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Tani’s & Sydney’s Surprise Proposal Photos at the Tidal Basin in Washington DC

A couple sharing a surprise kiss near the Tidal Basin.

Proposal photos are a rare treat, and I’ve got to say, I nearly always relish the opportunity when it comes up. They’re this quirky mix of the unexpected — think street photography with a dash of undercover work — and the bread and butter of our profession: dreaming up, framing, and snapping those perfect, once-in-a-lifetime shots. So when someone calls me and says, “Hey, I’m going to propose to my girlfriend, and I want your help capturing the authenticity of that moment,” my ears perk up. It makes sense that people would want to have this experience captured. It will be one of the most relevant moments to unfold in the course of a very important and very busy time in life. The proposal is to wedding photography what maternity photos are to newborn photography. Well, sort of anyway.

Of course, it also makes sense that comparatively few people hire professionals to do this work for them. While these days few people are genuinely surprised that their boyfriend or girlfriend is proposing to them — most healthy couples talk about this sort of thing before it happens — they are often surprised by when, or how, or where. And this creates a sense of complexity in the whole thing that I think leads most people to just take whatever a good friend with an iPhone can give them. After all, who is going to be surprised by a proposal when there is a stranger hovering around with a conspicuously professional-looking camera in the tight quarters of the library where you used to study together every day after school?

The thing is though, with a little planning and coordination, it can be done and the results can be beautiful.

In Tani’s case, he really wanted this moment preserved, and he called me to ask how to pull it off. The broad strokes of the idea were that Tani would meet his now-fiancée Sydney on the Tidal Basin in Washington DC, which at the time of our session would feature trees just starting to blush with the onset of the autumn season. Sydney knew this was coming one way or another, but she wouldn’t know exactly what she was walking into this day.

The Tidal Basin holds a particular significance for these two. It was the place where he first told her that he loved her, and he wanted this to be the place that he would tell her that he wanted to love her forever. Tani and I exchanged a few phone calls ahead of time to discuss our strategy, where we should park, where Sydney would be coming from, and how to deal with the unexpected in a public place where we have no control over anything but our own feet.

We arrived about 20 minutes ahead of Sydney. We chose a spot beneath one of the most brightly colored trees, where the path bent around the coastline and both helped to disguise the presence of other visitors, as well as create a somewhat panoramic view of the water around them. We used our time to discuss how to make sure the photos came out beautifully. I explained to Tani where I wanted the two of them to stand, and to ensure that Sydney would be positioned with her back to the water so that I could compose a well balanced and classic hero shot of the moment. Tani paced around nervously — he knew Sydney would say yes, but that wasn’t going to subvert the gravity of what he was doing. Finally his phone rang and Sydney announced that she had arrived. I made some distance between us and pointed my camera out toward the Jefferson Memorial, though I’m not sure I make the most convincing tourist. I kept a third eye on the two of them waiting for a moment when what was happening might dawn on her and I could more safely point my camera in their direction without spoiling the surprise.

I caught a few candid shots of their first greeting on the lawn, just off the pathway. Whether Sydney had noticed me, I don’t know. She never looked my way. Tani led Sydney to the spot on the path that we had chosen, placing himself as we discussed and Sydney gracefully stepped into position, apparently without him having to guide her at all.

I imagine that as soon as he started talking, she understood what was happening. I had put enough distance between us that I could not hear the specifics of what Tani was saying, but it was clearly affecting Sydney in a beautiful way. From here, I no longer had to conceal my presence, though it wouldn’t matter because there was little outside this moment that could have drawn the attention of these two away from each other.

Tani got down on one knee and I rapidly cycled through dozens of combinations of compositions and expressions, hoping to capture exactly the one I had in my mind. Luckily, he stayed on one knee for quite some time, providing me ample time to experiment and I came away with all of it.
When Tani stood up, the two embraced, and I captured a cinematic spread with the tree overhead and the water wrapping around them. I gave them a few more minutes to let this moment sink in as I gradually approached and captured candid variations of everything.

When they had finally started to settle, I approached and congratulated them. Sydney was elated. Tani was relieved. Both of them pressed against the earth with just a little less force than they had a few minutes ago.

I invited the two of them to spend a short while on some formal portraits to mark the occasion, something Tani and I had discussed, but admitted he wasn’t sure Sydney would want to. She did. Having spent a good bit of time by the water already, we crossed the parking lot which lines the Tidal Basin and found a patch of nice light among the trees and spent a few minutes together trying different things. These two clearly have a deep connection with a lot of history together.

One of the cute little details was some figurines which these two had collected among their adventures together. Tani had brought them along, perhaps in part for a sense of moral support, and also for their emblematic nature in their relationship. I closed out my session with these two by styling them in the foreground with Tani and Sydney out of focus in the background.

I really loved the experience of working with Tani to plan this, and I felt a genuine sense of honor being there to both witness and capture this moment where these two formally decided to usher in the next phase of their relationship.