One of my favorite things to do is photograph an elopement in New York City. I am fortunate enough to get to photograph couples from all over the world who choose me to document it all for them. The idea of the elopement has become more popular over the past few years and more couple’s are choosing to forgo the big wedding traditions and running off to City Hall to say I do, either on their own or with a few of their nearest & dearest. There is something so charming about it all and I am in love with it. There is a lot of freedom & creativity for all, with no real timelines to stick to, you have all of New York City to roam and celebrate in.
The whole idea of eloping in New York City is a bit of a mystery so here is a little guide of how it’s done.
You can marry at the Manhattan Marriage Bureau (The Clerk’s Office / City Hall ) or pick a spot outside in the wilds of New York City. If you choose to go the Clerk’s Office, after obtaining your marriage license, you can return just 24 hours later to marry. The marriage bureau is open from 8:30 AM to 3:45 PM Monday to Friday, except for major holidays. You do not book appointment, you just rock up, enter by 3:45pm, get a number and they will marry you that day. You will both need to visit the Clerk’s Office at least 24 hours in-advance in order to obtain your marriage license (the fee is $35) and you can save a little time on the day by filling the form out online first. You then need to wait exactly 24 hours from obtaining the license until you can come back for the ceremony. On the day you will pay $25 for the ceremony and you will need to have a witness with you. I am totally happy to be the witness for you if you want.
What to expect at the Clerk’s Office on the day you marry :
- Arrive at Marriage Bureau – 141 Worth Street, New York, NY 10013 – between the hours of 8:30am to 3:45pm, Monday to Friday.
- After passing through security – you check in at the front counter, show your marriage license, ID of the marrying couple & of the witness. The attendant gives you a number. We head inside and wait for the number to be called. This can take anywhere from 1 minute to 45 minutes (or possibly longer). Normally it’s around 20-30 minutes.
- Your number is called and you go up to teller, pay the $25 fee and all sign the marriage license.
- We sit back down and wait again until your number is called to counter 5. (normally 5-20 minutes)
- At counter 5, you hand the person the marriage license and we enter the oval waiting room for your names to be called into the ceremony room.
- The officiant marrying you will call you into one of the ceremony rooms. They will ask if you are exchanging rings. I’ve seen some couples exchange their own (very short) personalized vows but if sharing your own vows is important to you, I would suggest getting married outside instead.
- Approximately 60 seconds later you are married!
- The officiant will give you the official marriage certificate. They will normally give you a minute or two to hug it out and take a few pictures etc. We then depart the Clerks Office and you are married!
You are welcome to bring guests into the ceremony room. While I cant seem to find what the rule on the official guest count, i’ve always thought it to be 25 guests. I have photographed a ceremony at the Clerk’s Office with 30 guests, anymore than that, I would suggest getting married outside.
Friday’s are by far the busiest day of the week and normally have double the wait time. I find mornings to be busier than afternoons. At 8:30am, you’ll generally find a line along the street. In the afternoon, I have never seen a line. The shortest amount of time I have seen at the Clerks Office, from walking in the front door to walking back out again, is about 25 minutes and the longest being about 2.5 hours (only because it was a good luck day in the Chinese calendar). On average, it takes about 45 minutes, but I always allocate 90 minutes when building the timeline of the day just in-case it takes longer. It’s impossible to know really how long it’s going to take, though I do find midweek and the colder months to be a little quieter. There are restrooms inside, but no water fountain or food that can be purchased, so I recommend bringing water & a snack :) I’ve seen many couples run to the pretzel cart out front after a long wait inside.
In order to make use of the late afternoon late in the summertime (when the sun sets at 8-9pm), to get the best portrait photographs, I prefer to enter the marriage bureau at around 3pm. That way, by the time we exit, it’s the most ideal light to shoot the portraits in. Obviously in winter when the sun sets at 4:30pm, we will want to go in around 1pm or earlier.
More info about the Clerks Office can be found here.
