What Does It Really Take to Photograph Adventure Elopements?

July 29, 2019

By Maddie Mae

All Photos © Adventure Instead

I’m a huge believer that an “adventure elopement” can mean almost anything you want it to mean. It certainly doesn’t need to involve hiking or climbing a mountain—though hiking a new trail is one of my favorite forms of adventure. I’ve had amazing adventures with couples riding up a 4×4 road in a Jeep for their sunrise elopement in Uco Valley, Argentina, and spending the evening in a vineyard. Or eloping on a beach on the Greek island Milos, then taking a helicopter to Santorini for dinner and sunset photos overlooking the caldera. Or going on a road trip to four different locations all over the south coast of Iceland. An “adventure” is a new and exciting experience that can happen in almost any location.

In the five years that I’ve been in business photographing more than 130 elopements—all over my home state of Colorado, in 14 other states and in 16 countries—I’ve encountered one big myth that has never ceased to baffle me: Photographing outdoor adventure elopements is an easy job.

People think that when you subtract hundreds of guests and add a pretty outdoor location, elopements are like photographing a glorified styled shoot. The perception is that elopements must be less difficult and less work than a big wedding, because there are only two people to photograph.

This myth is why a lot of photographers mistakenly charge less for elopements than for the same coverage of a big wedding. I’ve even seen photographers do “elopement giveaways” or offer to travel to shoot destination elopements for free under the assumption that they are a lot less work, that they almost always go according to plan and that the photographers, in return, will be guaranteed to get game-changing, portfolio-building images.

 These false assumptions create enormous issues for both eloping couples and photographers, affecting how couples feel about the experience of their day, the photographer who took the photos and the images themselves.

 Let me explain. 

A huge gust of Icelandic wind swept through right as Megan and Payton popped off the cork of their Champagne bottle. 

Truth #1: Elopements are more work than big weddings—if you’re doing them correctly.

When I wrote out and numbered my “workflow” steps for elopements, I realized that each elopement I photograph has a minimum of 20 unique steps before I even photograph their day. That’s more than double the workflow steps I had when I photographed big weddings full-time. 

I am part of a team of elopement photographers at Adventure Instead, where every step of the process is discussed with couples. It starts with a personalized initial email and helpful follow-up, with the goal of getting a couple to chat with us by phone as soon as possible. Phone calls give us the opportunity to do a little talking about what we do, but mostly we do a whole lot of listening. After all, being an elopement photographer is not about what we want—it’s about co-creating the day that the couple wants more than anything. 

We follow up that phone call with a recap and “next steps” email that streamlines their booking process. After another potential follow-up, the contract is signed and retainer is paid. We confirm it with a “you’re booked” email—yay!

The meaty bulk of the planning starts with the couple filling out a questionnaire to help us get to know them, their aesthetics and the logistics they’re looking for in their perfect elopement location. After more than 20 hours of pouring over a couple’s questionnaire, researching locations and vendors, we send a 30- to 80-page custom document of research, along with an elopement planning guide to help co-create the day.

Many couples ask for the most popular spots to elope to, the typical places they’ve seen all over Instagram, so I show couples the amazing places where they can say their vows in the hidden gems of the world—more off the beaten path and just as (if not more) amazing as the typical touristy spot. Instead of overcrowded Iceland, I’d suggest going to the Faroe Islands or Lofoten Islands in Norway. Rather than elope to Rocky Mountain National Park, I might point to the steeper, more epic and jagged San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado. Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon in Arizona are really popular spots, so I’ll first recommend one of the many other “bends” in the Colorado River or one of the several other epic slot canyons in Arizona and Utah.

We give direction and guidance, but we are incredibly careful not to pressure a couple into eloping to a particular spot. It’s their day—not our styled shoot. Of course, we have locations on our bucket list where we want to shoot epic elopements—South Island, New Zealand; Petra, Jordan; Cappadocia, Turkey; Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia; Huascaran National Park, Peru; and Antarctica, to name a few. We’re photographers, and that’s only natural. But we never send over a location that we don’t believe truly fits what a couple wants for their day.

We use a variety of location-scouting tools to dig into research. It starts with a “first pass” on Instagram and Pinterest, and then we dig into various travel guides (Lonely Planet is a good one). Specific sites we spend tons of time on vary by location, but they all include deep-dives into Google Maps, Google Street View, Google Earth Pro, AllTrails, hiking forums and local Facebook groups full of hikers, climbers and backpackers who recommend their favorite secret spots. We also call local rangers and consult with them on locations and access.

About three to six months out from a couple’s elopement, we check in and continue to offer any help we can. After drafting a timeline for a couple’s elopement day that combines ideal lighting conditions, all the activities a couple wants to include and their vision for the “story” of their elopement day, we go over it by phone and tweak it to their hearts’ desire until it’s exactly what they want. 

We invoice them and collect final payment 30 days out from the big day. When we’re two weeks away, we send out additional tips and suggestions to make sure no logistical detail was left unmentioned. The night before their day, we pour over their questionnaires once again to ensure we’re in the right mindset to capture what they want on their elopement. 

A seamless elopement workflow absolutely has to begin and end with customer service. Above everything, an elopement photographer exists to serve and support eloping couples—to help them have the exact dream day that they want, to be their cheerleader and be someone who’s going to help create a special day that’s authentically them.  

