What is the Difference Between a Wedding, an Elopement, and an Intimate Wedding?

whats the difference between elopement and wedding

Planning a wedding can be stressful. Some couples find a lot of pressure to have host their wedding in certain way, whether it be size, location, or style of the wedding. Most people don’t know that there are different ways to get married! But what is the difference between a wedding and an elopement? They all seem similar, so it can be confusing. There is no “right” way to have a wedding, but there may be a “right” way for YOU.

What’s the difference?

While I’ll break down the specifics into more detail of the differences between these style weddings below, the basic definitions of them can be defined as;

  • Elopement; a wedding ceremony with just the couple in attendance. No after party, no guests. Can be planned on a whim OR months in advance
  • Intimate Wedding/Micro Wedding; usually a guest count of about 5-30. Guests might be invited to the ceremony only, with no reception to follow. OR guests might be invited to a small reception only, with the ceremony being more private. Guests can also be invited to both. Intimate weddings can be a bit more informal and relaxed.
  • Wedding; usually a larger event. Guest count can range from 30-250+! These events are best planned months (if not over a year) in advance, with lots of help in coordinating the wedding. Guests are invited to the hosted ceremony and reception. There is usually a fun party at the end of the night.

Read more below on a deeper conversation about each option to see what might be best for you and your significant other!

Elopements

Guest count;

Typically the only guests at an elopement are just the wedding couple, and perhaps a witness or two. Sometimes there might be parents in attendance of the vows and ceremony, but once you start adding more ‘witnesses’ and guests, you will realize you will probably want to host these close friends and family for a meal afterwards. Once you start reserving restaurant reservations and accommodating to these people more, then we start to creep into the “Intimate Wedding” territory. (See below). Ideally, an elopement is easiest (and more enjoyable to its “true” nature) when it is just the two of you. This will open up some freedom during the day for you both to explore, go on an adventure, and do whatever feels right to you as a couple.

Difference between a wedding and elopement

Pros;

There are SO many benefits to deciding to elope rather than hosting a large wedding. For personal reference, my husband and I actually eloped! (While I still LOVE photographing large weddings, when in the midst of the planning process, my now husband and I realized a large wedding wasn’t for us). Having gone through the whole experience, I can share my true thoughts on what benefits there are to eloping.

The most obvious pro, looking back on it all, was that we could plan a completely personal and intentional experience with zero input from anyone else. We didn’t have to accommodate guests or entertain them for the week while they were in town. We didn’t have to question whether the drive out to our location was off putting to anyone. Instead, we could do whatever WE wanted and what felt right to US.

Another benefit of eloping was the ease of it all. No seating charts. No reception playlists. No invites. No party favors. No scheduling hair and makeup for bridal party. We were able to sleep in the morning of our elopement, get coffee, and STILL had time to spare before starting to get ready. We did a first look at our favorite hotel in Santa Fe, NM, and then drove over an hour out to the desert to say our vows and take photos. We then came back to the hotel bar, where random strangers offered to buy our drinks for us all night. It was truly a perfect and relaxing day! This also included the whole week of our elopement. We got to shop in stores, eat at great restaurants, and even do a spa day following our ceremony. We didn’t have to worry about saying good bye to friends and family or meeting them out for welcome drinks when they got into town. It was all about us.

Lastly, a HUGE benefit of eloping would be the price. Of course, you can still find yourself spending a lot of money on an elopement, but it will not compare to how much you WOULD be spending on a large wedding or intimate wedding. You don’t need to spend money on catering for guests, or sometimes even a venue to host your vows. Most things can be done for little to no money when eloping. Some of the only costs you’ll need to consider would be;

  • Photography
  • Wedding Dress/Suit/Attire
  • Bouquet
  • Officiant
  • Lodging
  • Rings
  • Hair and Makeup

For these reasons, it’s no surprise that elopements have been on the rise all across the globe! How romantic would it be to just jet-set with your lover and say “i do” in any romantic place around the world of your choosing!

Cons;

The most obvious con to eloping would be not having friends and family present to witness this significant time in your lives. Some family members might be upset about this decision of yours, but you need to remember that it is yours and yours alone. If you feel the regret of not being walked down the aisle by a parent, or not having a parent dance, is weighing too heavily on you, then maybe an intimate wedding might be the right choice for you.

Many people are also hesitant to go for an elopement because they are afraid of “missing out” on their big dream wedding. I had this worry too. The way I dealt with this thought, was asking many friends who had both weddings and elopements. My friends who had weddings said that they had SO much fun, but “really wish they eloped instead”. My friends who eloped said “they wouldn’t have done it any other way”. Basically, I had more friends regret having a wedding, vs friends that regretted not hosting a large celebration with everyone! For us, our friends still found ways to “celebrate” us and our marriage. We had anyone in town come together for a large happy hour at a local bar, and other friends would come to town to celebrate us on their own time. We also had the best of both worlds by still having bachelor and bachelorette parties!? (Why not!?) Our friends almost demanded this of us! They said if they couldn’t celebrate with us at a wedding, then they’d go anywhere with us for a bachelorette party!

