From the cobblestone streets of Paris, to the sandy beaches of California she now calls home, the photography career of Elizabeth Etienne has led her around the world and back. She attributes both her French-American up-bringing and her many years living in Paris shooting editorial portraits, music, film stills and fine art to giving her work a unique, Euro-American stamp that is hers alone.
Award winning and published in numerous magazines and websites, Elizabeth Etienne is best known for her vintage style imagery often associated with her elaborate weddings and high production engagement sessions. These timeless images, as well as her colorful contemporary lifestyle images, can also be found in stock libraries, fine art galleries, and advertising campaigns for hotels, pharmaceutical companies, and record labels in the US and Europe. After more than 20 years shooting, she’s one of those rare photographers that can do it all!
Engagement Sessions Aren’t What They Used To Be - Welcome to a creative world!
Engagement sessions don’t have to be the standard posed portrait of the couple most often seen in the society announcement page in the local newspaper. They can be fun and whimsical, sexy and passionate, or sentimental and romantic. Shooting a stylized engagement session is not only a lot of fun but can give you the chance to explore a variety of concepts, themes and styles. This is a special photo opportunity to capture the couple in the stress-free environment of their choice without the time constraints and pressure of the wedding day.
Imagine if your images were in a Vanity Fair magazine celebrity spread, on a vintage French postcard, in a fine art gallery image or in a quirky ad campaign… Bring your passion and have some fun! With the proper planning you can create VERY highly stylized, professional images that will take your portraits and your portfolio to the next level. With the right props, clothing, hair and makeup selections, it’s the perfect opportunity to treat the couple like stars for a day!
Shooting a stylized engagement session is an EXCELLENT if not mandatory prerequisite to shooting a full-blown wedding. It’s sort of the Junior Olympics version of the Olympics! After all the most important pictures on the wedding day are of the couple. Why not get some practice right?
Selling the Engagement Session – Let your images speak for you!
Couples usually contact me initially to shoot their wedding and often haven't even considered engagement images (beyond a snapshot their mother-in-law took at the engagement party six months ago.). Most people feel an engagement session is an unnecessary, unneeded added frill until . . . they see my images. The best part about being a photographer is your images do the talking for you. You don’t need to “sell” anything. Simply let them oooohhhh and ahaaahhh at every page they turn. All you have to do is remind them they probably won’t do this again in their lifetime and the best part is they’ll have beautiful images to show their kids one day. The session can be included as part of your wedding packages or as an a la carte service. I have two packages. My deluxe package includes a professional hair and make up artist, 2 different locations and a vintage setting option. Some couples have opted out of big formal, pricey weddings and have now chosen engagement sessions instead. Either way, have your contracts in hand ready for them to sign and be prepared to close the deal!
Define Your Trademark Style - Shooting from the inside out, not the outside in.
The day I decided I wasn’t going to be a photographer any longer was the day I “became” one! In the beginning of my career, I was trying hard to shoot a bunch of different images I “thought” would fit into different portfolios. This way I could show diversity and range and be more flexible to shoot anything should the opportunity arise. I was shooting from my head and not my heart. I was shooting from the outside in and not the inside out.
A great artist is known for their specific trademark style. Once you have a unique style that is recognizable and liked by many you can command top dollar for your work. The challenge for many young photographers is finding that style. For some this can happen swiftly, for others it can take years. Either way enjoy the journey, explore the world and have some fun. Don’t take yourself too seriously and remember to let your heart lead you to the next frame.
Creating Themes for The Engagement Shoot – Collaboration is the key!
It’s critical to prepare for the session. This is the fun part. This doesn’t mean you can’t get some spontaneous images during the shoot, but it's imperative to have some structure for the day so you’re not scratching your head for ideas while your clients are getting impatient. It means you’re prepared. My ideas and inspiration come from numerous things - an ad campaign or celebrity feature story in a magazine. I’ll sometimes expand upon images or themes I have already shot. Other times I just discover a great location! I love old Hitchcock films and antique images of my ancestors. I also enjoy carefree picnics and weekend getaways to deserted beaches and woodsy canyons. These are all a part of who I am and are reflected in my images. Occasionally, I can just look at a couple and have an instant idea so I’ll make suggestions. Other times the couple will have a specific place and theme in mind. Either way it’s collaboration and we have FUN! Once you have your ideas organized in a reference binder, shooting the session is easy and fun. Lastly, you want to choose the right clothes, props, hair and make-up to match the environment. These are all important factors to the success of the shoot day.
