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Seven Challenges of Photographing Destination Weddings

Wedding photographer Javon Longieliere and wedding industry specialist Kristi Drago-Price share their experiences of shooting weddings around the world
Seven Challenges of Photographing Destination Weddings

On the day of the wedding, you may not get the chance to shoot all the photos you want of the bride and groom. So day-after sessions are a perk to destination weddings. “There are so many beautiful locations at your disposal,” says Longieliere, who captured this image on a Nikon D3 with a 70-200mm lens at f/2.8, 1/320 seconds, ISO 800.

Every wedding presents a photographer with a unique challenge, whether it’s next door or in the next country. But destination weddings up the ante on complex logistics, not to mention all the heightened emotions, unpredictable personalities and countless other moving parts involved. To be successful within this wedding niche, a photographer needs to be especially proactive in his or her planning and confident in capturing the shots that count.

1. Managing Travel And Mastering Locations

According to Javon Longieliere, international wedding photographer and author of Destination Weddings: The Photographer’s Guide to Shooting in Exotic and Unexpected Locations, destination weddings are addictive. During his first wedding in Paris, he found himself thinking, “‘This is the pinnacle of my career. It’s never going to get better than this.’ It’s almost like a drug,” he says. “There will never be the high that you had the first time.”

Seven Challenges of Photographing Destination Weddings
Longieliere captured this image in the atrium of the Mayfair Hotel and Spa in Coconut Grove, Florida. But he didn’t want to yell instructions across the venue. Instead, Longieliere suggests one of two things: First, tell the couple what to do ahead of time. Or second, “send an assistant with them and communicate through a cell phone,” he says. In this case, Longieliere told them what to do ahead of time.

As business grew for Longieliere and his wife, Dawn, their initial plan to piggyback vacation time onto work travel got sidelined by a growing workload. “We were like, OK, this is obviously not stopping, and we don’t have time for a vacation everywhere we go, so we need to think smarter and plan ahead.”

Marketing consultant and wedding industry specialist Kristi Drago-Price echoes the need for photographers to think beyond viewing such shoots as a free vacation. “People have this fantasy of becoming a destination photographer and spending their days on the beach,” she says. “But it’s the absolute opposite of that. What people don’t realize is that they also have to be on top of details like how to get the equipment through customs. It’s the hardest kind of work.”

When it comes to travel, Longieliere recommends arriving at the destination at least a day in advance. “That way I can scout the location and immediately pick some spots I like,” he says. He also suggests extending your stay beyond the wedding day. “It’s not like a local wedding, where you can come back later for more pictures if it rains on the wedding day,” he counsels. “While that isn’t quite the same, it’s pretty close. But if you’re overseas, there’s only a narrow window of time, and that’s it.”

Seven Challenges of Photographing Destination Weddings
This shot was captured at Driftwood Beach, on Jekyll Island in Georgia, “where fallen trees have been exposed to salt water,” says Longieliere. As you can see, it makes for a very romantic location. Despite the rain, the photo shoot continued, since the bride and groom didn’t care about getting wet.

According to Drago-Price, to avoid travel nightmares, photographers should book their own flights and add the expense to their invoice rather than trusting this to the wedding couple, “who might book you on the cheapest and longest-layover flight possible.”

She also points out that the destination niche doesn’t just mean traveling to exotic locales. One viable approach to this market is to live in a known wedding destination and have couples come to you. “I consult with many photography clients who live in popular destination spots, such as Charleston,” she explains. “They know everything about the area. But their marketing challenge is how to get, say, a New York couple to find them, instead of hiring a New York photographer and flying them in. This needs to get factored into a photographer’s marketing strategy.”

Drago-Price recites the primary mantra for her marketing consultancy, Editor’s Edge: What you put out is what you will get back. “This means you need to carefully curate the imagery featured on your website and distributed on your social media feeds,” she explains. “It should be the imagery that you want to be shooting.”

Circling back to Longieliere’s first wedding in Paris, this happens to be a city that he knows very well. The fact that he speaks the language, and can also double as a tour guide, was a major advantage in landing his first International gig. He learned from the start that clients like having a photographer who’s familiar with the wedding location.

