Destination wedding photography bucket list: is it worth it?
A deeper look into the global photography trend of offering free destination wedding services to travel the world
Nowadays, a couple that decides to celebrate their love with a destination wedding can easily come across many photography websites with a “travel bucket list” page. If you don’t know what a destination wedding photography bucket list is, let me try to explain the phenomenon briefly. It’s a webpage where some photographers offer almost-free wedding photography services for all the destinations they have never been to or for those they’d love to visit. Sometimes, traveling at no apparent cost looks cool to their eyes; other times, they want to use destination weddings to build a portfolio in these areas of the world. What to most couples apparently could look like a win-win deal has some hidden aspects I’m sure many won’t have noticed and that I’d want to explore here.
Let’s dig deeper together into the reasoning behind this post. I want to explain why – from my standpoint – searching for a destination wedding photographer with a bucket list is not the best move a couple might make when choosing the hands that will have the honor (and the accountability) of collecting their memories. Before moving on, I want to point out that there is a world of terrific colleagues-mate-travel companions out there making a living with destination weddings. But they aren’t continuously crossing the world free of charge and aren’t shooting destination weddings because of the false “glamorous lifestyle” this work seems to promise. More often, they become too expensive for their local market, which can’t afford the price of their growing experience (and quality) anymore. At the same time, their art starts crossing the boundaries of their country, becoming desirable worldwide. At this point, they have no choice but to expand the boundaries of their businesses. I’ve flown here and there a few times to photograph the weddings of a few guys who decided to have me there in their countries, documenting their day. But they have always paid more than just the mere sum of the cost of the service and travel expenses.
Nevertheless, I have always had more than one doubt about whether to accept the assignment. At that very moment, I found this very cool, but I’ve always been somewhat worried and anxious about what could go wrong along the whole trip. Curious to know why? Follow me through the next points.
It’s not the gift you might think
Many fledgling photographers see a free vacation opportunity in the destination wedding photography industry, but it’s not. “You’ve just got to pay for my travel fees” might sound in some minds like “pay my vacation bills.” More and more photographers new to the biz are feeling cool when it comes to travel for the trip, not charging almost anything other than travel costs. Where does this happen anywhere else? When did you last walk into any store and get something without paying? If you have to renovate your house, nobody will ever accept a deal like: “Pay my bills to get there, and I’ll renovate it for free.” It would sound incredible, but too good to be true.
I mainly work with couples from all over the world, making it to Italy to get married, and I became – in their eyes – a kind of local expert. When they tell me a photographer from their country offered to travel ’till here for free, my answer usually sounds like: “It’s not the photog that gives you a gift, but it’s more like you’re making a big gift to that company’s portfolio (or at least that company thinks so).” If a couple of newlyweds are not paying their photographers, they must be conscious that they can’t expect exactly what they want. It might be, but it’s a gamble. There is no reason other than that those photographers will shoot for their portfolio or vacations and just marginally for couples’ memories. If something goes wrong, they can always reply:
“Hey, what you were expecting? You didn’t pay me!”
This must be crystal clear, so please bear that in mind. If a couple goes for this apparent deal, they can do nothing about it later but complain about the wrong choice. A couple can put the mere cost-deal of the photography service over having someone there who shot with you and your family/friends in mind, crafting for you not just some nice pictures but a beautiful experience. Of course, I’m happy when a wedding can become part of my portfolio, but I’m not obsessed with it, which is not my goal on the wedding day. It must not be a goal at all, if not just because creative peeps are always happy to overtake their limits and show when they do that. Can you say the same with the offer you might receive from these companies? No, unfortunately. They NEED to share it; otherwise, that destination wedding value is nothing to them.
There is another subtle aspect in this practice: let’s say these photographers did some research and online scouting and saw some epic shots that were taken close to the couple’s venue/villa/location that they want to repeat. If they’re going to ask to move quite far from the wedding venue to take those epic shots, this puts the couple in the wrong position. They may feel the need to agree only because that team came there for free. Or maybe this can induce the couple to think that a wedding photographic service must go like this: it’s necessary to leave the party for hours to take a few epic pictures in a mainstream pose that emulates tons of other photos you can see on so many Instagram feeds.
Now – more than ever – PRICE and VALUE are two different things. Expensive is relative, and so is cheap. The seller determines the price, but the buyer determines the value. The saddest part is that a couple usually discovers it after the wedding day.
