Destination wedding planning tips

Over the years I’ve shot many destination weddings as a travelling photographer and also while living and working in a “destination” location. So I thought I’d pass on a few tips to help you plan a wedding overseas.

Where to go?

Gulfstream private jetThese days the world is your oyster. You can get married almost anywhere! However, do spend some time on research before you make a choice of destination. Local regulations on marriages vary from country to country> Then there is the question of language if you go somewhere where English is not the native tongue. Do consider how long it will take you to get there and the possibility of suffering from jet-lag, and the cost if you are planning to invite family and friends to travel with you.

Popular destinations for British couples include France, Spain, Italy and Greece, as well as more distant locations such as the Caribbean or Far East; American and Canadian couples often favour Mexico, the Caribbean, or Hawaii, as well as European destinations.

Many countries have a minimum residence time requirement for couples wishing to get married. You will usually need to arrive several days before the wedding date so as to comply with this and to complete other formalities.

Destination weddings on the beach

When I worked in Turks & Caicos the majority of wedding clients preferred to have their ceremony on the beach. This is a great idea – it makes for a very relaxed and informal ceremony, but you need to consider the time of day and year, and the orientation of the beach relative to the sun.

In the tropics, the sun is very hot and bright for most of the day.  This isn’t much of a problem if you are relaxing on the beach, but not comfortable when you are dressed up for a wedding. Beach weddings are best scheduled for an hour before sunset. The day is starting to cool off, but your photographer will still have time to get those romantic photos of the two of you with the setting sun.

Think about the weather

Don’t assume just because you are going “somewhere hot” that the weather will always be perfect. August to October in the Caribbean is “hurricane season”, for example – and even if you don’t encounter a full-on Category 5 storm you can still get weather fronts passing through that will bring some rain and cloud. So have a back-up plan in case your beach wedding has to take place indoors. You should also remember that in the tropics the clouds tend to bubble up during the afternoon, and may generate a shower or two. On the plus side this often makes for dramatic skies at sunset.

What’s the beach like?

Not all beaches are made of soft white powdery sand – many popular destinations (Hawaii, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and parts of Australia and New Zealand) have beaches made of gritty black volcanic rock. Not necessarily a problem, as long as you know in advance.

Which way does the beach face?

bright tropical sunsetThis is one of my top destination wedding planning tips – check where the sun is going to be!

Along the Riviera Maya in Mexico, for example, the coastline faces east – so the sun sets behind the land not into the ocean which probably isn’t what you want! Your ceremony site will also probably be shaded sooner by the shadows of the hotel or the trees in its gardens.

So check out the orientation of the beach as well. Remember that the sun will set further to the north-west in summer and south-west in winter (in the Northern Hemisphere – in the Southern Hemisphere it’s the other way around), so that will have an effect too. The Sun-Calc website has a really handy tool for checking where the sun will rise and set on your wedding day!

If the beach faces the direction of the prevailing wind, you will find weed and other flotsam gets washed up on it. Hotels often sweep the beach to remove such debris, but often they do it in the morning so it may have accumulated by the time your wedding takes place.

Is the beach busy or quiet?

If you choose to get married on the beach right in front of your hotel, that’s very convenient, but there may be crowds of onlookers and kids running around playing games, which can take the edge off the romantic atmosphere. Talk to the wedding planner at the resort if this is a concern and find out if it’s possible to use a more secluded location – or even relocate to a more private beach somewhere else.

Time of day

Destination wedding planning tips - couple embracing on beachAssuming you get a choice, the most popular time of day for a beach wedding ceremony is about an hour before sunset. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, in tropical locations it’s just too hot and bright on the beach to be comfortable except for the hours just after sunrise and before sunset. Sunrise weddings can be nice, but not surprisingly few couples are keen on getting up very early in the morning in order to be ready for a sunrise ceremony!

Not only has the day cooled off, but also the light is normally a warm golden colour shortly before sunset, which makes the most of the tropical atmosphere and enhances the look of your photos.

What time should the ceremony start?

Take the advice of your photographer and wedding planner regarding the exact time that the ceremony should start. You should leave plenty of time to complete the ceremony and family group photos, and some pictures with just the two of you, before sunset actually happens. If you plan your ceremony to start exactly at sunset, your photos will end up being taken in the dark! Sometimes Jewish couples will opt for a sunset start time, in accordance with their faith, but then they normally arrange for photos to be taken before the ceremony, or on another day.

In the tropics, the sun sets at a steeper angle than it does in temperate zones, which means that it disappears below the horizon more quickly and twilight is much shorter. A local photographer will know about this and can plan the timing of the photo shoot accordingly, whereas someone from your home town can be caught out.

The ceremony for a beach wedding is usually very short and informal compared to a normal wedding service in a house of worship – ten to twenty minutes is typical, a little longer if you want to include any special items such as readings by friends or family, lighting of unity candles or a “sand ceremony”, or breaking of a glass. So aiming the ceremony to start about 60-70 minutes before sunset usually gives enough time for the ceremony, family group photos and romantic shoot with the bride and groom to be completed.

