January 30, 2021

How to Become an Elopement Photographer

First, Let’s Define “Elopement”—It’s Not What You May Be Thinking!

If you Google, “What is the definition of elopement?” you’re going to see that the dictionary definition still focuses on the idea that elopements are secret marriages. I’m here to tell you that definition is outdated. In fact, if you go to Wikipedia’s “Elopement” page, you’ll see there is a section titled “Modern Definition” that basically states elopements are now viewed as smaller, intentional wedding experiences without the distractions that make traditional weddings stressful for the couple getting married. 

If we accept this new modern definition of “elopement,” we are able to open ourselves up to a whole host of couple-centric experiences that will make our photography clients of all backgrounds happy to elope. If an elopement is first and foremost about crafting an experience unique to the marriers, then it stands to reason that each celebration will look wildly different. 

There is not just one type of elopement. There are urban elopements, local elopements, backyard elopements, hometown elopements, courthouse elopements, indoor elopements, and adventurous destination elopements. 

The last kind—the adventurous destination elopement—seems to get all the press. It is these that often go viral on social media, and it is this specific kind of elopement that I see so often discussed amongst photographers as synonymous with the modern elopement itself—but an elopement doesn’t require particular adjectives to be legitimate, it just is. 

Why Do People Elope?

Couples elope because they are looking for a meaningful wedding experience—they have a connection to the act of eloping, often because of where or how they end up having their ceremony. Yes, couples might elope because “adventure” is their norm, but I’d actually argue that’s a smaller percentage of eloping couples than many photographers think. 

In fact, I surveyed more than 200 couples to ask why they chose to elope—the top reasons might surprise you:

  1. They wanted a “just us” experience
  2. They wanted an “authentic” experience
  3. They wanted an experience that was “intimate & intentional”
  4. They wanted to avoid family drama
  5. They value experiences over things

Other common themes were “wanting to avoid being the center of attention” or even a deep desire for documentation and photography. You might have noticed that the term adventure did not come up at all as a top reason for couples to elope!

The world has changed a lot in the last few years—worldwide interest in elopements has quadrupled since I started my business. It should be obvious, but this trend isn’t because more couples are getting married in secret—elopements are trending upward because more people, self-proclaimed adventure enthusiasts or not, are realizing there is a different way to get married and connect with that.

When I first began photographing elopements, there weren’t a lot of other photographers doing things the way I was. In fact, I spent a lot of time the first few years educating about the “modern elopement” and wrote my own definition: An elopement is an intentionally small, intimate, meaningful, authentic wedding experience that is a true reflection of your relationship where the focus of the way is really about the couple getting married.

(This exercise was so helpful to me that it actually became the first action-item in my free 7-Day Elopement Photographer Challenge!)

You see, words can change. When a word is used to describe something a certain way often enough that the new definition is more relevant than the older version, you’ll see the dictionary adapt to the social vernacular. I strongly believe we’re going to see that the idea of elopements has evolved far beyond the idea of “running off to get married,” and the social understanding will shift accordingly. Photographers have a bad habit of existing within our own echo chamber, and it might seem right now like everyone is talking about elopements—but call up some friends who aren’t photographers and you’ll see that the idea of modern elopements is still relatively new, and therefore a lot of room exists for elopement photographers to be at the forefront of this movement.

The difference between an elopement and a wedding is intention and focusit’s not about guest count. Elopements aren’t always two-person events on a mountaintop in a super inaccessible place—elopements can also be small weddings with close family and friends. An elopement isn’t defined by location or “epicness”—it can still be for family-oriented people. In fact, I’d argue it’s even more family-oriented to spend the day with a handful of people you deeply love, rather than splitting your focus amongst hundreds of acquaintances and friends alike.

Just as many people want to elope in a backyard ceremony as want to elope somewhere epic outdoors—there are clients out there looking for photographers open to shooting in a brewery, neighborhood park, or tiny chapel. Many of them even once considered a traditional wedding but, after coming across the concept of an elopement, chose an experience that felt more right for them. 

Not All Elopements are “Adventurous”

You don’t have to climb mountains, be athletic, or travel the world to be an elopement photographer. An elopement doesn’t inherently have to be a hike, climb, or other strenuous activity to be Insta-worthy—and it certainly doesn’t have to take place in a remote mountainous wilderness. A couple eloping at a courthouse downtown will still cherish their images because it’s their wedding day—the “value” is in the memory and moment being documented. 

If you love elopements, but don’t particularly enjoy the rugged Type 2 adventurous elopements famous on Pinterest and Instagram, there is still a market for you. There are still couples who want to get married in a personalized, authentic manner without climbing a 14er. You’ve already learned that elopements are more about the intention behind the experience than anything else—that level of intentionality can be applied to experience of all types, with the result being an marriage ceremony worthy of documentation for the couple who chose to say “I do” their way.

