How I Became a Destination Wedding Photographer

Erich McVey

Destination weddings can seem like the holy grail of the wedding industry. Far off countries, remote locations, ceremonies taking place on top of mountains or on white sand beaches…they really can be incredible. But it’s important to realize that they are not the benchmark for success by which we should measure our career or self-worth. Making a living doing what you love is the end-all-be-all, and there are at least 10,000 ways to get there.

I personally love shooting destination weddings, and I’m beyond thankful that I have the opportunity to do so often. Below, I’ll share three things that have helped me become a destination wedding photographer.

1. Secure the Local Market

Reading the phrase ”local market” may seem counterintuitive when we’re meant to be talking about destination weddings, but stay with me. Time and again I hear from fellow photographers who are just beginning their careers that their goal is to shoot all over the world. Often, they put this ambition in front of the more sequentially natural and attainable goal of booking jobs in their own local market. You’re probably not going to like hearing this but...

Of the 130+ photographers I’ve worked with, the 10 who have found the most success all have one thing in common: they conquered their local markets first.

Conversely, I can also think of a few photographers I’ve worked with who were extremely talented and had incredible potential, but just never quite made the jump from potential to actual success. The common thread with these photographers? They wanted to book their dream jobs immediately, and felt that local, small-budget jobs weren’t worth their time or attention.

If you’re hoping to build a lasting, successful career that you love, you have to play the long game and pay your dues. There is no such thing as a fast-track to success.

I launched my business in Salem, Oregon, where I grew up. I was able to harness a number of connections from family and friends in town to immediately get the word out about my new business. I also printed flyers and business cards and gave stacks to every local business willing to hand them out or post them in their window. I had the Activity Director at my old high school dole out flyers to students promoting a special on senior photos. All of these flyers and random connections cast a wide net, allowing a lot of people to hear about me and see my work. Were all of those people potential clients? Probably not, but everyone most likely knew at least one person who was looking for a photographer.

After a few years of working hard in my local area, building a strong system of support, and employing dozens of strategies to get my name and work out there, I soon became the go-to wedding photographer in my local area.

2. Know When To Expand

Only after you build a strong foundation for your business by conquering your local market should you look to expand. I personally knew it was time when a number of things were consistently taking place:

  1. My name recognition in the local market was strong—with consistent referrals from other industry vendors as well as general connections throughout the area.
  2. I received, on average, 10 inquiries a week from brides and planners requesting pricing and availability for weddings taking place in Oregon.
  3. My schedule was full—with weddings booked every weekend throughout the Oregon wedding season.

When you feel comfortable in your home market and have an itch to break into new territory, keep in mind that just like the initial, local growth of your business, expanding into new markets will take time, patience, and hard work.

3. Make the Most of the Opportunity

My wife Amy and I love to travel, and for us, destination weddings have provided the opportunity to see new places all over the world. What they don’t always provide, however, are big paychecks—especially when you’re first breaking into the destination market. The first few destination weddings you book will likely not make you much money. In fact, you may end up in the hole after taking into account all travel and photography expenses. It is important that you keep this in mind, and realistically assess whether the investment of taking a loss on your first few destination jobs is worth it for your business. For me, it was definitely a worthwhile investment.

My first destination wedding was a 10-year vow-renewal for a couple from Kentucky who wanted to renew their vows in Norway, where the bride’s family was from, and where they’d gotten engaged years prior. They didn’t have a massive budget, as it was going to be a small family affair. Fortunately, being photographers themselves, they put a high emphasis on photography, and were able to cover all of our film and travel expenses. When all was said and done, I took home about $500 in profit for this job, but the experience, the images, and the notoriety it afforded me were worth far more than a single paycheck.

I capitalized on this opportunity by booking two additional weddings at a Chateau in France on back-to-back Saturdays. They were the two lowest paying jobs I booked that year (I ended up spending about $1,500 more than I made, taking into account travel expenses) but it was an investment that would swiftly pay off in a myriad of ways. That French Chateau now refers me just about every bride and groom who walk through their doors, and I often receive inquiries from couples who first found and fell in love with my work because of the features those first few destination weddings generated for me.

The path to securing international bookings is different for everyone. But the work, patience, and fortitude necessary to stay the course is always the same. Be smart in capitalizing on opportunities, and know that by putting a game plan in place you’re well on your way to booking the destination weddings that are right for you.

READ EXCERPTS FROM THE COURSE