Laguna Beach Engagement Photography

I see a lot of engagement photographers in Laguna Beach, California. It’s an incredibly popular spot for brides and grooms to sit for pre-wedding portraits, and it’s easy to see why. Free public access, beautiful ocean backdrops, and plentiful sunshine. Pretty much the exact same reason landscape photographers like me flock to Laguna.

When my cousin, Holly, and her fiancee approached me about doing an engagement shoot for them, I was reluctant. It’s something I’d never done, and I do not subscribe to the belief that having a fancy camera makes one capable of this type of portraiture, which is an art form that takes years to perfect.

One of the skills that I most definitely have not perfected is “human interaction.” There’s a reason I write words on the internet and stick to photographing static landscapes–my people skills are paltry. Fortunately, Sarah is far more amiable, so together we agreed to do this engagement shoot at Laguna’s Victoria Beach. With her help choreographing the couple and manning the reflector, I was able to capture some half-way decent (I think) engagement photos…

Please note that I do not normally do engagement photography. I only did this because it was for family; it was a one and done for me. Trust me: you do not want me to photograph your engagement.

Note that this post is a bit “inside baseball” in terms of photography and really does not pertain to travel in any way, aside from Laguna Beach being a great spot to visit. 😉

However, I don’t have anywhere else to put these, so I thought I’d share some of the engagement photos here, offering some thoughts on each of them…

The above photo is pretty straightforward, if not formulaic. Looking into one another’s eyes, with the ocean and blown out sunset in the background. Sarah reflected the sunlight onto their faces; the shot would’ve been garbage without that.

One thing about which I’m uncertain is the warmth of the reflected light on their faces. I like this because it has a warm glow that screams “the beach” but I’m not sure of how flattering it is. I actually adjusted the white balance and toned down the reds/oranges/yellows here because it was really strong straight out of camera. (Hence the left side of the frame having some really strong blues, too.)

The biggest challenge for me when it comes to portraiture is that I don’t know what I don’t know. When I got started in landscape photography, I was undoubtedly overly confident in my own abilities. I had never taken photos remotely that good, and hadn’t developed the eye for spotting what I now see as obvious errors. When I look back at my photos from the first several years I was into landscapes, I cringe at pretty much all of it.

Likewise, I don’t have an eye for portraits. Photos like the above one strike me as cool because crashing wave or because sunburst, but I’m not sure how well they work in the context of portraiture. Is it bad that the sunburst is obscuring their faces? Is the lighting too low? I have literally no clue.

If I were ever going to get serious about portraiture, the photo above (and the very top photo) are the kind I’d strive to take. While I’m not particularly keen on the bread and butter of posed portraits, I really enjoyed trying to find ways to meld my traditional landscape style with portraiture.

Not only am I more comfortable doing this, but I feel the margin of error is a bit better for me. I already more or less know what I’m doing when it comes to landscape photography, so I won’t screw up roughly 50% of the photo. Any errors I do make with the portrait component are easier to overlook because the landscape works. At least, that’s the sense I get.

Get it? Their hands are making a heart. Clever, right? Obviously, this is not an original idea.

Although the intent here is endless romance or something of that sort, I can’t help but shake the feeling that they’re eternally joined in the bonds of some cult, preparing to let the ocean overcome them, so they can meet Zzyzx, the Great Elder One. (Note: they are not actually in a cult…to my knowledge.)

I used the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 lens for many of the photos in this post, and found it incredibly effective. It allowed for great subject separation while also including the landscape around them.

If I were going to photograph engagements or weddings, this would be my go-to lens. Forget the “classic” portraiture options like the 85mm…they’re boring.

One thing I’ve never appreciated is just how awkward it can be to do portraiture photography. Here I was, with my camera aimed at some dude’s butt, trying to get focus as quickly as possible on a ring with a shallow depth of field aperture.

Of course, it took several tries to get focus right, which I wouldn’t be surprised if passers-by thought was just “cover” for some weird antics on the beach that afternoon.

This is probably indicative of my lack of knowledge when it comes to what does–and does not–work in portraiture. I liked the idea of Holly leaning into the camera with the ring prominent, but didn’t know how to arrange everything else to turn this into a natural-looking pose.