There Are As Many Unique Elopement “Types” As Couples Getting Married

We don’t all want the same wedding—it’s probably part of the reason couples are wanting to elope in the first place! The cookie-cutter “one-size-fits-all” approach that many traditional weddings follow isn’t what eloping couples want, so, why would they trade in one impersonal experience for another? Eloping couples aren’t looking to copy someone else’s wedding day (they might have been inspired by images, but that’s different), and as photographers we should embrace that originality. By offering the breadth of services that will appeal to the many kinds of couples out there, photographers can appeal to a higher percentage of the market. However, I’m not suggesting that one photographer should do all kinds of elopements—instead, you should specialize in what you’re wanting to shoot and know there are couples out there who will connect with that!

How I Became an Elopement Photographer

So, how did I start photographing elopements? It’s a bit of a roundabout story, because I actually first went to college for engineering. Obviously I decided I didn’t want to be an engineer and committed 100% to running my photography business, which I’d been doing during the summer throughout college. I was kind of living this double life—in the summer I was getting to feed my creativity, and then throughout the school year I was fulfilling my “duty” by pursuing what I thought of as a more realistic career path. I simply didn’t think photography was a lucrative, long-term career goal.

When I finally accepted that photography was my true passion, I switched over to a business marketing degree and it was the best decision I ever made. I’d been good at engineering—I loved the data, numbers, and measurability of it all. When I took those same self-described “nerd skills” and applied it to my creative endeavors, I found that I was able to craft an intentional creative business from a perspective our field is often lacking.  I love data—it is absolutely possible to create a lead-generating marketing plan for photography in the same way I could construct a solid plan as an engineer.

Something I learned through my marketing degree was the importance of specialized branding—basically, this is the idea that the more niched down a business is, the more valuable it is. Niche marketing is about providing a high-end service, and that’s what I’ve intentionally done with my photography business. By saying I’m not just a photographer, I’m actually an adventurous outdoor elopement photographer, I’ve set myself apart as someone who can provide a deeply specific service to a select group of clients and therefore can charge more for this service.

I’ve definitely benefited from living in Colorado—the mountains here provide the perfect backdrop for the adventurous elopements I photograph. But location isn’t going to make or break any photography business. There are couples in every state, every country, and on every continent who are looking for elopement photographers. Trust me, I’ve done the research. To get connected with these clients, there are a few steps you need to take.

Whether you’re a new photographer thinking, “but I’ll never make money if I don’t take every job,” or an experienced wedding photographer thinking, “I’ll never be able to get as much work if I only take on elopements,” I’d like to challenge those fears. I’d been photographing traditional weddings for a few years before I photographed my first elopement—it was a Texas couple who came to Colorado, and asked me to help them choose a location for their small wedding ceremony. It was the first time I helped a couple plan their entire day, and I’d never felt so fulfilled! I no longer felt like a cog in the traditional wedding machine, where I showed up on the day of the event and took photos of whatever the planner put together. That first elopement changed my life and was enough to transition my business 100% toward elopements in the next 12-18 months. 

I booked 30 elopements from that first one. How? I rebranded everything—my social media channels and website—to be entirely focused on elopements. I posted photos from that first elopement on Pinterest (I didn’t even have an Instagram account yet) and used my marketing knowledge to funnel couples who connected with my images to a website that provided them all the support, education, and encouragement they needed to consider an elopement for themselves. I believe couples deserve a safe space to say their vows, and ultimately that belief was and continues to be the driving force behind Adventure Instead and Adventure Instead Academy through The Elopement Photographer Course. I think couples deserve the option to elope, and therefore everyone benefits from an abundance of skilled elopement photographers.

4 Steps To Becoming a Successful Elopement Photographer

Have a Clear Brand Message

The first step to a successful business is a really clear, strong brand. You need a brand message that will resonate with couples who want to elope, and those who might not even yet know that eloping is their preferred kind of marriage celebration. As a photographer in the echo chamber of our industry, it might feel like everyone knows what elopements are—that simply isn’t true. Go talk to people who aren’t on your Instagram feed—talk to people who aren’t photographers—and you’ll realize how much room there really is for education about elopements. This lack of understanding is an opportunity and a good challenge. If you’re the person who gets the message across to a couple that eloping is an option, you’ve provided them irreplaceable value! 

The reason couples will choose you over another photographer is because they feel that they have gained more value from their investment in you. Talk from your heart throughout your website and your marketing channels—your brand message is bigger than you. Speak about your beliefs, values, and authenticity. This will connect you with the right couples.

Craft a Marketing Plan

Use your marketing avenues (website & social media channels) to create a marketing plan that gets you inquiries. Use Instagram and Pinterest, learn about SEO, craft Facebook Ads, and blog your sessions. Use your work efficiently and recycle content—one session can create weeks of marketing material for all these avenues, and you’ll connect with so many more couples than if you didn’t recycle material. 

And if you’re feeling stuck on what sort of captions you could even write about elopements, I actually held a free “How to Write Engaging Instagram Captions That Get Comments, Saves, & Shares” workshop where I share some of the tips & tricks that got Adventure Instead’s Instagram to 121k followers—and you can watch the replay of that workshop here! 

Or maybe Pinterest is more your platform? I also have a “How to Use Pinterest for Your Photography Business” blog post that you can find here.

