How to Plan an Intimate + Meaningful Wedding

You want a wedding that’s meaningful, impactful, and full of memories — memories that make you absolutely giddy for joy when you think about them, right? We thought so! Today, we’re turning to professional wedding photographer, Levi Tijerina, to highlight a few key points that will make your wedding more intimate and we think ultimately more meaningful!

Here’s Levi with all the details: My intention as a photographer has always been to capture intimate and emotionally raw moments. Over the years, more and more couples have approached me about capturing their most intimate celebrations and what I’ve learned from shooting these kinds of weddings is that intimate and meaningful moments are intentional choices. Intimate weddings don’t just happen on their own accord. Much like minimal design, in order for your wedding to make way for intimacy and connection, it takes a lot of (unseen) effort on the front end in order for that space to be created.

Ultimately, there is no wrong way to do a wedding, but my hope in writing this is to not only give you some ideas for ways to keep your wedding intimate, but also to give you permission to plan the wedding you want to have. Marriage is a big deal and I think celebrating that occasion deserves to be done in the way you want to—on your terms. To help unpack some of these things, I’ve got a handful of suggestions to help you plan the intimate wedding you want to have, with an emphasis on the depth and connection between you and your partner.

Since I’m a photographer, I want to also shed some light as to why some of these choices can impact (for the better) your wedding images. Great wedding photography is truly a collaborative effort and planning events with light, time, and intimacy in mind will help not only give you the images you want, but also create a more memorable and curated experience.

1. ELOPE

Some of the most meaningful weddings I’ve been a part of have simply been me and the couple heading out to one of their favorite places to have them get married alone (or with only a few friends and family present). More and more couples are deciding that they’d rather spend the majority of their wedding day with their future spouse instead of simply planning a large gathering where their attention will be diverted. One of the best ways to create a beautiful and curated experience where you’re able to reflect and take time to spend with your partner is to simply cut out the extra “stuff.”

Elopements allow you to spend the entire day with your spouse and gives you an almost unlimited timeline to do what you want to do, instead of feeling pressured to have events or things planned for a large group of people, you can simply be. If you decide you’d like to elope somewhere besides your home state/country, it allows you to combine both your honeymoon and wedding into one experience and gives you ample time to reflect and enjoy that time together as newlyweds. Some of my favorite weddings over the years have been simple elopements because it’s allowed me to build rapport and trust with the couple and, by the end of the day, it feels more like celebrating close friends than being a hired photographer. This time together really helps create meaningful imagery because there is a real connection between you and your photographer.

2. PLAN A DESTINATION WEDDING

If you’re wanting to have wedding with fewer guests, planning a destination can be a way for you to do that with the least amount of conflict. Having a destination wedding not only allows you to visit a new place (or one of your favorite places), but it also means that you can create a special and unique experience for your nearest and dearest. One of my couples decided to have their wedding outside of their native Canada and opted for Iceland instead. They invited about forty of their closest friends and family and, because of the travel and the size of their wedding, it allowed them to have time to go hiking with their friends, have dinners and activities planned, as well as have an intimate and small ceremony beneath a waterfall. A destination wedding doesn’t mean you have to go to another continent, but it does allow you to plan a smaller wedding that is more suited to reflection and connection with your partner and your closest friends.

3. BOOK A VENUE THAT HAS ON-SITE LODGING

Whether you’re planning a larger or a smaller wedding, one of the best ways to ensure quality time with your friends and family is to book a venue (or an Un-Venue) with on-site accommodations. Now, if you truly want to preserve the intimacy of your wedding, it’s best if you’re able to book a smaller, boutique hotel, private estate, or Villa. One example of this is the Foxfire Mountain House in the Catskills or Urban Cowboy in Nashville. While these boutique hotels have a limited number of rooms available, they do have the space and capacity to hold a wedding on their grounds. If you’re looking for something that has an even wider canvas of options, you can often find private estates and villas, depending on the region in the world where you’re looking to have your wedding.

One of my couples decided that they wanted to rent out a private Villa in Tuscany—which was cheaper for the entire week than a wedding venue would have been for a single day in their own country. The villa had multiple acres of land and had five bedrooms on-site, with additional properties available next door. The couple had their reception right there at the estate, with everyone being able to stay just a short walk from their own apartments. Whether it’s small, boutique hotel or a private estate, renting out a small, curated space allows you to spend more time with your loved ones in the days leading up to your wedding. As a photographer, this was an amazing experience because I was able to spend time with the couple leading up to the wedding and was able to connect with their friends and family in a way that is harder to do at typical weddings. Ultimately, this meant I was able to capture some more intimate and emotional moments among family and guests because the families felt comfortable with my presence.

4. LIMIT THE GUEST LIST

Weddings can quickly get out of hand—what started as a small wedding with your friends and family can quickly evolve into a large party for acquaintances and your parent’s friends. To help make sure your wedding is the way you want it to be, it can be helpful to set a cap for how many guests you’re wanting to invite…and then stand by it. Capping a wedding at forty guests, or eight guests, can help set parameters for who to invite and makes sure that the people that are there to witness one of your most meaningful days are the people that you want to be there. One thing I love about photographing smaller weddings is the space it gives me to connect with guests. At a small wedding, it typically ends up that only close friends and family are present, which is wonderful for photographs because it allows me to focus my energy on connect with and photographing your closest people instead of trying to capture photos of a large group of guests, some of whom may only be acquaintances.

