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Destination Wedding Survival Guide for Photographers

Have you considered offering destination wedding photography to your clients but questioned the amount of work and risks involved? We will dive deep in this article, covering various topics to help you succeed on your first destination wedding assignment.

The topics covered include:

  • Planning and what to bring.
  • Scouting and how to use your time on location efficiently.
  • Capturing the wedding day and beyond.
  • Understanding the client experience and your role as photographer.
Destination weddings are not always sunshine and rainbows. What do you do when the weather forecast shows rain for the entire week? How will you reassure your client that you have what it takes to help them succeed?

My name is Jimmy Chan, the wedding photographer of Pixelicious from Montreal, Canada. Readers of PetaPixel might remember my other articles on lighting and posing, so the goal is to apply everything I have shared previously in a much more challenging context (destination wedding in Jamaica’s Montego Bay), while explaining the thought process as we go along. As always:

  • This article is loaded with tips for your upcoming assignment.
  • It’s easy to understand, such that hobbyist and amateur photographers can learn from.
  • Showcasing real client photos on location, not models in stylized shoots.
  • Criticizing my own favorite shots, revealing what I could have done differently.

Think carefully before offering destination wedding photography to your clients

In the end we all want happy brides, just be aware that there’s a long journey getting there.

Does your insurance policy cover your equipment and liability in a foreign country (in particular the country you will be visiting)?

Are you able to execute with a minimal amount of gear?

Are you willing to work tirelessly for days, while being away from your family?

If you answer “no” to any of the questions above, then you shouldn’t be offering destination weddings until you are ready. Don’t be enticed by the scenic backdrops or the jet-setting lifestyle because it involves 10x amount of work, stress, and effort.

Don’t procrastinate, and start planning immediately

Whether the client is booking your flight and accommodation via the travel agency or you wish to do everything yourself, ideally you wish to arrive on location two days ahead. This minimizes the impact should you have to deal with flight cancellations and delayed/lost luggage. Also, it gives you the opportunity to attend important meetings with the venue coordinator, participate in the ceremony’s rehearsal and scout the area before the wedding day.

Furthermore, explore opportunities where you might take your client along for photo shoots. I plan them like my engagement sessions, where I elaborate on visual concepts, clothing, time of day and where to shoot.

There are areas where extra precaution is required, as indicated in the Government of Canada’s website. Never risk your client’s safety (or your own) for a photo, it’s not worth it.

Double check if your destination requires special work permit or visa upon entry. Remember that you are visiting for work, as a photographer and not as a tourist. This sounds like a no-brainer but many underestimate the amount of time needed in getting all documentation ready. For Jamaica, a work permit isn’t necessary but I had e-mail transcripts from the Jamaican embassy (in Canada) printed anyway, in case I run into problems with the customs.

Know the risks involved when traveling abroad, as shown in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccinations for Hepatitis A and B are highly recommended, visit your travel clinic for a consultation.

If you are heading to the Caribbean, consider bringing other essential items such as sunscreen, mosquito repellent, bandages, sunglasses and a hat. You will thank me later once you get to experience the blazing Jamaican sun on the beach where there’s no shade.

Let’s talk about gear

Is your gear durable enough to withstand the summer heat, sand, rain and occasional salt water splash? Trust me that I am no gear snob but this isn’t the place (or time) where you can drive to the local camera store for rentals. Equipment failure or not having adequate backup is suicidal.

Under no circumstances should you check in your photographic equipment. The staff at the gate will always attempt to reassure you but we all know this is a disaster waiting to happen. Look no further than PetaPixel for horror stories, both from Delta Airlines and American Airlines.

I live and die by the 70-200mm but I can’t store it vertically in my backpack, taking up too much space.
Using the same amount of space, I can fit my 16-35mm f/4, 24-70mm f/2.8 and 135mm f/2. The backpack ended up swallowing two more camera bodies, two flashes, spare batteries, spare chargers, etc.

Flight carry on baggage restrictions seems to be getting worse as the years go by. My recommendation is to drastically limit the amount of gear you will be bringing, such that everything fits into a moderately sized backpack. The backpack offers some advantages versus the rolling case:

  • To free my hands at the airport.
  • I only need to drag one suitcase when traveling (gear on my back).
  • More discreet, less chance of being targeted at the gate for forced check in.
I have no opinion on how others shoot but I will explain why it makes sense to use lens hoods and UV filters.

Dropping a lens is the rite of passage for any photographer. Don’t worry, if you had yet to experience the pain, your time will come.

I strongly recommend the usage of clear UV filters for your lenses at destination weddings, why?

  • For weather sealing purposes.
  • It gives me one more chance after screwing up.

If you drop your lens and crack the front element, then it’s game over. Even when I am not careful, allowing water to be splashed onto my lens, I just don’t have time to clean it during a shoot. With a UV filter, I just need to remove it, put it away and keep shooting. Stop worrying about lens sharpness as long as you pick a reputable brand such as B+W or Hoya. Give yourself that peace of mind and insurance when you have no access to rental equipment.

The hotel safe is too small for your equipment and leaving them unsecured in the room is asking for trouble. The solution? Bring your own portable safe.

Another accessory that I recommend is your own portable safe. The goal is to secure your gear but also to discourage thieves from running away with your backpack (or rolling case) too easily. It is essentially a large pouch where you can tether it against any fixture such as the closet’s metal rod, plumbing pipes or bed frame, wherever you deem difficult enough to access. In order to steal your equipment, thieves must bring specialized tools such as wire cutters or saws.