Difference between a wedding and elopement

Things to keep in mind when planning an elopement;

The number one issue a lot of couples bump into when planning an elopement will be the backlash you might get from family and friends. It is understandable, they want to be there for you. They want to support you. (And some friends might just be looking for a great reason to get dressed up and have drinks on you all night!). It is hard, especially if you are a people pleaser, to succumb to others wishes. I wish every couple would remember that a wedding isn’t a party, it is a marriage ceremony (where you get to celebrate with everyone afterwards). The whole reason people are there is to witness you joining in marriage with the love of your life.

What feels right to you may not feel right to others. You should do what is right in your heart when it comes to your marriage. A lot of people get really stressed out on the idea of being the center of attention for the day, and this stress leads to anxiety when thinking of the wedding. Why put yourself through that!? Your wedding should be the most (or one of the most) happy memories of your life!

Also, I think couples should remember that elopement does not = free. It also does not mean that you won’t be planning anything! You’ll still need someone to marry you, something to wear, and probably a photographer. Of course the overall costs of the event will be less, but there is still some work to be done to have a beautiful elopement.

For photography, most couples book me for a minimum of 4 hours for photography. This would be enough to cover some ‘getting ready’ photos, a first look, vows/ceremony, and a portrait session afterwards. You’d probably want to add more hours if you were going to;

  • Go on an “adventure” session with a few miles of hiking to get to the location
  • Wanted to drive far away for epic photos
  • Wanted to cover a dinner/reception of some sort after photos

Lastly, still plan ahead and book the vendors you want for your event! Just because it will be a ‘small’ event for you, most photographers, hair and makeup teams, florists, and officiants still might be booked for in advance. As with everything, the sooner you plan it all out, the better.

Is it right for you?

Eloping is not for everyone. But neither are weddings. Eloping is perfect for couples that want to be intentional with their wedding day. They might not want to hear the opinions of others. They might want to save for a house rather than spend tens of thousands of dollars on one evening. They also might want to have an “adventure” elopement in epic scenery, in a place that isn’t easily accessible for hundreds of guests. Make sure the decision feels right in your gut, but eloping is a great option for a lot of couples!

Examples;

Want to see some examples of elopements I have photographed over the years?

Check out this Telluride elopement, where the only guest was their dog, Dax!

telluride elopement
https://shellyandersonphotography.com/telluride-elopement/

You can also check out this Blue Lakes Breckenridge elopement that was so romantic and simple.

blue lakes breckenridge elopement
https://shellyandersonphotography.com/blue-lakes-breckenridge-elopement-stefanie-mike/

Intimate Weddings/Micro Weddings

Guest count;

Intimate (or “Micro”) weddings will have a few or small guest count. Usually, with just immediate family and friends. This number can range from 5-30 or so. It can feel a bit more relaxed and informal than a traditional wedding. Usually, when inviting any number of guests to witness your wedding, its a courteous gesture to ‘host’ them in some way, whether it be to seating for the ceremony, or drinks and food in the evening.

Difference between a wedding and elopement

Pros;

One of the best reasons to opt for a smaller intimate wedding or a micro wedding, would be that you sort of get the best of both worlds; it feels small and intimate and more ‘manageable’ to coordinator (and cheaper!), yet you still have your close family and friends there with you to celebrate.

With a smaller guest count, this can open up some venue options to you that are more affordable, and perhaps a bit more unique! Maybe you have less than 10 people follow you into a national park to watch your vows. Maybe you rented out a smaller room for an intimate reception dinner. Or perhaps you can accommodate a smaller group in a rental house or even your own backyard!

With smaller weddings like this, it can seem easier to ‘plan’ the day. Transportation might not be as much of an obstacle, or how to cater for larger groups. You might not even need microphones for your vows! Everything is a bit simpler.

On wedding days, couples are often getting pulled into multiple directions. All of your guests want to pull you aside and congratulate you. It can be exhausting and overwhelming feeling the need to say hello to everyone in attendance. With an intimate wedding, you’ll have more personal conversations with less people!

Cons;

Just because you have less people in attendance on your wedding day than a normal wedding, that does NOT mean that it will be stress free or cheap! Weddings (and any event that you are hosting guests for) do cost money. Guests need to be fed, and most are still expecting an open bar! You will still need to coordinate lodging, transportation, timelines, dietary restrictions, invites, and perhaps a reception playlist. The inner workings of what happens on a wedding day will still need to be figured out. Is there seating arrangements? If having a backyard wedding, who is setting up the ceremony chairs? Who is cuing the music? Where is everyone staying? Do you need reservations for a private room at a restaurant?