Please don’t try to shot without at least one photo assistant. I often use 2-3 assistants on my jobs depending on the size and production level of the job. If you can’t afford to pay an experienced assistant a minimum of $75-$150, then at least get your friend, neighbor or partner to help you. This is the #1 mistake I see young photographers make. You need an extra set of hands to pass you a lens, reload another roll of film, digital card or hold the reflector. You’ll miss potentially great shots scrambling to do it all yourself, (not to mention how unprofessional you look – don’t forget, if you impress you clients with your images and your service, they’ll refer you to everyone they know). Don’t try to save a buck and risk your opportunity to get better images and more jobs.
Whether you’ll be shooting on location or in a studio you’ll want to make sure it’s an easy place to shoot in, offers some diversity and the lighting is good. Lighting is the photographer’s voice. It’s the nuance of emotion. A subtle shift in lighting can change the entire feel of an image dramatically. Living in southern California where weather is great 90% of the time, I prefer to shoot outdoors using natural assisted light. However, I also enjoy shooting indoors using natural window light with occasional assisted flash or hot lights. In this case, I always check to make sure there are enough accessible electrical outlets and I have long enough extension cords. Either way, you scout the locations you're intending on using and confirm all details. If you’re shooting outside, review the location as close to the shot day as possible since the sun changes direction at different times of year. Bring an assistant and your digital camera and shoot some test shots you can print out as quick proof sheets for reference. There are different kinds of lighting (back lighting, side lighting, flat lighting, and patterned light). If you’re inventive you can use, adjust, and control natural or artificial light and make some beautiful images. You don't need a lot of expensive gear to do so.
Preparing for the Engagement Shoot – Assistants, gear, props, and wardrobe
My assistants organize all my gear an hour or so before the shoot. I use Nikon camera gear and Kodak film. My assistants clean the lenses and camera bodies with lens cloth and canned air. They load film, batteries and digital cards and then test fire them a few times to insure they are working properly. Once this is done, they review my reference binder that contains my handwritten shot notes or sketches, sample images of my own, magazine ads or old film stills. This allows them to understand the shoot theme we’re aiming for that day. Next, they’ll confirm any additional props or clothing and grab a few blankets to lay the gear and clothes upon if were shooting on the beach or in a dusty canyon. We always bring an extra pair of dry boots; sweat shirts and jeans just in case we get cold or wet. When I’m shooting at the ocean and know I might be getting into the water, I bring my wetsuit. This way, I can move around a lot without getting worried (and sometimes even surf after the shoot!). Lastly, we always bring a cooler of cold or hot beverages and some snacks to keep the couple and the crew happy and feeling good.
Plan B – consider weather, location logistics, camera gear and more . . .
Always have a Plan B. This applies to everything from your gear to your location (and yourself!). What if you arrive on location and there are 100 people there or a truck is now parked in front of the amazing oak tree you wee planning on shooting beneath, what are you going to do? What if your camera malfunctions? , Do you have a back up? What if you get sick on the day of the shoot? What if it rains? What if it’s sunny when you location scout and cloudy on the shoot day? There are so many possible changes. It’s important to always be prepared with an alternate plan so you’ll always keep your cool. After years of shooting I’ve concluded it’s really not “IF” something could go wrong, but “WHEN.” I always bring twice the cameras, flashes, film, batteries and digital cards then I think I’ll need. If you can’t afford double of everything rent or borrow an extra camera and flash. Make sure you know your equipment. Read the manuals and do some testing BEFORE you involve your paid clients. I see too many inexperienced photographers assuming their expensive cameras will do the work for them. When they arrive for the shoot, they panic and start pushing buttons (any buttons!). I always shoot both digital and film on my engagement sessions (and weddings) because I like the different looks and the two forms of back up. I also keep a stash of cheap umbrellas and yes I have shot in the rain before. The images turned out great! Rain can be so romantic can’t it?
Film vs. Digital: Can the two live happily together forever?
Yes, I shoot both film and digital for very different reasons. It’s fun to shoot a few digital frames to show to the couple to get them excited. It’s also fun to have some images to see an immediately after a shoot while the film is being processed and scanned to digital files. However, digital can sometimes have less detail in highlights and shadow areas. Mid tones can look flat - lacking dimension. Notice the close-up image of the couple’s face below. This is a digital image. The image above, taken from a slightly further distance, is shot with film. There is a visible difference. I LOVE film primarily because it renders the moody, romantic, retro look I’m known for. Can you convert your digital images to black and white and run a simulated grain filter over them? Sure, but it doesn’t look the same and it’s not the not the “real” thing.
