Magazine Article


Embracing a "Trash-the-Dress" Shoot
The bride may never wear it again--but she'll have great images

© Nick Adams

© Nick Adams

© Nick Adams

© Nick Adams

Why would anyone deliberately destroy their wedding dress during a photo shoot? A "trash-the-dress" photo shoot is for a bride who's looking for something a little different and who's a realist--she knows that she'll never wear her gown again. It's definitely not for the fainthearted! But trash-the-dress images can create an amazing addition to any album or wedding collection. It certainly is a freeing experience for both photographer and model. Gone are the self-imposed restrictions; the rulebook is tossed aside, and anything goes. Most of all, it's fun.

These images are very romantic, in a very real way. The sheer nature of the shoot lets the participants peel away their layers of reserve. If you agree to get in the water with beautiful clothes, get wet and sandy, and mess up your hair, you've already agreed to a certain amount of freedom. You can't fake your reaction. It's the closest a photographer can get to replicating a model/photographer relationship where the photographer is given complete artistic freedom. And the situation is romantic--that's what makes it so cool.

I'm a relative latecomer to the trash-the-dress phenomenon. Kudos go to a guy named John Michael Cooper (according to Wikipedia), who originally packaged the whole trash-the-dress concept (although I have photographic evidence showing that it occurred in some of my previous shoots). For example, when I asked a French bride to take a step back, she misinterpreted my instructions and proceeded to run back, only to be completely drenched from head to foot by a rogue wave. I also have an image dated October 10, 2001, of a couple going down a slide into a swimming pool in full wedding attire. At least with a trash-the-dress shoot you don't need to attend a reception afterwards!

It also reminds me of the My Big Redneck Wedding show that airs on CMT. Six years before that show ever aired, I was doing a wedding for one of the girls who worked in our pro lab. It was to be hosted at her parent's trailer somewhere in the middle of Florida. After the wedding, I found myself riding shotgun next to a guy drinking Bud while driving a raised-up Jeep horrendously fast through the swamps of the Everglades. The bride was precariously standing in the back of the Jeep, Bud in one hand, while the other hand held the roll bar, and mud that was flicking off of the wheels coated the back of her dress in quarter-sized lumps. It was a very scared Englishman's introduction to ‘muddin.'"

Tips for a Successful Trash-the-Dress Shoot

If you've never done a trash-the-dress shoot, you'll want to plan carefully--you won't easily be able to reshoot once your bride annihilates her gown. Some suggestions:

• I strongly recommend an assistant. I use a Profoto 7b pack with two heads, so I have to have someone strong who won't drop the equipment in the water. My long-term assistant, Lee, does a great job at this. My wife, Lori, has also come with me, which is helpful. In the image of the veil draping in the water shot (shown on the previous page, top), Lori is out of the frame holding the veil. Even if you prefer to use a camera-mounted flash system, it helps to have someone dry to hand you equipment while you're in the water. Which leads to the next suggestion…

• You will need to wear a bathing suit or clothes that you're prepared to get wet. You just cannot do this type of shoot from the shore.

• You need a plan. Pay careful attention to how you're going to shoot the bride. Once the bride is wet, she's wet. Carefully decide at which point you'll want the bride's dress to get wet, and at which point you want her hair wet. If you get this timing wrong, it can ruin a shoot. This is even more important when the water temperature is less than comfortable.

Brides love the trash-the-dress shoots (as do I). Imagine all of the restrictions the bride has on her wedding day: staying pristine, not messing her hair, keeping her makeup perfect. When all of that has gone, it's a very liberating experience. It's impossible not to have fun. Trashing the dress means just that--while the bride is still wearing it. Oftentimes, these shoots occur in bodies of water, sometimes with the groom (in his tux) joining his bride. It may be hard for the prospective bride to visualize what you mean by trashing the dress until you have images up on your website and in your studio. But once they see it, they get it.

The ideas for the images have to come before the shoot. You have to have a very clear plan of what you hope to achieve, what type of poses you want your subjects to take, what props you'll be using (flowers, veil, etc.). You also have to decide at what point you're going to get the subjects wet and to what degree. Do you want to get them wet up to the waist, to the shoulders, or completely wet? It's critical for you to decide this before the shoot, because there's no going back once they're wet.

I always have a Plan B as well. If the weather is bad, you may have to forget about the beautiful sunset and try shooting at a downward angle to include more sand or sea rather than the sky, or you might see some storm clouds and shoot with a high-contrast B&W image in mind.

The type of topography also makes a difference: Is the ocean or river floor muddy or sandy? Or is it covered in sharp shells? The answer to this question doesn't matter, as long as you plan for it. What's the water temperature? If it's cold, you'll want to wait until the last minute to get the subjects drenched. The ocean, the sky, and the weather are all uncontrollable variables, but they can all be planned for. That being said, the most important thing I can do as a professional is not let the clients know that I'm thinking of all of this. 

The following is from the clients of our first trash-the-dress shoot, which pretty much sums up the feelings of those who have experienced this phenomenon:

Hi Nick and Lori: We just received the photo album you sent with all our proofs. We have to tell you, you made a couple of "oldsters" feel like a couple of movie stars! The photos are amazing, and the album is a nice touch. What an amazing backdrop, too. (Can you believe how we lucked out with the rain? The clouds are gorgeous.) Nick, you made us feel so comfortable, and it shows in the pictures. We can't wait to share them with family and friends. You turned an already wonderful wedding and honeymoon into something we will cherish forever. Sandy and Gary

Nick adams ( is a photographer based on Sanibel Island, FL. His business is people-based, comprised mainly of beach portraits and weddings, although he does occasional editorial and commercial work. Adams was born in Neasdon, London, and started his photography career on cruise ships before opening a studio in Maldon, Essex (in east England).