The First Look Debate from a Wedding Photographer’s Perspective

Normally when I write articles about photography, I’m not very polemic — I try to stay neutral and give advice that photographers can apply to their own personal wedding photography style even if it differs from my own. I care more about giving people solid advice than worrying about clickbait.

In this case, my flexible and adaptable position gives me insight into both sides of what can be an oddly polarized issue, the “first look” debate.

People like to get heated about whether or not they do a first look on the wedding day. A lot of couples come to us with it already firmly in their minds whether or not they want to see each other before that key moment walking down the aisle. Then, it’s our job to convince them to do it our way.

Luckily for me, there’s no convincing involved because this wedding photographer’s perspective is to let my couples do whatever they want. Therefore, in this article, I can give you the advice I give my couples, the pros and cons of both ways of doing things from over a decade’s worth of weddings. You can use the information to decide how you want to handle the topic as a wedding photographer.

What is a First Look?

Believe it or not, we still get this question a lot, what is a first look? A first look is when a couple sees each other for the first time on the wedding day prior to the wedding ceremony at a time and place other than walking down the aisle. Often it is a staged but private moment to allow for similar anticipatory emotions that one would get during the processional.

First looks are done for a variety of reasons the two most popular being to allow for more time in the wedding day schedule for things like pictures and to allow the couple a private moment together rather than being in front of their guests during a moment of heightened emotion. Since one of the main reasons for doing a first look is the photography timeline, a lot of wedding photographers have a strong opinion about this.

There are a lot of pictures we are expected to capture on a wedding day and yes, a first look makes that schedule significantly easier. However, there are also good reasons for letting your couple stick with tradition as traditions are powerful for a reason. That first look moment can be beautiful if it’s kept private and intimate and it can also be beautiful for the moms, dads, grandmoms, granddads, best friends, and other family members to witness. Couples that do a first look are less likely to cry when they’re walking down the aisle and I have to admit I love a good emotional processional even though it can make my timeline more stressful.

Why Do a First Look?

From a photographer’s perspective, a first look allows us to knock out some pictures before the ceremony which significantly relieves pressure on the timeline. After the ceremony, a couple often wants to greet guests and participate in pictures which can be hard to accomplish if we have to do family, bridal party, and couples’ portraits. Especially if we want to get portraits in a variety of backdrops or even at a location that isn’t on site.

If you do the math of how much time a couple gets with each of their 200 wedding guests during a 4-hour wedding reception it becomes quickly clear why they might not want to miss cocktail hour. As the photographers, we’re expected to capture a wide variety of pictures and it can be a very stressful day. If your couple wants to do a first look, you can create a timeline with breathing room and the ability to accomplish a lot more.

Additionally, some couples might be extremely stressed or nervous on a wedding day. Seeing each other and having more time actually together on their wedding day can be really nice. For some people, it completely reduces their stress and allows them to enjoy their day more even doing things like riding to the ceremony together and just having time to breathe and connect.

If your couple is willing to do a first look you can take them somewhere epic for portraits and you can knock out bridal party pictures ahead of time. Without a first look, the schedule becomes much more compressed as you’ll see in the next section. Part of the reason that we’re not married to either solution is that we almost always do family pictures after the ceremony anyway and we almost always try to do portraits in great golden hour and sunset light.

Why to Not Do a First Look?

Now, on the other side of the argument, I’ve been to weddings as a guest where I don’t spend much if any time with the couple regardless. In some ways, this is to be expected. The couple has to greet all of their guests from all the different areas of their life as well as do things like dance, cut cake, and take family pictures.

In some ways, the expectation that a bride and groom are going to get to spend quality time connecting with everyone on their wedding day is completely unrealistic anyway. Wedding guests come from all over and sure, it’d be nice to spend time together. But everyone is really there to witness the wedding — the wedding is the purpose of the event. Therefore, whatever traditions make the wedding special and meaningful to a particular couple are the traditions I advise them to do.

From a wedding photographer’s perspective, I want my couples to have emotions, memories, and meaning. Therefore, sometimes not doing a first look is the perfect choice because that pre-ceremony anticipation is electric and makes for storytelling gold as they walk down the aisle sobbing or smiling. As a photojournalistic wedding photographer, I want to capture those emotions and moments that make a wedding so meaningful.

Additionally, as I mentioned, I also almost always do family pictures right after the ceremony and some couple portraits during sunset and golden hour anyway. Therefore, while it totally creates more breathing room in my timeline and often results in more portraits and more bridal party pictures for my couples, it’s not a huge sacrifice for me to squeeze in order to give my couple the wedding they want.

Ways to Make the First Look Decision Work for You

If your clients choose to do a first look, you can advise them to tell their loved ones of their decision and to try to let go of their reactions to it. Some family members might be disappointed to miss out on witnessing that moment so the couple can try explaining their reasons to them if they want.

We also still sneak away for portraits at sunset too. We work really hard to balance getting epic photos for our clients while also making sure they have the best experience possible. One of the things that really helps is when we meet the couple ahead of time for an engagement shoot because then working together on the wedding day is more efficient.

As you can imagine, that engagement shoot is really clutch for couples that choose not to do a first look because we often have less time for portraits than when we do a first look. Location scouting and making sure we know where we want to shoot portraits also make us more efficient as does the fact that we’re a husband and wife team so we can work really efficiently to get great portraits in a short amount of time. It becomes about quality over quantity.

To First Look or Not First Look

In summary, I find that there is a different right answer for each of my couples as to whether or not they should do a first look. If you’re just starting out as a wedding photographer it might be worth trying to convince your couples to do a first look in order to relieve timeline stress on yourself. And depending on how you work you might have a strong opinion one way or another.

Regardless of your decision, or your couple’s decision, I laid out some of the pros and cons of doing a first look. And hopefully you gleaned some ways to understand why people choose one over the other. I imagine that certain photographers present a generally traditional or nontraditional style which very likely plays into the types of clients they attract, that seems like a good way to impact and influence the debate.

About the author: Brenda Bergreen is a Colorado wedding photographer, videographer, yoga teacher, and writer who works alongside her husband at Bergreen Photography. With their mission and mantra “love. adventurously.” they are dedicated to telling adventurous stories in beautiful places.