Destination wedding photography may seem like an enviable way to make a living, yet this specialty area often brings with it myriad questions, as well as unexpected challenges for photographers who have yet to work outside of a local market.
For our second story on this genre, we look beyond the romantic notion of capturing storybook pictures of your client’s event of a lifetime. Through conversations with photographers Christina Craft and Laura DeCarlo, we delve deep into the logistics, strategies, and other practical considerations that photographers should investigate before saying “I do” to this distinctive, yet vigorous wedding niche.
Above photograph © Christina Craft
A Targeted Strategy for Destination Weddings
Canadian photographer Christina Craft has been shooting weddings since graduating from photo school, in 2006. She has specialized in destination weddings since 2009.
“When I first started doing destination weddings, I went all over the place,” she says. “But when you’re flying internationally, especially from the West Coast, you usually have two or three connections. Coming from Canada, I have to clear customs in the United States and then in my final destination, so that always adds to the trip,” she points out.
Although she initially booked destination weddings in a wide range of tropical locales, from the Caribbean Islands to Mexico and Central America, over time Craft decided to narrow her focus to Costa Rica, a country she has visited as a winter escape since 1999. “Nothing really compares to Central America,” she says. “I just love the jungle and the animals.”
Her strategic approach to creating a regional focus offers several advantages, from a strong connection with local wedding-industry contacts to simplifying legal issues such as obtaining permits. “I also don’t need to site-scout anymore,” Craft explains. “I know most of the big wedding spots in Costa Rica. I’m primarily on the Central Pacific, but I travel all over the country, and I’ve done quite a few weddings in Antiqua, Guatemala, which I also know very well.”
In addition to cultivating relationships with wedding coordinators in the region, spending so much time in the area has also allowed Craft to befriend many local wedding photographers. “It really pays off,” she says. “If I need a couch, I’ve got one, but I also got sick once just before a wedding, when I happened to be staying at another photographer’s house.”
Craft ended up being well enough to photograph the wedding, but she brought her friend along just in case. She notes, “You can get sick anytime, anywhere, and it just feels a lot better to be in a place where I know people, and I know the area really well.”
Traveling with Gear: Less is More
One basic challenge facing destination wedding photographers is how to manage traveling with gear. Connecticut-based Laura DeCarlo recommends traveling with an itemized list of everything in your bag, annotated with serial numbers. She learned this the hard way after her camera bag was stolen from a shuttle bus taking her back to her car at the end of a 2014 trip.
“I had just traveled for 12 hours with two full suitcases, a carry on, and my camera bag. I was way over-packed,” she explains. “I was the last person off the bus, and my camera bag wasn’t there.”
Luckily, DeCarlo had a good insurance policy to cover her loss, but that hardly made up for “the 24 hours of absolute terror I felt from just having all my gear vanish,” she points out. “Ever since, I’ve always made sure to have my hands physically on my camera bag, or at the very least I’ll take out my main body and put it in the pocketbook I carry on me.”
Since this incident, DeCarlo has become a big fan of traveling light. “Anytime you have to jump on a plane to shoot a wedding or an event, it’s a great opportunity to challenge yourself to shoot with less,” she advises. “To make it work, and to deliver an outstanding product with minimal gear. If you bring seven bags of gear and your light stands, I think it takes away from the whole experience.” DeCarlo notes, “If my main focus was on my gear, I could never fully immerse myself in my surroundings. I’d much rather focus on my surroundings, and then put my client in those surroundings and shoot. If you can rock a wedding with one lens, why bring ten?”
Craft also likes to keep her gear to a minimum due to travel, regardless of whether it’s a road trip or a flight. “I prefer to have zooms, to cut down on what I have to bring in my bag, but all my back-up lenses are little Nikkor D-series primes,” she explains.
