I’m Sheena Shahangian and I’m a Colorado-based elopement photographer specializing in documenting adventurous elopements in the Rocky Mountains and the western US.
Believe it or not, I didn’t always love photography. In fact, growing up I was that girl who would literally run away from the camera whenever anyone tried to take my photo. So, I completely get it when couples tell me they get nervous around the camera when they first reach out to me.
I like to joke that one of my favorite things to do is convert camera-shy people into people who actually really love being photographed. One of the most important parts of my job is helping my couples understand that having your elopement documented should be fun, and never like a stale, ‘required’ item on your wedding checklist.
There are plenty of photographers out there who knew photography would be their passion from the moment they picked up their first camera. For me, that wasn’t it. I discovered my love for photography while in college, working as an intern for a local tech start-up that helped couples plan dates via an all-inclusive app.
My job was to go to the best restaurants and document my experience to share with the app developers. I quickly fell in love with the immediacy of it all: take a photo, edit it, hold onto that moment forever.
My love for documenting people, and specifically eloping couples, wasn’t exactly a straight path. I actually fell in love with elopements when I was planning my own wedding.
I knew that the whole ‘big wedding’ concept didn’t quite feel like me. I didn’t care for all of the fluff and details, and the idea of reading my vows in a room full of people absolutely terrified me. So I began planning an adventure elopement in my favorite national park instead.
I literally took a year’s worth of wedding planning and threw it away in exchange for saying my vows in a teeny tiny private ceremony on a sand dune in Colorado, and that experience quite literally changed my life.
At this point, I had transitioned into photographing people and weddings, but after my own elopement, I knew in my gut that I wanted to specialize exclusively in elopements. So I updated my website branding and went all-in. You could say I’ve never looked back.
I know firsthand the pressures couples experience when planning their own weddings. I know the nagging feeling that comes with being hyper-aware of the fact that the wedding industry doesn’t give couples a lot of options.
I know what it’s like to feel like I’m supposed to be following these ‘wedding rules’ that don’t resonate with me. The essence of what I do as an elopement photographer is to enable and empower couples to ditch those rules if they don’t resonate with them and craft an adventure elopement day that truly feels like it’s customized to them.
I actually started out shooting Nikon but ended up switching very early on to all Canon. Personally, I love the colors I get with the Canon family, which is why the switch was a no-brainer for me.
I’d say my gear collection is on the heftier side, but what I bring to adventure elopements definitely varies based on the type of day I’m shooting. I like to arrive at elopements over-prepared, so I end up bringing more gear than I know I’ll use.
As far as my view on gear, functionality is everything. I don’t believe in buying the next cool thing simply because it’s on the market. My priority is having gear that serves my couples in the best way possible. I definitely baby my gear, but I think that’s an important part of ensuring that it lasts.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV – I have three of these, and they are my babies. I use two of them on elopements days and have the third for back-up. I specifically chose this camera because it can handle the extreme weather that’s a big part of living and shooting in the great outdoors in Colorado (although I do have rain covers for each camera body – did I mention I baby my equipment?!).
The dual card slots were also essential for me. The thought of losing someone’s elopement photos because a card corrupts is my nightmare. Dual card slots are like an insurance plan. I also love the live view on this camera. I’m 5’1”, which means that I’m shorter than almost all my clients. The live view allows me to hold my camera higher than my head and lock in focus without looking through the viewfinder.
Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM – Since the adventure elopements I photograph typically involve pretty wide, expansive landscapes, the 35mm allows me to capture more of them and get those classic ‘tiny people, big world’ shots. This lens is basically always glued to one of my cameras.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM – This lens is also almost always on one of my cameras (my standard setup for elopements is my 35mm on one camera body and my 85mm on the other). I love to pair this one with the 35mm because of the variety of images they give me together.
I get those close, intimate photos with the 85mm, and the compression is absolutely lovely. When I want the images to feel like the world is falling away and the people are all that’s there, this is the lens I use. It also allows me to get up close and personal (especially during ceremonies) without physically being up close.
Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM – This lens is the ultimate portrait lens. I mostly use it for getting ready photos, but it definitely doesn’t come out of my bag as much as my 35mm and 85mm. Those are my workhorses.
Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM – This was one of the first lenses I purchased, so it’s an old one. It’s a total steal, though, for the photos it takes. I don’t use it very often now, but I keep it in my bag as a back-up in case something ever happens and my other 50mm ever falls and breaks. You can never be too prepared.
