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A Photographer's Guide to Destination Weddings

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It’s a big world out there, with no shortage of couples seeking to tie the knot. Yet more and more weddings are being held in appealing travel destinations, rather than local venues or formal church settings. From the warm breezes of a Caribbean island, to the majesty of a luxury estate, to the freshness of the great outdoors, and beyond—the destination wedding is a growing trend.

Above Photograph © Rochelle Cheever

But what does this mean for the wedding photographer, and how does this change in setting affect a photographer’s process? The following insights from destination wedding shooters Javon Longieliere, Donna Von Bruening, Brian Leahy, and Rochelle Cheever are intended to lend some clarity to this exciting, yet multifaceted, wedding niche.

The Rise of the Destination Wedding

Javon Longieliere, author of the forthcoming book Destination Weddings: The Photographer's Guide to Shooting in Exotic and Unexpected Locations, attributes the growing popularity of destination weddings to these advantages: freedom, availability, and cost.

Javon Longieliere

“People want to have a little more freedom, and in these destinations, they can get married, have a good time, and honeymoon all in the same spot. It’s a lot of fun, and they don’t have as many restrictions on what they can and can’t do.”

Longieliere, who has been shooting weddings with his wife, Dawn, since 2001, landed his first international gig in Paris, in 2003. “We had never planned on doing destination work; it just sort of kept happening to us and I fell in love with it.”

In terms of cost, he notes, “A lot of people think it’s going to be really expensive to get married overseas or in the islands, but in some cases, it’s actually cheaper than getting married in the states. If you look at Atlanta, it can be upwards of $85,000 just to host a wedding in a venue, not including everything else.”

Longieliere contrasts this with a recent European wedding he shot, saying, “I think the bride paid maybe $10,000, which included having us come over to photograph.”

Javon Longieliere

He points to Instagram as a good resource for finding affordable venues, such as in European chateaus that have been recently purchased and renovated. “These types of places are just getting started, so you can find good deals in really beautiful locations,” he says.

Skills Required of a Destination Wedding Photographer

While wedding photography generally requires a photographer to think on his or her feet, the added variables of a destination wedding make this even more of a crucial concern.

Donna Von Bruening

“When working locally, you become familiar with a property and the venue team, and you can rely on that familiarity when needed,” explains Savannah, Georgia-based Donna Von Bruening, whose business includes 40% destination weddings. “But on location, everything is new. You don’t have any go-to locations or a relationship with the staff to help. To navigate this requires confidence, quick thinking, and flexibility.”

According to Longieliere, while planning for a local wedding often includes meeting the couple over coffee or dinner, or extends to an engagement shoot to jumpstart the getting-to-know-you process, “We don’t meet a lot of our destination wedding clients until the day before the wedding,” he says. “In those cases, first impressions are the only impressions you get. You have to be versatile, and have an open mind.”

Rochelle Cheever, a destination wedding shooter specializing in elopements, and author of the forthcoming book Italy, A Romantic Journey, adds, “You need to be a good traveler and explorer to incorporate the destination’s culture and landscape.”

Planning and Logistics for a Destination Wedding Shoot

As a dual citizen of America and Italy, and with bases in both countries, Cheever has traveled extensively, a huge advantage in planning for destination wedding work. She advises, “If you don't know the location, it’s best to arrive at least two or three days in advance to study the area and be familiar with the settings, the light, and the space. That way, you’re prepared on the day of the wedding.”

Rochelle Cheever

While Von Bruening finds that overall planning for a destination wedding is not necessarily longer, “it does require a deeper dive into preparation and travel plans. You may be traveling to a location that doesn’t have a camera store, or big box chains, where you can buy replacements if something happens, like stolen gear or malfunction,” she explains.

Brian Leahy, a Southern California-based wedding photographer whose destination work is projected to top 75% of his business by 2018, often depends on his clients’ travel agent or destination management company as a key resource in his planning process. “These folks can really guide you through the easiest and most convenient ways of traveling to very remote or far-off locations,” he says. At the same time, he cautions that the slower pace of such distant locales may result in a delayed response time. “Patience is a virtue,” he says.

Brian Leahy

Longieliere, who books about 80% of his destination clients through wedding planners, sees that relationship as an essential part of his planning process. “In our experience, planners who specialize in destination weddings tend to handle everything,” he says. “They want it to be this fairytale experience for the bride and groom, so they need to have everything down. If you have a really good relationship with these folks, you sometimes know as much, if not more, than the bride,” he adds.

Communication Strategies for a Destination Wedding Shoot

As a supplement to the wedding planner, Longieliere also uses Skype to connect directly with clients. “Technology is fantastic in this case,” he says. “It’s been invaluable for things like going over wedding pictures when we’re designing albums. I could be talking with a client based in Norway,” he points out. “It really does make the world a smaller place.”

Cheever uses Skype, as well, but says, “I also have couples fill out a questionnaire to get to know them better. I like to get on friendly terms so they feel comfortable with me on their wedding day.”

