Britton Low wouldn't be caught dead in a wheat field. For his engagement photos in January, Mr. Low chose the messy, thrift-store-styled home he once shared with two roommates and his bride-to-be, Shandelle Billows.
"That was where the magic happened, where we actually started our relationship," said Mr. Low, a 25-year-old nurse in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Having seen the standard-issue engagement photo ("e-session" for short), Mr. Low knew it wasn't for him and his future wife - there would be "no picking daisies for each other."
"We're not that fantasy-type couple. We really like hanging out in our kitchen and drinking coffee together and maybe hanging out in the backyard or having a cigarette together."
Mr. Low and Ms. Billows are part of a new breed of fiancés saying no thanks to the clichés of the e-session. Think couples frolicking in fields - long grass, short grass, wheat, canola, the occasional ottoman or chaise longue thrown into the reeds for no apparent reason. Or lovers posing stiffly in brick alleyways splattered with graffiti, making googly eyes at each other next to industrial loading docks, scrap yards and wooden skids.
Many fiancés use the photo sessions to regress: They climb trees, take piggyback rides, make snow angels, share milkshakes, not to mention the occasional balloon.
Engagement photos are now standard issue for many North American couples. But whether they're rolling around in fields or pushing evocatively up against rusty trains, many sweethearts seem not to mind that the locales run far afield of their typical date night, and yet look much like everybody else's shoots.
"I find engagement photos to be very strange," says Catherine Lash, creative director of The Wedding Co. in Toronto. "It's like, okay, snuggle up together against that brick wall."
Deer-caught-in-headlights couples can be "steered by the photographer's dream of always shooting in a specific spot" and into "weird situations," she said.
"If it looks like it belongs on a romance-novel cover, you've gone overboard," says Gabriel Li, a Toronto photographer who prefers a more candid style. "I wouldn't bring my couples to places or take part in activities they would never venture off to or feel comfortable doing."
When she worked as a photographer, Ms. Lash opted not to do engagement photos: "I just found them too fake."
Ms. Lash says her ideal engagement shoot would take place during a morning commute: "The couple [riding]the TTC together with their mugs, one listening to their whatever, one reading the newspaper."
She adds: "Put them in a situation that they feel natural in."
London, Ont., couple Chris Marquis and Allison Round posed in a favourite Guelph bookstore, where he used to delve into graphic novels while she devoured gossip rags before the pair moved to Korea to teach. In the playful black-and-white pics, they read next to a bookshelf lined with sex tomes: "It made for a pretty fun icebreaker," says Mr. Marquis, 27.
Ms. Round, 26, said shooting here "seemed a bit more natural" than the vistas she's seen rolling out on Facebook - the "standing-beside-a-tree or walking-beside-the-water [shot] knowing full well that a lot of these people are not outdoorsy people."
Christine Reid, their Kitchener-Waterloo photographer, says she's been gradually moving away from staged images to capturing couples engaged in their usual activities, be it snowboarding or fishing. This helps the men in particular.
"The guys, when they show up to engagement shoots, they're very nervous and don't know what to do with their hands. They're shy, and honestly, they just don't want to be there."
In contrast to this "natural" trend, another far more staged genre is picking up speed: 1960s and '70s-inspired shoots heavy on retro props, with a Polaroid hipster vibe. (Think vintage bicycles and suitcases.)
"Let's go to a thrift store and buy up all this stuff to put in a field somewhere. ... but everyone's doing it," says Jaime Delaine, the Langley, B.C., photographer who took Mr. Low's photos.
The non-Bettie Page set seems to prefer glossy editorials that come in close up on nuzzling, well-made-up couples. There are certainly no loading docks or dumpy jeans here.
"They want to look like they're walking out of a J. Crew magazine," says Rose Tenuta, president of Bridal Solutions Wedding Planning & Event Production in Toronto.
No matter the theme, proponents of e-sessions say they give couples and the photographer an opportunity to get comfortable with each other ahead of the wedding. Some clients use it as a hair and makeup trial. As for what happens to the shots, many couples use them in their invites, or mount them at wedding showers and the ceremony for the signing.
Although a one-hour e-session is often free if the photographer has been hired to shoot their wedding, couples generally just get a disc; they have to shell out additionally for prints and books.
"Yes, it adds another layer of expense if they're paying for it, but at the same time I think that a lot of people view it as, at this point, it's only 300 bucks and I already spent $50,000," says Ms. Tenuta.
Even though e-sessions are now the norm, some photographers make a point of not doing them.
"The couples that hire me to discreetly document their wedding day aren't the type that want to stage activities to get photographs of themselves," says Toronto photographer Andreas Avdoulos, who favours classic black-and-white portraits.
So why are the stage-athons so prolific? "The wedding business is a fantastic market in that there are so many people looking for something unique to them. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of that in the photography business," says Mr. Avdoulos.
In other words, says Ms. Lash: "We, the industry, are feeding these images to them and they feel that they have to do it. You don't have to do an engagement shoot."