What is Eloping | Ideas for Eloping | Elopement Defined
What is an elopement, exactly?
An elopement means marrying in a private ceremony, with zero or just a few guests, in a way that is both awesome and meaningful to you and your partner.
Written by elopement photographer Kathryn Cooper Weddings. For inquiries, click here.
What IS an Elopement?
Eloping means saying your vows and celebrating how you want to, and not how your mother, or friends, or future father-in-law wants you to. The 21st century style of an elopement wedding has become popular in the past 10+ years, but it became wildly popular during COVID-19 (not that the pandemic has ended, but…) for different reasons. Now, couples all around the USA and world are realizing that elopements are incredible, authentic, and epic ways to get married without all the hullabaloo.
This one’s important: Elopements may be smaller than traditional weddings, but they’re no less meaningful and no less important. In fact, many people view elopements as even more special because they’re customized to exactly what you want, and by definition nontraditional.
I’m an elopement photographer based in New York and California, and I travel all over the country and world photographing intimate, epic, beautiful, and darn fun local and destination elopements for couples who just want to do something differently. Because I’ve been photographing elopements for many years (far before the pandemic), I figured it could be helpful for everyone by writing out exactly what an elopement is—and isn’t.
A Modern-Day Elopement Meaning
In recent decades, the meaning of elopement changed to mean, “Hey…let’s do our own thing and give our crazy love a chance,” or, “Let’s skip the crazy wedding and get married on our own time.”
An elopement could mean going to the courthouse in jeans and a blouse, or it could mean flying to Norway and saying your vows above an incredible fjord. Most people elope by doing something in between those examples; by splurging on a location that doubles as a honeymoon, or a private chef, or an amazing photographer, or a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
So, that’s what an elopement is in 2022: A marriage ceremony done where you want, how you want, and with (or without) anyone you want. And yes, it’s 100% legal, and just as much of a marriage/wedding as someone who has a 400-person wedding.
Working as an Elopement Photographer
Don’t get me wrong: I’m an elopement photographer and also a wedding photographer, and I love photographing both types of celebrations.
With weddings, I photograph those reactions and emotions from the guests, the fun, the music, the dancing, and the energy of the entire day. As an elopement photographer, it’s often more about adventurous couples, cool locations, small moments in an awesome environment, and the authenticity of this special moment. I’ve photographed elopements in the USA (the U.S. Virgin Islands, New York, and California are where most of my couples find me), and also in many other places: Photoshoots in Hawaii, Indonesia, Austria, Maine, National Parks, islands, and so much more. There’s so much freedom and flexibility, and I honestly love getting to know my couples and then documenting their shenanigans.
Both large weddings and elopements are great. What’s important is going with your gut and having the celebration you want.
What Should I Do on My Elopement Wedding Day?
With so many ideas for eloping and adventure elopements (I’m an elopement photographer, so I have photographed some wild adventure elopements for my job!), I’ll list just a few of them here.
If you want to just go to the county clerk’s office, do you. And if you want to BASE jumping, then do it! There are endless ideas for an elopement, from involving your pets to having an epic adventure, to scuba diving, to parachuting, to fishing, to going to a park. An elopement can be as fancy or un-fancy as you want. And if you have any questions, I am happy to share my experiences as an elopement photographer + planner with you, or give you the contact info of several full-time elopement planners I work with.
Ideas for Eloping Include:
- Taking a helicopter to say your vows on a glacier
- Hiking up a mountain and celebrating at the top
- Saying your vows at the courthouse and then going out for dinner at your favorite restaurant
- Jeep wedding it up into the Sedona desert and camping out until the next day
- Having a shaman perform a ceremony in a Yucatan cenote
- Motorcycling into Death Valley to say I do
- Sharing your wedding vows with your dogs (or cats) in your backyard
- Road tripping into Patagonia and getting married at a remote lake in the mountains
- Horseback riding at water’s edge
- Heading out to get married at the epic Glacier Point or Taft Point in Yosemite
- Having a quick ceremony on a Caribbean beach
- Rock climbing in the Adirondacks
- Going to a botanical garden and then hiring a cellist for your first dance
- Sharing a few epic moments at Everest Base Camp in Nepal
- Renting a boat to say vows on an island at your favorite lake
- Finding a pretty place at a resort for sunrise, then spending the day playing board games
- Exchanging rings in front of a beautiful waterfall
For more ideas on what to do on your elopement wedding day—and how to make your elopement unique to you—check out this article on 55+ ideas for how to make your elopement special.
