The First Look: 5 tips for turning awkwardly creepy into authentically charming

This is the part of my job where I get paid to be a stalker.

This is the part of my job where I get paid to be a stalker.

It seems like the first look is falling out of vogue lately, and I think I know why. 

Imagine you are getting ready to see your future spouse. You get a tap on the shoulder, turn around and...

"Can you turn your head this way a little," the photographer chirps from five feet away.

...Yeah. I've witnessed a few of those nails-on-chalkboard moments as a guest, bridesmaid and second shooter. That's why, for my own clients, I've set out to make sure that never happens.

To me, the first look is just as sacred as the ceremony itself. 

Whether you're a couple in the throws of wedding planning or even a fellow photographer, here are five things to consider when planning a first look. Think the first look isn't for you? Read on anyway, and you might be surprised.

1. Give it time

I plan 15-20 minutes of first look time for my couples. Sure, I could get some lovely pictures in 5 minutes, but that's not the point. The first look isn't for me. During a ceremony, photographers are actively photographing about 20% of the time. But we don't yell, "Ok, got it! Let's move on to some portraits."

Genuine photographs are made in time with genuine moments, which happen much slower than the speed of the camera shutter. 

2. Give it space

If possible, I make sure my couples are alone (other than me & my assistant) for their first look. At almost every wedding, parents or bridesmaids (never groomsmen for whatever reason) beg to "be around" during the first look. Unless the couple and I have arranged for a specific audience ahead of time, this is when I start busting out the NOs.

The first look is usually a private moment. Even I get out of the way, as far as I can while still being able to take a few photos. Only when the couple starts to hesitantly look around for me do I even consider moving in. Sometimes it's three minutes, sometimes fifteen. Whatever it takes.

3. Bring a gift

Just like wedding bands during the ceremony, I love when couples have something to exchange during a first look. This can be just about anything, a brand new gift, a photo, a letter or an heirloom. Whatever it is, make it personal.

Angie surprised Pete with a box of pictures and trinkets that represented their relationship.

Angie surprised Pete with a box of pictures and trinkets that represented their relationship.

4. Pictures can wait

Wait, what!?! I know, it's practically blasphemy for a photographer to say this. But it's true. I do my best to catch those organic moments as they happen, and 80% of the time, it works out just fine. But if I see something I wasn't able to capture the way I wanted, I make note of it and work with the couple to recreate it once we get started with portraits.

This isn't a time for photographers to be passive, though. This when we are most on our feet. Being in front of a professional photographer can be intimidating, no matter how friendly and awkward we are. People act differently in front of cameras than they otherwise would.

The moments of the first look, when I'm a dozen yards (or more) away, is when I get to see how my couples truly interact with one another. This is the foundational reason why I recommend first looks: There is an affectionate intimacy that happens during a first look that will never occur during a ceremony or any other time on a wedding day.

What happens during this moment informs how a professional wedding photographer approaches a couple's photos for the rest of the day.

This moment happened during the first look, but I didn't capture it the way I had envisioned, so we recreated it after Angie & Pete were ready to move on to portraits.

This moment happened during the first look, but I didn't capture it the way I had envisioned, so we recreated it after Angie & Pete were ready to move on to portraits.

5. Use the aisle

This one is especially for those couples on the fence about doing a first look. Other than if couples want to adhere to strong cultural or religious traditions, I usually hear three things from couples who object to a first look:

  1. We want it to be special

  2. I want to see his/her expression

  3. We want to share it with our family and guests

To the first point, a well structured first look will be special, maybe even better than the ceremony, since there's very little pressure. To the second point, almost every "genuine expression" I've ever seen from a groom at the alter in this moment is deadpanned, slack-jawed awesomeness. Yep! He might be doing a happy dance on the inside, but with 150+ people having been staring him down for ten minutes (half of whom he just met today) and standing in a wool suit and shoes that could be used as tools of torture ... you get the point. Eventually he might remember to smile, but that usually happens after the precessional.

As to the third point, this is where I like to remind couples that a first look is a blank page. It's whatever you want it to be. If having your wedding party and family present for the first look is important to you, they'll be there. Whether it takes place in an open field or in the ceremony hall itself, it's all up to you.

Holding a first look in the same place as the ceremony can also help cut down on those pre-ceremony nerves. And, if I'm being very honest, it gives me a chance to get some great ceremony style shots in a situation where I have a lot more control.

Pete does this things where he just brushes his thumb and index finger on Angie's wrist when they stand close to each other. I never would have caught it if I hadn't taken a back seat during their first look. I made sure to show this little gesture in their portraits.

Pete does this things where he just brushes his thumb and index finger on Angie's wrist when they stand close to each other. I never would have caught it if I hadn't taken a back seat during their first look. I made sure to show this little gesture in their portraits.

A note to couples

Whatever you choose to do, remember that the day is yours. Do things you will love now and in 20 years. The photos I've included in this post are of my favorite first look of all time, taken in a very poorly lit, awkwardly laid out church balcony. But the existing light was romantic, and it gave the couple space to be alone. Maybe you are the rare, crowd-loving extrovert and think the ceremony reveal is your jam. That's totally fine. But remember that the only rules for the first look are the ones you make.

Hey, I've even had a first look where the family dog played a (very) active roll!

A note to photographers

The way the first look is orchestrated sets the tone for the rest of the day. It's where you establish trust with your couple, especially if it's been a while since their engagement session. Whether you've shot one wedding or over one hundred, the first look isn't your moment. Get as far away as possible and let it happen. If you didn't get the perfect shot, remember that moment and use it later to coach the couple during the portrait session. Bonus: people are way more comfortable posing in a manner that is natural to them than getting a crash course in modeling.