There were any number of ways Shannon Martin and Dan Pascone could have memorialized their engagement, from at-home snapshots to formal studio portraits. But it didn't take long for them to realize that the only pictures they wanted involved mucking around in the mud. Which was how their ebullient photo session at a Nissequogue stable last October came to be.

"I grew up riding horses, so I wanted to do something more personal to me," says Martin, who loved the idea of shooting near her Northport hometown. Although the couple arrived for their close-ups expecting classic fall foliage shots in cozy fall sweaters, Martin, a 26-year-old teacher, and Pascone, who is 27 and works in finance, soon swapped their dressy duds for casual barn wear -- the perfect look for posing with her two ponies, horsing around the stables and making even bales of hay look romantic. The result was a portfolio that captures the genuine glee of the college sweethearts. "It was," says Martin, "a dream come true."

For decades, engagement photos consisted of a few quick shots for a newspaper announcement, and, for years, they even fell out of favor. Now, they're not only back, but today's sessions are often extended shoots with several locations and several wardrobe changes -- all aimed at bringing out the "real" couple, not some overly posed mannequins.

"It's such an exciting time," photographer Kimberly Hurst of Baldwin says of capturing that just-engaged glow. "There's something about having photos of the two of you in your everyday clothes. Your kids will love them just as much as your wedding photos -- you in your skinny jeans."

A perusal of popular wedding blogs yields pages of engagement photos from creative to quirky: Some couples ham it up and pose with balloons, vintage suitcases, a Vespa or the family dog. For a more classic approach, soon-to-be marrieds are snapped frolicking on the beach, holding hands in the park, playing in the snow or wandering through the winding streets of their favorite village.

But those shots take work. To help couples create a vision for their portrait, Hurst asks a lot of questions about what they like to do in their free time. "I have to draw out of them what kind of personality they are," she says. "Once we start talking about that stuff, it's easier to make some suggestions as to where to go."

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Some favorite spots: the historic grounds of Cedarmere, William Cullen Bryant's 19th century home in Roslyn Harbor, the less-crowded Lido West Beach and the Fire Island Lighthouse. (Though these areas are available for free, beware that many Long Island locations, especially those indoors, require a permit, which could run around $200.) As for the optimal time to shoot, "I always recommend sunrise or sunset, so we have the light and great movement in the pictures," says photographer Melani Lust of Westport, Conn., who considers scenic Long Island Sound a top camera-worthy locale.

While you probably don't want to invest in a ball gown and tux for the occasion, engagement photos are forever, so you do want to put thought into your outfit; consider how you'd want to look on your best day or night out. "This is the shoot where you're going to look back and say, 'This is when we were a hot carefree couple,' so you want to look really good," Lust says. A cool pair of jeans and top are perfect for a woodsy shoot, while a breezy summer dress works well on the beach.

And make sure you coordinate your couple style -- though there's no need to be matchy-matchy. "Couples should wear something that complements both their own skin tones and their fiance's outfit as well," says Sheri LaMagna of Brett Matthews Photography in Roslyn Heights. For a two-hour shoot, Lust recommends bringing three changes of clothing, just in case.

As an added benefit, Hurst says, "an engagement session gets you more comfortable with a camera following you around." For Martin and Pascone, the barn shoot was great practice for their wedding next month at St. Philip Neri in Northport and reception at Oheka Castle in Huntington. "For the first couple of photos, I was nervous -- you're very aware that people are taking photos of you," she says. After a few clicks, the bride-to-be relaxed and got a better feel for the style of her lensmen, Robert & Kathleen Photographers of Manhattan, and also an idea of what angles and poses work best.

As LaMagna puts it, "Act as though the photographer who is taking the pictures is not even there. Lose yourselves in the moment and just be together. That will always come through in the final image."

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Find the right photographer

Know what style you're going for, whether it's photojournalistic, formal, or creative portraits, and make sure the photographer can deliver. Think of your engagement pictures as a trial run for your wedding: A successful session may make you more relaxed for the big day, but a less-than-perfect pairing still gives you time to find someone else to shoot the nuptials.

Schedule early

If engagement photos are important to you, put it at the top of your to-do list. Though you can take them as close as three months before the wedding, many couples say cheese a year in advance, which allows time to incorporate favorite shots into a wedding website, save-the-date cards or newspaper announcement. Keep in mind that many photographers fill their calendars quickly.

Location, location, location

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Think about places that are significant to you, whether it's where you got engaged or the site of your first date. If you love playing Frisbee on the beach or hanging out at a local coffee shop, consider holding the photo session there. If you still draw a blank, ask your photographer about her favorite places to shoot. Maybe she has an off-the-beaten-path park that's a perfect fit.

Dress for success

Think about how you'd look on your best day or night out. Choose clothing and accessories that will best show off your shape, complexion and personality, and make sure they complement your partner, too. For hair and makeup, stay true to your natural style, but give yourself some extra time to perfect your locks and lip gloss. Keep in mind the style of the photos and the tone of your location. If you simply can't decide, bring several wardrobe options.

Price it

Although many photographers include engagement portraits in the cost of the wedding package, a la carte sessions can average $300-$400 for a sitting and a disk of poses; some studios include prints, others charge extra.

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Relax and be yourself

Most people have never been the focus of a photo shoot before, but now is the time to get comfortable with your personal paparazzi. It will prep you for the camera flashes at the wedding. Most important, enjoy yourselves; you'll capture that happiness for eternity.