They started out with a demure, handheld walk in a field.
They tried hanging out at a pond; she in a bathing suit, he shirtless and fishing.
Then, the right setting became apparent: an all-out paint fight.
And so went the engagement photo shoot of Jennifer Garcia and Nick Sloms.
"We both like painting and we wanted it to be a fun experience that represented us," said Garcia, a twentysomething from Collingswood.
Wearing all white and equipped with big squirt bottles, they started with a canvas, and then moved on to each other. "It got really messy."
Bye-bye white outfits, hello lots and lots of Facebook likes.
That was 2012, when more people were doing traditional photos. Now, fun, artsy - and even strange - engagement photos are de rigeur as a way for couples to show off their personalities. That means props - farm animals, paint cans - unusual venues, such as Eastern State Penitentiary or an amusement park - and outfits that range from cutoff casual to super chic - "brides-to-be in tulle skirts and grooms-to-be dressed up to the nines," said photographer Lindsay Docherty, whose business is based in West Mount Airy.
"They are probably in the best shape of their lives right before the wedding. Pictures today are less stiff and more about photographing the couple in love."
What used to be solely the purview of newspaper wedding announcements now have a much wider distribution and shelf life as couples post the pictures on social media and use them as the foundation for their wedding websites and save-the-dates. Shots are romantic and carefree and - as much as you can feel spontaneous during a prearranged photo shoot - not posed and manipulated.
"They are lifestyle-based, more documentary and emotional than traditional," Docherty said.
Engagement photos don't usually hold the same allure for men as they do for women, so the element of surprise helps woo them to participate in the shoots, often included in wedding photo packages.
Jacquie Talbot said fiancé Jon Pakenham's eyes were "basically glazing over when we were talking about colors and outfits. When our photographer, Tyler Boye, suggested a car wash, my fiancé's eyes lit up," said Talbot, 29, who moved from Philadelphia to Frederick, Md., two years ago.
In October on a beautiful day amid colorful falling leaves, the couple rented a vintage Chevy truck and filled a bucket with sudsy water. So much for hair and makeup.
"It showed the personality of us as a couple, not only picture-wise, but experience-wise," said Talbot, whose wedding is planned for September in Philadelphia.
Boye, an editorial fashion photographer in Los Angeles who moved to Philadelphia in 2009, knew a "concepty and fun" style would translate to engagement photos. "Brides, often dragging their fiancés along, want artistic, beautiful, sexy, and interesting pictures," he said.
"It's the one opportunity that you have to push the envelope and have fun, with more spontaneity than the day of the wedding," added Stephanie Boye, who handles sales for the Blue Bell photographer.
Though pictures of scantily clad couples in compromising poses do appear in social media, "there's a fine line between raunchy and sensual," Boye said.
The shots of dripping-wet Stephanie and Chris Cole happened naturally on their shoot day, which reached 101 degrees.
"We started in an abandoned train in New Hope and ended up in a lake, my husband and I fully submerged," recalled Stephanie Cole, 27, of Downingtown. "The sexy poses weren't ones I initially thought I wanted - they were out of my comfort zone - but when I saw the work in the end, I thought it was so worth it. I never felt that we were crossing a line from sexy to trashy."
Anu Biju and Joe Kunnathusseril's engagement photo shoot in 2013 also took an unexpected turn. After hitting some favorite Philly haunts - Reading Terminal Market, the Magic Gardens, and Love Park, they were photobombed by a swarm of Philly Naked Bike Ride participants.
They used some photos from the shoot to announce their engagement and others were shown at their wedding, but the naked bike riders showed up only on Facebook.
Before Gini Gramaglia married former Flyers great Bernie Parent in July, she wanted engagement photos that would reflect their sense of fun and adventure, but also their age.
"We're not in our 20s or 30s or getting married for the first time," said Gramaglia, 47, of Warrington. "We wanted something cutting-edge but appropriate."
The couple posed in front of Parent's 7-foot statue outside Xfinity Live. "Not many people have statues, especially who are still living," she said. "It was very special, a privilege and honor. How much more unique can you get than that?"
Docherty's clients, about 25 a year, casually pose, giggle, and stare lovingly into each other's eyes in a place with great light, color, and texture, a trend that started gradually 10 years ago, she said. Engagement photos are included in her wedding packages, but for clients wanting only engagement shots, a one- to two-hour session in multiple locations costs $425; an additional $550 is charged for the digital files.
For veterinarian Lauren Cohn and her animal-loving husband, Richard Domeracki, a photo shoot featuring goats shortly before their October wedding was a no-brainer. "It's just pure happiness being around animals," said Cohn, 40, of Northern Liberties. "I try to incorporate animals into basically everything I do, but they were far enough removed that it was clean and beautiful still."
Gina Sole, owner of the Wedding Planner in Rittenhouse Square, saw couples start to "think outside the box" about seven years ago. Now, 90 percent of her couples have quirky engagement shots.
"Before, it was a picture they'd have framed and put in their living room," she said.
When Dana DiNatale and Robert Alex met with photographer Joe Gidjunis last year, he had them fill out a questionnaire about their interests.
"Hershey Park was a place that was special to Rob and I. We felt like kids running around and wanted to make it a tradition to go back every year," said DiNatale, 31, from Roseland, N.J. "We both love roller coasters and going to adventurous places."
The result: Celebrating at Skee ball, screaming at the Scrambler, and kissing at the carousel.
"The shoot definitely captured our personalities, and you could tell we were having fun."