In some countries such as France your official wedding ceremony has to take place at a designated location

Wind and sun

On the coast there is almost always a breeze blowing – and sometimes this can turn into a strong wind, so be prepared. You can’t control the weather, so it’s best not to plan too elaborate decorations that may not stand up to being blown around, and the hairstyles of the bride and bridesmaids should be designed with practicality in mind. If you want to wear your hair long and down on your shoulders, don’t expect it to be perfectly in place in all the photos. If a slightly windblown look bothers you, opt for a more ‘controlled” hairstyle!

Even in temperate climates the sun at the beach can be deceptively strong, and in the tropics you can get sunburned very quickly – the cooling breeze will make the sun feel less fierce than it really is. Make sure you wear a good strong sunblock if you are going to be out on the beach in the run-up to your wedding, and wear clothing that won’t leave you with unsightly strap-marks when you do at last put on your wedding dress.

This advice applies to grooms and groomsmen even more than to the ladies – a very common sight at destination weddings is a lobster-pink groom with a “panda-eyed” look after spending a couple of days lying on the beach without sunblock…

Clothing for beach weddings

suitable clothing for a beach weddingHere’s another of my key destination wedding planning tips – think about appropriate clothing for the climate.

If you are getting married in a hot climate, be practical and choose clothing that is lightweight and breathable. It sounds obvious, but I have encountered grooms and groomsmen who have rented a full woollen morning suit with waistcoat and top hat and gloves back in the UK, and as a result they have “fried” on a tropical beach! Natural fibres such as linen or cotton are much better. If you want to wear a suit then make sure it is lightweight. Many grooms opt for khaki or white linen trousers and a loose open-necked shirt.

The bride will of course want to pick an amazing dress, but she too should keep the climate and location in mind. A long train is not very practical on the beach. You will get hot and you will get sandy, so don’t expect to keep your clothes spotless, either! Check also to see if the fabrics will show or disguise perspiration – photographers can retouch photos very effectively these days but it’s better if they don’t have to!

It’s worth considering taking time out to change your clothes for the reception, so as to be more comfortable and feel fresher.

Should I bring a photographer from home, or work with a local?

Destination wedding planning tips - Couple sunset silhouetteThere are pros and cons to both options. If you decide to bring a photographer with you, of course you will need to pay for their travel and accommodation on top of their fee for shooting the wedding. And in some countries there can be issues with work permits and resort exclusivity agreements which may make it harder (or impossible) for a visiting photographer to shoot your wedding legally.

On the plus side, if you hire someone from home you will be able to get to know them before the wedding day, will avoid possible communication problems dealing with someone for whom English is not their first language, and it will be easier to liaise with your photographer after the wedding with regards to things like ordering prints, your album, etc. And you will have a greater choice of photographers and can therefore pick someone whose work you really like, and who you feel comfortable having around.

On the other hand, using a photographer who is based in the destination has cost advantages, and they will most likely already know the location well and all the other vendors. But there may be a language barrier, you will have to book them online or by phone, and you may not get an opportunity to meet them before the wedding day. And in some smaller or more far-flung destinations there may not be much choice of who you can use.

There is no “right answer” to this in all situations – it will depend on where you are going, and how you feel about the relative importance of the factors that I have mentioned.

Destination wedding planning tips – How much coverage will I need?

Wherever a wedding takes place, most photographers will offer a package that includes a set number of hours on the wedding day. With destination weddings there can be additional events that you may want photographed, such as a rehearsal dinner, or a boat trip, or maybe a ‘day after” photo session with just the two of you.

Make sure you discuss these options with your photographer ahead of time and get a quote for the additional coverage.

If you brought a photographer with you from home you may feel that because you are paying for the trip they should be “on call” at all times – this is not reasonable as they will need time to rest, check equipment, download images, recharge camera & flash batteries etc. So any additional coverage should be something that is clearly agreed beforehand and budgeted for.

How do you plan for the best shots at a beach wedding?

beach confetti throwPhotographers use a variety of techniques to make your pictures look as good as possible.

If it’s a hot-weather destination, posed portraits before the ceremony with the bride and groom and bridesmaids and groomsmen and family members will usually be taken in the shade, so as to keep you cool, prevent you from squinting, and to avoid harsh contrasty light on your faces.

Once the ceremony is over and the sun has gone down far enough to make it more comfortable on the beach, the photographer can take shots in full sun. They may pose you with your back to the sun and use flash, again so you don’t have the sun in your eyes and to make the sunset part of the composition. After the sun has set is a favourite time for close-ups and individual portraits, as the broad light from the sky above is very soft and flattering.

It’s a good idea to get the family group shots done right after the ceremony. This allows guests to relax with a drink while your photographer takes you and your new spouse off for some romantic sunset images together on the beach. You may also want to arrange for some shots in the gardens of the resort where you are staying, before the ceremony, or even a “getaway” photo session in casual clothes on a different day from the wedding, perhaps at a different, more secluded location.

Include your photographer in your wedding planning and they will be able to help and advise you, so as to get the best possible record of your amazing adventure!

Destination wedding planning tips by expert destination wedding photographer Chris Mann