Tips for Photographers Shooting a Destination Wedding

Hey guys!  I'm presently writing this post from the lobby of the Royalton White Sands in Montego Bay, Jamaica where I wrapped up a beautiful wedding shoot yesterday.  Let me start by saying this place is absolutely gorgeous!  I'm watching the sun rise over the rolling hills and listening to Sigur Ros with the rolling waves of the ocean to my back, nothing could be more perfect.  This week's wedding was with Laura and Allan, and it was an absolute dream.  Check out some of the photos (Blog post below):


It's no wonder so many wedding photographers want to cover destination weddings; you get paid to travel the world, stay in gorgeous resorts, and party with people on the most incredible days of their lives.  But, truth be told, it's a heck of a complicated ordeal.  There are so many logistics and steps to prepare involved, and it can be truly overwhelming. So where do you start?  Right here.


1. Be Open with Your Bride and Groom

Communication is critical in destination weddings.  You need to know exactly what they want from their final photos in order to know what you'll need.  Sometimes (particularly for destination weddings) you may never even have the opportunity to meet the couple before the wedding, so I recommend using emails and Pinterest.  Pinterest allows them to pin a number of photos into a collection for you, then take a look at what they have in mind and determine what you're going to need.  After that you can start to better assess what that will mean for your travel in terms of equipment requirements, baggage weight and costs, permits, assistant(s), insurance, etc.  Plus it gives you a collection of images to draw inspiration from when you're actually shooting (download them to a tablet, you never know if you'll have functional WiFi).

The e-mail portion serves to both prepare and protect you.  Unlike local weddings, if you forget a piece of equipment you can't just send your assistant to your offices to grab it.  When you're planning and packing you should open up the e-mails and scan through to make sure you have everything you need for what they're asking for.  For more information on how to pack check out THIS BLOG POST.

Also you should determine from the bride and groom if they have a wedding planner, and if they've booked anyone to shoot video of the events.  If so, you should confer with them and coordinate to be sure you support one another.  The last thing you want is to have to fight for the shots you need.

2. Get Insurance

There's a reason this one is so high on the list!  You've spent thousands of dollars on equipment, be sure you don't lose it.  So many places that I've shot require that you show proof of photography insurance before you even shoot.  Plus there are so many unforeseen potential risks: airlines can lose bags, you may be traveling to places where theft is a legitimate concern, or you may end up dropping some in the ocean, either way be prepared!  This day isn't something you can easily recreate if everything goes sideways, you'll also need insurance in case for some reason the worst happens.

To that end I'd suggest reaching out to your insurance company before you travel.  Be sure that your plan covers you internationally, both for all of your equipment and for liability.  Also, be sure that your insurance is recognized and reputable.  My wedding company is based out of the Ottawa, Ontario area, and I can say that I trust in Front Row Insurance and PPA.  It's never a bad idea to touch base with them a few weeks before you head out and be sure that you haven't overlooked any possible coverage changes.

3. Secure the Proper Permits

Research them. Get them secured well in advance.  Language barriers can really complicate these sometimes, but it's not worth chancing it.  I can only imagine how much trouble you'd be in if you got stopped from shooting on the day of the wedding because you didn't file the proper forms, not to mention what it would do to your professional reputation...

4. Touch Base with your Travel Agent and/or Airline

Details like carry-on size and weight, the number of allowed checked bags, special allowances for photography equipment, rules about checking laptop batteries, carry-on liquid amounts (lens cleaners), and be sure to document everything.

5. Check your Security Concerns

Theft happens.  Do yourself a favour and prepare yourself as best you can for it.  Google the resort you're staying at and the word, "theft," and see what pops up.  The resort I'm sitting in right now had THIS pop up.  Let me tell you, it was an awkward conversation to have when I gave the bride and groom a heads-up on the possibility of their safe being looted while their ceremony was underway.

KEEP QUIET ABOUT YOUR JOB! I know you're excited to travel and be paid for it, but only tell people who need to know what you're doing (Customs agents, airport security, etc.)  Don't invite trouble, stay on the resort whenever possible, and don't wander the countryside with thousands of dollars of equipment, you're asking to be mugged.  If you do travel off the resort, travel in a sizeable group, and pay attention at all times.  Buy locks for anything you're leaving in your room, and keep your keys on you at all times.

Use secure cases instead of bags!  Bags can be crushed, torn, or cut.  Cases stack easily, roll on wheels, prevent crushing of equipment, and can be locked easily.  I personally travel with one Pelican 1510 and one Pelican 1620 to every destination wedding.  I also travel with two extra laptop cables, one for securing my laptop, the other for securing my two Pelican cases.  Check it out:


That's my setup right now here in the resort.  I've got the assistant's gear in the larger more visible case, and my second camera tucked behind the clothes hidden away.  This way my more valuable case is tucked away, so if someone clips the cable and runs they'll likely grab the big case which has less value and I can function without.  I'm also not trusting my equipment and the memories of my clients to the room safe which every cleaner and resort employee has the master code to.  It's scary, but it's true.

6. Duplicate Everything and Get it On a Cloud ASAP

Bottom line, your images aren't safe until they're in at least three locations.  When I'm at home or abroad I have an assistant immediately dump my cards to my laptop whenever we change locations, and I store the used cards on my person in a specific Pelican CF card case.  My third backup is the 128 GB backup SD card I have in each D810 that never leaves the camera.  

