A complete guide to eloping
Elopements have absolutely stolen my heart as a photographer. These intimate weddings are so full of love and adventure, what a delight for photography! Whether you are dreaming of just you and your lover hiking up into the mountains of Glacier National Park, or a ceremony with your closest friends and family in the Yosemite Valley, I would love to be a part of your special day. No matter what your dreams are for your big day, your love story is a unique event that deserves to be photographed beautifully. So let’s work together to weave your deep romance, our thirst for adventure, and my artistic vision into something unforgettable.
If you are considering eloping, or have made the decision but don't know where to begin with planning it, then take a look at my elopement guide below. There you'll find everything from; the pros and cons of eloping, elopement locations, current trends, and what to do on your elopement.
What is an elopement & Why should you elope
Often times people hear elopement and think Vegas drive thru and Elvis impersonating wedding officiants. But elopements are, at their core, two souls madly in love having an intimate wedding ceremony without all the work, and cost, of planning a traditional wedding.
Speaking of cost, let's take a look at that for a moment. According to 13,000 couples over on The Knot the average wedding in The United States costs $33,391. Ouch. Now, let's look at a theoretical elopement. You and your love fly from California to Kalispell Montana to elope to Glacier National Park, You rent a car and get a $200 a night cabin on AirBnB for a week. You check out my National Park elopement packages and hire me to photograph your romantic adventure for $1,400. You find an elopement officiant for $300, get your $100 permit, and we all meet up beside the clear waters of Lake Mcdonald for a touching ceremony in the draw dropping scenery of Glacier. The cost for this wonderful mountain vacation? Roughly $4,500. Not bad for a wedding, and a honeymoon.
Now, saving money is always nice, but spending more can be worth it. Cheaper isn't always better right? So the real questions isn't "Is an elopement cheaper than a wedding?" we all know it is, but "Is it a better value?" and that's where things get a little complicated.
We'll start with the big negative here. If you and your loved one have a big family they can't all go. As much as your great grandparents love you, they probably can't fly to Iceland and climb a volcano for your elopement ceremony. If you're planning on eloping to a National Park the permit you obtain will most likely limit the number of guests. This varies from park to park, and with each individual location in those parks. If you’re having a Yosemite Elopement, you could chose Swinging bridge as your elopement location which would limit you to 20 guests, while if you picked Sentinel Beach you could have 100. So you elopement location to is going to have a big impact on both how many people can technically go, and how many people will be willing and/or able to go. In addition to the limitations of the location and your guests willingness, many elopement photographers place limits on the number of guests as well. Why? If I were to guess, I'd say it seems too much like a wedding and they want to be doing romantic portraiture, not event coverage. Now that sentiment I can understand, but to me you don't place a limit on the number of guests, you simply stipulate that an elopement can't be all ceremony and reception. So when it comes down to it a wedding is for everyone else, an elopement is just for you.
So what if you have a big family you want to include, but still don't want to spend tens of thousands on a traditional wedding? One work around is have a wedding reception when you get back from your elopement. It can be backyard barbecue or at a more formal venue. You skip the expense of a venue for your ceremony, and your guests still get to see you. Better still, you'll be able to delight them with fanciful tales of the amazing adventure you two just had eloping to Yosemite national park. Hey, in this day and age depending on your location you might be able to live stream the ceremony to all the loved ones back home. If not, so long as you picked a great elopement photographer you'll have no shortage of gorgeous photos to share.
Now that we got that negative out of the way, let's look at the positives. Spoiler: there are far more. We already know it costs less. Or, maybe you'll opt to spend that $33,000 on a tour of the world elopement. If so, please take me with you. But this decrease in cost is far reaching and has many benefits. You should plan your elopement to be your honeymoon. Imagine your dream honeymoon destination, I guarantee there is an amazing elopement venue there. Now you’ve saved on travel costs and your wedding is a vacation. Talk about win-win. Since your elopement is all about you and your loves enjoyment go to dinner at whatever restaurant you please. Even the most expensive place in town is cheap Compared to $80 a plate for 200 guests at your reception. Make memories and treat yourself.
Moving past the financial aspect, let’s dig a little deeper into the elopement location as it is one of the biggest pros. Since you won't be having three hundred guests attend your ceremony you can have it wherever you want. For those with adventurous souls and a spark of wanderlust, this is where elopements become truly magical. Imagine instead of dealing with the mountain of work that goes into coordinating a big traditional wedding, you go on an adventure into actual mountains with the love of your life. Sounds pretty good right? Well that’s what elopements are all about. You and your love venture off into a beautiful landscape and say vows to one another amidst the majesty of nature. Again, It’s a vacation, not a hassle. There are fantastic elopement locations here in the US but, eloping to a far off land certainly has strong appeal for those with a touch of wanderlust. What are some great elopement ideas for a location? Let's say your first adventure as a couple was a road trip down Route 66, so the desert has always been special to the two of you. Just in California alone, you could have your ceremony in the black Volcanic fields of the Mojave desert along Route 66, In a Lava tube just down the road, or head a little north for a romantic wedding on the sand dunes of Death Valley. One of the best things about elopements is how flexible they can be, the sky isn’t even the limit here, hot air balloon wedding ceremony over the canyons and waterfalls of Letchworth state park anyone?