Leahy’s pre-planning with destination couples, “generally revolves around location scouting ideas and timeline preparation. I want to make sure we have time to take advantage of being in such an incredible location,” he says.

Donna Von Bruening

In Von Bruening’s experience, “Communicating with your couples requires in-depth conversations about why they chose the location, and their vision for photographs,” she explains.  

Overcoming Communication Roadblocks

Yet, no amount of planning could avoid disruption when a sudden thunderstorm halted a Mexican beach wedding Von Bruening was scheduled to photograph. “I had scouted and even scouted back-up locations, and asked the hotel staff about other competing events,” she says. “Nevertheless, I lost my back-up indoor spot to a meeting moved inside to accommodate another outdoor event. It was musical events at the hotel and a great location for my photographs was the least of the staff’s concerns.” Von Bruening made due by shooting in the couple’s room, a hallway, and a stairwell. “The images came out beautifully, but just not beachy,” she says. “I ended up staying an extra day to photograph the couple on the beach.”  

Foreign languages or unfamiliar cultural traditions can also pose problems for destination wedding shooters. “We run into language barriers all the time, and that can be very challenging,” says Longieliere. As an example, he mentions the wedding of a German couple whom he photographed without a wedding planner’s involvement. “Everything we did with this couple was in writing,” he says. “It gave them time to translate and understand all the details.”

Javon Longieliere

Another useful communication tip is to ask each client if they plan to include any special or unusual wedding customs. Unique customs Longieliere has discovered—and photographed—during various destination weddings include a German couple who sawed a log together after finishing their vows, and a Venezuelan wedding that blossomed into a Mardi Gras-type theme during the reception. “They dropped masks and hats and boas from the ceiling, and everyone went around wearing them for the rest of the reception,” he says.

All about Gear: Packing and Traveling for a Destination Wedding Shoot

All the photographers we spoke with travel with essentially the same gear kit they use locally. “Since shooting a destination wedding means that everything else is new and different, it’s important to me to have familiarity with my gear,” says Von Bruening. “This isn’t the time to experiment with a new camera or lens.”

Most important when traveling is the advice, “Don't check your gear bag! Airlines are notorious for treating luggage pretty rough,” says Leahy. “The possibility of lost or damaged gear is a major concern, especially when traveling to more remote locations.”

Brian Leahy

Von Bruening, who uses a Think Tank bag to keep her gear safe, recommends, “If it is feasible, fly first class. If flying coach/economy, you should pay for the upgrade to board first and secure overhead space, or ask the flight attendant if you can store your gear in the pilot’s closet.” She also recommends separating all lenses from the camera bodies, “Since the added stress of travel and having your bag banged around might break off the seal,” she explains.  

While Longieliere’s most essential gear goes with him on the plane, he packs certain items—such as tripods and larger lights—in checked luggage. Although he has run into past issues with breakage due to rough handling, “You can still shoot the wedding,” he says. In one instance, after Longieliere’s battery pack was rendered inoperable, he was able to borrow lights from a videographer working the same event.

For overseas travel, Longieliere also stocks up on extra batteries and CF cards, as well as voltage converters to deal with power changes. “In an out-of-the-way destination, sometimes you’re an hour-and-a-half away from the nearest store, or you don’t know where the nearest store is,” he says. “So, we don’t want to run out of equipment that we need.”

Process for Scouting Destination Wedding Locations

Of the photographers we interviewed, Cheever is most hands-on about her process for location scouting, which she starts two to three days in advance. “I try to enter the culture and lifestyle of the location, to embed it into the wedding photographs,” she says.


Rochelle Cheever

After scouting everything and testing all the locations, “the day before, I go out and do a preliminary run of the wedding day, at the exact time events will be occurring, especially the newlywed photographs,” she adds.

Leahy relies on the Internet for most of his scouting. “I use Google Maps, specifically with street view and satellite images,” he says. “If I can get a good feel for the direction of the sun, it's fairly easy to see what locations would look best in beautiful afternoon light. I'll also do a quick online search for wedding images from that particular town or venue to give me a good idea of great spots to shoot.”

In addition to recommending Instagram when searching for destination venues, Longieliere also likes to use it for location scouting from afar. “Get on Instagram and see what other people have tagged in pictures,” he says.

Von Bruening’s on-site scouting efforts often involve, “Both checking the light, and driving destinations or traffic patterns, if needed,” she says.

Getting Down to Business: Contracts and Insurance for Destination Wedding Shoots

When it comes to business, Von Bruening advises, “Charge for the destination. Too many photographers use the destination wedding as an excuse for a free vacation, when it is … the exact opposite,” she explains. “You need to ensure you’re paid enough to cover your time out of the office, expenses such as childcare, and so on. Almost all photographers I know … lose money photographing a destination.” 

One important element for clarifying this is with a contract. Leahy, Cheever, and Von Bruening all include additional information in their destination wedding contracts regarding travel fees and logistics.

Brian Leahy

“I'll generally include fully detailed information on what the client is responsible for covering versus what I'm responsible for covering,” says Leahy. The client covers airfare for 1 or 2 photographers, lodging and ground transportation, whereas Leahy covers meals and incidentals. “Ideally, the more detail included in the contract, the less [of a] chance for miscommunication and unforeseen costs associated with traveling,” he adds.  

