Planning our own wedding was a challenge, as most weddings are. I didn’t dream of my wedding as a child or even a teen, which is funny to me considering I’m a wedding photographer. I’m not drawn to weddings because I’m princess-y or are overly romantic- I’m drawn to weddings because of the people, and the emotions of the day, and being able to preserve something meaningful to my clients. Those ideas and philosophies played into the way I planned my own wedding. When you are in the industry, you come into wedding planning with a lot of preconceived notions based on the weddings you’ve experienced. I’m also not going to lie- as a wedding photographer, I felt a little bit of pressure to have “the best wedding”. I felt the pressure to have pretty details and have the aesthetics be good- but I quickly realized that 1- that didn’t really matter to me and 2- I don’t really have an eye for it. Ultimately, the aesthetics of the wedding day didn’t matter to me. It was not a wedding that was going to get featured in wedding blogs and I DECIDED THAT I REALLY DIDN’T CARE ONE BIT ABOUT THAT. What mattered to me was that my husband & I enjoyed the day, and our guests enjoyed the day. I trusted our vendors to make that possible, and that was that! And that we got to have our dogs in our wedding, because that’s a priority!

dogs at wedding summer camp Arizona

My vision for the day was a wedding day in nature, completely outside including the reception and a space where I could be creative and do what I wanted. I also really wanted string lights for the reception, because I loved how that looked and from a photography perspective, I know that really helped the photos and ambiance. If I could have had a guerrilla wedding in the middle of the forest, I would have, but I very quickly figured out the logistics of that for normal sized wedding was not feasible. My husband is Hispanic and has a large family, so having a space that could accommodate that was important. We considered eloping a few times, but ultimately stuck with it because I knew it was a big deal to both of our families since our wedding was the first wedding for both of them. We had about 120 guests at our wedding which was a pretty good number. Both my husband & I are introverts but he comes from a large family had family travel from Mexico and Las Vegas. Many of my family was also from out of state, so having a venue with housing on site as well as a hotel next door was great especially considering that Payson is an hour and a half away from the Phoenix valley.

Tonto National Forest, Payson AZ

Photo by me

Tip 1: Nontraditional wedding venues mean needing to be patient, flexible and creative.
We got married on May 23, 2015 at Tonto Creek Camp, a Payson area summer camp. Getting married at a nontraditional wedding venue means needing to be flexible, creative and patient. It also means it’s a REALLY GOOD idea to think hard about hiring a planner or day of coordinator, in case you run into some issues with logistics of the day, or the venue isn’t really responding to you in a very timely manner or can’t really provide help with logistics, etc. A lot of nontraditional wedding venues don’t have venue coordinators, or if they do, they might not be as responsive as you need them to be because they are running other aspects of the venue, or they just plain don’t know the answer to your question. Wedding planners can help with that and generally have a lot more experience in dealing with issues that pop up while planning a wedding.

Tonto Creek Camp wedding Arizona by Michigan Photographer Heather Jowett

Tip 2: Hire a wedding planner or day of coordinator.
We hired Karen Podrasky, an Arizona wedding planner and day of coordinator who previously worked at the Windmill Winery and has a TON of experience managing weddings. She was invaluable in helping us with our day of coordination needs. Initially, I didn’t think we needed one. After all, I’m a wedding photographer and had shot probably over 50 weddings at that point, and my mom was super organized. But very quickly into the planning process, I figured out that it would stress my mom out, and that would in turn stress me out. I wanted my mom to be able to enjoy the day and be present. Karen was fantastic. Our food truck was late because they got lost, but because of Karen & I’s excellent timeline, that didn’t impact anything and they were able to make food enroute. I didn’t even find out about that until after the wedding. She made the day go so smoothly and also helped the few weeks leading up with vendors and other small things when things got very hectic for me managing last minute things and family flying into town. I have a number of fantastic planner recommendations, and really, they aren’t that expensive, I promise!

