WTS Entry 2: First Look or Cocktail Hour?

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Welcome to the Evan Godwin Photography Wedding Tip Series (WTS). This series of 10 blog posts, published every Friday for the next 10 weeks, will provide a list of helpful tips to consider when planning your wedding. With 400+ weddings worth of first-hand experience, these entries should help the planner-less bride (or even a few with planners) wade through the massive amounts of brain-frying information on the internet to focus on the most important things to consider when working with their wedding photographer.

Today’s topic of discussion is all about the First Look (and the cocktail hour)! Today’s bride is inundated with options that bride’s weren’t privy to a few years ago. Some view the First Look as a “trendy fad,” others the best decision they made regarding their wedding day. This entry was designed to not only illustrate the differences between the First Look and cocktail hour, but to break down the options for how the day would flow with either choice.


The First Look

Some of you probably read that and the first thing that comes to mind is “What is a First Look?” Long story short, the First Look is where the bride and groom opt to see each other prior to the ceremony. Long story long(er), the First Look is an opportunity for the bride and groom to share an intimate “couple-only” moment before the ceremony where they can not only share the moment privately, but also alleviate their post-ceremony timeline from many of the portraits traditionally taken during that time.

Why do couples choose to do a First Look?

-It’s intimate

Bride, groom, photographer. These 3 people are the only people who take part in the First Look. Generally occurring away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the day, a good photographer will scout out a location for the First Look that is removed from everyone’s prying eyes. He or she will set up the groom (dress and ready by this point) with his back facing the entrance of the bride, the bride will enter and walk up behind him, tap him on the shoulder, he will turn around to see her and BAM: First Look. It’s just the three people mentioned, which leads to the next point:

-It’s genuine

When a groom is standing on the alter and sees the bride for the first time at that point, it is just that: the groom standing in front of dozens (if not hundreds) of people he may or may not know. He can’t move, he can’t give you a huge hug or kiss, he can’t really do much of anything. His expression at that point typically reflects the sort of awkward situation he is currently in (being in front of all these people), especially if it is a groom who is not used to being in front of a lot of people or is a bit more introverted. During the First Look he can give you a huge hug, twirl you around and express his genuine first impressions of seeing you in your dress for the first time. Oh, also? Yeah- that whole ceremony thing isn’t nerve-wracking anymore. The hard part is done and he’s seen you. Now, it’s game time and the pressure is off. I’m not exaggerating when I say that every groom I have every had who did a First Look has mentioned how thankful he is that he opted for a First Look.


Holy smokes, I can’t emphasize this one enough. Wouldn’t it be nice to seamlessly transition from ceremony to reception without having to take a bunch of time to get back to the alter, track people down and take portraits? Opting to do a First Look allows for you to get full wedding party, bride/groom AND family portraits done prior to the ceremony. It obviously will result in coverage starting a bit earlier, but you get it all done before the ceremony, allowing you to begin enjoying your reception even faster.

-Better photos

A groom generally photograph’s much better seeing the bride coming down the aisle if he has seen her before. As previously mentioned, he is standing up there in front of tons of people, sometimes in a warm spotlight (if in a church or sanctuary) and can’t really move. This results in an expressionless or nervous-looking groom. A groom who has already seen the bride is more calm, cool and relaxed, resulting in a more jovial and excited expression. Not only this, but your photographer is generally afforded a bit more time to take the wedding party to a couple of different spots rather than doing all the photos at the alter in crunch time post-ceremony.

-More photos

The First Look takes that moment from the ceremony that results in 2-3 shots of the groom’s face and extrapolates it into 25-30 frames from you both seeing each other for the first time. Oh, and you’re still going to get those 2-3 shots from the ceremony anyway.

Why couples choose not to do a First Look?


Traditionally speaking, the groom waits until the ceremony to see the bride. This traditional stems from hundreds of years ago, when marriages were arranged and the wedding was the first time the groom was seeing the bride EVER. Waiting until the ceremony to reveal the bride ensured that groom would not run away before the wedding if he was not pleased with the arrangement. I’m not even joking you.


Some venues are purchased in blocks of time, meaning that couples will not have enough time at their venue for portraits after getting ready before the ceremony starts. One recommendation, if this is the case, would be to get ready at a nearby hotel. This will take alleviate a lot of pre-ceremony stress and allow for you to take your time to enjoy your wedding day instead of being hampered by time restrictions set by your venue.

-The groom wants to wait until the ceremony

This generally only occurs for groom’s who have not read this. On that note, make them read this.