The importance of scouting

With the exception of the wedding day where I shoot with dual cameras, I make a conscious decision to separate my equipment as soon as I step outside my room.

In other words, I carry one camera body during my off hours, when scouting or shooting on location. For any reason I get mugged, my backup is available at the hotel as opposed to losing everything. Similarly, if someone raids my room, then I still have one camera left. Deal with insurance later, never put yourself in a position where you can no longer shoot when that’s your job!

I just use my phone when scouting and the rocks near the gazebo caught my attention. I noted the sun’s angle relative to the time of day and try to visualize the shots against the backdrop.
The ocean dumps a huge amount of seaweed along the coast everyday. By the time the beach gets cleaned up, it’s already noon when the light is poor. I had to ask the staff to help clean a specific area of the beach the morning of our photo shoot.
The swimming pool is too crowded during the day but it glows eerily blue at night. See those large floats on the pool? Perfect place to setup off-camera flash.

Understand your role as the wedding photographer

If you think that your job is to show up with a fancy camera, take some pretty pictures and spend the remaining days drunk, then you are coming in with the wrong mindset.

You are here to act as their guide, to reassure them that moments will be captured beautifully no matter what. The pictures won’t reveal everything that went wrong at this wedding. The morning downpour alone was enough to cause panic, the bride was in tears as soon as I walked in. She was about to cancel the outdoor ceremony, something she had dreamt for years but I checked the forecast enough to reassure that the rain will stop 30 minutes before starting.

Just stay cool, everything falls apart when you panic.

In my previous article on wedding lighting, I talked about how to capture front-, side- and backlit images using one light source such as a window simply by changing your position:

With the blinds wide open, the window becomes a large softbox. Team bride is now front-lit.
Close the blinds to have the bride partially side-lit. The light remains soft and directional due to the subject’s proximity to the window.
Turn the body away, only to have the face turn back towards the light. If the tip of the nose goes beyond the cheeks, it will appear longer than it’s supposed to so this shot barely passed.
Example of the bride and mom backlit. Do we care about what’s outside the window? Not really, overexpose slightly unless you are looking for a silhouette.
Rain stopped as promised, notice the aisle being very wet.
Outdoor ceremony at the gazebo overlooking the ocean.
Get used to the ocean backdrop, they picked this place for a reason so know when to stop down your aperture.
Bringing the newlyweds to the rocks behind the gazebo, where I visited while scouting.
Mix things up by playing with focal lengths and composition. I would have preferred a bit more separation between subjects but yelling across the ocean proved too difficult for me.
Coming back to the beach for the sparklers finale. On-camera flash was used while walking backwards in the dark.

Have some fun while you are there

Weddings are fast-paced, so it’s refreshing when you get to spend quality time with the family and guests throughout the trip. The more you know about your subjects, the better the images and this is true for all genres of photography.

Go ahead and let loose once in a while, especially when the bridal party is willing to tag along.

Not every shot needs to be perfectly posed. If they wish to carry the bride sideways, then so be it.
If your client brought special props, then this would be a good time to feature them.
Water and camera don’t mix, what could possibly go wrong?
You can’t pose genuine smiles, expression trumps perfection always.

Have faith and execute when you get the opportunity

The plan was to shoot during sunrise or sunset for the best light but it ended up being overcast or raining the whole week. The interesting thing about the Caribbean weather is that it changes quickly, often from downpour to sunny, then rain again. Luck is indeed a factor, but you can only execute quickly when you have a plan in place. All the scouting, visualization and wardrobe discussion might end up being useful in the end.

We discussed featuring the red dress on the beach many weeks before departure, nothing is random. The white sand acted like a gigantic reflector so no fill light needed.

In my other article on wedding posing, I described how to combine focal lengths and orientations to capture a high number of keepers, fast.

Cinematographers tend to start with a wide shot to establish the scene.
Go closer with more emphasis on your subjects.
Even closer to focus on the facial expressions.

I also talked about being mindful of the horizon, here are some examples where things didn’t work out as planned:

The wet dress and the crashing waves contribute to the shot, but notice how the horizon cuts through both elbows and waistline, a big fail on my part.
Variation of the cover image where the bride is being lifted. Having the horizon slicing the subject at the neck is a definite no-no.

Join the dark side and embrace the darkness

We come full circle by revisiting the swimming pool at night. Don’t be intimidated by the darkness, even if all you have is one flash. Not dropping my gear into the water was a bigger concern as opposed to lighting.

No flash used to give an idea of the ambient light. Exposure: ISO 12800, F/2.8 and 1/50s. More separation needed but the long kiss with the water dripping was too romantic for me to interrupt.
Use a lower ISO and a faster shutter speed to render the background black. Off-camera flash as main light from the right side.
The blue water reflection was essential for composition. Expose for the ambient first, then add the appropriate amount of fill light for the subject. Off-camera flash used from the left side.

Now over to you! Shooting abroad always involves challenges and risks — how did you manage to get the job done? Any close encounters to share in the comments or am I the only person paranoid for losing my gear? Perhaps you are about to shoot your first destination assignment, drop us a line and see if we can help.


About the author: Jimmy Chan is a wedding photographer based in Montreal, Canada. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his photography wedding business website, Pixelicious.


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