September 20, 2022

How to Pivot When Photography Plans Fail

Natural Disasters, Unexpected Snowfall, & Low Visibility—Oh My!

How to pivot from logistical nightmares, to gratifying plan B’s as an elopement & intimate wedding photographer (+ 5 practical tips for prepping your couples)

Life doesn’t always go according to plan, and the adventure elopements & intimate weddings you document won’t either—especially when wild, unpredictable environments are your studio. I think most photographers get into outdoor adventure elopements thinking that 95 percent of the time, they go to plan when the truth is that MOST (more than half) of the outdoor elopements I (Maddie Mae here!) photograph have an unexpected “adventure” and their own special weather disasters all the time. This is is a big reason why, early on in the planning process, myself and the rest of the Adventure Instead team (Amber & Tori) encourage our couples to embrace the unknown circumstances that could arise and impact their day—whether it’s natural disasters like widespread fires, snowfall that restricts the accessibility of certain location(s), heavy rain, or cloud coverage with low visibility. We’ve experienced ALL of these aforementioned unexpected events over the years—ones that were beyond our control and required us to pivot at the last minute and come up with a solid backup plan.

What might surprise you, is that a number of these elopements have actually turned out to be some of our absolute favorites—and each couple’s photographs turned out BETTER than they would have if the couple was able to follow through with their original plan. This is why we also encourage our couples to be flexible and go with the flow as much as possible. We have the knowledge and expertise to jump in when plans go awry and help them to still have the wedding of their dreams—external factors aside. 

Don’t believe us? Here are some examples of how we have come up with backup plans for our couples at the very last minute—and you can too:

Natural disasters

Amber initially planned to document Jennings & Tim’s elopement in Yosemite during the summer of 2018—which is when the deadly Ferguson Fire occurred, burning 96,901 acres of land in California before being contained just over a month later. Everything was in order for their day: permits were aquired, vendors had been arranged, the timeline was set, and their Airbnb was reserved. Jennings & Tim planned to have a day-before session, and then on the day of their elopement, they planned to wake up early for sunrise photos at a scenic meadow overlooking the mountains and family portraits around Yosemite National Park.

 In the days leading up to their elopement, Amber was documenting another elopement in Colorado and keeping a close eye on the state of the fires in Yosemite—before flying out, she prepared a backup list of locations near Yosemite just in case the fires spread. Amber also reached out to Jennings & Tim to let them know that she was keeping a close eye on the state of the fire (and shared links for Yosemite webcams, current park closures, the smoke forecast, and the official Ferguson Fire website with them). Then, as Amber was in the plane looking at Caifornia from above, she saw copious amounts of smoke rising from the Earth and said, “Ohhhh sh*t.” 

After Amber arrived at the airport and began driving towards Yosemite, she had to pull over on the side of the road, due to the smoke, and got a call from Jennings—who told her that they had just gotten to their Airbnb and ash was falling from the sky. Jennings also noted the terrible air quality and it was quickly becoming apparent they could not stay there. Amber did her best to console Jennings, who was concerned that their whole wedding was completely ruined, and began putting together a new plan. Shortly after, with help from the team in Colorado, Amber had drafted up an entirely new location list and timeline near the Big Sur area, hoping that the coastal breeze would help ward off some of the smoke. So, they all traveled to the coast, and Jennings and Tim had their day before session exploring near the Big Sur area. The next day, they had an AMAZING picnic on the beach with coffee, Jennings had an absolutely beautiful dress, and there were wild succulents everywhere as a fog rolled in and out of the mountains. They had a ceremony with their family on a cliff overlooking the ocean, with rocky ledges—it turned out to be a really incredible day. One of Jennings & Tim’s “things” as a couple is visiting aquariums together, so Amber suggested that they go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium on their wedding day and took some pictures of them with jellyfish. 

Jennings, Tim, and their family members made the absolute best of it and had one heck of a story to tell. It goes to show that just because your initial plan doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean that you can’t still have the absolute best day. Afterward, Jennings & Tim told Amber that plan B worked out better than they ever could have dreamed for plan A—which is exactly what you want to accomplish as a photographer. Amber has kept in touch with them over the years and they still continue to make jokes like, “Oh not even a fire can stop us” and have a good sense of humor about it all to this day.

Unexpected Snowfall

I had to replan Sara & Ryan’s elopement the day before it was scheduled. Initially, they were going to elope at 13,000 ft elevation in Colorado in the fall, but a huge early snow came in and closed all the roads—making all of their locations inaccessible (which I told them ahead of time was a possibility). We decided to switch to a lower elevation 4×4 road that didn’t require a permit, a road that wandered through groves of golden aspen trees with snow-capped peaks in the background, and a lower elevation mountain pass. Sarah, Ryan, and I drove up to the snow line and still got some beautiful mountain pass views—you could see a stark line on the mountain where the dusting of the snow started! At sunset, we ventured to an alpine lake, and there was this perfect moment when the clouds turned the alpenglow into a really soft portrait light (which made their photos look so stunning). Then, as the sun began to set into the horizon, the clouds parted and cast a pink light onto them and the mountains—which was astonishing. Their photographs truly turned out better than they would have if we had followed through with plan A. 