“Unfortunately, when you’re playing on an international scale, you don’t get a lot of the same locations over and over again,” he explains. “But when you do, you absolutely want to cultivate that.”

2. Coming To Terms With Time Away From Home

As Drago-Price notes, destination photography is definitely a life choice. She has worked with many photographers looking to rebrand themselves after deciding to start a family or realizing how much time they spend away from home. Her advice: “It’s important to ask yourself, how many traveling weddings do I really want to do?”

Seven Challenges of Photographing Destination Weddings
Preparation is key in wedding photography, and knowing where to photograph from and where to place your lighting can make a big difference. But it’s tricky since you can’t generally scout out a location ahead of time, says Longieliere. “I carry a GorillaPod [a flexible tripod], which I can attach almost anywhere and use with a flash,” he says. In this shot, he set an off-camera flash as the main light. The flash on the camera was the fill.
Longieliere loves to travel, so destination weddings came naturally to him. Yet they did not come naturally to his wife. “The travel thing was really hard on her at first,” he says, “because we were constantly away from home.”

Nevertheless, they grew their business largely on the road, including through the birth of a child, and continued traveling together with an infant until he turned 2.

“But once my wife and son started staying home, it was all on me,” says Longieliere. One helpful tip for dealing with this separation is to use a video chat app like Facetime, Skype or Google Hangout. “I’m a family guy, and I want to be with them as much as I can,” he explains. “So I have Skype running on my computer constantly when I’m not working.”

3. Overcoming Language Barriers

When working in foreign countries, Longieliere did not always speak the same language as his clients. When asked how to handle this, his answer is surprisingly simple.

Seven Challenges of Photographing Destination Weddings
This spiral staircase is inside France’s Chateau Challain, which Longieliere says is breathtaking. To capture the shot, he used mixed lighting. Light from candles and a Lowel ID video light illuminated the couple. “The inner part of the stairs was lit by string lights,” says Longieliere.

“Situational comedy,” he says. “I think we all speak humor. When you’re dealing with people and portraiture, it’s as much about psychology as it is about how good you are with a camera.”

One memorable situation involved a Russian wedding where there was absolutely no common language. “You can’t communicate verbally, so you have to find other options,” he says. “I can’t tell jokes in Russian, but I can act silly or excited, and they understand that I’m excited about what I’m doing. If you jump around and look happy or have wild movements and get somebody to laugh, it makes your subjects feel those same feelings. It helps break down barriers, and they feel more comfortable with you, which makes it easier to communicate.”

4. Legalities, Visas And Permits

When shooting internationally, every country has its own rules, often involving the effort and expense of foreign work visas or photography permits. Fledgling photographers can be tempted to skirt such legalities by posing as a picture-happy guest, but Longieliere advises against this, stating, “You don’t want to be shut down on the wedding day because you didn’t have all your bases covered.”

Seven Challenges of Photographing Destination Weddings
To capture this iconic Parisian image, Longieliere and the bride and groom dodged tourists as they made their way to Le Trocadéro, which Longieliere says has a gorgeous view of the Eiffel Tower. 

Collecting income from overseas work can also have tax consequences. “You have to be very careful,” says Longieliere, “because every country’s laws are different. If you make too much money in France, you’re going to owe the French government. These are things that you need to research in advance.”

5. Finding And Working With Wedding Planners

Wedding planners play a major role in many destination weddings, so photographers seeking to shoot within this niche need to cultivate these relationships. Says Longieliere, “With international weddings, the first person I talk to is often the wedding planner, who calls and says, ‘Hey, we found the perfect client, they’re getting married on this date, are you available?’ So you deal with both the wedding planner and the client, or sometimes the planner handles everything. They want it to be this fairytale experience for the bride, so they have everything down.”

Because of this fact, he tries to be as receptive to a planner’s ideas and needs as he can. “If you keep your wedding planner happy by being nice, making their job easier and sending images after the shoot, there’s a good chance you’ll book more weddings with them,” he says.

Seven Challenges of Photographing Destination Weddings
Longieliere says that it can be helpful to over-pack to be prepared for the unexpected. For example, in this image, shot in a castle, he notes the hallway was relatively small. “I needed a wide lens to be able to get the entire scene for this image,” he says. Since he had his 14-24mm with him, he could capture it.

