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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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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!”