In case you don’t know, a wedding day first look is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than the traditional run of show where you wait to see one another for the first time walking down the aisle, so many couples are deciding to do a first look before the ceremony. It’s becoming more and more popular to see each other before the ceremony for a number of reasons…
As a Philadelphia wedding photographer, I have been photographing weddings now for over six years and I continue to find that weddings with a First Look tend to go a lot smoother. Disclaimer: I am a wedding photographer so this post may be a bit biased toward prioritizing photography. I do, however, try to balance everything to make sure my clients are the priority. So digest only what applies to you…
THE TRADITION OF NOT SEEING EACH OTHER UNTIL THE CEREMONY
Do you know where the tradition of not seeing your partner until the ceremony comes from? Hint: think back to arranged marriages. Imagine that you’re marrying someone you have no relationship with and probably have never met. Maybe they’re hideous (hence, the tradition of a veil over a woman’s face) — but until they’re all the way down the aisle, neither of you are close enough to be able to make any full judgments (or run for it!). All joking aside, this is the supposed reasoning behind one of the most known and admired wedding traditions.
For many (myself included), we grow up imagining that the wedding ceremony will be the first place we’ll see our future spouse on our wedding day. From my experience with Philadelphia weddings though, 80% of my couples have decided to do a First Look instead.
PROS OF DOING A FIRST LOOK
There are a ton of pros of doing a First Look, hence, why so many couples are choosing to do one. Here are some of the most common reasons to include one at your wedding (and bonus tips for how to adjust your day if the below applies to you, but you really don’t want to do one!)
YOU WANT TO ENJOY AS MUCH TIME AS YOU CAN WITH GUESTS
“We want to go to cocktail hour,” is one of the top reasons I hear from couples (even traditional ones) that they want to do a first look. It’s not so much about cocktail hour specifically, and more-so related to wanting to enjoy the portion of the day where guests are present, well . . . with guests! We all know that wedding days go by quickly, so making the most of time with guests is a priority for many couples. With everyone there to celebrate with you — many from out of town or in groups that aren’t commonly together — the first look can be a big help for allowing you to have all of your photos done, so that you can have a drink and chill with your guests.
Pro-tip for enjoying some of cocktail hour with no first look: Consider extending cocktail hour or talk to your photographer about pre-ceremony photo options that don’t involve seeing each other. Without a first look, you’ll always have some photos to do post-ceremony, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do photos with each half of the wedding party and your families (separately) beforehand!
YOU WANT YOUR FIRST LOOK AT EACH OTHER TO BE PRIVATE
Most couples don’t realize that when you come down the aisle and completely stun each other with how you’re looking . . . you can’t even tell each other those feelings. You can’t touch, embrace, or even speak to each other. You have to wait until 30+ minutes later when the ceremony is over to tell each other how incredible you both look. And after 30+ minutes of the ceremony, the reaction isn’t the same as the initial first glance. With a first look, you’re able to experience those initial feelings together.
YOU KNOW YOU’LL BE NERVOUS OR VERY EMOTIONAL
For some, the thought of having an audience makes them instantly clam up. Grooms know that many watchful eyes will be on them, waiting for “the” reaction or even some tears. And for some, the pressure of that isn’t worth the added anxiety around what can already be a stressful day — particularly if you’re a very private person. Doing a first look can can totally help calm those nerves about being in the spotlight, or who suspect they’ll be an emotional mess.
YOU WANT TO EXTEND THE DAY AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
A first look allows you to extend your wedding day together by HOURS. Traditionally, your time together on your wedding day begins when you go down the aisle. When the ceremony ends, you rush through portraits so that you’re not late for the introductions and then it’s reception time! With a first look, your time together is extended by almost 3 hours! Instead of being rushed for your wedding party portraits, you actually get to enjoy them and have fun hanging out with your besties on your wedding day. Likewise, your parents are able to relax and enjoy the evening without stressing under the rush.
Pro-tip for extending the day without a first look: Sometimes a gap between the ceremony and reception is perfect! Despite the common belief that it’s annoying for guests, it can actually be the perfect time for them to check into their hotel. This gap in time is often the result of a set church ceremony time, followed by a later reception start at your venue. When that’s the case, your day is naturally extended and we don’t need to be forced into a first look for the sake of getting photos done.
YOU WANT AS MANY PHOTOS AS POSSIBLE
You’re investing a lot of money in your wedding photography and I want to make the most of that investment. Naturally, including a first look in your timeline will allow for more photos to be taken. That’s why my couples that decide to do a first look receive about 40% MORE portraits of the two of them . . . and those are the images they’ll decorate their home with. Additionally, a first look could also mean more photos of your guests — when we’re not finishing portraits, that means we’re strolling cocktail hour for groups of family and friends for photos together.
YOU’RE HAVING A WINTER WEDDING
This one is REALLY IMPORTANT! If you love the look of natural light images, a first look is essential for a winter wedding date with an early sunset time. Sunset in Lehigh Valley/Philly/NJ can be as early as 4:30 pm in the middle of winter. So, if. you are planning a 4:00 ceremony, there will be no natural light images of you two as a couple! Also, you must consider travel time to and from your ceremony site to your reception venue.
Pro-tip for those not wanting a first look: talk to your photographer early about lighting! They can help you determine a ceremony time that allows for natural light portraits following your ceremony. Be aware though, this tactic can be a little bit of a balancing act with your venue . . . and earlier ceremony time could mean an early end to your reception or a gap in time between the ceremony and reception for guests.
YOU WANT TO READ VOWS TO EACH OTHER PRIVATELY
Some things you’d like to keep to yourself! Sharing your own wedding vows can sometimes be one of those things. If this is you, a first look can be a great opportunity to share these vows with one another. Then you’ll be free to exchange more traditional vows at your ceremony, or re-read the ones you wrote (without the nerves you had the first time!).