Film has an organic, cinematic look - like an epic feature film you see in theaters or an old super 8mm film from the 1960s. Films natural grain reduces the skin flaws digital often reveals, especially in close up portraits. I have converted many “digital only” photographers to fine art film shooters. I love Kodak’s B/W 400CN film for my sepia toned black and white images. It’s a black and white film that’s processed in color chemistry so there’s no worry about finding a lab to process it. I also use Kodak’s Portra NC160 and NC400 ASA films for their balanced grain and color tones. The best part about shooting film is it’s not only an great back up for your digital files but many fine art prints are now selling for more money than digital generated prints. I urge anyone who hasn’t shot film yet to do so and compare for yourself. In fact, I’ll give you a free roll of film to the first 100 people that ask. Just got to my website www.elizabethetienne.com. Click the BLOG link and go to the link that says FREE STUFF and send me a request.
Once we have our location, props, wardrobe, assistants, and gear organized we drive to the location. If I’m shooting at the beach in front of my home office we simply step outside. Having my binder of ideas makes it so much easier. I don't want to scramble for ideas or feel nervous. It’s truly my guide for the day. Since I already scouted the location and shot some test shots I simply begin by positioning them into shot #1. The goal is to have some fun and let them relax. This is supposed to be a stress-free day. This comes by knowing my gear, knowing my assistants and knowing the shots I want. As a photographer they are counting on ME to guide them, much like a director with his actors. Naturally spontaneous images will happen, (and that’s part of the fun!) having some set planned shots gives the session structure. Sometimes the best shots happen when I pretend to be doing something else like fiddling with my gear and the couple starts to organically bond, looking into each other’s eyes, or sneaking a quick kiss. These are the best shots because they’re real and uncontrived so always keep your camera ready.
Shoot details 9 – Give your shoot a story-telling dimension
I always bring a shot composition reminder sheet. This reminds me to shoot a variety of images (vertical, horizontal, close up and far away, serious and playful, color and black-and white, couples and individual portraits, creative and traditional). These might show a shadow, reflection or silhouette of the couple kissing and a classic, straightforward image of the couple looking into the camera with a soft smile. Shooting individual portraits gives the shoot an added dimension. I also enjoy shooting details like hands, feet or eyes. I also always try to capture some location details. These might be a scenic image of the location, a street sign, tree branch or a close up of a prop lying on the ground. These shots gives the shoot depth, movement and a great story-telling theme for slideshows, your website or portfolios. It also gives you a variety of images to present to stock photo agencies, décor art companies, and ad agencies should you want to pursue those avenues at some later point. You may have noticed by now, I like to display my images as pairs. They are engagement images after all!
Elizabeth Etienne is also known for her masterful production planning that almost always guarantees a stress-free shoot day. From weddings to advertising shoots, she and her crew of assistants have a flawless shoot system that always includes a “Plan B.” Her compassionate, fun-loving personality has been known to calm the nerves of a frantic bride (when the rain starts to pour on her wedding day), or a nervous art director (when the client changes his mind about the layout at the last minute!).
Mentor, Author and Guide: In 1999, Elizabeth Etienne started an internship program and consulting business to counsel young photographers on everything from shoot production planning and technical tips to portfolio presentation and photo business negotiations. A self-proclaimed “survivor” of this competitive industry, she admits she had to learn to be as much a businesswoman as a photographer. After witnessing so many of her peers, talented photographers themselves, fall by the wayside, she was inspired to help others and launched Dream Team Photo Workshops. When she’s not teaching or shooting she’s writing and will have 3 books published late this year based on her images and her business practices.
It wasn’t long before Kodak executives took notice of Elizabeth’s work. In January 2009, she, along with a stable of other top world photographers (including National Geographic’s Steve McCurry!), were invited to become elite members of a special Kodak Advisory Board for an initiative that Kodak had in the works in early spring 2009.
Wave Break… When she isn’t traveling for work or pleasure, or adding another vintage camera to her collection, Elizabeth can be found ocean-side, surfing the waves at her southern California beachfront home. She graduated from the prestigious Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, CA in 1989.