Recently, I photographed an engagement session that made me work a little outside of my comfort zone. If you’ve ever taken a look at my work, you’ll see that much of what I shoot is with wide open apertures & shallow depth of field. I just love the dreamy bokeh effect and how shallow depth of field so easily draws your attention to the proper point of the photograph.

When photographing weddings, very often I want the photo to be (shocker) about the couple and not anything else. Well, this engagement session, the bride came to me from 3 states away just so they could take their photos at the couple’s favorite place (which happens to be not too far from me). She told me how her family always used to stop in the town of Harper’s Ferry, WV on their family road trips and as she got older, that translated into her life with her now fiance. The spot eventually became so special to them that he proposed to her there and they both wanted a way to commemorate that in their engagement photos.

As we were wandering around town they were pointing out all the things that they love and that stick in their memory about the town and I wanted to ensure that I captured that for them. One of the most unique things about Harper’s Ferry are the giant rocks that were cut away to make way for the town. They’re gorgeous, and something the couple wanted to feature. I found this great little spot in the middle of a field and plopped them down for a photo. Instinctively, I went toward my normal style: 35mm prime at f2.8. I love how this image features the emotion of what’s going on between the couple, but admittedly, the message about the rocks doesn’t exactly leap off the page. I knew they’d want more.

lower depth of field
Using a lower depth of field focuses the photo on the couple and less on the environment. Lovesome Photo

So I went wide. I switched to my 16-35mm zoom, and while I still shot fairly open at f4, I knew that based on how far away the rock wall was, and how the 16-35 lens in particular performs, that the rocks would be fairly prominent in the image. While I’ve still maintained the most crisp focus on my couple, the background still carries quite a bit of detail to show off the surrounding environment and how the couple is immersed in that environment.

high depth of field
Keeping a deep enough depth of field in this photo helps to tell a story about where this couple is in the photo. Lovesome Photography

Moving on to yet another spot, we hit an overlook area that happened to look directly over the river where, on the other side, the proposal had happened. When they showed me the spot and said they wanted to make sure that the proposal area was in the photo, I really had to put on my problem solving cap. The spot where we were standing was in SUPER bright sun so I had to find a way to effectively pose them without crazy, harsh shadows. The proposal spot they wanted to include was probably a 1/2 mile away in the distance across the river, half way up the mountain, with a teeny tiny rock bluff sticking out, a spot called Loudoun Heights. And there was a super unattractive iron railing at a height that just could not be avoided. Honestly, I panicked a little. But I went about photographing every angle and option I could think of. My instinctual version of the photo is this one below using my 85mm prime at f1.8. Shallow depth of field, medium distance from the couple, minimizing the hideous railing, and angling them so the sun wasn’t totally brutal. However, again, I knew that that beautifully blurred bokeh int he distance was not going to cut it for telling the story of “hey look at this cute couple and that spot back there was where he proposed!” because you can’t even tell there’s a spot back there.

Shallow depth of field is my natural inclination, but in this case, it does nothing to communicate what my clients wanted. ©Lovesome Photography
Shallow depth of field is my natural inclination, but in this case, it does nothing to communicate what my clients wanted. Lovesome Photography

Next, in my head I was thinking, OH! I’ll just do like I did for the rock wall back there and go wide, only I’ll use my 70-200mm to try and compress the space. So I ran crazy far away from my couple and zoomed in, still leaving a lot of the mountain behind them, but again, I got unsatisfactory results. I like how it brought the background mountain closer, but it still doesn’t effectively show where the rock bluff is on the other side, and the railing is more prominent than I would like it. (For the record, I considered cloning out the railing but the context was totally off removing it. It looked like the couple was floating in green, and not in a good way!)

Going wider framed still doesn't always work to make the environment important. ©Lovesome Photography
Going wider framed still doesn’t always work to make the environment important. Lovesome Photography

After that try didn’t work out I decided to go totally rogue on my “normal” list of tricks. I went back to my 85mm prime but this time I stood further back from my couple than I normally do with it. I wanted to encompass the scene but not too much. I knew the 16-35 would be way too wide and make the mountain across the river seem like it was twice the distance. At least the 85 would show the distance, but not as exaggerated. I decided to use the ugly railing as a means to create leading lines with my subjects as well as use the curve of the mountain to create a leading line to the couple. Placing them at the intersection of all three draws my attention to them and when I hit the magic aperture of f11, I had just enough detail in the background to see the rocky outcropping (positioned just above and to the right of the couple) to deem this photo an effective communicator of the couple being all happy and “couple-y” while reminiscing about their proposal. It is definitely not quite like my typical, instinctual photograph, but the clients were thrilled with it. It commemorated exactly what they were looking to show in that frame and it was a lesson to me that, sometimes, I need to step out of my comfort zone to get the result that is needed. Effective communication of your message is key in a photo, and another layer to the client’s happiness.

Ultimately, f11 effectively communicated what the clients wanted in including the background as a prominent message in the photo. ©Lovesome Photography
Ultimately, f11 effectively communicated what the clients wanted in including the background as a prominent message in the photo. Lovesome Photography

Lisa is a D.C. area based wedding & boudoir photographer. Follow her on & check out her website.