Isn’t an Elopement Running Away in Secret?
It’s important to know what eloping used to be—and what eloping means in modern times. You’ve probably seen this one, but in case you haven’t: Eloping used to mean escaping to get married without anyone knowing, and it was done for a variety of reasons. If we go back to the Miriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition of elope: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/read-this-before-you-elope, you’ll see that in the olden days, to elope meant to escape or flee; as in, eloping meant to run away and secretly get married—sometimes to avoid drama, or marry someone the family disapproved of, or something else.
The word elope actually comes from the Anglo-French aloper, meaning to abduct, run away.
So what does eloping mean?
These days, the meaning of elopement is to get married in a way that is important to you, and only you [and your partner]. Will people criticize? Probably. But if you don’t want to get married with a huge audience—or if you’d rather put a down payment on a house or do a 6-month around-the-world honeymoon than pay for 200 people you kind of know to celebrate, then eloping might be right for you.
COVID-19 Helped Popularize Elopements
During the COVID-19 pandemic, elopements became popular because they were often the only way to get married during the height of the pandemic. With marriage license offices closed and gatherings limited to just a few people, those who wanted to get married in the USA (and elsewhere around the world) often had to elope. While some waited (and are still waiting) for that big celebration, others needed to take advantage of that sweet health-insurance-by-marriage thing we still do here in America. But I’m getting sidetracked.
Since large weddings are happening once again in 2022 and 2023, eloping is no longer the only way to legally get married. That being said, many more couples are now excited about the idea of paring back and doing something that’s just very them. For some that’s going to an arcade, while for others it’s going on a 100-mile canoe trip. The best part of eloping is that there are NO RULES.
What are the Reasons People Elope?
Many people elope to: a.) do something important for them; b.) avoid a million pairs of eyes on your on your wedding day; c.) save money; or d.) get married without all the stress and fuss.
Still many others elope for many other reasons, and I list many of those reasons right here.
When you elope, it means you have all the flexibility in the world. That means you can get stunning Milky Way photos, do a 4-day-long hike, do your favorite activity or nothing at all, spend the day at Disney World, see the Northern Lights, or really anything else you want.
What’s the Difference Between Eloping and Having a Wedding?
Wedding and Elopement Terminology: Eloping and having a wedding are both legal marriages. You have to file documents with a courthouse/registrar/office and file taxes differently here in the U.S.A., and as long as you go through the legal steps in your particular location and are legally recognized as such (which sometimes includes witnesses, officiants, proof of who you are, etc.), you are married.
You do NOT have to change your name, or wear a wedding ring, or say whether you had 250 guests or ran away to a castle to qualify as being married. You had a wedding whether you had a huge wedding or eloped, as they’re all forms of a wedding, and with documentation mean you’re married. So the real difference with eloping and larger weddings are what you prioritize: Friends and family, freedom, locations, adventure, ease, speed, music, individuality, splurging, partying, silence, nature…whatever YOU like.
Of course, when it comes to eloping, as long as you two want to get married, it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks, does it?! So one big reason couples elope is to just escape all the pressure, expectation, worry, judgment, and more. You don’t have to prove to anyone why or why not you should have a huge wedding.
Is Eloping Selfish?
It’s not selfish at all to elope, and in fact, if we think about all the waste that’s generated from a single wedding, some might say it’s more selfish to have a large wedding. In the end, it’s about having the kind of celebration that matches your vision.
There may be backlash, and it’s often because relatives (most often mothers, sorry to say) have envisioned your day since you were a baby. Weddings are huge in every culture—especially South Asian cultures and Western cultures—and parents often see your wedding day as a way to brag about you, see friends, and celebrate in style.
Just remember: YOU should not be pressured to have a wedding for THEM. It’s literally the one day you deserve to do exactly what you want.