This lens is truly a great one, and if you don’t have the budget for the f/1.2, this is a great option. I’ve also heard wonderful things about the f/1.4, but haven’t used it personally.
Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L USM – My 35mm is the wide angle I use the most. To be honest, the 24mm doesn’t often leave my bag, but it’s there in case I’m working in a really tight landscape where the mountains are super close and I’m trying to fit everything into my shot.
During one of my elopements this year, there was this epic switchback in the road that I wanted in the background of my shot. It was perfectly framing my couple, but the curve in the road was so wide and I didn’t have space to back up. My 24mm was perfect for this.
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM – This lens is one of my absolute favorites in my bag. It is very hefty, to say the least, but it’s 100% worth lugging around. I love this lens for its amazing compression. When I’m in a location where I can back up a lot, I love pulling this lens out because it makes mountains in the background look huge. It can be a little slow to focus, but it’s worth the effort to lock it in.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro USM – My macro lens is my favorite for detail and ring shots in rooms where I have a solid source of natural light. It allows me to get up close and personal in a way that no other lens can, and I love that change of perspective. Much of what I capture is epic mountain views, but I believe the small parts of the day are important too, and this lens allows them to shine.
Profoto A1 – I have two of these. I specifically chose the A1 because of the amazing recycling time. I don’t like to miss moments, and these flashes help ensure that I don’t. I love that it also comes with magnetically attachable dome diffusers and bounce cards. Each flash also has a little stand so it can easily be set up as an off-camera flash if I wanted it to.
Another perk is the model light, which allows me to use the flash sort of like a lantern. This feature is amazing for outdoor night shots (which I love to take!) where I need a continuous light source.
Black Diamond Storm Headlamp – Technically not a photography light, but my headlamp is crucial with what I do. Adventure elopements usually require night hiking, and this headlamp is an incredible light source. I also use it to help lock in focus on my couples for night photos, so it serves a dual purpose.
Ozark Trail lantern – Also not technically a photography light, I bring my lantern with me for night elopement photos when we’re not hiking very far and headlamps are overkill. This lantern easily clips to my backpack, but it does add a little weight, which is why it’s reserved for very short hikes or drive-up mountain overlooks.
Holdfast MoneyMaker – I keep two camera bodies on me on elopement days, and the Holdfast gives me easy access to them. I love that there are two points where you secure the camera body, ensuring that if one fails, my gear won’t just crash to the ground. I like that it has little rings on it too, so I’ve attached a carabiner to one of them where I either hang my keys or a cardholder case.
Ona Presidio – For my third camera body, I use the Ona Presidio. I chose this strap because of the extra cushioning it has, which helps avoid intense marks on my neck after carrying the camera around for a while.
Vinta Type II Forest Backpack – My Vinta pack is great for storage. It holds two camera bodies, three lenses, two card cases, and all of my spare batteries and rain covers. The bag is also waterproof, which is super important to me. Plus, to access the main compartment, you have to take the bag off, so it’s less susceptible to equipment theft.
It also slides perfectly under the seat in front of me on airplanes too (those of you who travel frequently know what a game-changer this can be!). The Vinta carries most of what I need, but some elopements do require more gear, and this is where my second backpack comes in.
Abonnyc DSLR Backpack – The Vinta was a splurge, but this backpack is a total steal. It actually stores more than my Vinta and holds any extra gear I need along with location permits, snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, my Garmin inReach, and my water bottle.
Mine came with a waterproof sack that I can wrap around the bag, which isn’t the most convenient, but it does the job, which is what matters most. It is a bit clunkier than the Vinta and doesn’t always fit under airplane seats, but for the price, it’s 100% worth it.
Aluminum Albott Tripod – I really only use my tripod for dawn, dusk, and night photos. So to be completely honest, splurging on a super pricey one didn’t make much sense. I’m a big believer that part of being a good business owner is knowing when to splurge and when to budget, and this is the perfect example of that.
The fact that my tripod is aluminum makes it nice and lightweight, meaning it’s easier to bring with me on hiking elopements. I do have to be careful about that in super windy alpine areas, though. I typically use my extra snack backpack to weigh it down so it never blows away or falls down.