Drago-Price also views wedding planners as an important contact, and she recommends the organization Wedding International Professionals Association (WIPA), as a popular resource for finding them. “WIPA does networking and educational events all over the United States,” she notes.

Longieliere often connects with planners through internet research. “I’ll do a search for ‘weddings in France,’ ‘weddings in castles’ or keywords like that,” he explains. “Inevitably you’ll pull up a blog or a website that includes the name of the wedding planner. Then you just reach out to the planners that seem like a good fit.”

The amount of time he devotes to these tasks varies based on the season. “You’ve got to be able to work it into your schedule,” he says. “Ideally, I’d like to spend up to an hour a day on researching new venues, planners and clients, but often it’s only a few hours a week.”

He finds this kind of research and prospecting to be a lot like working in sales, referring to the sales concept of filling up a funnel with water. “The more you put in the funnel, the faster it’s going to change from a drip to a steady stream,” he explains. “It’s that same concept with contacting people. The more people I contact, the more chance I’ll get booked on a regular basis.”

6. Traveling With Gear And Redundant Storage

Traveling with camera gear is always a challenge, which becomes amplified by the high stakes of a wedding. Longieliere only packs valuable camera and computer gear in carry-on bags, including his compact mobile office of laptops and 250-gig external hard drives.

Seven Challenges of Photographing Destination Weddings
Longieliere often tries out a few unconventional points of view during a wedding shoot, like this dramatic image up a circular stairway. He also sought assistance from the videographer, who held the light for him for this shot.

“If our checked baggage gets separated from us, no big deal. I can wear the same clothes that I traveled in, but I can’t take the loss of camera gear,” he says.

For weddings requiring equipment such as studio lighting, light stands, tripods or a background, he ships it ahead. In such instances, seeking the advice of a well-informed venue or wedding planner could help to clarify the process and avoid headaches such as customs delays. “But you’re talking about small windows of time, perhaps three days at best,” he says, “so be careful with this.”

When it comes to file storage, Longieliere believes less is more. “I don’t trust anything, and I don’t want to risk losing everything,” he says. “You cannot replace these weddings, so the biggest compact flash card I use is 8 gigs. If something happens to a card, I’m only out 150 to 200 images instead of the entire wedding.”

As soon as he’s finished shooting, he downloads everything to an external hard drive. “But I don’t do anything with those cards until we get back to the office and everything is backed up,” he explains. “So there’s redundancy, and it’s safety.”

7. Editing, Postproduction And Product Delivery

Once the wedding is over, destination photographers often have to balance editing on the road and timely product delivery with an ongoing schedule of other work.

Seven Challenges of Photographing Destination Weddings
Longieliere says that in an image like this, you can please both the wedding couple (your client) and the hotel venue (the vendor). He says he’ll often ask if there are any special images the vendors may want him to shoot.

Drago-Price emphasizes communicating a clearly defined delivery timeline to manage the wedding couple’s expectations. To jumpstart the process, “Some photographers will station an assistant in their hotel room to begin editing while they’re still shooting,” she says.

Outsourcing postproduction is another option, yet Longieliere and his wife have always handled this task in-house. “The day after a wedding, if we’re not shooting, we’re working on edits,” he explains.

When traveling internationally, he recommends staying on an American schedule until right before the wedding. “This helps us avoid jetlag,” he says. “Then, when we’re back in the office, we work like crazy to get the edits done before we have to leave again.”

Within a few days, Longieliere sends the couple 25 to 40 images as a sneak peek; however, his general delivery timeline is nine to 12 weeks, “To build in some time in case we’re traveling,” he says. “If we can deliver the pictures faster, the client is happy, but if it takes the full 12 weeks, at least that’s what they expected.”

As both of our experts conveyed from the start, shooting destination weddings is a job, not a vacation. “You get to travel to some amazing places, but you have to be able to build in time to maintain your workflow,” Longieliere advises. “If you don’t, your clients are going to get upset, and you won’t be shooting very many destination weddings. But as long as you stay dedicated to your schedule, I think you’ll be fine.”

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