I think a lot of couples make this assumption that a small wedding will be a breeze, and therefor do not hire help. They think they can do it all on their own, or worse, expect that their friends and family will pitch in to set up. This almost causes MORE stress than a larger wedding! I once had a bride say to me “I didn’t realize how much work it would be to throw this all (a backyard wedding) together ourselves” as they were setting up dinner tables and chair with the decorations the night before their big day.

woodlands mosaic wedding

Things to keep in mind when planning an Intimate wedding;

Something to keep in mind when planning an intimate wedding is that there are a million different ways to do it. I’ve seen some couples only have immediate family attend the ceremony, which was held mid-day, then we would go off for an adventure photo session for the rest of the evening. Or I’ve seen the opposite where we did the ceremony and their vows privately with no one in attendance, and we then later met up with friends and family for an intimate dinner celebration after the sun had set.

If you do want to have more of a ‘wedding’ with 5-30 people that attend a ceremony, a cocktail hour, and then a small reception, then I’d suggest the idea of still hiring outside help to coordinate the day for you. You want to mingle with your guests and have a more intentional experience, and not ask them to help move chairs and bring out food and drinks for you. They want to enjoy the day with you.

For photography, if you will be having any guests, I’d recommend hiring me for about 6 hours of coverage. This 6 hours will cover;

  • Getting ready photos
  • Ceremony
  • Family formals
  • Portraits
  • Reception/small dinner with toasts and mingling with guests

Is it right for you?

If you might be on a budget, or really want immediate family and select friends to celebrate your wedding with you, an intimate wedding might be right for you. If have a small venue in mind that you’d like to decorate to your wildest dreams, but don’t want to be the center of attention for a full day, then an intimate wedding might be for you. If you want to go on a photo adventure for half the day, but also have family nearby to witness, then an intimate wedding might be for you.

Examples;

Want to see some examples of intimate/micro weddings that I’ve photographed? Then I’d check out this Joshua Tree Intimate Wedding, where they had approximately 25 guests and hosted a small dinner reception after their ceremony.

Joshua Tree intimate wedding
https://shellyandersonphotography.com/joshua-tree-intimate-wedding/

Also, check out this Woodland Mosaic Wedding with just immediate family members.

woodlands mosaic wedding
https://shellyandersonphotography.com/woodland-mosaic-wedding/

And lastly, you’d love the inspiration from this Backyard Intimate wedding in Massachusetts that was so sweet.

Intimate backyard wedding in Massachusetts
https://shellyandersonphotography.com/backyard-intimate-wedding-in-central-massachusetts-molly-angel/

Weddings;

Guest count;

I have found that any marriage event with over 30 people in attendance will qualify as more of a “wedding” than anything else. This is mostly because you will need to find a space that will accommodate seating, as well as catering, for a larger group of people. Most venues (or even public parks!) will require a reservation, and sometimes even a permit, over this many people present. Once you have enough people invited to your event where this becomes the case, you will realize the amount of planning and work that goes in to it all. Whether it be 30 or 250 guests, more strategic planning and coordination is involved, which is why I consider it a “wedding”.

Pros;

Large weddings are SO much fun. The amount of energy and love that can fill a room for a couple is unmatched. Everyone is dressed in their best, and genuinely so happy to be there. There is music, there is dancing, there is drinking, and the is celebrating love. To have all of your friends and family under one roof to celebrate YOU is a once in a lifetime experience for many people. Friends get to meet other friends that may have never met before. Family gets to know each other that much more.

These are memories that you can not recreate. Emotions are high; guests will be crying during your vows, and laughing their butts off during the toasts. I LOVE toasts at weddings. It is such a great way to hear stories from the people that know you best. The dance floor at weddings have SO much energy! It truly is a night to remember.

Cons;

I wish more couples would understand the limits of expectations that weddings may bring. Most couples imagine a long day and long night enjoying time with the closest people in their lives. This is rarely the case. Couples have a LOT to do on their wedding day. They will be in hair and makeup for a few hours, and then go straight into wedding photos, which may take over an hour. Then they are hidden away before the ceremony. After the ceremony, there might be more photos with family. Sometimes, the couple gets to join cocktail hour, sometimes, they are pulled into MORE directions from their coordinator, DJ, caterer, or photographer. Realistically, you won’t get to ‘hang out’ with your guests until the reception, and even then, they are all sitting at their own seats eating dinner, and then toasts begin. Once the dance floor opens up, so does your freedom for the day! But by this time, most guests have been drinking, or might even start to be leaving!

One of the most common statements I hear at the end of every wedding is “this day went by SO fast!!”. And it’s true, there isn’t a lot of down time on wedding days. I try to remind couples to ‘set aside’ some personal alone time with your significant other for 15mins on the wedding day, because you won’t be alone for the remainder of the night!!

