WEDDING VENUES : WHAT TO LOOK FOR
You can get married anywhere - from the top of a mountain, your favorite museum, or your dad's backyard - but not every location is going to give you what you're looking for. Some of my favorite venues in Raleigh and Durham are at the top of my list for reasons that have nothing to do with the altar.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Choosing a wedding venue is most likely the biggest decision when planning a wedding - it'll make the biggest impact on your day, and will probably be one of the larger expenses eating-up your budget. One of the most important pieces of advice I've ever seen has been to break-down the cost of each option - what do they include, what vendors are you obligated to use with that venue and what do THEY cost, etc. For example, a lot of venues include catering, rentals, and sometimes even decor. If your venue does not include those needs, put together estimates for those specifics to understand the full cost of using the venue.
Assuming the venue falls within your budget, think about other logistics - what is the venue's capacity and how does that align with your guest list? Is the venue available on your wedding date, and if not, do you have any flexibility with that? Some venues offer availability (and discounts) on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. If you're looking for more options and open to getting creative with your wedding date, something you might ask about.
THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
Some folks might have their heart set on a specific venue - something they've been dreaming about for years and years - but a lot of people get engaged and start from square one. You can get married anywhere - so why not make it epic. An open field in the country, in an airplane hangar, on top of a mountain, or in front of a waterfall? I have a saying their "I Do's" this summer on a swinging bridge. What about a ranch in the dessert, or on a rooftop helipad downtown? Many brides are looking for unique locations these days, meaning more and more non-traditional locations are open to becoming wedding venues.
Furthermore, your vendors will eat it up. The more unique the venue, the more tempting it is to be involved! And who doesn't want to be the ONLY bride to get married at _____ ?
Have a back-up plan
I once photographed a wedding at the top of a mountain in Virginia. The views were insane - everything you're picturing - and the couple had constructed an altar, with plans of standing in front of these epic views to say their vows. They planned for everything - they had transportation to drive all of their guests from a hotel up to the top of the mountain, had refreshments with them, etc. When we got to the top, we were in the middle of a misty cloud - almost no visibility, light rain, and freezing cold (in the middle of the summer). The wind was so loud guests could barely hear each other, let alone the bride and groom, and the visibility was so low we couldn't make it all the way up to where they'd hoped. They improvised and used the vans to block the wind while their guests watched the ceremony in windbreakers and blankets, and the cloud made it so white and serene they ended-up being some of my favorite photos. The point is, it turned-out almost nothing like they'd imagined.
If you're planning on an outdoor wedding (which I would love to be there for!), what is your plan B? Tents or an indoor location are fine, just make sure you have them.
WALK-THROUGH THE ENTIRE DAY
Sometimes my favorite images are before any guests arrive and have nothing to do with vows or cake or dancing. When you tour a potential location, think about how the entire day will work there. Where will you get ready with your guys / girls, where will your fiance be? When you're playing on Pinterest and see these gorgeous images of brides getting into their gowns and guys relaxing over a few drinks with their friends, look at their surroundings. As you're walking around, picture yourself there that morning.
Where would you do your first look? What opportunities are there for photos of just the two of you? Look for cool textures and scenic backdrops, and if you're REALLY planning ahead, text your photographer some pictures while you're on-site. Ask them what they think, or ask them to come check it out with you before you commit. One of the things I love most about Haywood Hall in Raleigh is that it's pretty perfect for every phase of the day. The rooms upstairs have a dark and moody feel, which is perfect for a bridal party or groomsmen drinking whisky. The front porch is southern and white and makes a beautiful backdrop for a ceremony. The clear tent they have for receptions is stunning, and the entire venue is a short walk to the state Capitol building. It's a pretty great setting for downtown Raleigh.
Think about the lighting - if you can expect full-sun while you're saying your vows, will you be squinting during throughout the entire ceremony? You don't have to stay in the same place for the entire day, but think about your guests - is it easy to get from the ceremony to the reception? If you're going somewhere really remote, you might think about providing transportation to an easy-to-access location.
MOST IMPORTANTLY, WHAT'S THE VIBE?
I've talked before about avoiding wedding "themes," because I think your wedding should be a really well-designed (and well photographed..) representation of you and your fiancee, not a "Winter Wonderland" or "Mardi Gras" themed party. However.... you will undoubtedly come-up with a mood or style you're going for, be that some kind of bohemian / natural feel (my favorite) or casual and relaxed, or black-tie and formal. Does this venue fit that?
If you're in a ballroom with black and white tiles, a casual and free-flowing style might be tough to pull-off. If you're planning on wearing a full ball-down and crystal-bedazzled Jimmy Choo stilettos, maybe standing in the sand on the beach isn't a great idea.
Look at the venue as a blank canvas - what does it need from you? I photographed a wedding this summer at Timberlake Earth Sanctuary, a beautiful and natural venue outside Durham, North Carolina. The ceremony took place in the woods, shaded by tall trees and in front of a wood altar. The guests sat on benches made of logs. It was one of the most serene and natural locations I've ever seen, and didn't need anything - they didn't need to drape the altar in flowers, the light was already nice and soft because of the trees. The venue spoke for itself, but some don't. Think about what you've got to work with as you tour a venue.
Lastly, think about the light. When you build your mood board or collect images that feel like you want your day to feel like, what does the light feel like? Is the couple standing in a dark church lit by candles? Are they surrounded by mountains in natural light? Both have some pretty epic precedents, but very different feelings and photographs.
Like I mentioned briefly above, my best piece of advice is to bring your photographer with you. This is self-serving, of course, but think about it : your photographer is probably the best person to envision a wedding day there, to consider the light, to look at opportunities for portraits / the ceremony / the reception, and to help you decide if your venue fits the style you're going for. He / SHE :) is a resource - use them!