Before we get to the story, let me tell you two things about being an adventure wedding photographer. First, one of the most important things about the job is the ability to plan - know the park rules, about permits, and about leave no trace principles. Know park rangers, visit a BLM office and talk to them, ask the questions you might have well in advance so you can put into place what it takes to keep your couples and yourself safe. To do your best work, you also need to be more than vaguely familiar with an area. You need to know the ins and outs. Know details about the light and not just what it's doing right now, but all of the things it might do, because shooting in Zion vs. Yosemite vs. Alaska is worlds different. You have to be ready if there are no clouds or some clouds or if you're completely socked in. You should plan around what peak the sun is going to set behind, know exactly when the sun will rise, and how all these factors change depending on the time of year you'll be shooting. Secondly, know when to adapt. There will be times when something comes up - a wildfire or a closed road, a hike that's way busier than usual (maybe you need to hit the trailhead at 4 am), but the most common is the weather. When situations come up, you have to be able to confidently trust your knowledge, experience, and skill set - all of which give you that gut feeling you have to go with.
Josh and Emily put so much trust in us to plan their wedding day. I can't overstate how much this means to us. It's especially true considering they wanted their adventure wedding in Moab, which is basically our backyard. We've spent as much time here as anywhere, and I know the weather can change pretty quickly in Moab. A week before Josh and Emily's shoot the forecast said there was a chance of rain. The prediction of a storm out here can switch to clear skies and vice versa overnight, so we waited. The crux was the original plan we made to run a slot canyon for their elopement. Any time there is rain, there is a chance of a flash flood in a canyon even if the storm isn't close or happened the day before.
Twenty-four hours before the shoot and the weather report still called for rain. We needed to change our plan. I know the pictures we take of our couples up on the edge of a cliff can sometimes cause people to gasp a little. The thing is, we almost never need to tell our couples no because we don't say yes to stuff while planning or shooting which could carry real danger. Our couples often want a shot on an edge, and we'll help them find a safe spot to do so and pursue on their own, at their individual level of comfort. However, when it comes to things like avalanche safety in the mountains of Alaska, the wind in Patagonia, or a flash flood in a slot canyon in Utah, it's our job to know and prepare for the risks which didn't exist when a plan was first made. The truth is (and consider that this comes from a couple who loves jumping out of perfectly good planes as a hobby) some things just aren't worth the risk. Flat out, we prioritize safety over any epic shot.
So we had the plan but now was the time to adapt. Again, Emily and Josh had so much trust in us which made the next part way easier to become so great. We didn't know it at the time but the rain and danger of a flash flood in the canyon and the last minute change of plans resulted in our most epic shot of 2018.
When we got in the car, it did end up looking pretty stormy, but there was a little break in the cloud cover near the horizon. I was hoping some golden light might sneak through. Let me also say this - I didn't use to shoot adventure elopements in Arches National Park too much because it can get pretty packed with crowds. I ended up learning our couples loved hiking in the park and people loved seeing them walk by in their wedding clothes. I thought the silver lining to all this was that Josh and Emily would have a lot fewer people at the park because of the weather. Little did I know, as Callen wound up the switchbacks of the entrance to Arches National Park, we were on our way to experience some desert magic.
I knew even if the sun didn't come out the photos would be pretty epic. Moab can be great in any condition. The 2,000+ arches in the park provides so much for a photographer to frame a shot with and the sandstone rising from the earth provide natural contrast, punchy shadows, and the endless skies stretching over the earth in every direction allow for so many beautiful options. We have a huge list of locations Callen and I have explored, and I picked one of my favorite spots knowing, if the sun did sneak out below the clouds, we could snag some cool light shining through the arch.
Okay, enough about safety and photography concepts and everything going through my head that day. I just wanted to give you a true look into the preparation and decision making which can go into a single evening of shooting. It's important to remember that no matter what is happening, through trust, preparation, and knowledge, there is a way to put yourself into a position where you have an opportunity to use your skills as a photographer to capture something great.
As we piled out of our cars, Emily and Josh were so excited which put a lot of peace in my mind. They were so upbeat and happy even though we were in a completely different area than they expected a few days ago. It kind of hit me then- Josh and Emily met at the camp Josh ran, where Emily now works, where kids with serious illnesses go to just be kids. They're literally pros at taking a hard situation and making it into something beautiful. A new wave of appreciation for them hit me. I was witnessing a couple who can bring a calm presence in any storm, whose love for people and each other isn't dependent on circumstance, and I just had a good feeling about them, about the shoot, about the whole day and what I do for a living in general.
We walked the trail and the sun still wasn't coming out, but the layer of clouds still left us a good chance. Emily's dress and her beautiful veil were perfect for the hike, and Josh wore a light grey suit that contrasted the red rock beautifully. They climbed up the sandstone to the little perch under the arch I directed them to. Callen took off behind me to get some shots a little further out. Emily and Josh walked across the ridgeline below the arch. I felt a drop of rain or two, and then it really started coming down. Then, just as they reached the bottom trough of the arch, the sky began to light up. The sun was coming through the other side of the arch perfectly, backlighting Emily and Josh. I was already stoked on it all, but then the phenomenal happened. The rain got a little heavier, and the drops falling through the sky became drenched in the golden light that was peaking out under the clouds.
I knew Callen was behind me. I yelled back asking if he saw it too. He did! This type of thing is so unique. I'd never seen anything like it and wondered if it would register on camera. Josh and Emily were in complete awe. The scene was completely surreal. Eventually, the rain stopped, but the light kept shining through the arch. The sunset made Emily's dress glow, Josh gave her kisses and held her hand as we climbed down and explored a little more.
Later that night I got to take a look at Callen's photos and was blown away. You can tell when I'm stoked on something because I just blurt out words like "oh my gosh" and "no way" and "Callen!" when going through the photos. The rain had not only shown up but looked like glitter falling through the sky. The images perfectly captured what we had witnessed.
The next day Josh and Emily picked us up in a Jeep for a 4x4 excursion through a more remote corner of Moab. We picked out and made a mental note of a spot for their vows at sunset and kept exploring, stopping a few places to take pictures. Eventually, we found a perfect little place overlooking the Colorado River for some sunset shots. The light was perfectly Moab, shadows of monuments cast against western walls of the canyon, and Josh held his wife close. They looked beautiful; the couple that could find the beauty in any storm, the ones who put their trust in us, the ones who lit up under a natural phenomenon. We drove back to the spot they chose to give their vows and gave them some space to have time to themselves. I can't lie though; I would have loved to hear what this couple had to say to each other.
What I do know is the day was fitting for them, who they are, what they do, what they love, and experiencing the beauty we did was something special. I think, in all our professions, we work hard to do our best; we bring out the best in ourselves to bring in a bit of beauty in the life of another. Whether by a sick child being able to truly smile in the midst of a personal storm, a family being able to feel happiness or providing an experience to a couple in love to not just stay safe but witness a once in a lifetime moment with each other - all the soul we pour into what we do, every bit of effort - it is all so worth it.