How does a pro handle the logistics of shooting a wedding in Marrakesh or Mumbai? World-class wedding photographer Dina Douglass talks about the ins and outs of traveling to photograph a destination wedding abroad.
Aimee Baldridge: Where have you traveled to photograph weddings?
Dina Douglass: This past year I did weddings in India; Istanbul, Turkey; and Cartagena, Colombia. I've also done weddings in Bali, Indonesia; Belgrade, Serbia; Marrakesh, Morocco; County Clare, Ireland; several cities in Mexico; the British Virgin Islands; and Quito, Ecuador.
AB: How many bags do you pack for a destination wedding?
Dina Douglass: I have to make sure that if all my checked baggage is lost, I can still shoot the wedding. That means everything essential has to fit in my carry-on bags, and they have to fit in the overhead bin on the plane. I generally put all my essential gear into one rolling bag, and carry a shoulder bag as well. I check a piece of luggage for personal effects and unbreakable things like tripods.
AB: What do you need most in a carry-on bag?
Dina Douglass: I need it to fit on the plane, and it has to roll. It has to have good padding so that my lenses won’t jostle around, and wheels that won't fall off. I used to carry a backpack, thinking I could always fit it under the seat. But it was just too heavy with the amount of lenses I carried. A backpack isn’t heavy if you're only going a short distance, but there are some airports where you're literally walking for 30 minutes to get from point A to point B.
AB: Is there anything special that you pack for a destination wedding?
Dina Douglass: High-capacity memory cards can be harder to find abroad, so I bring a lot of them. I bring extra batteries for my cameras and two chargers, in case one fails. I wear contacts and keep extra ones in my camera bag at all times. I also bring a pair of glasses for backup. Seeing is really important.
AB: What shouldn’t you bring to the airport, aside from the obvious?
Dina Douglass: My second shooter, Yoshi, used to travel with battery packs. We would get stopped every time because they didn't know what the packs were. He would get searched at every airport, and he's usually really inconspicuous. All he needs is a pair of pliers and a baseball cap, and he can walk onto any film set. They film Entourage at the Urth Caffé in L.A., and he’s walked onto the set a hundred times. But he would always get stopped because of his battery packs. The TSA took apart one of my batteries to the point where even Yoshi was unable to get it back together, and he has an engineering degree. Yoshi can build a car from the ground up, but he couldn’t put that battery back together when the TSA was done with them. It was astonishing. So I no longer travel with large strobe batteries.
AB: What else do you do to make things go smoothly at the airport?
Dina Douglass: It’s important to get on the plane early so you can secure bin space for your bag. Otherwise, you'll be stuck with it getting checked, and you can’t do that with your lenses in it. I always check in early and pay for priority boarding. I also take a look at the tags they put on any baggage I check, to make sure the tags have the right final destination. It's an easy way to help prevent your luggage from ending up in the wrong place.
I leave a minimum of two hours in between connecting flights. Some people forget how large airports are and try to do a one-hour connection. If your flight's 20 minutes late and you have to run a mile to the other side of the airport, you’ll miss the next flight. If you're going to Heathrow you’ll want a minimum of three hours between flights. Heathrow is almost the size of L.A.
I keep my AA batteries in a separate pack that I put right on top of my clothes in my suitcase. Anything I think might trigger the TSA to open my checked luggage, I just put on top of my clothes so they can look at it. I also throw a business card in there. I don't bury things underneath so they have to dig through everything.
If you want things to go smoothly, just be respectful and try to pack as light as you can. Don't wear red or yellow. Yellow is the most irritating color to man and also the most visible. Red cars get more tickets. Don't be too flashy. Don't wear profanity on your shirt. If someone pulls you aside and wants to go through your gear, just say, "Okay, no problem," then answer their questions honestly. Don’t complain.
AB: Do you always work with a second shooter on destination weddings?
Dina Douglass: I usually do. I went to Bali by myself because it was right after the Bali bombing and the assistant I had planned to take backed out. My clients called me and said, "A lot of our guests have cancelled, and if you cancel we might think of rescheduling." I said, "I'm ready to go.” Only about 65 people showed up for the wedding, but there was food for about 9,000. It was amazing.
AB: What do you need to know to get through customs easily?
