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  • Writer's pictureElena Gera

A Photographer's Guide to Planning the Perfect Surprise Proposal

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

A Ten-Step Guide on How to Plan a Surprise Marriage Proposal

Planning a surprise proposal? Get expert tips from a professional surprise proposal photographer in East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Surprise proposal at Blue Ridge Parkway
Surprise proposal at Blue Ridge Parkway near Roanoke, VA

Hi, I am Elena, a wedding, engagement and surprise proposal photographer in East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

So, GUYS, in the world of the wedding bonanza craziness where women rule, this blog post is for YOUR EYES ONLY.

First of all, shout-out to the guys who plan a surprise proposal! Three exclamation marks!!! There is no way to make your woman love you more (or man for that matter, to be fair to same-sex couples) than to surprise her (him) with the ring when they least expect it! And if you go as far as hiring a photographer to document that moment, four exclamation marks and the biggest prize go to you! You are a hero, and if you wanted to plan and execute something so elaborate, no one would ever say no to you; you can be trusted to be a married person!

For me, as a wedding and couples photographer, surprise proposals take top priority. While I absolutely love weddings with their stunning details and raw emotions, and I adore engagement photography, where I get to learn about the couple and meticulously document their every touch and glance, there's something truly magical about being hired to photograph a surprise proposal. It's as if I leap to the moon! This is the moment when I get to employ my expertise as a trained photojournalist and a reporter.

Surprise proposals are the most challenging to capture. They demand meticulous planning and ninja-like stealth skills. But nothing surpasses the look in the girl’s eyes when she suddenly turns from the breathtaking view she is enjoying and spots her partner on one knee. Of course, she had some inkling it might happen, but is it happening now? She can't quite believe it, and her reaction is absolutely priceless!

Surprise marriage proposal photography at Elk Knob NC
Surprise marriage proposal photography on top of Elk Knob, NC

Just like your first kiss at a wedding ceremony, the actual moment you propose cannot be repeated. Well, technically, it can... Reenactment is not something that we photographers shy away from for a good shot. But even if nobody else notices, you two will know the recreated experience was not genuine... The photographer will know it too... So, there is only one chance, and you should make it right from the very beginning!

If you're contemplating surprising your partner with a ring and wish to have this moment documented but are uncertain about how to proceed, let's follow these steps:

Step #1- Find a photographer

Ensure your vision aligns with their photography style. If you prefer light and airy photos, avoid hiring someone whose pictures are dark and moody. It's entirely normal for individuals to have different aesthetics, and there's always a photographer whose work resonates with you the most. Reach out to your chosen photographer and engage in a comprehensive conversation about your plan. Be receptive to the photographer’s feedback! You may only be doing this once (hopefully!), while we have considerable experience. Delve into the details and anticipate challenges you may not have even thought about.

Young couple kissing at their engagement photo session at Bisset Park, Radford, VA
Engagement photography session at Bisset Park, Radford, VA

Step #2 - Select date and location

Choosing the right setting can significantly impact the proposal's ambiance and the resulting photographs. Is this a new location for you, or does it hold sentimental value for you as a couple? It can be a place of your first date, your first kiss, or even your shared hobby hub. It can also be a completely unfamiliar site for both of you - like a concert, a new restaurant, or your favorite football team’s game.

It can even be a place where you often picnic with your family, and this is a great way to invite your other half for a stroll while the food is cooking, without arousing any suspicion. You can pop the question while enjoying the walk, just like David did with Hannah at Wilbur Dam, their favorite family picnic spot.

A guy kneeling with a ring to propose to his girlfriend at Wilbur Dam Elizabethton TN
Surprise Proposal at Wilbur Dam, Elizabethton, TN

"Elena is awesome! I booked her for a surprise proposal, and everything went flawlessly. From the very first email about how to set up the session to finding a place to take sample photos to ensure everything would be impeccable, to the actual day of the proposal. She is very easy to work with and helped me plan around a bunch of things I hadn't thought about being something that would really be an issue, such as the lighting at particular times of the day, truly making or breaking the ideal engagement pictures. She definitely went above and beyond to help me plan the perfect day. When my now fiancée and I walked down to the spot to propose, Elena had the perfect disguise, as she had everything planned out expertly to fit right in, like she was just any other person there that day. My fiancée had no clue at all that she was the photographer, let alone that there was a photographer even there. We love all of our photos that she took; she really captured all the moments that made it the flawless proposal. Elena made it so easy to plan and accomplish everything I was looking for. She truly is the best!" - DAVID

A girl looking at her ring after being proposed at Steele Creek Park in Bristol TN
Surprise Proposal at Steele Creek Park, Bristol, TN

Step #3 -Scout the Location WITH the Photographer

Meet the photographer beforehand at the time of day the proposal is planned for. Walk around the scene, allow the photog to take some test shots, and listen to the suggestions. Sometimes what you believe would make a great background may not work due to the lighting conditions at that time of day. Consider a different time or an alternative location, if needed. Discuss the positioning of the photographer, how you should place yourselves for the perfect angle, and the optimal stance for your partner. Sometimes a minor adjustment of just two steps to the right or left can make your fiancé’s facial reaction more visible. Ensure that you thoroughly go through all the details.