Here's the biggest pro about an elopement the quality of the experience. A wedding is a wonderful thing. I've photographed numerous weddings over the past nine years and have loved every minute of it. But when you elope you are choosing to forgo all the traditions, ceremonies and events, and focus on two things; The person you love and want to spend your life with, and having an amazing time. It's hard to beat that. Your elopement is all about you and what you want. No stressing about the caterer not being on time or hoping aunt sally doesn't drink too much at the reception. It's just the two of you, your love, and as much adventure and fun you chose to fit into the trip. When it comes to the quality of the experience, you simply can't beat an elopement.
FROM A PHOTOGRAPHER'S PERSPECTIVE
As a photographer I believe an elopement is ideal for creativity. I've continued photographing weddings year after year because of my love romantic portraiture. That’s the part of the wedding where my creativity gets to come to the forefront and direct. There's nothing better than working with the couple to create wonderful photographs. During a traditional wedding the romantic photography session is usually only around an hour long and we are typically limited to the venue at hand. It's hard to jump in the car a head off to some amazing place for photography when there are a hundred guests waiting for the happy couple to make there entrance at the reception. With an elopement on the other hand, you have a ceremony, the the rest of the day is reserved for adventure and romantic portraits. You get a whole day of exploration and creating memories and I get the joy of weaving your fun and emotion with my artistic vision as a photographer. It's an experience neither you nor I will forget.
If after reading through that I've helped convince you to elope, but now you're thinking to yourself "Where do I even begin?" I've got you covered below. But nothing makes me happier as a photographer than helping couples who haven’t plan the perfect elopement. You are more than welcome to contact me!
Ready to go? Take a look at my current Elopement packages
complete elopement guide
Think Vacation planning, not wedding PLANNING.
While eloping may be far simpler than the traditional wedding, there is still a little planning involved if you want the absolute best experience. But don't worry, this guide has you covered. Every couple’s elopement can be as unique as they are as there is a shortage of options. Remember flexibility and creativity are the hallmarks of an elopement. The typical elopement has two major components, the ceremony, and everything else.
Part one: The Ceremony
Now many ask how many guests does it take to make an elopement a traditional wedding? To me, what makes an elopement, an elopement, isn’t the number of guests, but the foregoing of the reception that usually takes up most of the day at a traditional wedding. Keep in mind that you will be spending most of the day apart from your guests as you adventure through the wilderness with your photographer creating together. Elopements are all about you and your loved one.
Now, many couples do choose to go the simple route and have a ceremony with just the officiant, and of course, your photographer. Others have a few family members or close friends in attendance, while some even decide to have a larger group of guests and maybe even a bridal party. So the first thing you should decide is how many, if any, guests you want to be there when you exchange your vows. Then decide on who you'd like those guests to be, Parents grand parents, best friends etc. With that decided you can then begin looking for locations that not only excite your sense of wanderlust, but fit the requirements your guest.
When picking a location I find it best to start with the general and then work towards the specific. As a couple what are you more drawn to? The big city, mountains, the ocean, deserts, forests, snow? Close your eyes and imagine you are standing face to face with the love of your life. With tears of joy, and trembling hearts, you say your vows and exchange rings, pledging your lives to each other. Are you atop a windswept mountain dotted with snow, or under the canopy of an old growth forest swirling with fog? What sounds the most romantic to you? Elopements are all about making your dream wedding come true. Once you have a general idea of where you'd like to go start looking at specific places that can provide your ideal landscape.
For the elopement ceremony, even in the wilderness of a national park you will often times need a permit. A quick google search of your desired location should tell you if it is required. The permit will usually set limits on how many can be in attendance. These limits on the number of guests can very greatly even between locations in the same national park. Beyond any legal limits set by any permit, there is also the question "Will my selected guests actually be able to get there?". An elopement on a mountain top is ridiculously romantic, but grandparents probably can't make the climb. The travel costs of destination elopements can also be financially restrictive on guests as well. Using Yosemite as an example, If you have a large number of guests Sentinel beach allows a hundred guests and is easily accessible. If it is just you and your lover, then it wouldn't be too much trouble to hike up Sentinel Dome and have a stunning vista of the Yosemite Valley and surrounding Sierra mountains be your backdrop.
If you’d like to have a little decor at your ceremony like an arbor, or flowers your permit will likely say what is and isn’t allowed so keep that in mind when selecting a location. If you go the decoration route, I highly recommend not doing it yourself. Let a local rental company handle all the heavy lifting. It's your elopement after all.
As a backpacker and elopement photographer I have a long list of places I'd love to see you elope to. If you'd like recommendations on places for your romantic elopement I'm more than happy to provide them. Don't hesitate to contact me and ask! You can also scroll below and see a short list of some of my favorite places.