Travel issues, aka “shit happens”
When it comes to flying abroad, whether it’s a business trip or a vacation, you know what you buy but can’t be sure about what happens until you make it to your destination. A photographer who decides to work in the destination wedding field should have a shortlist of rules to follow to ensure that the trip’s inconvenience will not compromise the couple’s memories. Often, those photographers offering free wedding shooting in exchange for travel costs (and who are not earning any money other than a refund the days they’re out to shoot these weddings) have no professional experience in dealing with shooting after jet legs, delayed flights, lost packages, and all the pain that comes with business flying. If a couple decides to hire somebody coming from abroad to shoot their wedding, in my opinion, they must take into account at least the following:
- The photographer(s) should arrive at least one day in advance.
- The photographer(s) should have been there at least one time before, or they should arrive days in advance to get practice about the new country’s habits.
- The photographer(s) should know where to rent gear if something goes wrong during the trip.
- The photographer(s) should have some local friends (real friends or just virtual ones, no matter) or a local network that can provide a couple of helping hands in case something goes wrong with flight/transportation.
And take into account this: if a “tourist photographer” is ill or has a personal emergency, who can they turn the assignment to when shooting for free? Who will cover that? As I already specified before, you never know what might happen, and the following are just a few examples of what can go wrong that recently appeared in Facebook groups.
Speaking about my own experience, in my second year as a wedding photographer, I fell in a pool with almost all my gear on me at the end of a wedding I was shooting in the Tuscan Countryside. Picture this: It was midnight on a summer Saturday. I was a two-hour drive from Florence and one hour from Siena, in the middle of nowhere. Eight hours later, I had to shoot another wedding. Thank goodness, at that time, I had one of the first underwater smartphones, and I could find a friend who lent me his own cameras and lenses to shoot another wedding the day after. Here, you can see what my backpack looked like the day after. Imagine if something analogous to this happened when a photographer travels abroad with any local network to search for last-minute help. In 2019, a friend’s equipment was stolen from his car. Luckily, I was free that day and close to the wedding venue, which made it possible for me to reach him with all my gear and shoot with him.
This is another undervalued and controversial aspect of traveling abroad to shoot weddings. In some countries, getting a working visa is challenging (the USA, Canada, Australia, Indonesia, and Bali are some). It’s easier to ask for those visas in Italy and Europe, but many of us don’t do it before traveling for a wedding (yes, me too). Still trying to figure out how things are now going with the UK, where probably everything has changed in the past few months with Brexit. Anyway, performing work in a country where you are not a citizen is only legal with such permission. You can often obtain one, but it is neither fast nor free. To be honest, it’s uncommon for a photographer to be stopped at the border, asking for a working permit because they suspect they are there to work (no matter if they are getting paid or not to do it); a photographer can easily pass the border as a tourist, but it happened in the past, and it will happen again. Again, it’s a gamble. I read about this in the past in some photographers’ groups.
This is an example from a discussion I found on Reddit:
A work visa is often required for wedding photography.
Often, a work visa is literally unobtainable for wedding photography.
When a work visa is possible, you will sometimes need to carry receipts for your gear and pay and duty on your gear, which you bring in and out.
Some countries do not require a work visa if some of the work is conducted in their country as long as the billing and payment occur outside their country. This isn’t that much different from standard business meetings abroad. I used to work in finance and traveled abroad for business and would just tell them I had a business meeting. What some countries care about is that you do NOT lie more than anything else. However, some forms may be required in advance in such instances.
Sometimes, you need a local to support your visa.
Some countries don’t even ask, depending on the departure and destination country.
Yes, many/most wedding photographers shoot abroad without following proper protocol (not that I recommend that)
The best to do is contact your embassy in that country or that country’s embassy in your country.
Price Shopper vs. Value Approach
This globally growing awful habit of offering a destination wedding photography bucket list is educating couples to choose their photographer with a “price shopper” approach. People who search for a deal – focusing more on price while making their decisions – find in these offers an apparent deal without knowing they’re actually undervaluing what will be the only things that will last forever after their wedding day.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping an eye on the bills and budget, but clients should be conscious of what this means regarding the final result and the trade-off they’re accepting with a photographer who doesn’t charge any fee.
Ironically, as photographers, we seem to focus more on impressing our peers in photography groups rather than providing timeless value to our couples. Let’s educate clients to have a more accurate approach to what will contribute to creating their families’ visual heritage. There are many good ones out there; try to find that unique one you feel is vibrating on your own frequencies; that does the job in a way you love; with the photographs of whom you resonate with. Keep going even if they have a cost. In a certain way, it guarantees you they’re doing all the job in the right way. And – as I wrote above – try to understand the value behind the price tag.
Is a Local Expert the solution?