Pro-tip for those not wanting to do a first look: this is something we can do later in the day as well, just be aware that it is one more element that will take time away from your guests or other photos you’re hoping to do.
YOU WANT DOUBLE THE REACTIONS
Some fear that a first look will take away from that big moment coming down the aisle, but I actually that’s totally not the case. Just because they’ve seen you, doesn’t mean they’ll have a lackluster response to seeing you come down the aisle — you’re about to get married and that’s f*cking exciting! I think of it like this — a first look is “Damn! She looks amazing! That’s my girl!”; then, as you’re coming down the aisle, it’s… “F*UCK! It’s about to go down!” They’re two different parts of your wedding day that each get their own reaction.
CONS OF DOING A FIRST LOOK
Believe it or not, there are certain circumstances when a first look may not be necessary. It’s something that can always be done, but below are some of the supporting reasons to not do one on your wedding day.
YOU WANT TO STICK TO TRADITION
Plain and simple, some couples want to be traditional on their wedding day — and that’s okay! If tradition is most important to you and you’re okay trading that for fewer images and less time at cocktail hour, I fully support it!
Pro-tip: Talk with your photographer about structuring the day to do photos with each half of the wedding party and your families (separately) beforehand! This is a great solution I use 99% of the time when couples don’t do a first look on their wedding day. It puts us in a position where we have a few group photos (full wedding party and some combined family portraits) to capture, and then portraits of just the couple. Biggest stress saver if you’re set on not doing a first look!
YOU HAVE AN EARLY CEREMONY TIME
In cases where your church has set ceremony times and they’re early . . . it may make sense to forego the first look. Or to do the first look, but save your photos for after the ceremony. When this happens, we have one of two options… 1. Either there is a large gap in the timeline between the ceremony and reception because of this set timing. In that case, we’ll be able to do most of your photos in between the ceremony and reception. Or 2. A First Look would need to happen in harsh mid-day lighting, which is sometimes not the prettiest — particularly if your venue has limited shaded areas. This can sometimes be the case in mid-summer, in towns with strict noise ordinances . . . the ceremony times get pushed way up so that you can enjoy your full reception time and quiet down in time for the ordinance to take effect. This is rare, but does happen. In those cases, I recommend extending your cocktail hour to 1.5 hours and planning for sunset portraits later in the evening, so that the majority of your portraits can happen in better lighting conditions. Depending on your venue, we can also scout out different locations for some nice mid-day shaded lighting.
YOU HAVE A LARGE GAP OF TIME BETWEEN YOUR CEREMONY AND RECEPTION TIMES
Similar to the above, if there is a gap in time between your ceremony and the start of cocktail hour, we would do all of your portraits during this time. You can opt to do a first look for many of the reasons above, but it wouldn’t make any sense to.
YOU HAVE TO GET READY EARLIER
Depending on your ceremony time and the size of your wedding party (ladies, think hair and makeup!), this can sometimes be a factor. Though, rarely is it big enough of a factor to warrant changing your wedding timeline completely. It’s not entirely uncommon for hair and makeup to need to begin early in the morning in order to have you completed by the time of the first look.
Pro-tip: Talk with your hair and makeup artists about timing and include one or more assistants to help speed things along.
YOU MAY NEED TO EXTEND THE PREP TIME AT YOUR VENUE
Every venue is different, but some will require you to pay an additional fee to use the property more than an hour before your ceremony start time. Additionally, most venue coordinators will ask that your photographer is done with pre-ceremony photos about 30 minutes before the ceremony, as guests begin to arrive. You can see how this can make having a first look a little more complicated. If you’re set on doing a first look, the additional investment at your venue will be worth it!
Alternatively, you and your photographer could explore nearby areas that could make sense for your first look and some portraits. Don’t be discouraged if your venue fits into this category — we’ll just have to be strategic about timing and how to structure portraits!
YOU HAVE AN EXTENDED COCKTAIL HOUR
If you have an extended cocktail hour already and are unsure of whether or not you’d like to do a first look, you may be able to get away without. Every wedding party, family groupings, and venue setup (i.e. time to get from one location to another for photos) is very different, but when all people are in one primary location, it’s typical for all photos to be done within 90 minutes. As a general rule of thumb, up to 30 minutes for your wedding party and 30 minutes for family portraits (both sides). Once those group photos are done, we’ll spend a little more time on portraits of the two of you and then send you off to cocktail hour!
Pro-tip: Don’t forget that even without an extended cocktail hour, it’s possible to do photos with each half of the wedding party and your families (separately) before your wedding ceremony!
YOUR WEDDING DAY TIMELINE AND THE FIRST LOOK DECISION
Lastly, please trust the judgment of your photo team. You’ve hired professionals to capture your day and they understand the timing required for their caliber of work. Deciding not to do a first look can sometimes mean fewer photos, but work with your team to understand what’s realistic. They’ll want to capture as much as possible for you, but having unrealistic expectations and adding pressure to do more in less time isn’t going to help that.
When it comes to deciding if the first look is right for you, know that there’s no right or wrong way to do it! Every couple and wedding is different, and I don’t expect for my couples to all do it one way or the other. Know that no matter what your opinion is on the topic, there is a way to approach this decision and structure your day so that you still get everything you want out of it. This decision is largely rooted in priorities and deciding what is most important to you. Work with your photographer and planner to talk through the options and decide what makes the most sense for what you’re planning.
There you have it! Personally, I am ALWAYS a fan of couples doing first looks, from an emotional connection and logistical standpoint. Hopefully, this insight helps in your decision making! Feel free to pass this on to your friends in the wedding planning process!
For a sample wedding day timeline (both with and without a first look!), click here!
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