Recently, we've been getting a lot of questions from our clients about best to schedule their wedding day. How much time should we leave for photos? How much of it should we do before the ceremony, and how much after? What if we don't want to miss our cocktail hour but we don't want to see each other before the ceremony. What do we do? You get the idea. Since it's been such a popular question, we thought we'd dig a little deeper and try to offer some advice and feedback from our own experience, our past client's experience and from the viewpoint of a wedding planner.
We find that couples generally fall into two categories:
1. They absolutely do not want to see each other until the bride is walking down the aisle.
2. They have a slight attachment to the tradition of the couple not seeing one another before the ceremony.....but they're open for ideas if it means a smoother wedding day.
For couples that fall into the second grouping, a 'First Look' has become a popular alternative to the first option. When we start talking about this option during client meetings, most often people look at us with some confusion as they may have heard of it before but don't know exactly what it means. Since not even Wikipedia has caught on to what a First Look is, let us briefly explain. Because weddings are evolving so quickly and a First Look could be done in many different ways, the classic example plays out as follows.
-The couple decides at an earlier time where they would like to have their first look - Or if they haven't decided, we'll give our opinion about locations. This is almost always a quiet, secluded, outdoor spot.
-The Bride and Groom get fully dressed and prepped for the wedding in separate spaces.
-Either the Bride or the Groom goes out to the location they've selected - One photographer goes with them, and we communicate or text back and forth to coordinate the moment
-Typically the groom is waiting and then the bride approaches him without him looking - this can be accomplished in many ways (with blindfolds, with the groom facing away from the bride, at the corner of a building, etc.)
-When the couple feels ready, they turn around to see each other for the first time, fully dressed and dolled up - there is always hugging and kissing and crying. Who doesn't love that?
-We photograph like Ninjas.
Obviously there are many different approaches to this, but generally this is how we've seen it done, and it always works well. We're also very careful to shoot with lenses that are fast and allow us a close up perspective without standing right beside you. (for fellow photographers, our 70-200 IS 2.8 is our favorite first look lens.) It's also very important to us to preserve this sacred time as a private moment between the two of you, so we typically arrange a place to meet up with you after we're done taking photos. This way you can truly have a few moments alone before moving forward with the day.
We are generally very protective of this time and won't allow any family or friends around the couple during a First Look because that would defeat the purpose of it. (if you wanted everyone watching that moment you'd probably fall into the 'walking down the aisle' group....right?).
Here are a few photos from Maggie and Seth's First Look last July. This is probably our favorite First Look because they are so expressive.
This is what Maggie had to say about their First Look:
"For the schedule we had decided on, a First Look gave us the chance to really maximize the photography time we had before the ceremony and before craziness of the rest of the guests got involved. It really gave us time to focus on each other and what was about to happen. With a big family, everyone wants to get in on the photo ops, by doing a first look and family portraits before the event we really minimized that. Our first look did not make walking down the aisle any less special. He was still crying, and I was still tearing up too. It made it even more special for us, because THIS was the real moment; we weren't playing around anymore."
Here are some photos from Jessica and Shaunt's First Look last August. They are so classy.
This is what Jessica had to say about their First Look:
"Shaunt and I were very focused on being able to enjoy all aspects of our wedding. We didn’t want to miss a minute of the cocktail hour or reception if we could help it so we decided to do a “first look” and to try and get all wedding party and family photos done before the ceremony. I looked online and read about brides who felt one way or the other about the “first look” and in the end I didn’t feel that seeing Shaunt before the ceremony would make it any less special. The day of the wedding was nuts for us due to an unexpected hurricane and changes to almost all our plans but having that moment with him on the front porch of the Commanders Mansion was really magical. I will never forget his smile and how excited I was to have him turn around and see me as his bride. Right after our first look we did our formal photos and this gave us some more one on one time which I appreciated as after that I can only remember one other moment we were alone the whole night. Knowing that almost all our posed photos were done before the ceremony took place helped me to relax a ton. In terms of the ceremony, there is nothing like standing at the end of the aisle looking up at your husband to be, I can’t imagine it was any less special for me than for someone who didn’t do a first look. There is so much emotion in that moment and I didn’t feel that it was taken away by the time we spent together before the ceremony."