Rainy Weather Abroad

Megan & Payton originally planned to have an intimate wedding in Iceland, with a ceremony on the Westman islands off the coast, only accessible by ferry. Two days before their ceremony, the weather changed and the ocean got too choppy for ferry crossings—which meant we couldn’t get to the island we planned their whole day around. This gave us less than 24 hours’ notice to replan their day.  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. We were still able to include all of the scenery they wanted—waterfalls, dramatic cliffs, and a mossy vibe. Luckily, we found the perfect cave for an intimate ceremony with their families where they were sheltered from the on and off rain throughout the day. Then, for the rest of the day, they went off exploring and did a tour of hidden gem waterfalls with short hikes to each one. The lighting in their photos is soft and nice because of the rainy weather. Some of my all-time favorite elopement photos are from that gallery, and none of those locations were from their original plan.

If I can’t avoid the rain by changing times during the same day to miss it or switching to a totally different area to avoid it—then I will do one of or a combination of the following:

  • Change locations within that area. Instead of heading up that mountain top or into that exposed field, I’ll look for a spot that will provide more cover–like a forest or coastal cave!
  • Keep exposure shorter. Opt for time at easily accessible locations rather than a longer/more difficult to access one. That way you can take breaks to warm up and/or dry off in a vehicle or nearby building.
  • Have fun with umbrellas. I recommend clear ones so they don’t block light from anyones face.
  • Focus on more intimate up-close portraiture and less on large creative landscapes. Get creative closer when the landscape/surroundings are less than ideal!
  • Embrace it—specifically towards the end of the session or day. Encourage your couple to have their romantic in the rain moment!
  • Stay positive and bring things to make them comfortable like warm drinks and towels for those in between moments. From my experience, rain/precipitation really is good luck on your wedding day 😉

Low Visibility

Resa & Grant were another one of my couples who I had to help pivot at the last minute. They had planned to elope at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, however, it was foggy and the cloud cover was so low that you couldn’t see Rainer at all. For their backup plan, we decided to do a first look at a lake, then explored a mossy forest (and used the permit for the park we originally acquired). I had all the trails for the area already downloaded on my phone, and we relocated their ceremony to a small trail in a foresty part of the park with two of their best friends present. Then, they explored a stream and waterfall.

At this point in the day, it started to rain. I was able to move two hours of their coverage to the next morning (which is not contractually required and not something I always have the flexibility to do, but in that situation, I did have the flexibility to do so). The next morning we were able to get some partial Rainier views—half cloud, half cloudless with fresh snow. One detail I LOVE about this story is that Resa & Grant were so happy with their elopement experience, they hired us to do a vow renewal on the original trail they had planned for, which Tori was able to document.

To recap, here are 5 PRACTICAL tips on how to prepare your couples’ for the unexpected & set yourself up for success as a photographer:

1. Communicate in advance & set realistic expectations early on

Encourage your couples to embrace the unknown circumstances that could arise and impact their elopement or intimate wedding—whether it’s natural disasters like widespread fires, snowfall that restricts the accessibility of certain location(s), heavy rain, or cloud coverage with low visibility.

2. Have a backup plan in place 

I ALWAYS have planned backup locations that the couple already knows about, has agreed on, and are stoked about (way back in the location-scouting process). I think you have to plan for the worst, and expect the best! Flat tires, elevation sickness, forgotten items, and unexpected bad weather, etc. are all a part of the elopement & intimate wedding game. When you plan ahead for potential pitfalls, you can be better prepared for the unexpected, so that your couples don’t feel rushed on their wedding day—a day they deserve to fully savor and enjoy. 

3. Prioritize your couple’s needs

Our jobs are to serve and support our couples and help them have the day of their dreams, one that’s authentically them. Make sure they know that you have a “service first mentality” and are fully capable of helping them pivot if things don’t go as planned—your clients should feel like you’re the expert and that you have their backs!

4. Teach them the principles of Leave No Trace

We aim to be the best stewards of public lands that we possibly can. For those of us whose careers depend on these beautiful natural spaces, it’s crucial that we do our part to protect them—which means it’s incredibly important that our couples understand the importance of the Leave No Trace principles, a set of seven guidelines for eco-friendly photography that are meant to help us photographers know where to put that care and attention when we venture out in nature:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of other visitors

The earlier you inform your couples about Leave No Trace in your workflow process, the more seamlessly you can integrate these guidelines into their day!

5. Be prepared the day of (and leading up to it)

As my couple’s day gets closer I check the weather, get current condition reports a few days out, and make sure to touch base with the couple to inform them that we might need to go for a plan B spot—also if it’s possible that the weather is super bad during one part of a day, we can switch from sunrise to sunset.

Another one of my biggest elopement hacks as an elopement photographer is my “Mary Poppins bag.” It’s an emergency bag filled with anything and everything you might need to save the day—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. It’s been a lifesaver in so many instances and I can’t imagine documenting my couples without it!

At Adventure Instead, when educating & setting expectations with our couples we always emphasize that even if we plan to the nth degree, there can and will likely be unexpected events that pop up. There are just some things you can’t plan for ahead of time, but that doesn’t mean your day is doomed. My best advice is to really be flexible, be able to pivot, and constantly come up with plan B, C, D…Z, because that’s a huge skill of being an adventure elopement photographer—many times it’s about rolling with it and making the best story out of whatever situation is thrown at you. Remember, you have the capability to swoop in and save your couple’s day—making it even more memorable than they ever anticipated. 

Happy planning!

xx Maddie Mae

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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