Alternatively, if you would prefer an outdoor ceremony (or an indoor one) – you can simply hire an officiant (I love these officiants) and get married in any spot that takes your fancy. I have photographed along the river, parks, rooftops, homes and restaurants. This is actually the most time efficient way to get married as the officiant will arrive at the exact time planned, the ceremony takes approximately 5- 10 minutes and you are on your way. So if a sunset wedding with the city in the background sounds more appealing, go for it. When picking out a spot, some places need a permit or if you have over 20 guests, but a lot do not. I am always happy to help find you the perfect location.
Some extra things to think about when planning the day :
What to wear?
You want to look and feel your best so you feel comfortable in front of the camera. Do you need to wear a white dress/suit? Not at all. Some couples elope in very casual clothes, some smart casual or wear whatever color their favorite color is. While a lot of my couples do often wear traditional wedding attire, just know it’s not essential and wear whatever feels right for you.
Shooting in NYC always presents a unique set of challenges, with the biggest problem being footwear. We will be doing a lot of walking throughout the shoot, so please wear shoes you can walk comfortably in for 2 hours. I really recommend finding a comfortable pair of shoes that look good and you can walk in and then base the rest of your outfit around that. If you bring a spare pair of shoes and change them every time we move locations… this can put a halt on a lot of in the moment shots, turning the shoot into more staged production if you have to change your shoes every time we move. But this option is better than not being able to walk in uncomfortable shoes. So if you think you may have trouble getting around in your shoes, do pack a pair of flats :)
Please know that NYC is a dirty place and your outfits (a long dress in particular) is going to get a bit dirty. One of the hardest parts of my day is trying to convince a bride she should drop her dress and let it touch the ground. (This is a big reason why I enjoy documenting elopements so much is that bride’s are not as concerned about their dress getting dirty!) Please know that it is a prerequisite of letting your dress touch the ground in order to make amazing photographs :) You need to be able to walk comfortably in your dress and if you have a train, let it be on the ground in order to create natural and relaxed photographs. It is so hard to make beautiful pictures if the bride is anxious about getting the dress dirty. Obviously I do my best to not get it dirty but at the end of the day, I think having a great collection of photographs that shows off your dress outweighs letting your dress touch the ground at all – you generally only wear this dress once, so you may as well get your monies worth from it ;)
What happens if it’s raining on the day?
If the weather forecast shows that its going to be absolute horrible weather on the day of your elopement, we can always reschedule to the next day if both our schedules allow for it. But often you will have hair / make up / florist / restaurant booked that will make that not possible to move date. In that incase, we just need to go for it. We may want to start an hour early to give us a little extra time between rain showers etc, so if we know its going to rain that day, we can make any last minute changes the day before if needed. But if it rains on the day, we can hang out in a bar / coffee shop until the rain stops, ran out and shoot until as long as we can and then repeat. I have found this method has worked well in the past and obviously getting hold of a few big umbrellas is essential. If your wedding date is a risky time of year in terms of rain / snow, I highly recommend booking private transport for the duration of our shoot, that way we can get in & out of the cab and minimize the impact of the weather :)
The portrait shoot part of the coverage goes for approximately an hour or two (depending on what you book) and the most ideal time to start shooting is approximately 2 hours before sunset (to make most of the golden hour / late afternoon light). If you are getting married at the Clerk’s Office and we do the portrait section afterwards, the portraits will generally go between 4:30pm – 6:30pm so if you are making a dinner reservation for that evening, I would suggest make it for 8pm – just incase we get stuck in traffic, it’s nice to have a little buffer.
If you are marrying outside – I recommend making use of the most ideal afternoon light / golden hour and plan for your ceremony around this. The main thing to decide is if you want to do the portraits before or after the ceremony.
If you are happy to do all the portraits before ceremony, we will start the portraits about 2.5 hours before sunset. If you would like to do the portrait shoot after the ceremony, plan to have the ceremony start about 2.5 hours before sunset. But we can discuss this more depth and make a plan based on your exact details of the day.
You can check what time the sun will set here.
Picking where to go for the portraits
One to two locations is best, any more than that and we could waste too much time traveling between locations – we do not want to lose 30 minutes in a car during the best light.
