©Meghan Rolfe

Runaway Niche

Meghan Rolfe started photographing elopements about a decade ago as a sideline to her work as a portrait and wedding photographer in Asheville, North Carolina. She’d picked up a few elopement gigs and enjoyed working with couples in the beautiful natural settings around Asheville.

This led her to add an elopement package to her offerings. She started simple—just her, an officiant, and a ceremony composed by a writer who works in the outdoors industry. Gradually, she added extra details—flowers from a local farm, artisan wedding cake, champagne, even a picnic set up for the couple after their ceremony.

The elopement business grew. Rolfe hired an assistant and added more officiants, photographers, and videographers. Eventually, she split off elopements into its own sub-business with a separate website. She now has five photographers, five officiants, and a full-time coordinator to manage scheduling and details. The outfit covers about 150 elopements a year, and Rolfe feels there’s still significant room for growth, not just for her business, but for photographers throughout the country.

©Meghan Rolfe

The primary difference between an elopement and a destination wedding is that an elopement focuses on the couple, says Rolfe. While most of her eloping couples come from out of town to get married in the scenic splendor near Asheville, it’s not the same as a destination wedding because it’s not a major event for dozens (or hundreds) of people. It’s designed to address what the couple wants, not the family, not the guests. It’s a smaller ceremony that often includes just the bride and groom and a few attendants.

Rolfe allows up to 10 guests at her elopements, but her favorites are those that are as small as possible. “In fact, we strongly encourage couples to keep it to the two of them,” she says. “Things start to change when they add guests. It influences the situation. A true elopement focuses on the couple, their love, and what getting married really means to them. We take care of the details and make it all about them.”

©Meghan Rolfe
Photographer Meghan Rolfe
©Meghan Rolfe

Rolfe’s typical elopements are simple events that last a couple of hours. Clients are usually couples in their early 30s, but Rolfe also gets plenty of second marriages with older couples as well as vow renewals. For each elopement, she establishes a location, meets the couple there, and provides them with flowers and the other elements of their package. If they want first-look photos, she coordinates and captures it. Usually, they hike to a scenic location for the ceremony. Afterward, she makes photographs with any guests in attendance and then takes the couple to several nearby spots for their wedding portraits. The photo session usually takes about an hour, though couples can add additional photos and locations to their package. If the couple opts for a package with cake, champagne, and a picnic, they can sit down to enjoy that on a blanket set up by an assistant.

©Meghan Rolfe

Rolfe finds new clients primarily through online marketing, including blogging, search engine optimization, and social media. “Sometimes people don’t even know they want this until they come across my site,” she says. “You have to think creatively about search terms, using terminology like ‘small weddings’ or ‘outdoor wedding photography’ versus just ‘elopements.’” Instagram is an ideal platform to showcase images along with comments from clients talking about the experience. Rolfe also anticipates client questions and answers them in advance through social media posts and blogs, which provides more great SEO material.

Zeroing in on her ideal clients helps Rolfe create content that appeals to those people. That content builds awareness of her services, drawing in like-minded folks who are looking for simple, intimate elopements in a beautiful natural setting. “We really want to work with the right people, and that’s been more of a focus for us,” says Rolfe. “Every year we fine-tune it more and more and reset our boundaries. To support that, a lot of what we’ll post online is the projects that involve our dream clients, showing what it’s like to work with us, and the kinds of people we want to work with. When those clients do find us, it’s even easier to support them as a friend. But even if we’re not the right fit, we want to help them find something that works for them.”

©Meghan Rolfe

Rolfe was already busy with elopements before the coronavirus pandemic shook up the world. When larger, in-person weddings were being canceled or postponed beginning in 2020, the elopement option became extremely popular. As time wore on, inquiries began to tick up steadily. Rolfe found herself helping all kinds of couples re-envision their weddings in a new, smaller format. In some cases, she livestreamed the ceremony for friends and family members who couldn’t travel due to the pandemic. 

In many ways, the popularity of today’s elopement market emerged from necessity when people were forced to find creative ways to move forward with their marriages rather than putting their lives on hold until the pandemic ended. Now, coming out of the pandemic, people have discovered the beauty of these events and their popularity has endured.

“Before COVID, if I told people that I’m an elopement photographer, they wouldn’t understand what that meant,” says Rolfe. “Now so many people have chosen to elope, and awareness has increased dramatically. And with Instagram and Facebook, they share the photos and others have seen them, boosting the popularity of these events even more.”

Rolfe has noticed a steady flow of photographers jumping into elopement photography, which has increased the competition but also provided consumers with more options. She sees this as a good thing for photographers like her who are looking for a very specific type of client.

“With so many more people doing elopements, we have a better chance of getting our ideal clients because people are able to seek out the best photographer for them instead of just hiring the only photographer around who does elopements,” she says.

©Meghan Rolfe

Rolfe believes the current wedding market offers an ideal opportunity for photographers to create something unique that fits their style and approach.

“If you’re drawn to this kind of work and have a passion for working with couples, then there is a tremendous opportunity to make this part of your business,” she says. Rolfe notes that while her aesthetic involves simplicity and nature, there are abundant options to offer elopement packages with a range of different styles. You could offer all-inclusive packages with lodging and excursions. You could go adventurous, or you could make it quaint like a country B&B weekend. Vineyards, beaches, national landmarks—the options abound. “You can really make it your own,” says Rolfe.

The idea of charting her own course is incredibly appealing to Rolfe and something she finds relatively unique about elopement photography. “When you’re a photographer, people are always asking you to do what they want,” she says. “This is one way to have an offering that attracts a niche group that’s interested in what you love doing. So instead of just capturing what’s happening, you get to create a situation that’s inspiring and then you capture it. That can bring so much passion back into your photography. And when your passion is in it, it fulfills you as well.” 

Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.