Hearing this reality might stress you out. And stress is another major con to large weddings. People put a lot of expectations on their wedding vision, and want everything to be perfect. If one thing doesn’t go as planned, it might be on your mind for the rest of the night. But we have to remember that that’s NOT what weddings are about! It’s about the love and celebrating your marriage, not what color napkins have been set out. A lot of couples get stressed out by some family members as well. Mothers or aunts or friends that need their opinions to be know 24/7 can make your wedding not fun. It’s a good idea to set boundaries before the wedding day for the people you now might cause you stress.

For photography, most weddings start around the 8 hour mark for coverage. Some couples end up booking for me up to 10 hours though! It really depends on who/what/when/and where for the details of the day that would determine how many hours of coverage you may need. Typically, 8 hours of coverage will cover;

  • Getting ready photos
  • First look photos
  • Bridal Party
  • Ceremony
  • Family Formals/cocktail hour
  • Reception coverage of grand entrance, first dance, dinner, toasts, cake cutting, and some open dancing!

Lastly, cost is a HUGE factor that deters a lot of couples from having a larger wedding. I totally get it, not everyone has an endless budget for their dream wedding. Everything is expensive. Most couples start an elaborate Pinterest board of their vision before getting quotes on what some of these items might cost!! Once they start shopping around, their “dream wedding” looks a LOT different than what they had started out with. Especially knowing that tens of thousands of dollars are all being spent on one evening, it can be overwhelming to write those checks. That being said, large weddings CAN be done cheap. You just have to know how to be thrifty about it, and known when to let loose of some of the higher expectations you might originally have had.

Guyton Ranch Wedding

Things to keep in mind when planning a wedding;

Learn to set boundaries when it comes to expectations and budget with your wedding. Also, plan WAY in advance! There are many reasons to start planning your wedding over a year out! First, you’ll have first pick of your favorite vendors. You’ll also give your guests plenty of time to hold your date on their calendar. Planning early also gives you time to save for a larger wedding (or perhaps to even DIY some of the decor!). Lastly, with lots of time to plan and organize, you’ll feel less stressed in general about the whole process. It might seem far away, but your wedding day will be here before you know it.

As mentioned above in the Cons section, please keep in mind that you will be pulled into multiple directions on your wedding day. With larger weddings, I find most couples treat it as an event, and take less time and care to plan the ‘ceremony’ side of their day. I wish every couple would remember why they are holding that event in the first place, and be more intentional about the ceremony time. Write your own vows if you’d like, spend some alone time immediately after the ceremony, or incorporate a special tradition into the ceremony as well. You are marrying the love of your life! Make is special!

Is it right for you?

If you have a LOT of friends, and large families, that won’t take no for an answer, then a wedding is definitely for you! A lot of outgoing personalities want the larger wedding. They want to celebrate with everyone they know all night. They have a sense of community and they feel their wedding wouldn’t be the same if they all weren’t in attendance. Also, if budget isn’t a factor for you, why not throw the most epic party of your life!?

Examples;

Weddings are SO much fun and have so much energy. Here are some examples of large weddings that I’ve photographed where you can just feel the energy and love permeating the images! Like this heavily detailed soiree at Race and Religious in New Orleans!

race and religious wedding
https://shellyandersonphotography.com/race-and-religious-wedding-new-orleans/

Or this modern St. Vrain wedding in Colorado with 200 guests!

st. vrain wedding venue
https://shellyandersonphotography.com/st-vrain-wedding/

Or this large backyard LGBTQ+ wedding in Nantucket that was a blast!

nanutcket backyard wedding
https://shellyandersonphotography.com/nantucket-backyard-wedding/

And lastly, this fun Boulder Flower Farm wedding that was so fun to put together.

Boulder Flower Farm wedding
https://shellyandersonphotography.com/boulder-flower-farm-wedding/

In Conclusion;

There is no right or wrong way to have a wedding. There IS a right way for you though. Every couple is different, and have their own circumstances that might determine what is the best route for them. I hope you have read through the pros and cons to having an elopement, an intimate wedding, or a larger wedding. I hope you also have now learned the difference between a wedding and an elopement! All options have upsides and downsides! Never feel pressure from others on how to choose which is right for you. That is a conversation between you and your partner. You might be half way through the wedding planning process and decide, “you know what? This isn’t for us!” (Heck, that is what happened with me and my husband! And we are so happy with our decision to switch gears).

For photography, I’d recommend a minimum coverage of 4 hours for an elopement with just the couple, a minimum of 6 hours of coverage for a small intimate gathering, and 8 hours or more for larger weddings!

Either way, get planning! Enjoy every minute of it!

Difference between a wedding and elopement
Difference between a wedding and elopement
Flagstaff house wedding

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@shellbellanderson
based in Denver, Colorado. 
available for travel worldwide
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