Hardware & Software
I edit with Lightroom and use Mastin Labs Portra Pushed as my base, with pretty heavy modifications. When it comes to photographing adventure elopements, landscapes vary quite a bit, so while presets are great, I usually have to make significant modifications to account for mountain-specific elements.
I edit on my 15 inch MacBook Pro. At some point, I’d love to get an iMac, but I just can’t justify it, since I hate sitting in one place while editing.
For hard drives, I use a mix of Seagate drives along with SanDisk Extreme SD drives. The Seagates are all mechanical drives, which are fine for use at home. The SD drives can take more of a beating, so those come with me when I travel. SD storage can be a little pricier, but they’re worth the peace of mind, so I mix it up.
Cloud storage works for some people, and I’ve tried it before, but until it can keep up with the quantity of images I have to back up, it doesn’t make sense for me. I tried it for years but ended up canceling for that reason.
I always have Clif bars in my bag (I love their coffee-infused ones), and I also love bringing along their energy chews too. I also always have a Nalgene bottle on me, especially for elopements at elevation, where it’s very easy to get dehydrated. Apple sauce squeeze pouches and lupini beans are also some of my favorites to bring along with me on elopement days.
Normally, I’m not one to drink energy drinks, but the elopements I document usually involve a few hours of driving in the mountains, and there’s nothing that keeps me going quite like throwing back a can of Sambazon while singing at the top of my lungs to my favorite playlist (I make one for every season!).
Sunscreen is a must in Colorado, especially at a higher elevation. Given my olive complexion, I’m not one who easily burns, but put me on a mountain at 12,000 ft on a sunny day and you bet I’ll go home with a sunburn. Bug spray is also helpful, especially when I document elopements by alpine lakes. I always make sure to get a DEET-free bug spray, though. I always recommend my couples bring along sunscreen and bug spray too.
I also make sure to download offline Google Maps, which are crucial for safely arriving at the trailhead when I’m venturing into remote areas. I also have the pro version of AllTrails that I use when hiking. It allows me to download an offline version of my route and see where I am on the trail.
Another essential for hiking elopements is safety gear. I bring my Garmin inReach when documenting elopements in places with no cell service so I can call for help in emergencies. I also carry a first aid kit, too, and advise my couples to bring one as well. You can never be too prepared.
For shoes, I wear my Kodiak Surreys for elopements with four or less miles of hiking round-trip. They’re waterproof and insulated, which is amazing when it’s chilly at sunrise and sunset. For longer hiking elopements I wear my Ahnu hiking boots.
Because the mountains can be quite cold before sunrise and after sunset, I pretty much always bring along one of my fleeces. I swear by all things Patagonia and love the company’s mission towards sustainability. Their sweaters are super warm, give me plenty of range of motion, and the company is one I believe in.
I also bring along a few helpful things for my couples too, like decorative ribbons, a rose gold hanger, and a velvet ring box for getting ready photos. While many couples bring along things like this, if they accidentally forgot their nice hanger for their dress, for example, I like to be able to help out.
And last but not least, I always make sure to slide extra copies of elopement timelines and location permits. Many elopement locations are on public lands that require special use permits before couples can get married there. I like to hold onto copies of these permits on me throughout the day.
The best piece of advice I can give is to know when it’s worth splurging on gear and when it’s not. Investing in a camera body with dual slots is more important than having an extensive lens collection, for example. When I think about buying new gear, I avoid looking at what other photographers think is the ‘next cool gadget’. Instead, I think about what would make my workflow more efficient and what will give my couples a better experience.
Every purchase I make is with my couples in mind. For example, I’d absolutely love a tilt shift lens, but instead, I recently opted to get the 70-200 because I knew that it would serve my couples better by providing them with a greater variety of shots.
The tilt shift is epic and would make for some amazing photos, but I knew I wouldn’t use it as frequently as the 70-200, so the decision was obvious for me. If there’s a lens that you are dying to use but know you won’t need regularly, renting is a great option.
When it comes to adventure elopements, I know I’m not going to be in a room full of guests with cameras and cell phones, and that makes my job as an elopement photographer even more crucial. I might just be the only other soul present on my couple’s wedding day, and it’s important that I have a collection of gear that does justice to that.
All of that said, I don’t use every camera body and every lens I own on elopement days. I choose my lens based on the locational constraints of a couple’s elopement location, along with the story their day is telling me. No two elopements are the same, and I believe it’s important to acknowledge that in your gear choice too. Choose the gear that tells the story best.
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