(Obviously, you’ll have to skip this step if your chosen proposal spot is located far away. In such cases, ensure that the photographer has scouted it for you, taken pictures, and created an easy-to-follow plan, including diagrams with arrows that you can later discuss).

 A young couple holding hands during their engagement photography session at Steele Creek park Bristol TN
Engagement photography session at Steele Creek Park, Bristol, TN

Step #4 - Time It Right

The ideal time for a surprise proposal is during the 'golden hour,' that magical window just before sunset. (Or, to be fair - right after sunrise too. But if you're the kind of person who greets the sunrise with enthusiasm (and maybe a side-eye from us night owls), go ahead and propose at dawn – just don't expect the rest of us to join you!)

Golden Hour is when the sun's angle casts a warm, romantic, soft light with even illumination on your faces. It's not a full hour but more like 40 minutes before sunset. The timing varies daily, depending on the season and location. You can easily check it here. Regardless of what sunset tables suggest, discuss this with your photographer, as specific locations may influence this timeframe. For instance, if a mountain blocks the sun, it gets darker much earlier than expected.

This doesn't mean you can't have a surprise proposal at other times of the day – go ahead and chase the sun! Especially on cloudy days or in bustling cities, you can find creative ways to capture the perfect moment. Sometimes, all it takes is finding a tall building in the middle of the day whose shadow creates even lighting. But be cautious, as high noon provides the least favorable lighting scenario, often resulting in harsh shadows and unflattering highlights on your faces.

Surprise Proposal at Blitmore Estate in Asheville NC
Blitmore Estate in Asheville, NC

Step #5 - Wear the Right Clothes

You might be a completely relaxed couple, feeling fantastic in sneakers and jeans all the time. If that's the case and you're planning to propose on your favorite hiking trail, just wear what makes you comfortable. However, if your girlfriend enjoys dressing up occasionally, consider a subtle way to persuade her to wear that favorite dress of yours and invest some time and effort into makeup and hair. Ensure you don't raise any suspicions in the process. This is often easier to accomplish if the surprise proposal is linked to a concert visit rather than a family picnic – but adjust to your circumstances! How your partner feels in their attire will greatly impact our journey on Step #8.

Of course, you should also put thought into your own attire. Discuss clothing options with your surprise proposal photographer. A general tip is that wearing neutral colors is always a safe bet. Light grays, tans, soft pinks, teals, faint blues, creams, and whites will result in a light and airy look in your images, complement various backgrounds, and are always the right choice!

Step #6 - Communicate Effectively

Stay in close contact with your photographer until the actual proposal moment. Communicate any changes in plans, weather conditions, or travel hiccups discreetly. Ensure the photographer informs you when they are in position and ready to rock and roll. On the day of the proposal, send a text with your ETA to the photographer, and maintain communication until you confirm they are in position and ready.

A couple ready for a kiss during engagement photo session Tipton-Hynes Historic Site in Johnson City TN
Tipton-Hynes Historic Site in Johnson City, TN

Step #7 - Let Your Photographer Capture Genuine Emotions

You're orchestrating a very intimate moment that resists intrusion. Your aim is to evoke raw, authentic emotions, which can be unpredictable. Will your partner scream, laugh, or cry after you pop the question? You're eager to witness these reactions firsthand, but you also want them immortalized through photographs and relive this special day whenever you glance at the pictures.

Enable your photographer to capture these genuine responses while remaining inconspicuous. So your partner is unaware of the spotlight until the moment concludes. There are various techniques for a surprise proposal photographer to conceal themselves. The most effective method is employing a long lens and maintaining a considerable distance. A surprise proposal photographer might hide under a tree, pose as a tourist, masquerade as an architectural photographer, or even blend in as a picnic-goer with a blanket and a picnic basket (which, in reality, contains only their camera).

In one memorable story, when James proposed to Anna on a treeless mountaintop, I was concealed in plain sight, posing as a bird watcher.