Dina Douglass: Some countries are delighted to have you there and delighted with the destination wedding dollars, but others don’t allow you to work because they’re concerned about taking work away from local residents. People get turned away at the border with Canada all the time.
Different countries have different rules about how much gear you can bring in. When you're going to Mexico, for example, you can only bring two camera bodies. I find it's best to research what the country will let in and just make sure you abide by that.
AB: How far in advance do you have to start preparing for a destination wedding?
Dina Douglass: It depends on the country. If the country has visa requirements, it makes sense to start about four months in advance. If you're going to India, for example, you should start preparing four or five months ahead because you have to fill out tons of paperwork for a visa. And then they might delay it and send you a notice of undertaking and have more questions for you. It's a process. Every country has different rules.
AB: Where do you usually stay when you get there? With the wedding party?
Dina Douglass: We do prefer staying where the other guests are staying, as this seems safer and makes it easier to catch shuttles. One time I was put in a haveli and it was unseasonably cold. A haveli has a lot of air leaks. It’s different than a hotel. I was wearing every piece of clothing that I had brought—three pairs of pants, hats, gloves, scarves, something like seven sweaters and a coat. My second shooter and I were just freezing. Having gone through that, I'm more forceful about asking to stay in a place that makes sense. We can always put the fear of God into them by saying, "If you try to put us someplace cheap and our gear gets stolen, no one's going to be there to shoot your wedding." It's not that I demand luxury. Just safety.
AB: How far in advance do you arrive, and how do you handle jet lag?
Dina Douglass: When shooting in India, we arrive two or three days in advance. People sometimes want you to come in the day before, but there's no way that can work. We need two days to recover and scout the location.
Jet lag is brutal on the way there, but worse on the way back. I couldn't come home on a Thursday and shoot an event on a Saturday. When I know I'm getting back from an overseas trip on a Wednesday or a Thursday, I won’t book anything for that coming weekend. I know what I can give to a client when I'm on my game and if I know I won't be because I'm going to be in a coma, then I’ll turn business away to be fair to the client.
Even if you’re traveling in the same time zone and jet lag isn’t an issue, you still have to leave a couple days. What if your flight is cancelled and the wedding is the next day? What if that volcano erupts in Iceland and you can't get out of Europe? You have to be responsible with clients, particularly when they've hired you to shoot a non-repeatable event.
AB: How do you avoid getting sick?
Dina Douglass: I have fallen ill—very, very ill—in India. I couldn't be moved for about four days. But thankfully, it was after the wedding. I'm very cautious with what I eat before a job, because I'm there to work. I only eat cooked food in India—no salad, no ice, nothing raw, no garnishes. If they bring something with parsley or chopped tomato, I just send it back. People will say, "Oh, we have filtered water." But our bodies can't always handle the same bacteria that people in other countries can handle. I also get immunizations and take antimalarial medications, depending on where I'm going.
AB: How do you take advantage of the location with a busy wedding schedule to handle?
Dina Douglass: When I do an international trip, I always want to do a day-after shoot. Otherwise, there's never enough time to capture the charm of the surroundings. I always scout the location before the wedding. To scout a location with a lot of options, like Istanbul, sometimes it's helpful to scout for two days and hire a guide for part of one of those days. Just make sure to tell the guide you don't want to go shopping. That's super important.
The last wedding I did in India was at a beautiful palace, and scouting the village nearby only took a few hours. There was really nowhere else we could go except the village or the palace. But scouting Istanbul took two full days, and we walked at least 10 miles per day.
I always ask my clients if they have any recommendations for shooting locations, but a lot of people will just say, "Go walk around and tell us what you think." Sometimes people pick a spot because it’s in a palace or a beautiful building, but as a backdrop it’s just boring and white. I don't want to shoot where it looks just like the Ritz in Laguna. I look for locations that provide gorgeous texture and color, and for things you won’t see anywhere else—that’s what I’m looking for.
AB: Aisle or window?
Dina Douglass: Aisle.
Dina Douglass is an internationally recognized wedding photographer based in Los Angeles. Known for her insane focus on color and technical image quality, Dina was named one of the Top 10 Wedding Photographers by American Photo magazine in 2011. Dina’s studio is Andrena Photography. She is also the creator of ColorPop actions for toning and brilliant color.
This interview is part of the Traveler interview series from Tenba.