Why having a first look can be so beneficial

and how best to plan if you prefer not to have one

Wedding day planning is pretty much a nonstop flow of decisions—choices that can get a little paralyzing when they all start to add up. One of the best ways to approach your plans is to priority-order your decision-making. As a California Wedding photographer based in San Diego, I’ve seen so many couples work through so many decisions, but from a photography perspective, there are a few things that definitely top the priority list, because they will impact your timeline and the shape of your day. First looks are one of the biggies!

Now, just to make sure we’re talking about the same thing, here’s a quick first-look breakdown: A first look means seeing your partner before the ceremony begins. It usually is private for the couple (with us capturing it), and typically one partner is facing away while the other partner approaches from behind and then reaches out, says something, grabs something—whatever to get their partner to turn around for the reveal! Of course, there are exceptions to these not-so-structured rules—either partner can be the revealer, and we can also find a location for a mutual reveal (though options tend to be more limited).

It’s totally normal to struggle with deciding whether or not you want to see your partner before the ceremony, so I’ve put together some reasons we think they’re super beneficial, that will hopefully help you figure out if the decision makes sense for you.

Easing up your timeline

01.Easing up your timeline

One of the big impact factors about your wedding day is your timeline. No matter what, you never feel like you have enough time, and every single person walks away from their wedding saying it went by in a flash. So, my favorite reason for a first look is how much it opens up your timeline. Schedule it early, and your whole day opens up. It gives you so much more flexibility for your timeline plans!

In the above image, for this Palm Springs wedding, we scheduled their first look two and a half hours before the ceremony kicked off. As a general rule, two+ hours before your ceremony is a good basic rule of thumb, but may depend on how many other portraits you want to do in advance. In the case of this wedding, our couple wanted a chance to do all their group portraits and couple portraits in advance, and this helped them achieve that! Huge groups like large wedding parties could mean you’d benefit from extra time. Normally we tuck couples away half an hour before ceremony start time if they’d prefer to remain hidden from guests, so keep that in mind when factoring in your timeline plans as all portraits need to be wrapped by then so you can go freshen up, hydrate, and prep for the ceremony. Okay, and pee, you’ll totally need to stop and pee.

Taking Away the Jitters

02.Taking Away the Jitters

If you haven’t seen each other for a while, the anxiety leading up to the big moment can be overwhelming, even paralyzing. What a relief, then, to get to see your almost-spouse in advance to experience the relaxation, familiarity, and comfort of their touch, their snuggle, their laugh, their support. Clients tend to experience a huge sense of relief the minute they see the one they love, because from that moment on, you’re together for the day.

If you lean towards feeling anxious, this could be a very helpful way of releasing the anxiety. Many clients have told me in the past that seeing their partner’s face immediately released all their tension, and they felt grounded again. Or sometimes burst into huge fits of laughter… basically, you do you in your way, and whatever helps release that tension. This San Diego wedding at the Lafayette had both partners practically bouncing off the walls waiting to see each other, and for them, taking the pressure off by doing this fun doorway reveal made the day plenty more fun.

Maximizing your time with your spouse

03.Maximizing your time with your spouse

So the weirdest thing about not seeing each other until the ceremony is that on your one special day, you might only end up spending a third or even just a quarter of that day together. Wonky, right? There’s something extra-special about making sure you spend the most possible time together on this fleeting day you’ll be celebrating annually with your very most fave person ever. So when you look back on your day, there’s a lot of value to making time for as many memories as possible. The more time together, the better—that’s what I always say.

Getting more time with your people

04.Getting more time with your people

Most of my clients agree that their guests are among the very most important parts of their day—if they weren’t such a huge deal, it sure would’ve been easier to just elope, right? [Editor’s note: seriously, how many times have you already considered just eloping with planning being so demanding, amirite?] So maximizing your time with all these people you bring together for this one-time-only celebration… well, that’s pretty significant!

If you envision wanting to spend your cocktail hour actually drinking cocktails with your guests, if you envision face time with each one of your guests, well, then a first look well before any guests ever arrive is a great way to do so. Basically, it frees you up to spend more of your cocktail hour just catching up with friends and family, and actually stuffing your faces full of the food and beverages you very much deserve. This Orange County wedding was a darling backyard celebration, and we loved how playful this couple got with it. But particularly, they loved having this first look out of the way so they could catch up with their friends and family at cocktail hour.

Getting ALL portraits out of the way

05.Getting ALL portraits out of the way

Building on the time with your guests thing, by doing a first look, you’ll be able to get some or even all your formal portraits done early. These are the group photos including family or your wedding party attendants. By scheduling a first look early, we can fit all of these in before guests even arrive if you’d like, thereby freeing up that cocktail hour for you to join in. This Palm Springs wedding didn’t originally have a first look scheduled but once they’d built out a timeline they realized just how tight and stressful it would be to shoot their very long list of family portraits during their cocktail hour. Capturing their couple and wedding party early helped alleviate that hassle.

