©Marla Manes

Bold Declaration

Once upon a time, a couple who eloped was thought to be, as Merriam-Webster defined the term, running away secretly to get married, which carried a slightly scandalous undertone. However, as Seattle-based photographer Marla Manes explains, “The meaning of ‘elopement’ has changed dramatically. It no longer has the negative connotations it once had. Today, a couple who elopes is basically choosing an intimate wedding, one that is designed around what matters most to the couple.”

Manes should know. The self-described adventure elopement photographer has carved out a successful niche in this fast-growing sector of wedding photography that caters to couples who, notes Manes, “Don’t think a traditional wedding is for them and are interested in a smaller ceremony that better reflects who they are.”

ELOPEMENTS RISING

By many accounts, elopements have been on the rise since about 2016 and surged during the coronavirus pandemic years, when large gatherings were severely limited. “COVID helped open people’s eyes to elopements, including those who wanted a big wedding but didn’t want to wait as well as those who realized a big wedding didn’t appeal to them,” says Manes. “Interest in elopement weddings seems to be growing each year.” Statistics back her up. In a recent national survey of over 1,000 U.S.-based engaged couples, 62 percent said they were open to the idea of a scaled-back elopement-style wedding.

©Marla Manes

Manes, like a growing number of photographers across the nation, has decided to specialize in elopement photography. She’s also elected to brand herself specifically as an adventure elopement photographer. “I always say an elopement can take place anywhere, but I love helping to arrange and shoot elopements in beautiful, often remote outdoor locations,” she says. “A majestic setting in a beautiful landscape adds an extra element to that special day. And it’s fun!”

After just a few years of guiding couples through the often uncharted waters of elopement, Manes, 26, has become a popular option for couples seeking a bold elopement in the Pacific Northwest.

“I’ve learned that potential clients are hungry for advice on everything from how, to where, to when to elope and even what to wear. I’ve been there and have learned a lot. I like to say that when it comes to elopements, I can help demystify what happens between ‘I will’ and ‘I do.’”

MAKING IT WORK

Manes also shares her expertise with photographers who are interested in exploring elopement photography. “So many generous photographers gave me such good advice when I was starting my business,” says Manes. “I’m happy to return the favor.” Here are some of her top tips.

©Marla Manes
©Marla Manes

ARTISTRY MATTERS. A beautiful couple and stunning scenery can make for a great image, but you can’t neglect technique. “When you’re photographing in a remote location it’s often too easy to let the landscape do the talking,” says Manes.

To create memorable images, you need to focus on artistry in matters like composition and lighting. Frame the couple perfectly against a mountain landscape or pose them to take the best advantage of natural light. During editing, you have to do justice to the colors of the landscape and stay true to life. Manes adds, “Because there may be so few or no guests at the elopement, your pictures may be the only lasting memories of that couple’s special day. They have to be extra special.”

PLANNING IS IMPORTANT. As popular as elopements are becoming, most people have not been to one. Therefore, much of the preparation and planning can fall on the shoulders of the photographer. “Once people decide to elope, they can soon reach a grinding halt when they realize there is very little how-to information out there,” says Manes.

That’s where an elopement photographer comes in. “You need to be ready and willing to take on some of the duties a wedding planner would normally handle,” says Manes. This can include advising couples on everything from where to get flowers to booking lodging to wearing the right kind of footwear for a hike. Manes has filled her site with helpful information on how to elope, what to wear, event logistics, and more. As she notes on her website, “I am here for way more than just pretty pictures. … I’ll advise you on everything from timelines to permit assistance, to straightening your tie before the ceremony.”

©Marla Manes

DETAILS MATTER. Some destinations require wedding permits. Others forbid pets or don’t allow overnight camping. Cell service may be problematic. “You have to know all these requirements,” says Manes. She has gone to the extent of becoming an ordained officiant so she can administer wedding vows if the couple desires.

BE FLEXIBLE AND CREATIVE. Despite how carefully an elopement ceremony is planned, stuff happens. “By its very nature, adventure elopement can be full of challenges,” says Manes. “Road closures, bad weather, wildfires are all part and parcel of the great outdoors.”

Last August she went with a couple who had opted for a rugged three-and-a-half-mile hike to an old fire lookout, Tolmie Peak, in Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park. It offered drop-dead gorgeous views of the 14,411-foot-high mountain in the distance and the crystalline waters of Eunice Lake below. “They were experienced hikers, and it was a strenuous hike, especially because I was carrying a 40-pound backpack, but I knew it would be worth the trouble,” she remembers. “The views from the lookout to Mount Rainier are usually magnificent.”

But by the time the three had reached the lookout and the couple had changed from hiking gear into formal wedding clothes, a dense fog had settled in, whiting out everything in the distance. “They took it in stride,” remembers Manes. She quickly revised her shot list and got creative, taking close-ups, posing the couple near the fire lookout against the dense fog and elsewhere. “We didn’t get the Mount Rainier views we had hoped for, but the images we did get were memorable.”

Being creative on an elopement assignment in the great outdoors is a necessity. “As opposed to traditional weddings, there are often no real activities planned,” says Manes. “Usually there is no getting-ready period or cake cutting or father-of-the-bride dance, so it is completely up to you to create photos that are authentic for the couple. There is no menu, and it is up to you to seize the opportunities that may present themselves or create them yourself.”

MARKETING MATTERS. There is a reason Manes has devoted so much time and space on her website to answering virtually any question a couple interested in an adventure elopement may ask. First, given the nature of elopements, most people have no idea what to expect. As she explains, “Say someone sees a photo of a bride in a wedding dress on top of a mountain and says, ‘Oh, that’s what I want.’ But they don’t know anything about the logistics of making that happen or what they need to do. So, I have designed my site to help answer their questions.”

Second, by including all that how-to material, Manes’ website is pushed to the top of searches by prospective clients thanks to search engine optimization that helps recognize her as an expert. “So many clients find me by Googling ‘adventure elopement’ and they can then read my pages and, if they like what they see, may reach out to me,” says Manes. “I think the editorial and blogging informational material on my site is more permanent than Instagram entries, which may get attention for only a few days.”

©Marla Manes

LEAVE NO TRACE. Showing care for the environment is more important than ever, says Manes. Indeed, as consumers become increasingly aware of issues like climate change and dangers to the environment, they want to support businesses that value the same things and feel the same way they do about protecting nature. “We follow the principles of leave no trace,” she says. “That includes making sure to not leave any litter behind, not feeding wildlife, staying off fragile flora, and more.” No-nos include single-use props such as smoke bombs, confetti, or balloons that could be harmful to flora or fauna.

Abiding by the leave no trace principles also makes good business sense, says Manes. “I want to make sure that these places I am photographing are going to be here looking pristine and beautiful in the years to come. If people start trampling fragile flowers or leaving garbage behind, this will give the industry a bad rap and we don’t want parks banning elopements. It’s so important to care for the land.”

Manes feels so strongly about protecting nature that she and a group of like-minded wedding professionals have started an organization, Emerald Hour, to promote greener, more sustainable events.

Does Manes think that elopements are here to stay? Last year, she explains, “My love and I ran away to the mountains and eloped. After living, breathing, and loving elopements, I finally get what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera. I’m here to tell you that it is sweet!”

Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.