Adventures in outdoor wedding photography
By Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan
The challenge of outdoor engagement, wedding, and elopement photography in Alaska is layered with whatever nature dishes up plus all the nerves and expectations of the big day.
Last summer, rain pelted the windshield as photographer Renee Johnson traveled the Seward Highway. For her clients’ couple’s shoot, she knew the guy was planning to pop the question during that day’s photo session. Her car rocked in the wind as she looked out over the whitecaps on the gray water of Turnagain Arm. She was not averse to shooting in bad weather; it sometimes offered the most dramatic backdrops for her photos. But when she pulled over to scout the location at Bird Point, she had to brace hard against the wind. As she made her way along a rocky trail, she heard a cracking noise and looked up just as a tree crashed to the ground in front of her.
“If your wedding destination is Alaska then plan for weather to be the drunk uncle, winter to be an icy in-law, and wildlife to arrive as unexpected guests.“
“I decided that maybe it was stupid to even be there,” Johnson said. “It turns out the wind was blowing gusts of 120 miles per hour.” They rescheduled the outdoor session for the following week. “By total chance, we had the most amazing light ever at Bird Point,” she said. “He proposed, she was super happy, and nobody was crushed by a tree.”
Planning for savage weather, being photobombed by moose, and random bear encounters are all in a day’s work for both Johnson and colleague Anne Marie Moran. It means being flexible and bringing XTRATUF boots, umbrellas, and a positive attitude. Adventure just adds to the reward of this type of photography.
“Most importantly, my job is to capture the essence of the couple. And for most couples, Alaska itself is deeply important to them so I also want to give their images a sense of place,” Moran said.
Moose and bald eagles regularly seem to make unscheduled appearances. When bears are known to be in the neighborhood, Johnson’s husband, Mark, has on occasion carried a firearm to accompany her and her clients into the woods.
The key is planning for the unexpected. At one of Moran’s shoots, weather prevented the helicopter pilot from flying to the original location, so he landed the wedding party next to a clear blue pool on the Knik Glacier. After the ceremony, they loaded up and flew to a mountaintop for more photos. Below them, a bear grazed on blueberries.
Managing expectations, advising couples about potential hazards, and coming up with plan B and C are important tasks for these photographers.
“I try to prep couples for wind, sideways rain, and blowing hair,” Johnson explained. “Then I show them my best pictures of that situation and share experiences that were marked by the hilarity of circumstance. They realize pretty quickly that those are the best photos by a long shot.”
Moran added, “I take seriously the saying ‘There’s no bad weather, only bad gear.’”
Having 24 hours of daylight poses some technical challenges as well. “Something about summer light in Alaska is harsh,” according to Johnson. “We are always trying to manage and embrace the lack of golden hour during the summer months. We can get these amazing sunsets for hours and hours, but it’s an up-all-night situation that most folks don’t have the energy for.”
Photographers are sometimes willing to take unusual measures to get the perfect shot. Eagle River photographer Colin Tyler Bogucki once stripped to his skivvies and waded into the glacial-fed Kennicott River near McCarthy to get a photo of a couple jumping into the water in their wedding duds. “Someone on shore yelled, ‘Did you have to pay the photographer extra for that?’” Bogucki said, laughing. “I did not charge them extra.”
Both Johnson and Moran have hiked up mountaintops with their wedding parties for epic photos, but they say it isn’t necessary to go far to capture the ultimate wedding image. “The variety Above: A wedding party jumps for joy at Alpenglow Ski Chalet at Arctic Valley. of scenery around Anchorage is pretty staggering. You have mountains, forests, rocky coastlines, glaciers, waterfalls, you name it. There’s something for everyone,” Moran said.
In Gustavus, Johnson shot a wedding that included a cruise around Glacier Bay. “We saw whales leaping out of the water, seals on icebergs, rowdy mountains, giant calving glaciers, bears. A moose even photobombed the ceremony,” she said. “That trip really opened my eyes to what a oncein-a-lifetime trip it is and how lucky I am to capture these experiences with clients.”
Capturing the warmth of a couple’s feelings in cold temperatures takes an extra measure of caution and creativity. At a styled shoot once, Moran said the temperature was minus 10. Styled shoots are photo sessions where wedding vendors showcase their work—photographers, hairstylists, and florists convene at an agreed-upon location. In this case, they drove snowmachines three miles to a glacial cave for the event. “My husband, who is a nurse, came along and insisted that we had 15 minutes to do this. After that we were putting the model at risk,” she said.
Johnson and Moran enjoy the sense of exploration inherent in shooting at remote locations, but it can also be anxiety producing. There are no do-overs for a wedding. And while engagements and elopements are more casual, they are still singular events. In all cases, photographers are capturing memories that people will hold dear for the rest of their lives. Incorporating Alaska’s spectacular backdrop is just the frosting on the cake.
Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan was married in the heart of the Chugach mountains where a bear visited camp and vandalized a tent. Rain raised the water level of the river so that they had to swim their horses back to safety. Renee J North Photography took photos of the ceremony, and eventually, Renee became the author’s daughter-in-law, interviewed for this article.