Should I Have a First Look at My Wedding?

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In my experience as a wedding photographer, I have found that couples are often divided in their opinions on having a first look. A first look is a private reveal between the couple that occurs prior to the ceremony. Some partners see more value in waiting for the walk down the aisle to see each other for the first time, while others appreciate the privacy the first look offers allowing for hugs, kisses and intimate moments prior to the ceremony.

So which option is right for you – having a first look or waiting until the ceremony? I recommend using your wedding day timeline to guide your decision.

I recommend you go for the first look if you have the option, it will serve you well and will elevate your guest experience.

Toronto wedding couples first look

QUICK STAT
Our wedding couples in Chicago and Milwaukee choose a first look 87% of the time, in Toronto and the GTA our couples choose first looks 61% of the time, and in coastal Croatia our couples choose a first look 92% of the time.

Waiting at the alter, offers the element of surprise to see your partner walk down the aisle in front of all of your closest and most important friends and family. On the other hand, there is often the partner that finds more importance in ensuring time is used effectively and efficiently before the ceremony so that group portraits can be taken and guests need not wait around while the couple and family members begin their portraits.

SKIP THE FIRST LOOK

…if you have:

  • Small intimate weddings (<50 guests)
  • Destination weddings (where guests have accommodations)
  • No wedding parties

KEEP THE FIRST LOOK

…if you have:

  • Larger weddings (50+ guests)
  • Larger wedding parties (2+ wedding party members)
  • Larger families (10+ family members total for family formals)

Use the timeline below to help guide your decision. For those of you that are looking for a some additional explanation and thoughts on why to have a first look and why not, read on, below.

Let’s take a look at how two wedding day timelines play out based on the incorporation or exclusion of a first look on the wedding day.

Option 1 – No first look

Guests wait 90-180 minutes during cocktail hour

Ceremony (30-60 min)

Guests are seated, fresh and witnessing your marriage. Some guests are hungry, some excited to dance, some excited to mingle. Either way, guests are full of anticipation of what is to come and in a positive mindset. Imagine your guests sitting at Villa Terrace, on the patio overlooking the water.

Guest Release (30+ min)

After the ceremony is over, guests are release from their seats. Perhaps they are released row by row, perhaps they follow out the bridal party and parents after they leave their seats. They may even collect in a location to have a grand exit with the couple, tossing lavender, rice, or olive leaves. Once the guests are released, they eagerly anticipate their next step, after all, they have done their hair and they have their best on. If a cocktail hour is hosted here, the guests transition from the ceremony space, in our example the Villa Terrace patio, to a new space, like the Villa Terrace courtyard to get a drink.

Cocktail Hour (30-60+ min)

While the guests move into cocktail time in the Villa Terrace courtyard, the family will be called for photos. From time to time this is a chaotic period as family too likes cocktails. Sometimes your planner will need to peel the family from the drink line or from a great conversation, as time ticks on and the internal clock of the guests approaches the end of a 60 minute period at which the cocktail hour should max out.

Family Photos (20-50+ min)

Once formal family photos start, the amount of time depends on the size of the group – each person will need to be positioned and posed for each photo to ensure the photo is fit for a magazine. The family is at its best here and as a photographer I always want each guest to look wonderful, feel valued and be having a wonderful experience. Thus, formals are not rushed, but rather run like a well oiled machine. However, even the most well-oiled machine needs time to run if multiple portrait combinations are requested. This can take some time, typically I estimate the total amount of time to be about a cumulative one minute per person – that is, 20 people in 20 minutes, 40 people in 40 minutes, etc.

Couples Photos (40 min)

By this point, the family portraits are complete, the guests are enjoying their cocktails and it’s time for couples photos. Ideally at a wedding, I would have 40 minutes with the couple. Worst case we have 25 minutes. I never recommend less, but if the schedule is tight, which has happened, we only have 20 minutes. Likely, the time between the end of the ceremony and current time has exceeded an hour – which starts putting guests in an awkward spot. They are there for you as a couple, to visit with friends and family, and to have an enjoyable time. A couple can buy a little bit of extra grace from guests here if there is live entertainment, good food, and appropriate drinks, but even that will get stale if the guests are confined to a particular area for too long. If the guests are at a resort or a destination wedding where they can retreat to their rooms or wander a beautiful location, you have some flexibility as the couple to take more photos here. However, consider laying this timing out in your invitation to ensure guests are cared for and know what to expect.

croatia wedding couples portraits on indoor balcony

Wedding Party Photos (40+ min)

If wedding party photos are still not completed at this point, this session needs to be quick. In ideal situations, a 8 person wedding party, excluding the couple, could easily take 40 minutes, but if you are hoping to have a cocktail hour without a first look, this is one area that would need to be trimmed significantly to ensure you stay on top of a reasonable timeline.

