The Basics of Shooting Better Engagement Photos


All images by XuLiu Photography. Used with permission

Trends in the wedding and engagement world have skewed more towards creative and DIY approaches vs the hyper traditional offerings that dominated for years. Alex and Betty are the photography duo behind XuLiu photography based in Boston, and focus on capturing wedding stories through a unique blend of creative documentary storytelling and artistic portraiture.

We talked to them about creating better engagement photos, the psychology of portraiture and the business side of it all.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.


Alex: It was more of a technical thing at first. I was studying engineering in college, and Betty was studying architecture. We have both been taking pictures since childhood, but never seriously. I’ve always been a bit of a technology nerd, and at the time, I loved to tinker with computers. One day I started to play with Betty’s Nikon D3100, which she used to take photos of her architectural design models, and I quickly became fascinated with optics and light and all of the science involved. My interest in turn engaged Betty’s interest, and not long after, I had sold one of my computers to fund a Nikon D7000 so that we wouldn’t have to take turns using the “nice camera.” Things quickly took off from there.

Phoblographer: What made you want to get into shooting weddings and engagements?


Alex: We first vowed to never get into wedding photography. Really, we actually had a serious conversation and came to that agreement. We thought it would be too stressful, too much of a hassle, and way too focused on people-pleasing. We were doing a lot of portraits at the time, and being a couple ourselves, it was exciting whenever we had a chance to photograph other couples because we knew exactly how they felt about each other! One of our first clients (now a close friend) hired us to photograph her (very low-key) wedding, and while we were nervous beforehand, we ended up loving everything about it. We loved the flow of the day and the unexpected moments that inevitably happen during weddings, and we absolutely relished being able to document two people deeply in love. We had no idea taking photos for people could be so rewarding.

Phoblographer: Where does your inspiration typically come from when shooting engagement portraits?


Alex: Most of our inspiration comes from the couple and the environment. On a typical shoot, it’s very typical for us to suddenly freeze mid-sentence and pull the couple into a little corner for a shot. We’re always scanning for interesting nooks and crannies as we walk around. Of course, our clients are constantly inspiring us with their personalities as well, and we love looking for ways to integrate their quirks and interactions with each other into meaningful photos.

“We first vowed to never get into wedding photography. Really, we actually had a serious conversation and came to that agreement.”

Something we always point out is that the engagement session benefits us just as much as it benefits the client – from those one to two short hours together, we can get to know each other surprisingly well. Our clients get an idea of how it feels to be in front of our cameras, and we get to learn our clients mannerisms and body language (ie what types of poses work best or look most natural). By the time the wedding comes around, everybody just sort of falls into place, and this allows us to do a much better job in capturing the wedding story.

Phoblographer: Talk us through the business of the shoot that happens beforehand. You obviously show them a portfolio of some sort and there is most likely an interview process, but then do you do things like present a specific creative vision for them?


Alex: We meet up for a consultation and before anything else, we have a normal conversation.

“How did you meet?”

“What do you do for fun?”

“What’s your favorite movie or TV show?”

Meetings with us are very casual, and we treat it more like some friends meeting up for coffee (seriously, we love coffee, or hot chocolate!) than anything else. Something we’re looking for is relaxation – we want our clients to be comfortable with us and to decide they trust us enough to basically shadow their every move for 12 hours on their wedding day. Of course, we go through the portfolio together, look at some slideshows from our favorite weddings, and answer whatever questions they might have. We like to think that our work speaks for itself. We have a very distinct style that we hope our clients appreciate (or they wouldn’t have reached out!). We do tell our clients that we like to try something a little bit new with each session, and that gets everyone excited to get started.

Phoblographer: What is your personal most favorite engagement portrait that you’ve done?

Alex: That’s tricky, because we have favorites from every session we shoot. If I had to choose one off the top of my head, it’s this portrait on the Charles River. We moved to Boston a little over a year ago, and we’ve fallen in love with the city. An important part of Boston’s identity is the Boston Marathon, and instead of avoiding all the runners cutting through the frame, we decided to incorporate that element to really show off the strength of the city.


Phoblographer: You’re apparently a big lover of lens flare. What do you feel it adds to engagement portraits?


Alex: Photographers are always talking about “good light,” but we’ve always been drawn instead to “interesting light,” which includes a much broader set of criteria. It seems that so many photographers avoid shooting directly into bright light sources and buy lenses that minimize flare, but why limit where and when you can shoot, especially when the result is so unique? Beautiful lens flare has been one way for us to add bold, colorful, unpredictable elements into portraits, and embracing it also means we can use that dreaded mid-day sun to our advantage and still make creative compositions any time of day.


Phoblographer: If you had to create a single definition of some sort, what do you personally feel makes for a great engagement portrait?

Alex: Personality. It’s all too easy, technically, nowadays to make a “pretty” portrait just by finding an interesting location with nice light. A great engagement portrait has all those elements, but also shows off who the couple actually is. Our favorite images tell stories and allow the viewers to actually see our couples’ emotions and interactions in each specific moment.


Phoblographer: Engagements and portraiture in general are a collaboration project between you and the couple. How do you go about effectively communicating your creative vision to your subjects? Is there a lot of you personally moving them around?


Alex: We definitely agree that portraiture is a collaborative endeavor, and we can’t give our clients enough credit for the images we create together. We try to portray people in their natural form, and we take a relatively “hands-off” approach to posing. Engagement sessions with us tend to play out like long, flowing conversations that we’ll occasionally interrupt with photo-ops. At the start of an engagement session, we guide a little bit for poses (like positioning in the right spot) because that makes our clients feel better about being in front of the camera, but we try to let them dictate their own expressions and body language. From there we’ll make terrible jokes to tease out some laughter. By not micromanaging them too much, the clients fall into a position that is much more natural and 100% themselves. A little bit into our sessions, clients generally become comfortable enough that we can just stop at a great spot, and they will know exactly what to do. They’re often making each other laugh and giggle before we’ve even gotten into position for the shot. We don’t do a lot of the traditional “smile!” portraits, because we want the couple focused on each other and not us.


Phoblographer: What are the biggest trends these days in taking engagement portraits, especially since considering that in the past couple of years couples have been doing more alternative, low key and casual with their weddings?

Alex: I think one of the big trends these days for engagements (and weddings, too, actually) seems to be big sprawling landscape shots with “tiny people,” and the photographers spearheading this trend are absolutely amazing! In general, though, we try not to get too caught up in following trends so that we can maximize our own creativity. We usually create our favorite images when we walk into a shoot with a completely open mind and no pre-conceived ideas of what “shots” we want to get – we try and focus on exactly the moments that are presented to us instead.

It’s actually really great that couples have been doing more alternative and low-key weddings because these clients are often the ones that give us the most flexibility to do what we do best. The creativity that couples display for their weddings is absolutely astounding, and just seeing everything come together in such a unique way is one of the reasons we love weddings so much.


Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.