement shoot, there’s no wedding planner tapping their foot rushing you through the shots so take some time and connect with your subjects.

Real smiles are better than fake smiles any day. Therefore, not only do I want to connect with my couples but I want to lean on their connection to each other. Shooting couples is the best because you don’t have to force emotion; often these are two people giddy in love — use that.

An added bonus of forming a connection with your couple is that when you show up on the wedding day they trust you. Sometimes that means they trust you enough to give you a longer portrait session on the wedding day and at sunset. But sometimes it just means that you’re comfortable working together and are able to shoot portraits significantly more efficiently on the wedding day when they have more demands on their time.

Use the Landscape in Your Photography

Even though I feel like most engagement sessions are outside, it still bears mentioning that you can use the landscape in your composition. I love combining landscape photography skills with portraiture to tell a love story complete with a rad setting. Yes, you want to focus on the couple but you also want to use what you have available for foreground, background, texture, patterns, leading lines, or other composition techniques.

If you find yourself struggling to focus both on posing the couple and composing the overall shot, you can spend some time practicing your landscape photography and then thinking about where you can place your couple in the scene. At the minimum try to avoid trees coming out of awkward places.

You can utilize a variety of focal lengths to use the landscape in different ways and to get a variety of images. Shoot through the tree, use a trail to create movement, use compression on that mountain, or have your couple doing something that looks natural in the landscape. The more you think about the whole picture, the more you’re able to tell a story and create impact with your photograph.

Use the Light

Again, it seems obvious but it bears mentioning and repeating and reminding everyone that photography is all about light. For some this means only wanting to shoot golden hour, for others it means mastering off-camera flash. Or, even better, maybe it means both?

Maybe you love backlit photos with cool lens flare or maybe you love using the sun as a spotlight to create golden light on your couple’s skin. Or, even better, maybe you learn to do both? Understand light and how to see it, create it, and use it to make your photography more impactful.

Be able to answer the question of where to find soft light or how to use angles to make harsh light flattering. Natural light is powerful — if you plan and use it correctly you may never need flash. This doesn’t mean you won’t want to use it to add drama or create some cool effects, but I want you to use flash intentionally rather than out of desperation.

How to Shoot Outdoor Engagement Photography

Let’s summarize these steps for how to shoot outdoor engagement photography. I hope this process will give you the confidence to get out there and create! Maybe engagement photography will even become one of your favorite parts of being a wedding photographer.

  1. Scout it out
  2. Schedule it right
  3. Guide your couples
  4. Start strong
  5. Connect
  6. Use the landscape
  7. Use the light

Engagement photography is one of the fun things that couples get to do as part of the wedding planning amidst a stressful to-do list. I like to make it fun, stress-free, and a memorable experience. I know I’ve done it right when even the people who say they’re not photogenic and don’t like having their photos taken end up having a blast and loving their photos!

About the author: Brenda Bergreen is a Colorado wedding photographer, videographer, yoga teacher, and writer who works alongside her husband at Bergreen Photography. With their mission and mantra “love. adventurously.” they are dedicated to telling adventurous stories in beautiful places.