Longieliere takes the opposite approach and has his standard wedding contract set up for the most inclusive situation. “Certain clauses in our contract—costs for travel, lodging, airfare and hotel—apply to a destination wedding but not a local shoot,” he explains. “We tell local clients these items don’t apply to them.”

When it comes to liability insurance, $1,000,000 is the industry standard. “Some venues require this for you to even step through the door,” says Longieliere.

To cover destinations outside the United States, Von Bruening often adds a rider to her standard insurance policy, while Leahy carries a $2,000,000 policy, which remains consistent across local and destination bookings. “Some properties require a higher insurance amount, so it's always better to be fully covered, just in case,” he says.

Donna Von Bruening

Destination weddings in international locations can often involve other rules and restrictions, which are essential to investigate in advance. “Many foreign countries require a work permit or visa and, in some countries, you need to work for an affiliate to obtain such authorization,” Von Bruening says.  

For help in clarifying these types of business issues, many photographers turn to professional associations, such as Professional Photographers of America (PPA).

“I could spend three hours talking about how helpful PPA has been,” says Longieliere. “I don’t know how we would be around today if it wasn’t for PPA, and the connections we’ve made through this organization have been invaluable.”

Hot Trends in Destination Wedding Photography

Wedding photography is all about trends, and destination weddings have been a trending category for the past several years. Longieliere finds there to be a growing popularity of “weddings in locations that are an experience for the guests, such as a mountain getaway or a big-city weekend.”  

Rochelle Cheever

Since starting her business in 2008, Cheever has seen a huge increase in elopements. “People are also getting very creative about the locations where they tie the knot—Mexico, Greece, France, Hawaii, Arizona, Joshua Tree,” she notes.

An exciting trend that Leahy recently encountered is the addition of what he calls “Adventure Shoots” piggybacked with his destination wedding work. Generally scheduled after the wedding, Leahy and his clients spend a day getting more adventurous photos around the location. He is currently planning for such a shoot later this season, after a big wedding in a wilderness setting.

“We've rented a helicopter to take us to the tops of a few mountains for some epic photos,” he explains. “I can't even tell you how excited I am for that day!”

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I am wondering if a photographer would break immigration laws by accepting paid work in a country where he / she has no work authorization papers.

I heard that such is the case in Mexico. If the bag gets inspected at immigration / customs and they see all this equipment they may expect an explanation. I actually was asked about my camera once I drove to Canada from the USA  for leisure. I suspect If I had been going to shoot a wedding it would have been an issue and I might have been denied entry,

One of the photographers of this article has dual EU / US citizenship so he can work anywhere in the European Union's states.

I am not a destination wedding photographer, just shot wedding occasionally through word of mouth but would be good for the article to be more informative about the work authorization issues for foreign locations.

Hi Stefano, thanks very much for your question about the legalities of shooting weddings internationally. You bring up a very important point, which is really an article in and of itself. From what I understand, each country has it's own procedures that should allow a photographer to legally shoot a wedding in a given foreign locale, however this varies widely from one country to the next. I mention this in the article and suggest that photographers contact the association Professional Photographers of America for further guidance, but somehow this reference did not get hotlinked in the story. We have updated the story to add this link, https://www.ppa.com/, my apologies for this oversight. We will definitely cover this matter in a stand alone article sometime in the future. Thanks again for writing in, and for reading Explora!

I guess I have to wonder... Why not hire a local photographer for a destination wedding? All the travel problems, all the familiarization problems, they all go away if the photographer is local. I assume you (the customer, not the photographer) have some sort of agent or manager on location. You would need someone you trust to have set up the other arrangements: venue, catering, etc. Why not have them also arrange for the photography?

I "covered" my son's destination wedding (Caribbean) 8 years ago. Their wedding venue handled the arrangements, and had a house photographer, so I was just doing additional private pictures. I was on-scene a couple of days in advance, so I sort of knew what to expect. But I was not the "home team", and didn't really have the feel of exactly where everything would happen. After the fact, yes I got some shots that the official photographer did not. But she got far more that I did not. She knew what to expect, what angles she would need, etc. I found that most of my good shots came from watching her and taking my cues from her what was going to happen next and where it would happen.

Thanks for your comment, Dave. It's great to hear that the house photographer at your son's wedding venue got some great photos of this happy occasion. While this is definitely a viable option for a destination wedding, many people hire a wedding photographer based on a specific photographic style, an artistic approach, or a trust factor built on a personal relationship - qualities that are not necessarily found in a photographer whose primary motivation is to photograph for a given venue. Although a local photographer may be more innately familiar with geographic and logistical details of a given area, this knowlege can be easily acquired through background research and well directed questions. Whichever route one takes to hiring a wedding photographer, it's always advisable to see samples of their work in advance, and to get recommendations from past clients (preferably the same subjects' that are in the image samples). Thanks again for writing in, and for reading Explora!

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