When to elope and Ceremony time
Now that you've decided on a the perfect place to elope, when should you actually have your ceremony? This is a question I get asked a lot, and the answer really varies. Time of year really depends on the location. The Yosemite valley stays open most of the year, but if you'd like to get into the Tioga Pass or up to Glacier Point you those don't open till late may or June. The back country of Glacier National park on the other hand usually isn't open till August or September. Every location is going to be different so some flexibility is needed here. I'm always more than happy to help my clients out by researching when the best time to go to a given location is.
Once your date is picked now it is time to plan out the day. The best times of day for photography are around sunrise and sunset. So the question is, do you want your ceremony to have the best lighting, or would you prefer to be doing romantic portraits at those times? If you elect to save the best light for the romantic portraits try and have your ceremony as close to sunrise or sunset as the schedule allows. If at all possible avoid mid day ceremonies. The noonday sun is harsh and directly overhead. That is far from an ideal photography scenario. and no one likes having to squint. An exception to this would be if you are having the ceremony in a heavily wooded or otherwise shady area. Shade is your friend. When I scout your location the day before I always try to find the best spots and angles for your elopement so you can avoid any unflattering light.
This last one is a little tricky as an argument could be made to put it at almost any stage in the process. Most couples chose to have an officiant at their elopement to make it an official ceremony. Others elect to get married at a courthouse before or after the elopement for the legal side of it. Then they are free to say their vows and pledge their lives to each other wherever they please during the elopement. If you are going the professional route you may find that the officiant you want, won’t travel to your desired ceremony location. I’ve had more than a few couples struggle to find an officiant willing to travel to their desired spot in a national park. IF you plan on doing something more adventurous, like backpacking into the wilderness for your elopement you might find it impossible to find an officiant to go with you. So here lies the problem, do you change where you are going to have your elopement because the officiant won't go? Tough call. Depending on where you are eloping state laws might make it possible for a friend or family member to be a legally officiant. Check with the state you are planning to have the ceremony in to see if your loved one can be approved as a temporary officiant or if you can take the route of becoming ordained as a minister.
Part Two: Everything Else
You made it to the elopement location of your dreams, amidst the mountains and forests you said your vows as the morning sun kiss your cheek with its warmth. Tears were shed, hands held tightly, and lots of sweet words were heard by all. Finally, you kiss as the newlywed couple and the heartfelt ceremony is over. Now what? If you have guests at your elopement this is when you'd hug and greet them all and do some family/friend photos with your photographer. But once that's out of the way, what's next? Well this is the easiest, and by far the most enjoyable part of planning your elopement. Ask the simple questions, "What sounds fun, or amazing?" then do it! As stated previously, sunrise and sunset are going to be the two best times for photos. If possible I suggest taking advantage of both on your elopement day. Yeah, It can make it a rather long day, but that's what afternoon naps are for.
I am not a morning person, but I'll happily rise before the sun to photograph a couple on their elopement day. pre-dawn light is soft, and gentle. perfect for photographing a couple wrapped up in a cute blanket atop a craggy mountain overlooking a stunning vista. If you are eloping somewhere that has majestic views of sprawling landscapes, Think Grand Canyon, Tetons, Glacier, or Yosemite do a sunrise shoot. Mornings are also often the best for catching fog as well which can be dreadfully enchanting.
Ok, you hit the snooze, but not to worry there's still plenty of great things to do and wonderful photos to get in the AM. If you find yourself in a location that is surrounded by steep mountains, or deep in the forest than you can stay in their shadow and take advantage of its softer light later into the day. If you happen to be staying in a cute cabin, you could always stay indoors and do a shoot their. Make breakfast together and enjoy a lazy morning. No cabin? no problem. let's head into town and find a cute place to grab a bite. The key is having fun. If you have fun, great photos come naturally.
The middle of the day is the hardest time for photography. The sun shining its brightest directly overhead gives us the worst lighting of the day to work with. Noon is a great time to spend traveling to another location, be it driving up the road, or trekking down the trail. It's also a great time to refuel and recharge. you could also do something fun, go for a swim in an alpine lake, get matching tattoos, whatever sounds like a good time! Now, photography certainly isn't impossible, if it's a cloudy day, or the location has bountiful shade we can still make something spectacular.
As the sun makes it into the final stretch of its journey things begin to warm and the angle of the light once again becomes more pleasant. Now's the time to make sure we are near where we want to be for sunset. It's a perfect time for canoeing on the lake, or stroll through the woods. Sit and watch the waves crash along the shore, or climb the nearest peak to watch the shadows stretch across the land.
This is the prime time for photography and wherever your elopement may be you'll want to be at the most beautiful spot there when the sunsets. It's the capstone to a glorious day of romance and exploration. By now having a photographer follow you around is the norm, you've been shooting together all day so you'll be most comfortable in front of the camera as well. The stars are basically aligned for the making of magic, so let's create! This is typically the big romantic shoot of the day. You'll want to be dressed up again if you changed earlier in the day. Then it's time to get close, and let your love for each other overflow. This is your first sunset as a married couple, take it in and enjoy it.