Photographing the "Yes"

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Since we are getting close to this years' peak proposal season (12/25 - 2/14), I thought it would be a good time to talk a little bit about photographing proposals. A lot of men (and some women!) put a great deal of thought into their proposals, be they large and extravagant or small and private...but it doesn't often occur to them to bring along a photographer to capture the event. Most people have no idea that this is even something that pro photographers do.

I think it's a great idea to have a pro there to capture the look on your fiance's face when you pop the question, especially if you are going to the trouble to plan something REALLY special...but how can you make sure your proposal is photographed, without tipping off the bride-to-be? In my experience, there are two main ways this can be done without spoiling the surprise:

1. The photographer can remain hidden, shooting from afar with a long lens. This kind of thing will have to be closely coordinated with the groom, including a visit to the planned proposal site to make sure that a) you keep an open line of sight with the photographer, so that he or she can shoot what is going on while staying hidden, making sure to pick a spot where the photographer's angle isn't at risk of being suddenly blocked by a car pulling up, by people getting in the way, etc...remember the photographer will not be able to communicate with you on the day of the proposal without giving herself away, so you need to figure out some way to confirm that you are in position and that the photographer is able to see you and ready to shoot. Text messaging could work. At some point after she has said yes, the photographer can come out of hiding, and the couple can spend a few minutes with her taking some fun, romantic couple shots to commemorate their engagement.

2. The photographer and the groom can make up a plausible reason why the couple is being photographed--for example the groom could tell the bride-to-be that he won a free couple's portrait shoot, and the photographer can act in the beginning just like she would during any normal portrait session...or if the couple is very attractive, the groom can tell the bride that he volunteered the two of them for a modeling gig, maybe even promising her pay or the opportunity to be published. The number of scenarios you could make up are endless--you just have to come up with something your bride will believe. The groom and photographer should have pre-arranged a location/time when he will pop the question and the photographer will just stand back and shoot as it happens.

If you can't afford a pro, you might be able to recruit a friend or family member to stand in as the photographer...keep in mind that the very presence of someone she knows with a camera might tip the bride off. If you are using a non-pro, it's very important that they use a camera with a high FPS (frames per second) rate, and a good optical zoom lens. Most consumer point and shoot cameras have a long lag time between when you press the shutter and when the image is actually taken; for this kind of shoot you need a camera that is very responsive, so you don't miss those split second moments. A pro-sumer digital SLR like the Canon 40D or Rebel XTI are good choices for a moderate price. Make sure your zoom lens is capable of covering both wide and tight shots from where you will be standing--in order to show the emotion of the couple, you will need a lens that can zoom in far enough to fill the frame with their heads and shoulders. At the same time your lens should also zoom out far enough to allow both of their bodies to fit in the frame, in order to capture the groom kneeling and the bride standing before him. The 70-200L f2.8 by Canon is a great lens for this purpose. All of the above equipment can be rented from reputable pro shops like Lens Pro to Go.

If possible, you should plan the proposal to take place outdoors, during the last hour before sunset. This time of day provides the most flattering natural light. Second choice would be outside, in open shade, during the morning or middle of the day. Shoots done in direct midday sunlight will have a harsher look to them, and the amateur photographer will have a harder time getting good exposures and flattering pictures from these conditions. If you plan to propose indoors, your photographer will need a flash, perferably on that can swivel and bounce light off of walls or the ceiling like the Canon 430EX , which gives a softer quality of light than direct on camera flash. Of course, having a flash going off every other second will make it hard for your photographer to stay anonymous.

As with the wedding itself, the proposal is a once in a lifetime event, one that cannot be repeated or restaged with any sincerity. It pays to have a photographer who knows how to capture moments beautifully, who isn't going to be limited by cheap equipment (good zoom lenses like those mentioned above can cost from $1600-$5000 to own, or $300-$500 a day to rent), and who has experience moving stealthily, being quiet, and waiting patiently for what photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson called "the decisive moment".

Here's a New York Time's article about it.

For more information on setting up a proposal shoot, you can email me or call me at 510 882 1980.

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