Most clients lean towards doing a first look, couple portraits, and wedding party portraits in advance, and then will allot the start of cocktail hour for family portraits (can be more convenient once you have everyone there with no stragglers, especially for larger extended family groupings), and occasionally some additional golden hour couple portraits. But I’d say about a quarter of our clients decide to get family portraits done in advance as well, especially if the groups are just immediate family. Just one less thing to worry about once your guests arrive.

The special magic of unrushed time together

06.The special magic of unrushed time together

Instead of feeling like it’s a manic race against time to squeeze everything in during cocktail hour in a panic, doing a first look allows you to have a much more relaxed portrait experience. Lemme say that again in a simpler way: Y’ALL WANNA BE AS RELAXED AS POSSIBLE ON YOUR WEDDING DAY. Stress ain’t worth it. Give yourselves the gift of time! For this wedding in the hills north of Los Angeles, this oh-so-in-love couple were able to relax with each other, giggle about all the fun they’d had separately in the morning, and regale each other with all the shenanigans their friends and family got up to. They just wanted time to catch up with each other, before having to race around the venue or kick off all the formalities. It was about creating a moment for them to have FUN together.

Basically, it allows you to set as much time for portraits as you like, which makes for a super laid-back pace that gives you more time to have a great time together, to explore your favorite nooks and crannies of a venue/neighborhood at your own pace, or even allows time to go offsite if you have a vision for a different location for portraits. That means you can have far more variety, cooler places to explore, and just a generally more enjoyable experience together because you gave yourselves extra time. Go you!

Private party of two

07.Private party of two

This one is big for couples that don’t crave the limelight. Many of my couples live for a badass party, but don’t love the idea of being at the center of it. So giving yourselves privacy can sometimes be a relief for introverts who would rather make the moment that they see one another something that’s personal and just for them. As you can see with the Los Angeles skyline in the background, this couple loved highlighting their adopted city, in a secret little nook behind their venue. It can also be a more comfortable emotional space—we have found that people often try to contain their emotions at the ceremony, whereas with first looks they feel freer to just feel their feels. And let’s be clear, in our books, the more feels, the better. Cry, laugh, and squeal your hearts out, friends.

Time is precious, make the most of it

Have a more traditional perspective?

A.k.a. 'But that head-of-the-aisle moment!'

Don’t worry, we understand that plenty of folks lean more traditional, and have a vision of a moment shared with all their guests. If that’s more your jam, we’re totally game to help bring that reality to life. My biggest suggestions for making this the best experience for you:

  • Do separate wedding party grouping photos in advance so the only wedding party group to shoot after the ceremony is the full group.
  • See if it’s possible to extend your cocktail hour. Ain’t nothing wrong with 1.5 hours to enjoy hanging out, especially if you’re providing games, photobooths, etc.
  • Schedule your ceremony a bit earlier in the day so that it’s not a race against the sunset to try and get all your portraits in (read: if you are having a literal sunset ceremony but would like daylight portraits, then you really, really need a first look).
  • Minimizing your lengthy family groupings list would be immensely helpful. Those can take such a long time, especially if you have redundancies (like the same photo but with one person swapped out and then another swapped out).

Just keep in mind that if your goal is to participate in your cocktail hour, then a first look is probably the best choice for you. That cocktail hour period is likely to be needed for family portraits (and family can be tricky to wrangle), wedding party portraits, and of course couple portraits. And depending on how long those family and wedding party lists are (and the size of each group), that can demand the bulk of that time, sometimes leaving little to no couple portrait time at all. Considering that couple portraits are usually what clients print big for their walls, we recommend ensuring you have as much quality couple time as you can squeeze in. Sometimes we even save extended family groupings for during the reception so that we can keep portrait time limited during cocktail hour.

One other caveat I like to mention: if you’re having a catholic wedding with a ceremony set early in the day, you may not actually need a first look. This is what we refer to as the Catholic Gap—a somewhat long period between your ceremony and the beginning of your reception. If your ceremony wraps at 2:00 and your reception (including cocktail hour) doesn’t begin until four or five, well then we happen to have two+ hours where we can get all those portraits done, and in that case, a first look is probably unecessary time-wise (though you may still prefer it for a few of the reasons above).

Interested, but still worried about the ceremony feeling special? One thing some folks do is have some kind of outfit element that they add right before the ceremony so you’re still seeing something new about one another. Often this is a veil but this could be any item that adds a special enhancement to be donned just for the ceremony. That said, your ceremony is going to be all kinds of magic all on its own, and I promise you’ll feel something special walking down that aisle, seeing your partner waiting for you even if you had seen each other in advance.

Still thinking about it?

Here’s a little more first look inspiration for you as you consider what would suit you and your loved one best. And if you did or didn’t have a first look, we’d love to hear from you and hear more about your experience in the comments!

Is a First Look right for me?
Is a First Look right for me?
Is a First Look right for me?
Is a First Look right for me?
Is a First Look right for me?
Is a First Look right for me?
Is a First Look right for me?
Is a First Look right for me?