Around this time last year, I began the very sneaky business of helping a friend/groom plan the perfect proposal. In all fairness, he planned it. I was brought in to photograph it. But in order to pull it off, we had to manage some important logistics and planning was key for the surprise element.
In the process, I picked up some crucial pointers that I thought might be helpful for other photographers gearing up to capture a couple's big moment.
1. Scope out the location in advance and find your hiding spot
This is the single MOST IMPORTANT tip for photographing a proposal. I met the groom at the proposal spot the day before he popped the question to go over his plans and make sure I was in a spot that was hidden but still gave me an optimal view of the action. It's important for the propose-er to know where you are, even if the propos-ee does not-- this is something you need extra eyes for to make sure you're able to see the whole thing unfolding while still not compromising your role (thus ruining the big surprise).
2. Discuss positioning
Make sure that you know where exactly he plans to go down on one knee and make suggestions based on factors like lighting and where you're able to hide. Not to say you have to "choreograph" it per-say, but you kinda do.
I know it probably seems silly, but these guys have a TON racing through there mind right before they propose so in some ways, it can actually be helpful to give them specific marker for where they should stand, what direction they should face when the hit the knee, etc because then they don't have to think about those details, but the issue at hand-- ya know, asking the woman he loves to be his wife for ever and ever.
And hey, if they forget (again, lots going through their heads) just improvise. That's what photographers do.
3. Fill in business owners, groundskeepers, etc. with the details
It was a pretty quiet day around these grounds on the day of the proposal because it was cool and had been raining all day. But about 10 minutes before they were set to arrive, a groundskeeper started walking around the area. I swiftly left my hiding spot to let him know what was taking place and kindly infer
"if you could kindly make yourself invisible for the next 15 minutes that'd be great."
Just try to imagine a situation where everything is peaceful and calm, romance is in the air, and then a groundskeeper starts trimming trees in the background. Awkward.
Some proposals happen in public places, in which case, you embrace the crowd and become part of it as your "hiding place." But in the case where you're seeking privacy, you need to be direct about addressing any person or situation that could disrupt it and cause the moment to be ruined.
4. Encourage "golden light" timing but don't demand it
If at all possible, encourage an early evening proposal time to get the best and most flattering light. Nighttime only complicates an already complicated situation and mid-day light can be harsh and difficult to shoot- especially when you're limited in your angles and ability to make adjustments. Planning for a sunset proposal is not only romantic, but the ideal conditions for shooting to make sure you don't miss a beat!
That said, if sunset is not the groom's plans, adjust. You're there to capture their experience, not create and artificial one for the sake of light. Be a problem-solver and roll with the punches.
5. Get day-of contact and stay in touch on the big day
If at all possible, have the groom contact you with updated plans and timing. Alternately, if it's going to be obvious he's up to something when looking at his phone, consider looping a friend into the equation who can keep you posted on the couple's whereabouts. Sometimes things shift and if they're planning to be at the location an hour earlier than expected because they decided to skip the movie, you need to know! On the flip side, you don't want to be hiding in a bush for an hour because they decided to take a detour and get ice cream after dinner.
6. Be early and ready in a blink
Take #5 with a grain of salt because with proposal shoots, flexibility needs to be your game. You need to be early regardless of the set "time." I hid in a prickly bush in the rain for about 20 minutes before they arrived and the excitement was killing me! But I was glad to have some time to set up my gear, practice my angles, and make sure I was out of sight because once they arrived, it all unfolded so quickly!
(Side note, I had ironically also just found out I was pregnant that morning so I was glad to have some time to center my thoughts!)
7. Use a zoom lens
Without the flexibility to move with your subjects and the necessity to hide out of view, a quality zoom lens is pretty much your only option. I used my Nikkor 2.4 70-200 lens for the whole time which allowed me to capture the detail of their expressions and the big picture environment all from my tiny little hiding bush a few yards away.
8. Come out, come out wherever you are
After that diamond is securely on her finger and they are officially engaged, go on and come out from that preciously chosen hiding spot for some better angles (she still probably won't notice you.) Then, as long as it's been cleared by your groom beforehand, I think it's a great idea to go on and make yourself known, congratulate the couple, take some shots of that initial joy, and then either excuse yourself to let them enjoy their moment, or if the groom has opted to have to capture a mini engagement shoot following the proposal, you can begin to discuss how that will play out.