For weddings involving outdoor adventure elements such as mountain climbing or hiking, she packs a more portable Think Tank Airport Commuter in her checked luggage, but she also brings a small roll-up backpack inside one of her carry-ons. Craft explains, “You might have a first-class seat or priority boarding with your airline, but if you are doing a connector and one flight is late, sometimes they have to check your bag because the overheads are full. On two occasions, I’ve had to quickly put all my gear into this flimsy backpack and check my roller bag at the gate.” For extra protection in such conditions, she packs each item in soft pouches or gear wraps.
One additional security measure Craft regularly follows is to register her camera gear and laptops with Canadian Border Services to prove ownership during customs inspections. “I’m pretty fortunate because I live close to a customs and border control area, but every time I get new gear I go and get my stuff certified,” she notes. “I’ve never been asked to show my paperwork, but you never want to be in a situation where somebody questions the amount of gear you have.”
The United States offers a similar registration procedure for cameras, computers and laptops. For further details about registering items in Canada, visit the official Canada Border Services Agency website For United States procedures, visit the U.S. Customs and Border Protection online information center.
Permits and Work Authorization
Obtaining permits and work authorizations for international destination weddings can be a complicated matter, since “It’s different for every country and even every region,” says Craft. “For instance, when I go to shoot a wedding in Banff, I need a permit there, and when I go to shoot in Jasper, which is just two hours away, I need a separate permit for that. “Let’s say I was a photographer from Missouri, and I came to shoot a wedding in New York City; there might be some rules I’d need to know,” she adds. “The locals might know the rules, but if it’s related to your business it’s important that you learn them, too.”
For information about such matters, Craft recommends contacting a local authority as a first line of inquiry. For permitting questions related to public property, look up the municipal department that manages the site. For questions about international destinations, start by contacting the embassy or consulate.
Another good resource for questions about international work authorization is a type of lawyer called a mobility specialist. “These people do a lot of customs and immigration law,” says Craft. “To look them up online, start with customs and immigration law, give the office a call, and ask if they specialize in helping you leave your current country and go to other countries for work.”
Verify Access to Private Venues
Yet even with a permit or legal authorization to work in another country, you still need to abide by the rules and policies of the resort or venue where the wedding is being held. Many resorts employ staff photographers for weddings or events, and prohibit access by outside photographers, or require an additional fee.
“What people don’t realize, especially in North America, is that it’s not as much of a commission-based economy, especially in the wedding industry,” explains Craft. “Yet in Latin America and the Caribbean it’s very much a commission-based system. So, when an outside photographer is shooting a wedding, even as a ‘friend’ of the couple, you’ve just taken a job away from a resort photographer,” she points out. “If somebody is resentful, or gets upset with you or the couple for the presence of an outside photographer, it will be the person who is missing out on the commission.”
Situations like this can lead to the types of horror stories that get reported online, where police are called in to remove the offending party. To avoid such nightmares, Craft is careful to clarify matters of access with her clients from the beginning of her process. “I always have in my contract that it’s up to the couple to ask the resort about hiring an outside photographer. It’s their wedding, they’re the ones who want somebody in separately. And I let them know I don’t want them to sign any contracts until the venue is picked out, and that venue is OK with the presence of an outside photographer, and what the rules are around that.”
DeCarlo also clarifies these matters up front by consulting with the wedding couple or the planner, and asking them to contact the hotel and inquire about access. She then follows up with the venue directly, just to double-check. She explains, “I always involve the client and the planner first, so that if for any reason there are restrictions outside of my control, I can always fall back on saying, ‘Well, this is why I had you ask.’”
Scouting and On-Site Logistics
According to Craft, couples who opt to get married far from home tend to be more adventurous. “And they often want more adventurous photography,” she says. “Which means you’re basically going to be trying to keep up with them.”
To get a jump on on-site planning, she recommends researching certain details online in advance. “You always want to know the sunset times, and you should also know the tide schedule,” she explains. “And, if there’s going to be a full moon, the tides will be more extreme. I’ve had situations where, if I hadn’t done my research, I wouldn’t have known that the beach just doesn’t exist at high tide,” she adds. “There’s no sand left, so there’s no place to stand.”
