Sony Artisan and elite wedding photographer James Christianson surprised me when I called to ask his advice for wedding photographers who are considering upgrading from local shooters to destination weddings—working for the kind of clients who host high-dollar fetes on beautiful Tahitian beaches or in grand Parisian ballrooms. “You can do it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a trick to it.”
Yes, this world-class wedding photographer thinks his fellow wedding photographers are generally capable of becoming destination shooters right now, today.
Is It Right For You?
The trick, Christianson says, is to first figure out whether one should become a destination-wedding photographer. Because while the globetrotting lifestyle may seem wonderful from the outside, once you’re living it, he says, the cool glamour can quickly turn to a cold reality.
“Otto and I,” he says of Otto Schulze, the other half of elite wedding photography duo James and Schulze, “we love new experiences. We love stepping beyond what’s normal, what’s comfortable. But once you’re in it and doing it on a regular basis, it’s hard on the family and you’re gone a lot and it comes with a different set of challenges than shooting weddings in your own backyard. There you get to sleep in your own bed and all those people you’re marketing to are right there too and you can always go and have coffee with them to keep that relationship going. It’s not so simple for me to do that in lots of places and it comes with its own set of challenges. While it might look romantic, it’s not always great.”
The primary drawback of being a traveling wedding photographer, of course, is the travel. Sure, it’s great to see Paris in the spring and to escape winter with a trip to Bora Bora, but it also means extensive time away from one’s family—just as with any other travel-heavy job.
“If you’re single with no wife and no kids,” Christianson says, “then certainly I think it’s great. You can go and if you want to stay a little bit longer and do things on your own, then it’s awesome. For those of us who are married with kids it can be less awesome. I might fly to Mexico, do the shoot and leave as soon as I can. Sometimes I shoot until midnight and I’m up at 4 in the morning to catch the 7 o’clock flight to get home. So I don’t get to go and enjoy an amazing spa, obviously. There are times that it’s incredible, but that’s the qualifier: it’s not always all it’s cracked up to be.”
Another qualifier, Christianson says, is to first determine one’s reason for wanting to become a destination wedding photographer. Is it to grow the business’ bottom line? Or is it more for the opportunity to travel to exotic destinations on a client’s dime? Both are perfectly legit, but only one of them is guaranteed.
“What are your goals for your business?” Christianson asks. “If it really is revenue driven, sometimes the travel thing is not going to be the best option. You can’t really shoot 25, 30, 40 weddings globally. Or at least it’s very difficult.”
Many photographers earn excellent incomes shooting weddings without ever sleeping in a hotel bed, but for Christianson, part of the joy of wedding photography is making sure it’s a unique experience every time.
“For me personally,” he says, “and I think Otto is in the same boat, if we had to shoot 15 weddings in the same location every year—that being the same hotel or the same ballroom—I would go do something different. I understand that for a lot of people that’s what wedding photography is, and that’s not to disparage those people doing it, because you can make a good living doing it, but it’s more formulaic and it’s not based on the experience the client is having so much. For me, the inspiration I get from going to new places is what inspires me to continue to create imagery. If I could have my choice, I would never shoot in the same location twice.”
That kind of drive may be a good indication that a photographer is ready to pursue destination weddings full-time. But deciding to do it and actually doing it are different things. It’s hard to land destination-wedding clients without destination wedding images in the portfolio. And of course, how do you get them in the portfolio before you’ve shot a destination wedding? The solution is to go to where the shots are. Christianson and Schulze were fortunate to be based in one of the most popular wedding destinations in the world.
“We’re lucky in that we live in Colorado,” Christianson says, “which is the second largest destination wedding location only to Hawaii. So I wouldn’t say we got into it by accident, but it’s because we’re in this destination market already. When I started shooting in Aspen and Beaver Creek and all those places, most of those clients were from L.A., New York, Dallas, San Francisco and Miami. They were flying in and getting married there. And so I was building a client base in all those different areas. So a New Yorker planning to fly down to Florida or Jamaica or Italy was going to hire a destination photographer, well, my name came up because they saw me shooting a destination wedding in Colorado.”
If you aren’t already working in a popular destination, Christianson suggests finding any way possible to get pertinent samples into a destination wedding portfolio. “Otto and I are constantly saying that content is king,” he says. When someone is specifically looking for a destination photographer, it sure helps to have the images show that you can shoot in Fiji and you can shoot in Mexico. Maybe you have to take a family vacation and spend an extra day or two photographing. It’s like any business: it’s an investment. Have a strategy and make an investment.”
Seek Out Wedding Planners
Wedding photographers have long known that it’s the wedding planners who are key to their bookings, so marketing to destination planners—while feasible—may not be especially productive. Instead, work to build a relationship with a local wedding planner who also plans destination weddings. You can simply let them know that you’re looking to do more destination weddings, or do what Christianson did and consider reducing your rate in order to get a few destination weddings under your belt—and into your portfolio.
“I also started doing destination weddings not for free but for less,” he says. “ ‘Pay my travel and a little fee and I’ll come shoot.’ I did that because I needed to have a portfolio. But you can’t keep doing that for long. I’ve watched it happen where photographers are flying all over the world and their portfolio is incredible but they’re making absolutely no money. At some point, you’re going to wake up and realize you have a family and you have to pay bills and you can’t keep doing that.”
One of the biggest challenges to destination weddings, Christianson says, is managing the travel. Done poorly, it can be the difference between a profitable weekend and a serious loss. “One of the mistakes I’ve made,” he says, “is not properly factoring in travel costs. That can come back and really bite you. Sometimes I’m looking into travel in February and I take a quick look at ticket prices and it’s $300 to fly to Cabo, so then I bid based on that. That’s a mistake because when it’s August and the prices are $800, I just lost $500 because I didn’t pay attention to when I was actually going. You also have to think about all of the other aspects of travel like a per diem, taxis, tipping the valets…all these things. You have to factor them in, otherwise you’re just hemorrhaging cash.”
Yes, You Can Do This
In the end, Christianson says if you’re successful shooting weddings in your hometown you can be successful shooting in world-class exotic destinations as well. After all, the locations are typically top notch, even better than back home—usually. “I don’t think it’s any different than being a wedding photographer,” Christianson says. “I don’t think there has to be any special qualifier other than flexibility—which is required as a wedding photographer anyway. So the skills you bring as a wedding photographer serve you well. It comes with a lot of unknowns, but do does any wedding photography. Destinations might introduce more unknowns, but once you have enough experience and you feel like you’re ready to tackle any scenario, which in my opinion as a wedding photographer you should be before you start shooting weddings, then I think you’re probably ready to take on destination weddings as well.”
About the author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.