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A couple is photographed at Inside Only Photo Studio on the outskirts of Shanghai in June 2013. The studio houses three floors of sets for wedding photos, including rooms of dresses and suits.
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A couple is photographed in June 2015 at Inside Only Photo Studio on the outskirts of Shanghai. The studio houses three floors of sets for wedding photos, including rooms of dresses and suits.Olivia Martin-McGuire
A couple is photographed at Inside Only Photo Studio on the outskirts of Shanghai in June 2013. The studio houses three floors of sets for wedding photos, including rooms of dresses and suits.
Thamestown, a residential town outside of Shanghai that is modeled after the U.K., is a popular destination for wedding photo shoots. They are not getting married just yet, though— the images will be displayed at the actual wedding.
Chinese Wedding Photos series
On the streets of the Bund in Shanghai, sandstone, European-style buildings are populated with wedding photo shoots, seen here in May 2013.
A young couple poses in front of the church, a popular backdrop for wedding photos.
A bride-to-be has her dress adjusted during a photo shoot in Shanghai in May 2013.
A young couple poses under the trees with a toy deer in Thamestown in May 2013.
Chinese Wedding Photos series
Only Photo Studio, outside of Shanghai, provides three floors of sets, and some packages include access to traditional Chinese attire.
Inside Lavender Wedding, a wedding function warehouse in Shanghai, houses three chapels and five wedding banquet rooms with disco corridors and plenty of wedding backdrops for more photos. Pre-wedding photos are displayed at right.
A couple is photographer on the streets of the Bund in Shanghai.
Chinese Wedding Photos series
A couple poses at Inside Only Photo Studio.
Xia Jiachen and Xu Chuyun, at left, honor the groom's grandparents during their wedding in November 2015. Pre-wedding photos are displayed on the wall.
A couple is photographed in June 2015 at Inside Only Photo Studio on the outskirts of Shanghai. The studio houses three
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Olivia Martin-McGuire
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Discover China's Love for Pre-Wedding Photos

Feb 12, 2016

Red dresses, stylists, camera crews and a perfect kiss in front of a sandstone building. On any given weekday, The Bund in Shanghai looks like a scene from a European rom-com. Couples dressed in colorful, elaborate formalwear bustle from site to site, enacting fairytale scenes of marriage, with a team of stylists and photographers in tow.

Intrigued by the enchanting entourage, passerby and photographer Olivia Martin-McGuire inquired about the phenomena only to learn that it was not a mass wedding or movie, but a rather common pre-wedding photo shoot. “I was enchanted by an entire nation of adults dressing-up in fantasy attire as part of a new national ritual," she says as she started documenting the shoots.

Pre-wedding photography is a lucrative, multi-billion dollar industry in China, adding a playful, new custom to a country deeply rooted in ancient traditions. Martin-McGuire was drawn to the fantasy shoots that gave “a view into another facet of China not so readily portrayed by the media – color, optimism, enthusiasm and a unique ability to play.” In decades past, Martin-McGuire says wedding photos served primarily as proof of the marriage, consisting of a single black-and-white photograph. Now, the pre-wedding photo shoot involves multiple backdrops, settings and costumes.

Positioning herself behind the wedding photographer, Martin-McGuire looks to make photos from the vantage point of a choreographer. “I am fascinated by the entire set-up,” she says, “and that obviously includes the image-makers themselves.”

The lengths a couple will go to for a perfect shoot are extensive. One high-end studio provides three floors of sets and rooms of wardrobe changes. Others venture out into exotic locations, even those that seem unreachable. Martin-McGuire recalled a November outing to see the famous misty valleys in Guilin, enduring an hour climb in the rain to reach the summit. “Of course, here at the summit I discovered a team of pre-wedding photographers and a couple with a ballooning gown and bags of outfits. They had somehow carried everything up for the shoot!”

The photo shoots, which Martin-McGuire says can surpass $100,000 for high-end productions, are ultimately displayed prominently during the betrothed’s wedding. But, the parade of photography does not stop then as the couple is also expected to take a portrait with each of their guests.

Olivia Martin-McGuire is an an Australian photographer based in Shanghai.

Chelsea Matiash is TIME's Deputy Multimedia Editor. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @cmatiash.

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