Should We Have an Unplugged Wedding?

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In this photo I focused on the iPad intentionally. Of course I made lots of unobstructed photos of the bride and groom and the setting from other angles.

Clients sometimes ask about having an “unplugged wedding ceremony” — a ceremony at which guests are not permitted to make photos/video. Here is an example of a client’s question:

I had a question I wanted to ask you about the wedding ceremony that my fiancé, our officiant and I were discussing yesterday. I was reading an article awhile ago about how brides and grooms are choosing not to allow their guests to take any pictures during the ceremony because they are getting in the way of the photographer and ruing really important pictures. I was just wondering what your thoughts were on this and if you have come across this issue a lot. I would hate to have my beautiful professional pictures ruined by a bunch a iPhones.”

Will Guests Get in the Way of the Pro Photographer?

If guests are photographing during the ceremony, it is usually just for the processional, the kiss, and the recessional, and it is usually only the guests near the aisle who have a clear view of something to photograph or make video. Guests who are not right by the aisle can’t get a clear shot anyway and usually don’t bother. Guests near the aisle are usually not a problem unless they step into the aisle. If they step into the aisle, it is usually just a little. It is always possible that a guest will be physically in the way of the professional photographer — but that usually doesn’t happen. Most guests are mindful of the professional photographer and know to stay out of the way. Toward the end of the ceremony, I try not to be too far back in the aisle; if I’m very far back, it’s easier for guests to forget that I’m there and to step too far into the aisle to get their photo.

Where there is enough room to arrange the seating, having an aisle that is wide and straight helps. At some weddings I’ve also seen a ribbon enclosing the seating along the center aisle, and that helps too. When guests do step into the aisle, I may have more of a challenge getting a clear shot. It may require that I move quickly to a better position if that’s possible. Or I may need to crop the photos more tightly. Fortunately, such problems are not very common.

I generally don’t mind my photos showing guests holding up phones, tablets or other cameras — as long as they are not physically in the way. There are many example photos online of guests holding up their phones or tablets right by the aisle. But be aware that such examples are sometimes framed and focused in such a way as to emphasize the phone or tablet. And there is a recent example of a guest holding a phone on a selfie-stick very far out into the aisle. Not good!

Photography by Wedding Guests: What Does it Mean?

One argument for unplugged weddings is that guests are not “fully present” if they are viewing the event on a device screen. However, I’m not convinced by that argument because, as a photographer, I’m sympathetic to others who have the desire to photograph. Their way of honoring the moment is to remember it with their own pictures. So for some people, photography is a very positive way of being present. As Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey says, “The world is a different and more exciting place when I am looking through a viewfinder.

The point about viewing the event “on a screen” and not “in real life” doesn’t take into account that guests are not looking at their screen during the entire ceremony. Guests with phones/cameras certainly see and experience the event in real life, even as they glance at the screen to ensure that scene before them is actually in the frame.

Phones and tablets have a bad reputation because they are used for so many other things, from playing games to watching videos to checking email. Their many functions add to the implication that these are distractions at a wedding. But in those key wedding ceremony moments they are being used specifically as cameras, not as anything else.

Phones and tablets are an integral part of our lives, so real weddings reflect that. When I see a fictional wedding portrayed in a movie or TV show, I look for the wedding photographer — and sometimes there isn’t one!  Movie directors may prefer the neat look of a wedding without cameras or photographers — but that’s easy to do in fiction. At real weddings, however, pro- and guest-cameras are often a part of the scene, reflecting their genuine value to real people.

Can Guest Photos Provide Some Benefits?

We wedding photographers have a business self-interest in being “exclusive” — so some of our advice may be biased in favor of unplugged weddings. I think it’s important to look at the potential benefits of photos by wedding guests, not just the potential harm.  

Every photo reflects a photographer’s unique perspective, so having your wedding guests’ photos may provide unique and even unexpected perspectives on your wedding.  Sometimes a guest will produce a unique photo that the bride and groom will absolutely love. Some couples created unique hashtags for their weddings as a way to collect their guests’ photos online. Occasionally a wedding guest will provide a photographic glimpse of the wedding to a relative who was too far away or too ill to attend.

There is also a point that we photographers don’t like to mention, which is that having guest photos (even mediocre ones) can help in the very unlikely event that the professional encounters a terrible technical problem. Professionals carry backup equipment to deal with this possibility, but it doesn’t hurt if some photos by guests also exist.

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Ribbons along the aisle look pretty and discourage guests from stepping into the aisle to take photos. The wide and straight aisle helps in case they do step into the aisle. Wedding photo at Seasons, Washington Township, NJ.

Conclusion:  Have it Your Way

There are reasonable arguments on both sides — for and against unplugged weddings — and I’m happy with whatever my clients decide.

  • If you feel that guests’ phones or tablets tend to distract from the look and feeling of the ceremony, then an unplugged ceremony is the way to go. It is very unlikely that I would be able to remove the phones and tablets from the photos in Photoshop later.
  • If phones and tablets don’t bother you, then let your guests photograph away — as long as they don’t stand in the aisle. Officiants should still ask guests to turn off their cell phone ringers to prevent unwanted audio interruptions.

Finally, I recommend reading Unplugged vs. Plugged-In: Top Tips for Technology Etiquette at Weddings (link to BridalMusings.com), which presents a balanced view of the pros and cons of unplugged weddings vs. plugged-in weddings, some statistics about what couples are actually doing, and some useful tips on social media, hashtags, photos sharing sites, apps, etc.

[Zlatko’s Note:  this post was revised for better clarity and readability in June, 2017.]

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