Should I do a First Look?

April 4, 2024

If you’re planning your wedding and asking yourself, “Should I do a first look?” then this blog is your definitive answer to all the reasons you should, or should not, do a first look.

What is a first look?

Generally speaking, a first look is when the couple sees each other before the ceremony. The photographer chooses a place for the couple to meet, and they have a few moments together alone (or sometimes, as their loved ones or wedding party watches).

Afterward, the couple and/or wedding party do their portraits, so the majority of the portrait time is done before the ceremony.

When did the first look become popular?

First looks first started appearing about a decade ago, when couples and planners and wedding photographers together realized that cramming all the portraits into the short period of time between the ceremony and the reception was just… too much.

Over this time, they’ve gone from being a trend to becoming a main feature of a wedding day schedule.

What do I do during a first look?

There’s a bunch of ways that the photographer will set up the first look. Sometimes it’s in a field or garden near where they get ready, sometimes it’s in a place that’s really meaningful to the couple, sometimes it’s in the room where one of them got ready.

Photographers will oftentimes set it up with an element of “surprise:” one person will walk up behind the other and tap them on the shoulder, or someone is blindfolded, or meet back to back and they turn around at the same time… there’s an infinite number of ways to orchestrate the meeting. But it’s usually framed so that the photographer can “get the shot:” the couple’s first reaction when they see each other.

The first look has further evolved to be an option for some meaningful time together. Couples often share a gift, a letter to each other, or even their private vows–moments they want their deepest feelings to be between them alone, not to be shared in front of everyone at the ceremony.

Some couples will also do a “first look without the look.” This is when they meet in a location with a door or a corner of a pillar or a wall separating them–so they can hear each other or hold hands, without seeing each other to save that surprise for the ceremony.

Reasons to do a first look

First looks started because they

  1. make the day more convenient for photography, and then we all realized that first looks also…
  2. allow for more time with your guests,
  3. give you some time alone on a very busy day
  4. provide an option to share words with each other you don’t want to share in front of everyone

By that measure, first looks seem like a no brainer! What started out as a convenience became a meaningful opportunity to be together on a busy day and have a more flowy wedding schedule.

Reasons NOT to do a first look

Despite their convenience, first looks do have some downsides that us photographers don’t always talk about. It’s the subject of a recent instagram post I shared provocatively titled, “First Looks are Overrated.” CLICK HERE TO READ THE POST.

Us wedding photographers can sometimes get ahead of ourselves. We generally like things to look good, we generally like to be prepared, and we generally have a little (or giant) perfectionist streak in us. Because of these attributes, we design first looks so that we can assuage the anxiety we all experience: missing the shot.

So, if we set up the shot, we’re not going to miss it. And we assume you don’t want us to miss it, so we sort of… expect… you to go along with us.

But here’s the thing: you might not want that. You might not want to be set up. You might want things to be as natural as possible. You might not feel good waiting in a field. You might not enjoy being overtly directed, and with that, feel the expectation that you have to react in a certain way.

That’s my beef with first looks. They can set the couple up to behave in a way that isn’t natural to them.

Nearly all of my couples come to me because they want documentary wedding photography, the foundation of which is “NO SET UPS.”

Documentary wedding photography avoids directing people, or posing them, because for a lot of folks, that process feels very unnatural and subsequently, awkward. The point of documentary photography is not to direct. Directing inserts the photographer’s expectation of what something should look like, rather than how it really is. Directing makes it about the photographer whereas documentary makes it about the couple and their story.

For people who do not want to feel awkwardness on their wedding day, documentary wedding photography is a beautiful solution.

There’s enough pressure on a wedding day, let alone waiting in a room or on the other side of a door for your love to walk in and pour their heart out. So, should I do a first look?

Hear me out: I absolutely agree that first looks can be WONDERFUL and MEANINGFUL and LOVELY.

AND also, for lots of people, SETTING UP THE FIRST LOOK can feel really, really awkward. I want to bring this to light. We don’t talk about this possible ramification. The reason I’m writing this blog post is because on multiple occasions, I overheard or was directly told that the first look felt awkward.

And so, I want to have a discussion and present a solution.

Us wedding photographers and wedding planners can get really excited about how things should roll on the wedding day. And sometimes, because of that experience and enthusiasm, we can forget to go through all the ins and outs with a couple. We can forget to share the downsides of doing a first look.

And that downside my friend, is feeling awkward because of the expectation that first looks have to be a surprise, and that your honest reaction may not live up to the expectation of a photographer or even, your partner.

I’ve photographed hundreds of weddings and hundreds of first looks and let me tell you, there’s a lot that are awkward. There’s a lot that are funny. There’s a lot that are sweet. There’s a lot that are emotional. There’s a lot that are simply practical.

What I hope to help you understand by asking ‘should I do a first look’ is that, if you want to see your person before the ceremony, let it be because you want to see them, and HOW you want to see them. Not because the photographer needs it to look a certain way.

And photographers, we need to support our couples to understand that however they share their time together is how they share their time together and that alone is beautiful. We do not need to build up expectation that they respond or behave how we might prefer.

We need to honour them and do our very best to make meaningful images of their relationship as it naturally is. If you a documentary wedding photographer, this is your duty.

First looks do not need to happen with a fake surprise in the middle of a field. They can happen in a hallway, in the dressing room, on a staircase, anywhere. And only in the way that feels natural to the couple.

Should I do a first look?

I hope this honest discussion has supported you in deciding if you should do a first look. I hope the takeaway message is that you, as the couple, get to decide whether a first look happens, you get to set the intention, and you get to choose a photographer whose work feels right for you.

CLICK HERE to contact me if you want to talk more about first looks and how to make them more meaningful.