As for cloud storage I use the Amazon cloud.  No, it's not the most intuitive option, but it offers unlimited storage and a folder system that's similar to a hard drive.  That way I can dump every RAW file I take and it will always be there.  Almost every resort has WiFi, so you can start uploading the night of the wedding when you get back to your room.  That way If something gets lost or damaged on your trip back home at least you're covered!  The cloud service only costs $70 per year, it's a business tax write-off, and I'll have it for the rest of my life.

7. Inventory EVERYTHING

Airports are sometimes brutal on how they recognize your photo equipment.  The customs agents may have an issue with your equipment because they have no way of knowing what you had when you arrived, or if you had anything at all.  Having a full detailed inventory to declare when you leave covers you.  If at all possible I recommend scanning your purchase receipts into one PDF file and carrying it on your person.  It may seem like a bit much, but when I'm traveling with as much equipment as I do, I'm not paying for it twice.

8. Plan Your Carry-On

This one will be echoed again in number 10, but be sure you have what you ABSOLUTELY need to function with you as carry-on.  Airlines lose bags all the time, it happened with one of the guests on this very trip who was without her luggage for two days.  Don't let it happen with your equipment, be sure your primary and backup cameras are coming into the cabin with you as you fly, and be sure you have all of your memory cards, lenses, and at least one or two Speedlights and Pocket-Wizards.  I'd suggest the Pelican 1510 as one of your carry-on pieces, it's sized specifically to fit international size standards for flight carry-on, it locks, and it's built like a tank.

9. Travel Light

Take only what you need! Not only to minimize your costs, but to minimize any potential losses.  This trip I only traveled with two pieces of checked luggage, but it cost over $100 in extra fees.  If at all possible I'd recommend your clothes and any sensitive equipment go in the same case.  I wrap items like my sound equipment (Zoom H6, lav and wireless mics, etc.), laptop, and Profoto lighting gear in my clothing and put it into the Pelican.  With the foam and the clothes inside the solid case they're absolutely secure, and every room I've ever stayed in has had an iron and ironing board.  I can only stretch myself so thin, and I can't afford to spend any more time than absolutely necessary managing and tracking down my equipment.  Plus when you're packing to go home it's easier to have some extra space.

10. Divide and Conquer (Carry One Camera Kit On You at All Times)

As I pointed out in number 5, security is a concern.  To that end, be sure to have at least one camera body with some versatile lenses, a few memory cards, a flash, and back up batteries on your person AT ALL TIMES.  Not only is this just good service to your bride and groom, it's also a way to remain capable of shooting a wedding if your room gets "cleaned out."  I personally carry my Peak Design Everyday Messenger as it also affords me the ability to easily store my passport, some cash, filters, a lens pen, and some business cards in the side zipped pocket, all while water resistant as well as protected with a special locking clasp and a tough strap that would be difficult to cut without a seat belt cutter. 

11. Prepare for the Weather

That can mean anything from rain to humidity, to sand storms.  Research the area you're going to, and prepare the equipment you'll need!  Also, try to practice proper care for your equipment in changing lenses; point your camera body downwards when changing lenses to prevent any dust or dirt from entering the body and affecting your sensor.

12. Be Aware and Adaptable to Power

Oh the irony of writing this one on my tablet because my laptop doesn't function on Jamaica's 110v electrical system.  Before you travel you should research more than just the type of plug shape of the country you're traveling to, but also the specific electric requirements of your devices.  Travel with all of your rechargeable batteries fully charged, and have plenty of spares in case of trouble.  I also have one of THESE which really comes in handy when it comes to recharging devices like your phone and tablet.  One great alternative option is to travel with trickle-charge solar supplies, they may take more time, but systems like THIS ONE can suffice any place in the world the sun shines.

12. Book Yourself (if Possible)

You can have the bride and groom book your room, but you should definitely book your own flight so you can both guarantee cancellation insurance and score the travel points.  Be sure that if you use a booking service/agent that they note your position as a wedding photographer for any extra luggage allowances, and to further cover yourself should you have any issues at the airport with customs.

13. Confirm your Passport Early

You can't travel far without a passport, and it takes time to process them.  So unless you want to incur extra fees for expediting your paperwork you should make sure a few months ahead of time that your passport is still valid.  Equally important, you should check the expiry date.  If it's going to expire within the next 6 months you should get it replaced before you depart.

14. Arrive Early and Scout

Leave yourself some time on the front end of your journey to be sure you can scout the locations of the events.  Touch base with the officiant to see how long their script will run, what their rules are for flash photography, and specifically ask if there are areas that you cannot move through when shooting (many churches have rules about these things).  More than where you're shooting, also consider where other people may be shooting, where your equipment can be secured, and the best spot for any flashes you may need.  Think about your exit strategy to collect your equipment and beat the rush.  Also, test the frequencies of your radio triggers (if you use them) many countries have restricted frequencies or the facilities may also have devices that operate on/interfere with yours.

15. Pack Gravol

Bring Gravol.  You're in a new country, introduced to new foods and diseases, you can never be 100% positive how your body will react.  Prepare yourself for anything.  Gravol, Immodium, Tylenol, they're all great things to have in a pinch.  Also, on the same note, avoid straying away from the basic foods you know before the day of the wedding.  Most resorts serve eggs, bacon, and most of the other foods you're used to back home, it's usually safer to stick to those until the wedding day is done.

A Few Extra Hints and Tricks:

  • You can skirt some of the carry-on rules by having a camera around your neck instead of in your bag.
  • Sign up for Aeroplan, Air Miles, or any one of the other travel bonus clubs.  The points add up quickly when you're flying all over the world!
  • Put only your credit cards into the safe, they can be cancelled with a quick phone call.  Keep your passport and the equivalent of $50 (US) in cash with you at ALL times in case there's ever any involvement with local authorities.
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