When thinking about what locations you would like to be photographed in, I always love shooting people that is in a place that has some sort of meaning to them – I think it adds more depth to the photographs. But most people eloping in NYC do not live here, so you might not have a special spot that springs to mind…so just let me know the types of places you are drawn to – urban versus nature (feel free to make a little mood board on pinterest and share it with me) and I can help make suggestions or know the areas to go based on what you like. I walk all over NYC and have seen many great spots I would love to shoot at, so I have a wealth of knowledge of locations that will work well for the time of day and year season we are shooting in.
Some of my favorite areas in NYC are :
West Village / Greenwich – old buildings with tree lined streets, a mix of residential and shopping areas. This area appears a lot in movies and TV shows as its beautiful, classic New York with well kept streets and buildings.
Chinatown – once away from the main touristy area of Chinatown, there are few quiet streets that have a lot of character and its basically next door to the Clerks Office.
Lower East Side / East Village – a favorite area to shoot in Manhattan as it has a bit of everything, from grungy street scenes to residential streets with stoops and lovely parks.
Central Park – I love shooting in Central Park. The bottom area of the park can be super touristy but once you head north, it gets a lot more quiet and know a few secret spots that feels like you are not in the middle of the city. I have always wanted to shoot a couple in the little boats in the lake in Central Park ;)
DUMBO, Brooklyn (this is area that appears most often in my elopement photographs. It is only a short car ride from the Clerk’s Office and has a huge variety of locations within the same area. It has the two bridges (the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan bridge), many old buildings that are very quiet compared to Manhattan and its on the East River, so its the perfect spot to get the Manhattan skyline.
Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn – it’s an upmarket neighborhood which beautiful old brownstones. It has a completely different vibe that north Brooklyn (Williamsburg & Bushwick), so if you want residential streets without the industrial wasteland feel, this is the place to go :)
Bushwick, Brooklyn – it’s a grungy / industrial area with some great street art. It does not have any classical architecture but more of an industrial wasteland vibe..which is fun to shoot in if you want something different.
Greenpoint / Williamsburg, Brooklyn – my neighborhood so I know it extremely well and all it’s backstreets. It has a mix of industrial and residential, along the river, so it can be a great place to shoot for a variety of backgrounds. There is a ferry that runs from Greenpoint / Williamsburg to DUMBO and the Financial district (where the Clerks Office is), so always an option to jump on the ferry to get between two locations.
Going into the shoot relaxed
A problem I run into every now and then is when a couple is running late and the shoot starts off with the couple feeling super stressed. It can make it hard to feel relaxed and loving in the photos, if you have been stressed out moments prior. Plan to have your hair & make up complete well before you plan to leave… and always allow extra time for traffic. I recommend plan to arrive early and head to a local bar if you like to relax with a drink. This means you will be completely ready prior to the shoot time, allowing you both to relax and unwind and be in a great headspace prior to the shoot starting ;)
Also, please do not start the shoot feeling hungry – your energy levels will plummet in the middle of the shoot and hungry people do not take the best photographs ;)
The most important thing to remember about prepping for the day is that I am photographing you, so be yourself. You will possibly feel a little awkward when the camera first comes out, it’s totally normal. The best way to overcome it is just divert your attention to your partner. Have fun, be silly, laugh, play or have a drink and you’ll relax ;)
Should we have flowers?
Hair & Makeup
Plan to have your hair & makeup complete at least an hour before we plan to meet. As hair & makeup often runs late, you do not want to feel any unnecessary stress on the day. I highly Meg Kashimura – megkashimura.com
As we are moving from place to place, majority of the time it’s when my favorite photographs are made. I don’t want to pose you, so when we are moving these are moments that are far more genuine and authentic and when real stuff happens. I encourage walking where possible and catching the subway or a taxi – they always create the most iconic NYC pictures.
Planning your dinner
Looking to book a private dining room to celebrate with your loved ones? Some great ones I have photographed in :
If you are thinking about doing something unique in New York, like wanting to have your wedding ceremony on a rooftop or a intimate dinner in a private dining room with your guests, having someone in NYC to help bring it all together for you – I highly recommend contacting Kate at Nous . She specializes in small & intimate weddings here in NYC.