Hence, this shot that looks like Gaston proclaiming victory in acquiring his prize. (Hopefully I’m overthinking it, and it just comes across as a sweet, lighthearted photo.)

Earlier in the set, I was the photographer with a butt-fetish. Now, a foot one. Again, this shot took several tries to get right due to the quality of the sea foam, and I’m still not sure it works. Oh well.

All in all, it was a fun challenge, but I’m not particularly keen on doing “professional” portraiture work. Since I’ll no doubt be called on to put these skills to personal use in photographing our dog, cat, friends, etc., I do think it’s useful (for me) to reflect on these photos and think about what worked and did not work, so this post has at least been helpful to me. Hopefully, you learned something or at least enjoyed it, too!

If you’re planning a California vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to do. For Los Angeles-centric trips, we’ve found the most useful guidebook to be The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas, which is written by locals (and we use it even as locals!). If you enjoyed this post, help spread the word by sharing it via social media. Thanks for reading! 

Your Thoughts

Have you ever done engagement or any kind of portraiture photography? If so, what did you think of the experience? Any constructive criticism to offer on these photos? (I’d seriously love to hear it!) Any additional photography tips or other thoughts to add? Hearing from readers is half the fun, so please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

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8 replies
  1. Jackson
    Jackson says:

    I thought they looked great. I dig the motion of the ocean you got going on in the images. Sea foam timing was cool. Much ado about nothing. 😉 Love Victoria Beach too.

    I just wrote an engagement session location guide on Laguna Beach and found your post ranking right next to me. Cheers!

    And I shoot engagement sessions all the time. I always work in the landscapes too. That’s the part that makes it so fun.

    Different is good. ✊

  2. Meredith
    Meredith says:

    Hi Tom,
    First, I clicked the link to this post over all of the other Disney posts in your newsletter I just got.
    Why?- I was intrigued that you were doing something different.
    So I want to commend you for going outside your comfort zone and A) doing the shoot and B) sharing with your followers knowing you would open yourself up to opinions!
    Speaking of opinions, I know you consistently say you are not the most fun in real life but I wish you guys would organize a Tokyo Disney trip for your biggest fans. (aka charge us whatever you need to so we can be around other Tom/Sarah/Disney nuts and you get paid in the process for doing it. If that scares you let Sarah take charge? Cheers! 🙂

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Thanks for checking it out!

      We’ve talked about how fun it’d be to introduce a group of people to our favorite two parks, but the logistics of organizing a trip to Japan for a group of people is scary. Maybe someday!

      • Meredith
        Meredith says:

        Haha, the fact that you even have considered it means there is at least a 1 in a million chance! We are doing the Asia parks (first timers)- leaving November 27th- and we can’t wait! Are you guys going in April for the 35th?

  3. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    As I’m reading this I have my engagement photos (from, lets just say a long time ago) sitting on my desk. Composition/exposure/etc. – yours are all better. But for the couple, that’s not what matters, only that you captured the moment and they will look back and remember how young/happy they were. Even the ones that didn’t “work” (IMO, like the carrying-the-fiance pose or the sunburst-on-the-faces) might end up being a favorite for them. “Hey, remember when Tom made me pose like Gaston stealing a bride?”

    That said, if these photos were of me and my wife, I’d pick the landscape-oriented photo with the tower in the background to put on my desk.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Capturing the moment is a big part of why I think it’s so easy for inexperience/unskilled photographers to break into the engagement/wedding photography market. For better or worse, most couples aren’t judging the photos on the merits of the photography, but rather, the special moment and corresponding memories.

      Obviously, that only goes so far, but it’s definitely true to at least a degree.

  4. Kayla
    Kayla says:

    I am an expert at portraiture, so obviously I should comment. I bet when they put the photos on social media, friends and family loved them. They’re well above the qualify of similar shoots I see in my Facebook feed (which are 90% in the woods.) I like the one with the strong reflector light! The one with the sunburst is cool, but the light looks like a pop up flash. Moving more toward a silhouette could be nice, but then maybe you lose too much detail and the entire photo fails. That’s my expert opinion anyway.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      The woods are to Indiana what the ocean is to Southern California. I suspect these types of photos are equally ubiquitous on social media accounts out here.

      Yeah, the light on the sunburst one leaves a lot to be desired. Thanks for your expert opinion! 😉


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