"Elena was exceptional! I planned to surprise my girlfriend at the summit of a trail in the NC mountains. Elena was responsive, helpful, and flexible throughout all of the planning processes. She set up a FaceTime with me when I was initially planning the idea to set up the photo shoot, which was very beneficial. Throughout the entire process, she was always willing to help and very flexible. Not only did she hike up a tough trail to the site of the photo shoot, but she was also in the right place (undercover) to successfully capture the moment. There was a chance of rain the night before, and I was able to contact Elena late in the evening and change the time by an hour. She provided me with updates throughout the day of the engagement and which gave me great comfort. If you are planning any surprises, you can especially count on Elena to be in the right place at the right time. She is extremely professional and charges a great price as well. The quality of the photos was excellent, and we received them fully edited a couple of days after. I 110% recommend Elena for your photography needs!" - JAMES
Portrait of a happy girl with her new engagement ring right after she  received a surprise proposal on top of elk knob nc

Step #8 - Prepare for Post-Proposal Photography

Allow the proposal moment to linger as long as possible. Even after you propose and stand up, there will be hugging, kissing, and words exchanged. Savor the moment; the photographer can't hear your conversation, so let them capture as many shots as possible until the initial reaction subsides.

Then comes the moment when your partner starts looking around and realizes they are being photographed. This is when the photographer approaches and introduces themselves. Utilize this time after the proposal to capture memorable shots of the two of you, play around, and relish the moment. The photographer will guide you and let you be yourselves, resulting not only in proposal shots but also in photos suitable for your wedding invitations and save-the-dates. Think of this as your engagement mini-session; you can forgo it later.

Just keep in mind not to extend it beyond 30 minutes. Firstly, we're already racing against the setting sun, especially if you've chosen the "Golden Hour" (See Step #4) – darkness descends quickly. Secondly, your partner is likely overwhelmed. They want to share the news with family and friends and may not be in the mood for more photos right away.

Additionally, there's the chance they might decline the mini-session because they don't feel prepared. Perhaps they're sweaty after a challenging hike, or they don't feel their best without makeup or with disheveled hair, etc. That's why Step #5 is crucial. It's an insight into how we women are, so please respect it and don't insist. Schedule your engagement session for another day. You've already achieved plenty in one day!

a kissing couple under a red umbrella at Biltmore estate in Asheville nc

Step #9 - Embrace the Unexpected

Things happen, and nothing ever goes as planned. Be adaptable and prepared for unexpected situations. Perhaps you are running late, or there is unforeseen rain – do not be discouraged. Stay in communication with your photographer, reschedule, or postpone if needed. (We had to reschedule one proposal three times in 2020 due to COVID restrictions).

Alternatively, go with the flow – I personally have no issues with light rain, as long as it's not pouring. On the contrary, light rain might create misty and dreamy effects that make your pictures even more unique! I don't mind my own appearance during the shoot and can stay in the rain; the main thing is that your partner is comfortable with her hair getting wet!

Step #10 - Celebrate and Share

Share your surprise proposal pictures wherever you like! Social media is a great way to showcase what just happened and allow others to celebrate with you! Tag your surprise proposal photographer and spread the love! We want to photograph more couples like you!



East TN, Southern, and Central VA, Western NC - $380

  • Location Planning & Advice

  • Photography of the proposal moment

  • Immediate session afterward

  • Highlight photos delivered within 24 hours for instant sharing

  • Full Online Gallery of Digital Images delivered within 3 days

Northern VA, West TN, and all other locations - $480

  • Travel

  • Location Planning & Advice

  • Photography of the proposal moment

  • Immediate session afterward

  • Highlight photos delivered within 24 hours for instant sharing

  • Full Online Gallery of Digital Images delivered within 3 days


Congratulations on your plans to propose!

I am excited to hear about your proposal plans and would love to capture this exciting moment for you! "Focus on the Moment" has photographed over 70+ proposals in Washington, DC, Asheville, NC, Gatlinburg, TN, Roanoke, VA, Bristol, TN, and all across the Dixie Line!

Working with me is easy! Simply toss your proposal plans and date into the form below, and I'll reach out to assist you in mapping out the details. If you're uncertain about the location for your proposal, I'm more than happy to provide some excellent options.




I am Elena, a documentary-style wedding, engagement, and surprise proposal photographer in East Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina!

My style is relaxed, playful, and evocative. I value connection, joy, authenticity, and true colors.


I help couples who want candid shots and cherish raw emotions!

Please get in touch with me if you have any questions or to check availability. 

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