5. WRITE YOUR OWN VOWS

Sometimes weddings, by their nature, are big, exciting events, with a lot of guests and a space that isn’t quite as intimate as a quiet campground in the woods, and that’s totally fine. One way to keep your wedding personal and unique is to write your own vows. Writing your own vows can be one of the easiest, and simplest ways to bring calm and intimacy into your wedding day without needing to restructure the wedding day itself.

6. HAVE A PRIVATE VOW CEREMONY

Since this is your wedding, if you’d like, you can have the best of both worlds: a small, intimate ceremony as well as a large party with all your friends and family. One option to combine these things is to have a private vow ceremony between you and your partner, separate from the wedding ceremony. You can still recite your vows during your ceremony, but taking the time to do it alone and in private can be a way to have a really intimate and meaningful time with your spouse as well as have all your friends and family close. Additionally, you can have the private ceremony whenever you want—the morning of your wedding, the day before, a week before—anytime (it’s your wedding after all).

One of my couples recently did a private vow ceremony—we hiked along some of their favorite trails and ended up at a secluded spot in the Flatirons of Colorado. They recited their vows to each other alone and it was one of the most heartwarming, beautiful ceremonies I’ve been a part of as a photographer. Later that day, they shared their vows with each other in front of friends and family. Sharing their vows together in the morning allowed for us to have the best of both worlds—an intimate and private ceremony as well as full-blown wedding party.

7. GET READY TOGETHER

One of the most meaningful things I’ve seen couples do is to simply opt to make their wedding day about their unique story and history. Instead of doing a first look or spending half the day apart, they choose to spend their entire wedding day with each other. From breakfast and morning snuggles all the way up to their ceremony, the day is spent together. There aren’t many better ways to start your marriage, in my opinion, than to share the entire day in reflection and connection together. Throw the tradition out the door and do what works best for you. One advantage of getting ready together is simply that it makes the logistics so much more simple—instead of trying to plan how to get everyone to the same space, you’re already there. That simple detail can breathe life into your day by removing one more tactical decision and instead allowing you to spend that time in the arms of the one you love.

8. CHOOSE AN INTENTIONAL PLACE TO GET READY

With weddings, it’s so easy to focus on how everyone else feels that you can forget to take time for yourself or think about how you experience your wedding day. Since I end up traveling frequently, one thing try to do when exploring new places with limited time is to plan and curate an experience that will inspire and refresh me. Anything from great food to a curated hotel makes the cut because I like to glean inspiration in whatever medium I can. The same is true for you on your wedding day: instead of getting ready and spending the night in a dark hotel room, I’d suggest to explore other options—such as boutique hotels, or apartments. Staying in a beautiful place can help keep you feeling refreshed and build excitement. I mean, who doesn’t want to wake up on their wedding day in a treehouse? Depending on your wedding location, there can sometimes be well designed Airbnb’s, but another option is to check out an architectural rental website, such as PlansMatter, which will offer really well designed homes/spaces that are truly unique. As a photographer, being able to photograph unique, well-lit spaces only adds to the experience because it allows me to capture really beautiful imagery that helps build and transition the story without it feeling forced. Since it’s a natural part of the day, it lends authenticity and warmth to the images. (Aside: I’m currently working to compile a list of well-designed rental homes and spaces for my clients; if you’re planning a wedding and are looking for help finding a place like this, please let me know and I’d love to chat and help.)

9. PLAN AN OUTDOOR RECEPTION/DINNER

Of course, it depends where and when you’re planning your wedding, but in warmer months, having a seated dinner outdoors helps to bring everyone out to one place. By default, these dinners are typically lit with lanterns and candles, so when the sun finally sets, it sets the tone for a really warm, romantic setting. My wife and I had our reception outdoors—it was the one “must have” we had on our wedding day because we wanted it to feel relaxed—like a beautiful, curated picnic—but also have as much time in nature and natural light as possible. With the tables falling under heavy-duty cafe lights and having long, family-style tables set up in a long row it made the setting feel close and gave a lot of space for people to interact with those around them…which is hard to do when you have two hundred guests like we did.

10. PLAN A PORTRAIT SESSION

I’ll admit, this one is from the approach of a photographer. Let’s just be honest: getting photos taken, for most people, isn’t something that comes naturally. I totally get that. Setting up a portrait session with your photographer can be a great way to build trust and a connection. If you’re wedding is a pretty intimate day, your photographer may be one of only a handful of people present—in cases like this, it really helps to have some report and an ongoing relationship, because it can make taking photos together feel special vs. feel like you’re inviting an outsider in. When it comes to destination weddings and elopements, most of my communication with couples has been over Skype and e-mail, so for me, I love taking my couples out a day or two before the wedding (and sometimes after) to connect, build trust, and deepen our relationship.

11. EMBRACE THE EMOTION

Weddings have a way of bringing together so many emotions and experiences—it’s what makes them beautiful. Joy. Sadness. Fear. Anticipation. Excitement. These things are an essential part of a wedding and it’s important to embrace that. My goal as a photographer is to shoot in a way that exposes you in an authentic way, and I hope that means being present for some tears, hugs, and embraces. This is a celebration of you—all of you—and I want to capture that in the most authentic way possible.

When it comes to your wedding, it’s important to remember that the whole point in having a celebration and a ceremony is that you and your partner share your commitments and promises to each other—everything else is icing on the cake. You get to do whatever way you want. If you want to elope, go for it. If you want to plan a party for 500 people, have at it. Weddings aren’t meant to fit into a box, so there’s no need to force something to work that doesn’t fit. If you want an intimate, intentional wedding, the options are truly unlimited.

You can do whatever YOU WANT TO DO. This is your permission to have your wedding your way.

A huge thank you to Levi Tijerina for sharing this list + photos with us!

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