The matter of sunset time is particularly important when photographing in tropical destinations, due to proximity to the equator. “People are not aware of how fast the sun sets in the tropics, 365 days a year,” says Craft. “Most people get married just before sunset, so you really need to have your game down for pumping out family portraits, wedding-party portraits, and portraits of the couple in a half hour. If the wedding is over at 5:45 and the sun sets at 6:15, that’s all the time you have with daylight. And then it’s pitch black. And it gets pitch black pretty quickly,” she adds.
To maximize her picture opportunities in such conditions, Craft often sets up nighttime portraits with ambient light, scouting appropriate locations in advance whenever possible.
Reaching Out to the Wedding Party and Event Staff
DeCarlo finds that clients planning for a destination wedding often work within a shorter time frame than those planning a local wedding in New England. “It’s kind of like planning a vacation,” she says. “People don’t tend to plan out a vacation 18-months in advance. You plan it for the upcoming season.”
Even on a tight schedule, her initial planning does not differ much from local shoots. “I do a Skype call with my clients and we talk about what they want to do,” says DeCarlo. “There’s a bit more paperwork involved because of flights and lodging, and we go over who takes care of what.”
Most of her leg work happens after arriving at the destination. In addition to a full day of scouting, she makes a point of meeting with the planner and the local venue coordinator. “I also like to get the staff on my side right off the bat, because being kind and jovial with everybody working the event always makes things so much easier and more fun,” she says. “The event staff works there all the time, so whatever they suggest, I’m like, ‘Yo, tell me all the secrets.’”
One of her top scouting recommendations incorporates an informal portrait session with a member of the wedding party (or the bride and groom if available). This type of casual shoot can result in great portfolio pictures, in addition to serving as a test drive for the wedding day.
“It usually only takes an hour or two, and it’s fun,” she says of the shoot. “There’s always a bridesmaid who is totally down for posing… and I’m like, put on a flowy dress, do your makeup, and let’s go out, walk around, stop, grab a drink, and try stuff out.”
Afterwards, DeCarlo uploads the situations she likes to her phone and makes a checklist. “When we do the same walk with the bride and groom on their wedding day, I just scroll through my photos and say something like, ‘Go stand over there, look toward the south and smile.’”
From Destination Weddings to Styled Shoots
Taking a long view of destination wedding work, DeCarlo has a proactive approach that extends beyond the wedding itself and her immediate client. “Rather than looking at this genre as merely a money maker, I look at a destination wedding as an opportunity,” she says. “In addition to shooting your client’s wedding, I think hooking up with a local planner, or even with the venue or the coordinator, and then sourcing local talent, and putting together a styled shoot is way more valuable for potential future work than just shooting the wedding and going home.” She suggests, “You can really go balls-to-the-walls crazy showing what you’ve got, which can cultivate local relationships of all sorts—with planners, florists, catering, venues, and more.”
DeCarlo cultivates relationships with wedding planners through a variety of sources, including the luxury wedding business summit Engage, which she regularly attends. Another good resource for connections are familiarity trips, where a venue or a planner will host a group mostly comprising other planners. “A lot of times photographers get asked to shoot them,” she says. “This can turn into having work that they can show, and being added to their preferred vendor list.”
She advises, “Anytime you’re outside your comfortable bubble, where you already know everybody, you should hustle to meet more people, so you can keep coming back.”
As a final example of the benefits to this approach, DeCarlo tells of a friend who shot a destination wedding in Europe and then extended his trip, “to set up two phenomenally intricate wedding shoots with people he met at Engage. He has already booked a wedding from these shoots,” she points out. “So, if you love destination weddings, you should make sure that any time you book one, you milk the opportunity for everything it’s worth.”
Do you have any tips about logistics for destination wedding photography? If so, please add your voice to the Comments section, below.