Commuting to/from locations (0-30 min)

From time to time, couples choose to go off-site for their photos and this travel has a time associated with it. Consider this time when laying out your timeline and ensure it works for you and for the experience you are creating for your guests.

Prepping for reception grand entrance (10 min)

Finally, upon return to the reception venue or as you prepare to be announced in to your reception from your photo hiatus, ensure you allow 5-10 minutes to freshen up, perhaps change outfits and prepare to wow your guests with your grand entrance.

Grand Entrance! guests waited 90-180 minutes during cocktail hour

Best case scenario? About one and half hours. Realistic scenario? About three hours. If it is closer to that three hour mark, then you’ll have asked a lot of your guests, so set both yourself and your guests up for success by letting them know ahead of time that there will be a private time for them between the ceremony and reception. Otherwise, if you can arrange to have everything occur in one and a half hours, then plan for a wonderful cocktail hour and your guests will be delighted.

Let’s take a look at an alternate option.

Option 2 – A first look

Guests wait 30-120 minutes during cocktail hour

First Look and Couples Photos (40 min)

This would be at a location of your choosing. It could happen at your venue or off-site. With family and guests still preparing to depart for the wedding, you have no reason to worry or feel rushed. You as the couple would arrive separately and have an orchestrated first look at each other, either in private or with some spectators of your wedding party. From the first look, which typically lasts about 5 minutes, you’d transition into couples portraits that could go anywhere from 20-50 minutes.

Wedding Party Photos (40+ min)

Your wedding party would be with you or arriving separately to your photoshoot location. Depending on the size of the bridal party, you’d allocate a reasonable amount of time to the group photos.

Commuting to/from locations (0-30 min)

If you choose to go off-site for photos, you’d return to the venue where your ceremony will be held to freshen up and begin family formals.

Family Photos (20-50+ min)

Family would arrive prior to your time when you need to be hidden from guests as they arrive. Typically, that hiding time lasts 30-60 minutes, so your timeline would need to ensure family formal portraits are placed prior to that. Just as we discussed above, I estimate the total amount of time to be about a cumulative one minute per person – that is, 20 people in 20 minutes, 40 people in 40 minutes, etc.

Hidden Away (30-60 min)

At this point, everything would be done with formal photos – couple’s portraits, wedding party photos and family formals. Guests would begin arriving, family would freshen up, and you as the couple would have a chance to relax together, knowing from this point forward all you need to do is have your ceremony and celebrate afterward.

Ceremony (30-60 min)

Guests are seated, fresh and witnessing your marriage. Some guests are hungry, some excited to dance, some excited to mingle. Either way, guests are full of anticipation of what is to come and in a positive mindset.

Guest Release (30+ min)

After the ceremony is over, guests are release from their seats. Perhaps they are released row by row, perhaps they follow out the bridal party and parents after they leave their seats. They may even collect in a location to have a grand exit with the couple, tossing lavender, rice, or olive leaves. Once the guests are released, they eagerly anticipate their next step, after all, they have done their hair and they have their best on. If a couple hosts a cocktail hour here, the guests transition into this space and await a drink if it’s a short cocktail period and hope for food, if it’s a full hour.

Cocktail Hour (30-60+ min)

While the guests move into cocktail time, the family will be called for photos. From time to time this is a chaotic period as family too likes cocktails. Sometimes your planner will need to peel the family from the drink line or from a great conversation, as time ticks on and the internal clock of the guests approaches that hour maximum. You can join your guests or tuck away together as a couple.

Prepping for reception grand entrance (10 min)

Approximately 15 minutes prior to being announced to your guests at your reception freshen up, perhaps change outfits and prepare to wow your guests with your grand entrance.

Grand Entrance! guests waited 30-60 minutes during cocktail hour

There you have it. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about having a first look with your partner at your wedding. My recommendation? Go for the first look if you have the option and if it feels right. If for any reason you don’t feel right about it, skip the first look and adjust your timeline accordingly, keeping in mind the experience of your guests. Remember, you can absolutely skip the first look, if you can shave time off of the photos you’ll take after the ceremony. No wedding party? Small family? Feel free to skip it.

Thank you for inviting me into your day.

Reach out to Steph directly at steph@5thPhotography.com

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I truly hope this article serves you. I would love to hear your plans. Together we would create photos that will stand the test of time and that will be ready to grace the pages of a magazine.

Contact me via below for a complimentary consultation.

"Steph captured the beauty of us as individuals and our chemistry as a couple. I sobbed when of joy when we saw our photos. She captured our love - the what I felt when I held him, the fullness with which he loved me, the way we felt when we kissed. I didn't think those things could be captured on camera. But Steph did that."

- Olivia & Enzo

Toronto Bride & Groom

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