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Melissa & Wesley’s Spooky Engagement Session in Bowie

Two people are standing on grass holding lit lanterns in a moody setting. The ground is covered with fallen leaves and dead foliage. One person wears jeans and brown shoes, the other wears a black dress and fishnet stockings, creating a spooky portrait against the eerie backdrop.

Melissa reached out to me about wanting to do an engagement session with her fiancé Wesley. It was mid-October, not quite Halloween, but the decorations were up, and people were definitely in the spirit of the holiday. They had a vision for these photos. They wanted them to have a dark, spooky feeling. Fog. Forests. Calm, swampy waters. Vintage style oil lamps. It was a really cool idea, and I was into it. I thought for sure this was a Halloween-inspired thing. Nope. Melissa is just really into the aesthetic, and who can blame her? It’s cool.

Getting the dimly lit vibe wouldn’t be too challenging, just shoot in the short window of time between sunset and dusk, and leverage a canopy of trees to help give the scene a darker nighttime appearance. All of this was A-OK; we had a great spot for this kind of shoot nearby. Foxhill has a swampy lake, an old historic bridge, an easily accessible forest for the tree canopy we would need. The trouble is, though, in Maryland, we don’t exactly get too many foggy days, and when we do, we don’t get much of a heads-up about them.

So, I did what any curious artist would do. I started experimenting with processing techniques that would give our scenes a mucky, pervasive fog. This actually proved to be a tricky challenge because fog is nearly invisible when it’s right in front of you, but thick as it gets further away. Although there are some simple filters available which can give an image a hazy sheen that is sort of reminiscent of fog, they just don’t provide the kind of realism I crave. So, after some experimentation, I found a workflow that would give me what I wanted.

Without getting overly technical, it involved using some custom AI models to generate a rough depth map of an image, then manually tweaking that map for the smaller details the AI missed. If you’re curious what that looks like, here’s an example.

With a clear idea of how I was going to get the aesthetic I wanted — and apply it to dozens of images — we set a date for our session.

When we arrived, Melissa & Wesley were in a good mood. Wesley in a woodsman-esque flannel and Melissa in a very thematically appropriate pair of fishnet stockings stitched with little spooky bats. Melissa & Wesley wanted some images that were a little more traditional. I mean, we’re there, why not? So, we started out with a few of those against the brightly colored trees that we would soon be dousing gloomy themes. We wandered around the forest for a while, capturing a few different concepts. Our goal was to work our way down to the water and the old historic bridge just in time for dusk.

Then, suddenly, rain. Drats.

Had we not such a specific idea in mind I might have thrown a rain sleeve on the camera, and we’d have done something interesting with the uncooperative weather. Given the circumstances, though, I suggested instead that we pack it in and come back to finish the session another day. We were all a little bummed out, but grateful that the location was close enough by that we had options. Later that evening we picked another day about two weeks out.

The day of the second session our conditions were much nicer, though admittedly we weren’t necessarily going for “nice”. Again, we got warmed up with some of the typical colorful photos people usually have in mind when they think “engagement session”, and then set off again.

The second day of shooting proved a blessing in disguise for me. Having already done half this session, and experimented with how I was going to edit the photos already, I had a much more specific idea of how to get just what I wanted. Since we spent a good bit of our time in the first half of the session in the woods, this time, we started down near the swampy waters. We wound our way around the shoreline where I got some of my favorite shots that really communicated the fog-on-the-water vision I had in mind. As planned, we finished up on the bridge, though ironically, that didn’t really turn out half as good as I imagined.

In the short collection of images below, I’ve included a mix of the more typical editing and the spookier editing that we were going for. Under most circumstances, I would want to showcase thematically consistent images. But in this case, the contrast really highlights how dramatic the change in style was. I think that’s interesting to look at, but I also think it demonstrates some of what’s possible when you come to me with a vision.

I loved this session. The ups and downs and complications, be damned. I love working with people who come to the table with an idea and let me chew on it for a while until something cool comes out the other side. Melissa & Wesley were a great example of those kinds of people.