Want to get married on a Wednesday? You can! Want to wear black dresses or yellow dresses, or capes, or pantsuits? Yes. Want to do a handfasting ceremony in a polyamorous relationship? Do it. Want to go snowboarding while in your wedding suits? All these things are perfectly acceptable, and if it makes friends or family members angry, so be it. They’ll get over it.
What do I Need to Elope?
To elope, you really only need a marriage license and an officiant—and likely some witnesses, who can be anyone, really. A partner to marry helps, too. But seriously, in some states—Colorado, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—you actually don’t even need an officiant and can instead self-solemnize!
Here’s What You DON’T Need to Elope
- A massive budget
- Expensive centerpieces and flowers for everyone
- Matching suits and bridesmaid dresses
- Cases of alcohol and bartenders
- A venue
- Invites and RSVPs
- Rehearsal dinner space
- DJ or band
- Menus or caterers
- Cocktail hour foods and a 4-tier wedding cake
- Seating charts
- Gifts for everyone who is in your wedding
- Hotel blocks
- Transportation for wedding guests
Here’s What You WILL Need to Elope:
- A beautiful or meaningful location
- A photographer/videographer who can capture a variety of amazing memories from your day
- An officiant whom you feel comfortable with
- Marriage license
- Accessories (flowers, jewelry, etc.)
Eloping – Final Costs?
Elopements can cost as little as $100 for a marriage license. Local or destination elopements can be as little as $1000, or as much as $20,000+ depending on where you go, if you fly in your officiant and photographer/videographer, etc.. It all depends on what you value and how you want to celebrate, but of course…if there’s any day to splurge, it’s your wedding day, right?!
Where Should I Elope?
This is a big one, but also the most fun aspect of eloping! Deciding where to elope is entirely dependent on you, any restrictions you have, your schedule, your budget, the time of year, and your desires (or lack thereof, because not everyone likes to travel) for an elopement or adventure
This is my list of the best places to elope in the USA, but if you can go international and make an incredible honeymoon out of it, do it! And if you want to find some great locations around where you live, awesome.
Elopements can be one hour, one day, or multiple days. Most of my clients book my photography services for around 4-8 hours, but there are plenty of options.
Ideas on where to elope? Here are 3 real ideas from my couples (with their respective photos below):
– Shane and Crystal decided to boat hop around islands in the Caribbean on their elopement day…then get in the water to cool off
– Lexi and Andrew just wanted fun, funky photos around Downtown Los Angeles for their elopement since they were married in the height of the pandemic
– Jenn and Erin decided that hiking up a mountain in Acadia National Park was their wish, so up we went to the top, where they changed, and then down on some iron climbing rungs we went
Some people choose to celebrate with an elopement-style wedding, but do the legal paperwork in their home country/state. This works well for those not wanting to deal with all the local laws dealing with religion, bringing documents, arriving early, etc. So if you already got married at the courthouse but never celebrated with the day/weekend you dreamed of, you can still have your elopement—with even less stress!
Check out this elopement day checklist for help. And if you don’t want to do the planning all by yourself, you can contact a professional elopement planner who will set up basically every detail for you, 0 stress. I’m happy to share the names of some great planners I work with.
Elopement Photography Pricing
Many couples don’t know what to expect with elopement pricing, so this information should help.
Wedding photographers and elopement photographers are not cheap. This isn’t because we’re trying to gouge people as part of the wedding industry, but because everything is SO important, and we’ve trained our entire careers for your one day. For us elopement photographers, this means having thousands of dollars worth of gear, the right insurance, training and courses, experience for years and decades, our time, and of course, the time it takes to meet, do contracts, and edit.
While photographing weddings and elopements typically takes 1-3 days, editing those photos takes weeks. I may spend 8 hours photographing an elopement, but 80 hours editing it + 10 hours on meetings, contracts, backing up, planning, prepping, etc. There’s so much that goes into our work as elopement photographers than meets the eye. In a way, we have to be great at not just photographing, but writing, planning, social media, negotiations, selling, scheduling, being a therapist, and so much more—all while capturing your day with a creative eye. This is why photography is expensive. Most of us are wedding and elopement photographers because we love it, and not because we make money from it.
Splurge on Where You Elope, and Your Elopement Photographer
If you’re splurging on your wedding day, I recommend splurging on your location, and your photos. Of COURSE I’ll recommend splurging on your photos, and it’s because they’re the only thing you’ll have besides your memories. And as far as location goes, go big or go home. What reason do you have to be boring? Do something fantastic, with fantastic views to match!