On their hiking elopement in Colorado (covering 12,000 feet), Marissa and Zak stopped to catch the milky way before the moon rose. 

Truth #2: Most outdoor adventure elopements don’t go according to plan.

Even with a robust and organized workflow—all of our careful listening, planning, professional guidance and support as we prepare the couple for every eventuality (and we do)—the unavoidable fact about photographing in wild environments is that unforeseen and unplanned adventures happen at elopements all the time. More than half of the adventure elopements we photograph don’t go to plan, whether a hike is a bit steeper, the temps colder or the wind fiercer than a couple imagined. 

No matter how amazing a photo-op might be as I’m looking through my lens, I believe in a “service first” mentality as a photographer. 

Once, I was capturing a couple’s elopement in Rocky Mountain National Park during (I kid you not) the most glorious alpenglow sunrise I had ever seen. It was unbelievably beautiful—a photographer’s dream shot. But during this insane photo opportunity, and in the middle of the couple’s vows, I had to interrupt the moment; I spotted an angry elk that had emerged from the trees and was moving gradually closer to us, looking like he was going to charge.

A few months ago, in Chile, I was capturing a couple’s elopement at a salt lagoon at 14,000 feet, surrounded by volcanoes and inhabited by pink flamingos. We had driven up rugged terrain to the site and arrived just in time for the perfect light. The groom was excited and felt great. The bride, on the other hand, was showing severe signs of altitude sickness. So, what happened? We drove back down a few thousand feet to a safe altitude, and I did everything I could to make that bride feel comfortable.

Last fall, in Iceland, I had spent months helping a couple plan their elopement with their immediate family on the Westman Islands, a group of islands off the south coast of Iceland. When their day came, however, bad weather gave them less than 24 hours’ notice that the ferries to those islands weren’t going to run. So, I sat in the kitchen of the couple’s Airbnb the afternoon before their elopement with Google Maps, Google Earth, hiking forums and an Icelandic waterfall database to help craft an entirely new plan that would work for them and their family. 

(One of the waterfalls I found for them ended up resulting in this photo of them at left, popping Champagne during a huge gust of blustery Icelandic wind!)

Adventure elopements in the outdoors come with countless potential logistical nightmares that require last-minute pivots and changes. Early- or late-season snowfalls unexpectedly close roads all the time. Floods and forest fires close national parks without warning. Ferries don’t always run to the stunning elopement spot you’ve been planning to elope to for months (and for another elopement that same week in Iceland, the bride broke her ankle the day before and couldn’t walk at all).

Whatever happens, we have to come along, be a best friend and continue to make the couple’s day the best experience it can be. Adventure elopement photographers need to be prepared for every single eventuality. Don’t count on it going off without a hitch, which is why you should always carry an emergency kit. I’m pretty sure that our “Adventure Elopement Mary Poppins bag” gets us more 5-star reviews than any photo we’ve ever taken. 

After hiking 3,000 feet up the valley walls of Yosemite, Jane and Marc had this sunset alpenglow all to themselves.

Truth #3: Elopements aren’t about you or your work.

I’m going to be blunt here: An epic Instagram photo that gets a lot of likes but doesn’t have anything to do with what that couple wanted is a shallow pursuit.

Be an elopement photographer to proliferate the pure satisfaction and joy a couple feels, knowing they made no compromises and went all out when they committed their lives to each other—the power that comes with a couple having a wedding day that’s truly everything they’ve dreamed of. Find your own joy and fulfillment from being the person that gave a couple a viable “out” from the pressures and obligations of a traditional wedding that didn’t fit them.

The end-resulting images you deliver to a couple are only a tiny fraction of the reason a couple hired you. Yes, delivering quality work matters, but never at the expense of an amazing experience. At the end of the day, we’re not rock stars, and we’re not fine artists who create work that’s “ours” to hang in a gallery or museum.

We’re guides who have been specifically commissioned and deeply trusted to help a couple have a beautiful adventure. The location must reflect them. The activities and adventures must reflect them. Every pose, every step, every aspect of their day should be mindfully and thoughtfully tailored to and crafted for them.

Do know what comes with that? That perfect shot you wanted: the real joy, real tears, real emotion. Days like that are what dreamy, viral Instagram photos are made of. Those are the very photos that have made adventure elopements increasingly popular over the last five years. Without the deep care for the experience of the people in it, you lose sight of who elopements are actually for.

If I’ve learned anything over my years as an adventure elopement photographer, it’s that, as Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

Care more about the emotions than the mountains. 

Care more about the people than the scenery. 

Care more about the experience than your Instagram feed. 

Inside the Emergency Bag: Medication, Red Cross deluxe kits, ginger chews, coffee shots, rain ponchos, extra layers, hats, earmuffs, gloves, hand warmers, nude fleece-lined leggings, hairspray, bobby pins, lint rollers, eye drops and Blistex.

Watch a free 1-hour video that explains in extreme detail the entire workflow process of an adventure elopement, from the first point of contact to the end:

Maddie Mae is an adventure elopement photographer through her business, Adventure Instead, based in Colorado. She was one of Rangefinder’s 30 Rising Star of Wedding Photography in 2018.

Related: 5 Tips to Photographing Elopements in Breathtaking Landscapes

The Destination Wedding Trends of 2019: Personalizing a Couple’s Day