Tonto Creek Camp wedding by Michigan photographer Heather Jowett

Tip 3: Get a food truck.
A food truck was not only fun and suited our personalities and wedding style, but it was also much higher quality food for less money. If you’re getting married at a nontraditional venue, especially one with limited food options, a food truck is a fantastic way to go if your venue allows it. Ours was United Lunchadores and they drove straight down to the field and served from their truck instead of making guests have to head up the hill to the top near the cafeteria. It worked out SO well, and everyone loved the food so much.

United Lunchadores food truck

Tip 4: Have a rain plan.
So the rain plan was a bit of a challenge. Tonto Camp Creek is a summer camp and our wedding took place on the soccer field. We were not allowed to drive stakes into the ground for a tent because it would mess up their sprinkler system, so a tented reception in case of rain was out of the question. Our only back up plan was to go inside the cafeteria if it rained, which was not ideal, but it was something. Always make sure you have a rain plan, even in Arizona. Luckily we had completely clear skies and didn’t have to use our rain plan.

Payson summer camp wedding by Heather Jowett

Tip 5: Reception Lighting.
Because we had our reception on a soccer field, lighting was obviously a big challenge. We rented street lamps that we then used to run string lights we bought- all 400 ft or something of them- to light the reception area. That was a big set up undertaking by my dad, husband and his groomsmen the day before. We borrowed/rented power generators to power it- the field had some power, but we didn’t want to overload the system. The noise from the generators was actually not even very noticeable! When in doubt, always add light because that definitely helps the photography. I think we could have gone with even more string lights, but it definitely worked well enough.

Tonto Creek Camp wedding reception outdoors

Tonto Creek Camp wedding reception outdoors

Tonto Creek Camp reception outdoors at night

Tip 6: Save on plates & glassware.
So definitely compare prices but we actually got nice looking plastic plates and cups and plastic utensils from Costco that looked pretty convincing but were MUCH easier to clean up than having to pack up a ton of plates to haul back and potentially get broken. Because it was a more casual wedding and because of the venue, I don’t think this looked weird or seemed cheap.

Tip 7: Skip the favors.
I’m seeing more and more people skip favors. It’s an easy way to save $1-$5/person and I think most people don’t really care all that much about favors these days. Obviously if you feel strongly about it, definitely do it but I think that’s an easy thing to cut out and no one will really notice or mind. We skipped these.

Tonto Camp Creek wedding reception by Heather Jowett

Things I would have done differently
I think in hindsight, I would have gotten wooden tables & wood benches like these ones from Native Events because I think that would have looked a little more cohesive with the surroundings, plus I LOVE wood tables. Though it wasn’t a priority, I think putting just a LITTLE more thought into the details or renting some things from a rental company (like an arch maybe) would have looked more cohesive and getting either floral arrangements from our florist for the aisle or opting for candles would have probably looked a little better AND be less stressful for my extended family who put together the floral arrangements for the aisle before the ceremony. But besides those really minor aesthetic things, I’m really happy with how our wedding went. Most importantly, it was FUN and really reflected us.

Tonto Creek Camp wedding

Vendors involved:
Venue: Tonto Creek Camp
Day of Coordination- Karen, KDP Events
Photographer- Heather Jowett
Florist- Posies’ Floral
Food truck- United Lunchadores
String Lights-
Rentals- Y Knot Party Rentals
Dress: Katie May “Poipu” from Schaffer’s Bridal
Bridesmaids dresses- Uptown Bridal
Groom & Groomsmen attire-  vest JCPenny (yes, really) + Kohls shirts & ties

Heather Jowett Photography

All images are by the amazing Michigan wedding photographer Heather Jowett!

Shameless self promotion- if you’re planning a wedding like this, I’d LOVE TO PHOTOGRAPH IT! Obviously this type of wedding is one that’s near and dear to my heart and I’m happy to suggest specific things from my own planning experience. Please contact me!

Check out my outdoor wedding venue guide for Arizona for some additional northern Arizona venues. Also, if you love the look of a forest wedding but don’t want the hassle of driving to northern Arizona to get it, check out The Meadow at Schnepf Farms!



Alyssa Campbell Arizona wedding photographer

Welcome! I’m an Arizona-based wedding & portrait photographer specializing in natural and documentary photos. My blog is where you can see my latest work as well as check out tips & the latest news. Following me on social media is another way to check out my recent work!