Develop a Workflow

You can be the best photographer in the world and still not get enough work if you don’t have an efficient, effective workflow. You need to have an intentional plan for turning inquiries into bookings and get those retainer payments. 

I know how important it is to write effective initial inquiry email responses to not get ghosted, follow up with leads, and to send personalized pricing guides—and that’s why those are all topics that I’ve done free mini-workshops on. If you’re interested in watching those, you can find them (along with the previously mentioned Instagram workshop here.

Use your avenues of communication to paint a picture for inquiring couples about how amazing their day can be—communicate to them how much they deserve an incredible wedding experience. 

Learn the Skills 

This step might actually be the first one you take—it’s so incredibly important. You need to gain the knowledge and expertise to provide couples an incredible elopement experience like you’ve promised. You need to be able to follow through on your promises to people who are paying you—have the outdoor skills, the photography skills, the communication skills, and the ability to create a space that is safe/comfortable/encouraging for your couples. Know who you want to work with, and be able to provide the experience they are looking for.

If you want to get traveling photography gigs, you need travel experience. Don’t use people’s real wedding days as a portfolio building moment—if there is a certain kind of wedding you want to photograph, first set up a styled shoot like that. (If you want to photograph skiing elopements, you need avalanche training, etc.) You need to gain experience in four areas: real weddings, outdoor photography, intimate couples sessions, and traveling with camera gear. No matter the kind of elopement you want to photograph, these four areas need growth before you can ethically guide couples through their real wedding day elopement. Learn how to build timelines, location scout, obtain permits, provide hiking tips, and offer insight for couples who realistically (probably) don’t know much about elopements or photography. 

Start Here: Choose A or B

If you’re a new photographer

If you’re starting your business from the ground up and want to create a successful elopement brand, start here:

Step 1: Get experience. This is a great time to build your portfolio by setting up styled shoots, doing model calls, and maybe even investing in workshops. Practice posing couples, and use your travel ventures to scout locations and find models to build your portfolio. Uncertain of how to set up a styled shoot? Check out my “How to Make a Photography Portfolio” blog post here for my best advice!

Step 2: Get REAL wedding experience by second shooting for wedding photographers. There’s nothing like a real wedding to teach you how to handle less-ideal light scenarios, fast timelines, and real couples. Models and styled shoots can create beautiful portfolio-ready images, but they’re no substitute for real wedding experience.

Step 3: Find your why. Discover what type of photographer you want to be, what kind of event you want to photograph, and what couples you best connect with. A significant part of The Elopement Photographer Course beginning is about finding your why, which can jumpstart your business by connecting you to your purpose immediately.

Step 4: Leverage all this experience and insight to create a solid marketing plan that will generate leads.

If you’re transitioning your business toward elopements

If you’re already an established photographer, but want to transition your business toward elopements, start here:

Step 1: Re-curate your images to showcase elopement-like imagery through your website, and social media channels. Rebrand and push your brand message toward elopements. Don’t be afraid to commit to the kind of business you want to book. You’re going to be more successful if you aren’t straddling the fence. Take down images that don’t appeal to eloping couples – big wedding parties and huge weddings won’t get the right message across.

Step 2: Start talking about elopements on your marketing pages. Use these spaces where you normally connect with clients to educate potential clients about elopements. 

BONUS: If you’re not 100% ready to jump into elopements, or if you truly do love big weddings but want a mixture of event types, I recommend creating website landing pages for each kind of client. Instead of trying to appeal to all couples, very quickly navigate eloping couples toward pages relevant to them.

BONUS: How to Get Hired for *Destination* Elopements

Let me just say—you don’t have to shoot destination elopements if you don’t want to—there are definitely elopement photographers out there who just shoot locally in their area. But if you do…

First, you need to roll your travel prices into your photography packages. This is an essential step toward communicating the value of your service to potential clients. As much as it might not make a ton of sense *logically,* it is much more emotionally satisfying to pay a single charge of $5,000 than two charges for $3800 and $1200.

Second, you’ll need to clearly communicate the value you can provide over a local photographer. To do this you need to develop expertise that is equal to what a local photographer can provide, and then provide value that exceeds what a local photographer offers. You need to know the area – either from traveling there yourself, or doing all the necessary extensive research via Google Earth, talking to park rangers, etc. You don’t need to live somewhere to be an “expert” on a particular location. However, clients need to know that you know enough to provide them the exceptional experience they would fly you in for. 

Next Steps:

For a more in-depth look at what was just discussed, check out Maddie’s video Elopement Photography 101—hear more about how she became a full-time elopement photographer as she answers questions from other photographers just like you! If you’re ready to begin implementing these steps into your own photography business, sign up for the FREE 7-Day Elopement Photographer Challenge—use these daily tasks to jump-start your business while developing the skills for long-term success.

Written by

Maddie Mae

Award-winning Destination Elopement Photographer + Business & Marketing Coach

Founder of @adventureinstead

I help wedding and elopement photographers discover what sets them apart—and make that their “secret sauce” to building a thriving business.

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