And finally, we had to share some from Katie and John's First Look in October. This was the only first look where there were other people watching from a distance, which almost makes me take back what I said earlier about people not being around. Their first look was like rooting for Team Katie and John.
This is what Katie had to say about their First Look:
"I did have a first look with my husband before the ceremony, and we took bridal party and family photos before the ceremony as well. For us, this worked out really well for a few reasons. We really wanted to be able to spend some quality time taking pictures of the two of us, and also with our families, in all of the different combinations that we needed. We set aside a full hour to do so, and we ended up with a ton of relaxed, beautiful shots of that afternoon, with everyone that we love most. Aside from that, the main draw was the simple fact that we wanted to spend the cocktail hour with our guests, having a drink, tasting the appetizers. We had our ceremony at the same venue as our reception, and we didn't want to miss out on this amazingly gorgeous sunset chunk of time with family and friends. The other reason that we chose to have a first look is that the idea of having a documented moment alone when we first saw each other on the day of our wedding sounded precious. We heard from couples over and over again that the day goes by so fast, that it's important to remember specific moments, to stop and breathe and take it in, and it was completely true. We were able to really stop and focus on each other for a few minutes and appreciate what was about to happen. It made it all feel more real. I don't think that it made the walk down the aisle any less special! I was still an emotional wreck, but it made me so happy to be able to hold my husband's hand for a moment before he left to walk down the aisle with his parents. I was nothing short of astonished and thrilled to see him standing at the end of the aisle when it was my turn to walk down."
Awesome. So we've gotten the perspective of the 'First Look' proponents. What about the traditionalists out there? Matt and I did not see each other before our own Wedding Ceremony, so we can relate (although, in retrospect we sort of wish we would have done a first look, but that's a different story!). While it can make your day a little easier depending on how you schedule things, with plenty of communication between us, your venue and planner, you can still have a smooth wedding day and not see one another before the ceremony.
Let's take Marie's perspective from her wedding last October where she and her husband, Mike choose not to see each other before the ceremony.
This is what Marie had to say,
"As to first look/not first look, I think it's so dependent on the couple. I wouldn't have changed it, because I think that greeting Mike at the altar was such a special moment for us, and I don't think it would have been as much if we had seen each other prior to the wedding. But again, both Mike and I are religious so the ceremony was really the focus of our planning. It's hard for me to verbalize why exactly this was so important to me, but it was. I think that the ceremony end and the reception should be at least 2.5 hours apart. I do wish we had had a little bit more time to take shots between the ceremony and the reception, and I think that the 1.5 hour we had was a little rushed. It sounded like plenty of time to us prior to the wedding."
Here's Sara's perspective from her and Andrew's wedding last August
Sara said; "It was very important to me that we not see each other before the ceremony because we did not want to lose that wow factor! The moment when you walk down the aisle and see each other is like no other. I am a bit traditional and I felt that if we did do the first look before the ceremony we definitely would not gotten the same reaction. It was so overwhelmingly emotion and beautiful. I do not think I've seen Andrew cry so hard and so much, and even though we were surrounded by so many people our eyes were only for each other. It was still our moment. I wouldn't say that I don't like first looks. I think it definitely depends on the couple and I have seen those who are so creative and thoughtful about it. It looks beautiful. We just knew it wasn't for us. In terms of pictures before and after the ceremony, Andrew and I took pictures with our groomsmen and bridesmaids respectively. It did cut down on a bit of time after the ceremony. I felt that afterward I was in a whirlwind of pictures, not only from our photographers who kept us calm and relaxed, but through our family and friends. So I'm glad we took that time before hand to take pictures. I think the only thing I would change is actually taking more pictures before the ceremony."