All this said, you shouldn’t pay any more or less for photography if you’re eloping versus having a large wedding. This is because photography cost is time dependent, so whether you’re having a 10-hour wedding or a 10-hour adventure elopement, you’ll pay the same prices for 0 guests or 100 guests. Believe me: For a bad photographer, having your memories ruined by someone unprofessional can be devastating. And for a wonderful, professional photographer, having the most incredibly epic memories and moments captured can make your day—and the important photos you’ll share with everyone who wasn’t there—that much more amazing.
In Between a Wedding and Elopement? An Intimate Wedding
A small wedding could be the perfect fit for you! Intimate weddings are anything from around 10 – 40 people. They’re quite perfect for those who want the wedding experience at a venue or park, but want it more low-key. Plus, you can celebrate with people you care about (versus your grandfather’s friends from poker you only met when you were 2 months old).
Intimate weddings are also known as minimonies, small weddings, destination weddings, etc., and are great for those who want a compromise between a large wedding and an elopement.
Not sure if you want to elope or not? You’re not alone. Many couples want to elope, but also want to have a large wedding and party with all their guests. If you really want to pick one but aren’t sure, try writing down a list of pros and cons for each. You can also look at this list of 25+ Darn Good Reasons to Elope. I hope it helps clarify some things for you when it comes to elopements!
So…What is an Elopement? It’s Anything You Want It To Be.
Whether you choose to say your vows in 5 minutes in your home, or spend an entire week with your photograph driving around Iceland and getting epic photos, your elopement should be everything you dream it to be.
I hope this elopement guide gave you all the insight you need to decide it is (or isn’t!) for you. Feel free to reach out to me with any questions, and whatever you decide to do, have the most incredible day!~
Kathryn Cooper Weddings
Destination Elopement Photographer in the USA & International Elopement Photographer
What is an Elopement | California Elopement Photographer | New York Elopement Photographer | LGBT Elopement Photographer
Such a great post! Love the imagery and all the cool elopement locations you’ve captured. My husband and I didn’t elope, but we did have a micro destination wedding in Mexico! It was so perfect for us and our 15 guests had a ball. If I couldn’t do that again, I’d definitely elope!
Wow! There is so much helpful information here. I especially love that you talked about the in-between of intimate weddings for another option. Your work is absolutely incredible!
Hubby and I eloped on Maui and we’re so glad we did. The only thing I wish I had done differently 13 years ago is to hire a professional elopement photographer. We went with the photographer included in the package offered by the wedding planner we have worked with. I wish I had known more about photography back then and hired someone like you. Your work speaks for itself!
Wow, this is so helpful. I really appreciate how much variety and diversity you showcase in this post. There is no “one-size-fits-all” elopement and this post proves that you know how to document ALL kinds of elopements. Great work!
Your images are simply stunning and I’m blown away by the wealth of information here! I’ve been married for almost 20 years and now I want to elope with my husband!
This is such a great information! I love all of the ideas you listed for elopement!
I love all im your thoughts of modern definitions for eloping! The diversity in the photos is amazing! It seems like there’s infinite possibilities of elopement activities!
great guide and great photography! This elopement guide will help any couple decide if an elopement is right for them.
So many great ideas all in one post! What a comprehensive guide for couples looking to elope!
It’s so good to hear exactly what an elopement is to you! I’m sure couples will read this and realize how awesome of a vendor for their wedding day you can be!
Love how you’ve described what an elopement is and why its such a great idea. So many people have differing opinions on what an elopement is and its great to see how you’ve broken down barriers to help create a common and positive understanding!
wow this is such a great resource for couples planning to get married! You included so much info and advice. this is perfect! Thanks for writing this article!
The meaning has definitely changed, and it’s so important for couples to be informed that there are other paths to marriage if their heart decides
This is one of the most comprehensive guides to eloping and you have such a creative approach to your photography…thanks for sharing!
This is so helpful. I love the list of ideas. You did a great job with packing this full of information.
Oh my gosh this post is so incredible! It is literally the one place any eloping couple should go to, to find out everything they need to know! I love it!