Capturing A Wild Wedding Year

Ceremonies for the times

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Strength. Flexibility. Determination. All have been tested in the wedding industry as cancellations and postponements flooded ILM in 2020. And, for weddings that did come to fruition, still, guest lists were cut, venues changed, and expectations altered.

All that to say, locally based photographer TRINITY TOLBERT (@treebirdphoto) of Treebird Photography says love continues to prevail. 

“I think the common denominator was how completely in love each of these couples are,” she notes of weddings she photographed this year. “I honestly experienced more heart and emotion this year than any previous.” 

With Wilmington’s history with hurricanes, Tolbert says she and her peers also had an advantage adapting to COVID: “We already have the experience necessary to make adjustments and still show up for our couples,” she says. “Our community is unique in that we already have experienced tragedy and have been encouraging and supportive of each other.” 

Of weddings photographed by Tolbert in the past year, many had to change the venue or date, or both. One couple, Lauren and Max, downsized their initial plans to an intimate backyard wedding at their home. This allowed the couple to add more personal touches, literally. 

“Max made all the ceremony decor himself, including the ceremony arbor, the backdrop behind the arbor, the greenery wall, and the floating deck,” Tolbert notes. “These two, as well as my other couples of 2020, were determined to get married and start their lives together. They showed flexibility, grace, and appreciation for the opportunity to still marry the love of their life.”


Photos by Trinity Tolbert


Photos by Trinity Tolbert


Photos by Trinity Tolbert


Photo by Trinity Tolbert

STEPHANIE AXTELL (@stephanieaxtellphotovideo) also notes more couples prioritizing their marriage over their wedding this year; identifying what is truly important to them because of COVID and “letting go of any details that aren’t quite what they originally planned.”

The pandemic has helped normalize smaller weddings, too.

When Eydi and Jordan’s June wedding was pushed to November, the bride’s original venue informed them they would not be able to host any weddings for the rest of 2020. Then her boss offered up his 12-acre property near Conway, SoWuth Carolina.

“This is hands-down the best backyard wedding we’ve ever had, COVID or not,” Axtell remembers. “The ceremony was on the front steps of their house, and the reception was held in the back near their horse stables and pool. The overall layout of the property ended up being better than they could have imagined for their original wedding.”

Attention to guest safety has changed as well. From how food is distributed (no more open buffets) to being seated farther apart both during the ceremony and at reception tables. The smallest ceremony by far, for Axtell, was that of Daniel and Ann. The couple eloped on May 28 at Junction West in Raleigh, with just Axtell and their wedding planner as witnesses.

“The most humble thing I’ve seen is to just get married – just the two of them – without the pressure of putting together a reception or cocktail hour for guests,” Axtell says. “It’s amazing to see how willing (the bride) was to say, ‘This day is just for us – and no one else.’ Not many people would have been willing to make this kind of decision.”

Some couples simply put off the party until pandemic concerns pass but not the start of their marriage.

In May, Aaron and Phil headed to the courthouse in downtown Wilmington for a civil ceremony for now and big celebration to come later.

“They had just gotten engaged, and rather than stress about planning a huge wedding day, they simply called me and said, ‘What would you think about doing our engagement photos and then two hours later taking our courthouse wedding photos?’”


Photo by Stephanie Axtell


Photo by Stephanie Axtell


Photo by Stephanie Axtell

Last-minute change of plans had Aaron and Wendy switching locations to Southport’s Marker 614, a venue that could accommodate both their ceremony and reception. Unfortunately, it meant their photographer, CHRIS BREHMER (, couldn’t take an extended period of time staging those elegant bride-and-groom portraits, typically taken the day of. 

Instead, they had a “Day After Session,” a scheduled shoot anytime post-wedding at any location they want. 

“We go out and photograph just them without the hassle of time restraints, bad weather, or the anxiety of the wedding day,” Brehmer says. 

Like his peers, Brehmer has had to get creative with his photography in more ways than one. Smaller mini shoots fall into more budgets as luxury photography isn’t as high priority as before. “This has also led me to have to find supplemental work to fill in those financial gaps,” he says. “Truly, I believe COVID has made the industry have to restructure its business model as a whole.” 

Time will tell what lasting impact this past year will have on weddings to come, but the evergreen resolve of couples to celebrate their love and new marriage give Axtell, Tolbert, and Brehmer hope for 2021 and beyond. 

“I think this year really gave us all a new perspective on what matters in life,” Tolbert says. “And thankfully, all my couples were more than lucky in love, and I know they appreciated that more than ever before.” 

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Photo by Chris Brehmer

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Categories: Features