We also wanted to ask some Wedding Planners their opinions on the topic. Linda Lee, from Boston based Lemon Drop Team said this:
"I personally love the "First Look" because it's such a special moment between the couples. Though I think traditions will be here forever, nowadays, couples want to get majority of the pictures out of the way so they don't have to do it after the ceremony and during the cocktail hour. A lot of times, I'll schedule at least 2 1/2 hours in our timelines for photos before ceremony so we can get most of the photos out of the way. One hour with couple photos, and one and half hours with bridal party and family. But really, it also depends on the photographers. So after the ceremony, several marriage photos can be taken and then the bride and groom can enjoy cocktail hour with their loved ones. After all, I really recommend my couples to enjoy the day as much as possible by being around their family and guest and mingle! Guests really appreciate that as well."
"Talk to your planner and/or your photographer about the schedule for the wedding day. If you are taking pictures outdoors, think about what the lighting will be like at that time of day. I like to schedule 1-1.5hours for portraits of the couple, bridal party and family. If you want to do multiple locations, think about travel time, which takes longer with larger groups. I generally pad the wedding day time line, just in case an updo needs to be redone or a bridesmaid is stuck in traffic. If you have bridal party or family members that are often late, tell them to arrive at an earlier time than the rest.
I do recommend doing a first look, as I love the intimacy of this moment with just the Bride and Groom. It allows them to enjoy each other's company alone on their wedding day. It also means they have more time with their guests after the ceremony, as they can enjoy cocktails, instead of leaving to do portraits. It can be challenging trying to extricate key family members for pictures after the ceremony, when all the wedding guests are busy catching up. Brides who have done a first look tell me that when they finally walk down the aisle, it still is an incredibly special moment, as all their loved ones are watching them.
I do completely respect that some couples do not want to see each other until the Bride walks down the aisle. I always explain the pros and cons, but will be happy to plan around my client's wishes. "
Whew! That's a lot of great advice. We won't add too much else to the pot here, but our final thoughts from our own perspective can be summed up as follows:
-Time is precious. If you don't have a wedding planner or advice from a Day of Coordinator, you should pad your day with lots of time. Doing a receiving line? That will take around 30 minutes. Doing Extended Family formals? Expect five full minutes for each grouping. If you're not going to see each other before the ceremony, pad at least two hours between the ceremony and the reception for transportation, family and bridal party photos and couple portraits. If you want photos at 'The Golden Hour' which falls on the hour before the sun sets, look up what time the sun will be setting and arrange a large group activity (like dessert or the beginning of dancing) that your guests won't notice if we pull you out of the reception for 15 minutes to capture those precious photos of the two of you in perfect light.
-Keep it Simple. Do as much work as possible beforehand to make your life as simple as possible on your wedding day. If needed, arrange an aunt or fellow family member that can help identify multiple cousins from each side. We often don't know who might be missing, so if you put someone in charge of this ahead of time you will save yourself so much stress. Bonus points for introducing these aunts from each side of the family to one another so they can be TEAM FAMILY FORMALS. Other things to make your life easier? Make sure you remind your bridesmaids at the rehearsal dinner not to ditch their flowers before photos are over. This isn't typically a problem if you're doing those photos before the ceremony, but they often disappear afterward.
-Communicate. We've done a 200+ family formal. We've done couple portraits in seven minutes. We've shot an entire candle-lit ceremony from the back pew with no flash in a stone church. We work with what we've been given and just make it happen. That said, your day, and your photos, will be so much more comprehensive when you communicate the day-of schedule with us ahead of time, and listen to your other vendors about what timelines won't work. We're here to work for you, but you need to make sure we have proper instructions on your expectations and we can help guide if they are realistic.
If you've made it to the end of this, Congratulations! You now have multiple opinions on wedding day timelines and can see that no matter what timeline road you go down, your wedding day will still be incredibly special.
Special thanks to Maggie, Jessica, Katie, Marie, Sara, Linda and Tzo Ai for your words of wisdom!