What It’s Like to Be a Surprise Proposal Photographer in New York City

Gerard Ortiz
  • Vlad Leto is a secret proposal photographer in New York who’s photographed more than 2,000 couples.
  • He started in event photography before creating his company, Proposal 007.
  • Here’s his career story, as told to writer Perri Ormont Blumberg.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Vlad Leto, a 38-year-old proposal photographer in New York City. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I’m a secret proposal photographer based in New York City and originally from Samara, Russia. I’ve been working as a photographer since 2005, and I have a master’s in photography from the School of Visual Arts.

I started my career in event photography, which was a source of stable income, in 2005. I also did fashion photography and worked with model agencies and stylists. For the past 11 years, I’ve been shooting marriage proposals in NYC. Every month I capture between 40 and 100 proposals.

I work like a spy. I secretly follow a couple and take pictures of one of the most important moments in their lives. While one person knows I’m there, it’s a total surprise for another.

In October 2015, I teamed up with wedding planner Tatiana Caicedo, whom I knew previously, and we founded a marriage-proposal-planning company called Proposal 007. We help our clients create unforgettable proposals. We think of an idea, secure a location, and take care of decorations, musicians, photography, etc.

The cost of proposals runs from $450 for just photography to $5,000 when a client wants to have something like a private penthouse terrace with giant “Marry Me” letters, candles, and flower decorations.

I’ve done more than 2,000 proposals since 2011.

Ninety-five percent of my business is surprise proposals in New York City

A surprise proposal in New York City

A surprise proposal.

Vlad Leto, styled by Tatiana Caicedo


Sometimes I also shoot elopements and regular engagements that aren’t a surprise, but it’s not very often. 

Most of our clients come from word-of-mouth referrals, and we also keep an excellent social-media presence on Instagram — both on my personal and my company‘s account. We also use TikTok. I don’t do much advertising. If somebody wants to propose in NYC, and they do their research, they’ll eventually find our website. 

Most of the proposals happen on the weekends. I usually do three to six proposals a day. I live near Central Park, and I start my day by walking my dog in the park. When I get back home, I prepare my equipment, select lenses and lighting for each job, and start texting my clients to ensure everybody is on schedule. My first assignment can be as early as 9 a.m., and the last can finish around midnight.

A surprise proposal in New York City

A surprise proposal.

Vlad Leto, styled by Tatiana Caicedo


When it’s closer to the shoot time, I go to the location, prepare the site, and help set up decorations. My process is to have the client describe to me what they’re wearing, so I can spot and have them share their location and report to me when they’re on their way, when they’re approaching the proposal location, and when they’re at the spot. That’s when the magic starts. I’ve actually never had a situation where someone said “no.”

On weekdays, I usually work on editing, plan upcoming proposals, and research what’s going on in the photo world.

One of my favorite proposals was a double-proposal and no one knew about it

My client, Kyle, planned to propose to his partner, Daryl, over dinner at the R Lounge. He hired me to do secret photography of the proposal. When the time came, he got on his knee and asked Daryl to marry him. But at that moment, Daryl pulled out the engagement box and asked Kyle the same question.

Kyle and his friends were in shock, and I captured that perfect double-proposal reaction on camera, which was both emotional and joyful. They both took turns getting on one knee and putting the rings on each other. After that, we took some pictures at the lounge, and they stayed for a dinner celebration.

A surprise proposal in New York City

A surprise proposal.

Vlad Leto, styled by Tatiana Caicedo


Another unique proposal I captured was in Brooklyn Bridge Park. A random walk in Brooklyn Bridge Park “accidentally” brought the couple, Tarek and Lauren, to Jane’s Carousel.

When they walked inside, the lights turned on, and they noticed a beautiful piano by the side. They came from Dubai to New York for vacation, so Lauren had no idea that he had been planning a proposal for the past two months. Tarek reached for the piano and started playing the special song he had composed for her. She was in shock and couldn’t believe that it was made especially for her.

After finishing the piece, he got on one knee and asked her to be his wife. She said yes!

I think proposal photography is a unique kind of photography, and you need to love it to succeed

A surprise proposal in New York City

A surprise proposal.

Vlad Leto, styled by Tatiana Caicedo


In terms of photography skills, what helped me was many years in event photography, which gave me good reaction and reflection — the ability to catch the moment no matter what. Sometimes I need to run because the client can’t wait until they reach the proposal spot and propose some distance from it.

The movie-making class I took at SVA, plus many other workshops on studio lighting, also added to my skill set. Even though I don’t shoot in a photo studio, I can now create any lighting outside using minimal equipment. Critiquing classes helped a lot in working on my style and aesthetic. I think a formal photography education is generally a good idea.

But what art schools don’t give you is business skills. I’ve taken so many courses from many platforms and schools. My favorite so far was Entrepreneurship Specialization from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. I also do self-education by exploring works of other photographers from different fields to keep up with visual trends.

My rule is if you want to keep what you already have, you must run ahead and evolve all the time. Otherwise, you’ll fall behind and lose your edge.

Do you have a unique job and want to share your story? Email Lauryn Haas at [email protected]

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