Not always, of course. It is likely for most couples that have previously not fallen in love with one specific style of a mate coming from the other side of the world. Of course, take all I wrote until here with a grain of salt. Being local isn’t a certificate of a good result, as being a foreigner doesn’t mean inevitably an awful result. Being local means having knowledge and contacts in the field and having at least three or four backup plans in mind when things are going differently than expected. A local photographer doesn’t need to worry about kits and gear getting lost/damaged in transit and can take as much equipment as needed rather than traveling light because of some luggage allowance.
Another point I should have mentioned before is insurance.
A local insurance policy covers each local venue, which can’t be said when you travel abroad (speaking from my own experience, I always needed to create a specific “one-day insurance policy” when I traveled abroad, even if it wasn’t offering all the protections my local one do). Personal transportation allows a local to easily go through all the great hidden gem spots discovered in years, those charming locations for the light being perfect, and all those things can’t be effortlessly found in the tourist trail books. As I already mentioned, there is a network of local photographers to turn to and ready to help, and a bunch of local favorite suppliers that local photographers are happy to share with clients when they book them. Not mentioning local photographers can also be excellent local guides to spend time with. They will tell you the best places to buy authentic street food, away from the tourist trails, and show you those tiny secrets only the locals know (do you want an example? I always explain to my clients the secret to spot a terrible gelato>just by looking at it!). Worrying about work visas, travel coincidences, insurance, or trip complications is unnecessary. Last but not least, a local photographer speaks the language and can interact with almost everybody in the area to quickly solve significant or minor issues. It happens so often that I must use my Italian to talk with other vendors at the venue, to ask to iron a shirt, find some water at the very last moment for the bride, call a taxi, ask for information, and more.
In the end, please do not think that destination work validates photographers somehow, as it should be the next level of the industry. Many of us deliberately choose to serve just the local market, often because the life-work balance is too much shifted towards the latter.
- Local photographers understand the region’s customs, traditions, and unique characteristics. This familiarity enables them to capture real moments immersed in cultural significance, ensuring that the essence of the location shines through their photograph.
- Their expertise is gained over the years and will get you to the most picturesque settings. They know where to find the best spots and how natural light interacts with the landscape, resulting in stunning visuals.
- Moreover, their local connections often grant access to exclusive or hidden locations off the typical tourist trail. These insider spots can be the loveliest settings for capturing unforgettable moments.
- Language fluency is another asset. Fluency in the local language facilitates seamless communication with vendors and locals, creating a comfortable environment during photo sessions.
- Their familiarity with the region’s weather patterns and seasonal changes allows them to plan and adapt photo shoots effectively, making the most of available conditions.
- Beyond technical skills, local photographers possess cultural sensitivity. They understand social cues and norms, ensuring that everyone involved feels respected and at ease during the photography process.
- In essence, a local photographer brings technical expertise and a deep-rooted connection to the locale. This connection allows them to weave a narrative through their photography that authentically represents the soul and beauty of the place and not just try to imitate what became mainstream on social networks about that specific location.
With this post, I tried to clarify the growing habit of bringing a photographer for free from abroad to shoot a destination wedding, putting under the spotlight the various aspects involved in such a decision. When it comes to your special day, there’s no room for error. Hiring photographers from other countries for these destination weddings, just because they offer their work almost-free-of-charge, may seem like a cost-effective and convenient option. But it’s a price-shopper approach that doesn’t consider all the potential risks. While some brides have had positive experiences, it’s essential to approach this decision carefully, doing your research thoroughly. After all, your wedding day is a once-in-a-lifetime event, and you deserve to have it captured flawlessly. Refrain from settling for a subpar experience – take the necessary steps to ensure your memories are preserved beautifully. Don’t leave anything to chance, and ensure you obtain guarantees from the photographer before making a final decision, to make the unpredictable turn avoidable.
Of course, feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments; I’d be happy to take part in the discussion.
A bunch of destination wedding photographers that I admire
I want to close this post by dropping here two brief lists: these are the photographers I love the most, who profitably travel the world doing this job with a deep, personal visual style. The first list contains foreign photographers, and the second one is just about Italian travel mates, to underline that you don’t need to pick somebody from the other side of the world to get back an incredible work of art from your journey. Feel free to ask them for a quote if you love what they do!
“DESTINATION WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY BUCKET LIST: IS IT WORTH IT?” is a post thought and written by Francesco Spighi. All rights reserved.
Feel free to share it or part of it, as long as this website homepage is linked back with a mention of the Author; thanks.
The opening photo comes from this Elopement I shot in Myanmar.