A First Look is an optimal option if you are a timeline-conscious bride or if you are preferring a more free-flowing wedding day. If you would like to see an optimal First Look timeline, feel free to check out WTS Entry 1: Thinking About Your Timeline. Oh, and in case you are wondering, this is what it looks like (click to enlarge):


We-need-to-get-going-so-that-way-we-don’t-keep-our-guests-waiting Syndrome

Now, if absolutely none of this floats your boat and if the mere idea of seeing the groom prior to the ceremony itself is off-putting, there is one huge question to answer:

“When are these photos going to get done?”

I’m not talking about the groom seeing the bride for the first time; that will obviously happen during the ceremony. What I am talking about are the family portraits (especially ones that require both the bride & groom), the full wedding party portraits (these can’t happen if the bride & groom haven’t seen each other) and most importantly- photos of the bride and groom together, alone. If you are reading this after reading the first entry in the WTS series then you have had a great introduction to how real wedding timelines work.

Post-ceremony photos don’t begin the second the bride & groom walk down the aisle, for example. The rest of the wedding party has to recess, bride & groom get tucked away, guests exit (rarely in haste), bride & groom get stopped 14 times with people congratulating/hugging them as they try to make their way back to the alter for photos, etc, etc. Realistically, this is about a 15-minute period of time before your photographer (generally, to no fault of them) is able to begin tackling your post-ceremony portraits. At that point the clock starts ticking. About 7 minutes into portraits the bride or groom (or both) start to get what I call “We-need-to-get-going-so-that-way-we-don’t-keep-our-guests-waiting Syndrome.” It’s a horrifying ailment, typically resulting in rushed images and in some severe cases, forfeited images.

“We can just do it later” is a common cure for this disease, as is “We don’t really need that one.”

“Later” never happens and yes, you do need that one. You don’t want to regret it down the road. All it takes are proper expectations and planning ahead of time. What would that entail, you ask? Getting as much done pre-ceremony as possible and providing ample time between ceremony and reception to get everything done that you are looking for.

Traditional Format Portraits

Most couples who opt not to do a First Look (hereby references as the “traditional” format) will want to take bride/bridesmaid and groom/groomsmen portraits before the ceremony and everything else post-ceremony. Some will even want to throw some family portraits in the pre-ceremony timeline to get them out of the way.

The latter I strongly recommend against when not doing a First Look. I believe I mentioned this in the first WTS entry, but it deserves rehashing here as well: the more items on a timeline that exist which require new people, the more points there are for something to run behind or late, which can (and will) in turn throw the rest of the timeline off. For instance, in the case of trying to do family portraits before AND after the ceremony, the format would be:

Getting ready

Bride/bridesmaid portraits

Bride/family portraits

Groom/groomsmen portraits

Groom/family portraits

Guest arrive, pre-ceremony photos complete

Ceremony start

Ceremony end

Bride/groom/family portraits

Full wedding party portraits

Bride/groom portraits

The above format takes a LOT of stars aligning on the day of the wedding. When I say that, I mean that very rarely will not only bride and bridesmaids be ready on-time, but having all the family members she wants to be in pre-ceremony photos present and ready before the ceremony is a very tall task. Then you have to wish/hope/pray for the same thing on the groom’s side. One thing of note is this: most of the family portraits that are taken pre-ceremony need to be repeated after the ceremony anyway, since the couple will more than likely want a copy of most of those photos with both the bride & groom in them now. This is another reason why I recommend doing all family portraits at one time; it’s much easier and takes significantly less time to just pull the groom out of a couple of shots (and visa versa with the bride) than it does to get families together at 3 different times.

Another, and significantly more common, version of the traditional format is to just request bride/bridesmaid and groom/groomsmen portraits are done prior to the ceremony. That would look something like this:

Getting ready

Bride/bridesmaid portraits

Groom/groomsmen portraits

Guest arrive, pre-ceremony photos complete

Ceremony start

Ceremony end

Bride/groom/family portraits

Full wedding party portraits

Bride/groom portraits

The sticking point with this timeline is ensuring that your makeup/hair is completed in plenty of time for you to get your dress on and ready for portraits. It’s very common for this to run behind, causing the photographer to scramble to fit the groom/groomsmen in before the bride/bridesmaids (in order to fill the gap productively), only find out that they aren’t ready yet since, well, they weren’t expecting to be first up for pictures. This then results in only groom/groomsmen getting photographed before the ceremony since the bride severely underestimated how much time it was going to take for her to get in her dress, and we are forced to cram these photos in post-ceremony, resulting in fewer (and less fun) shots of the bride and bridesmaids.

This may beg the question: Why don’t you just schedule bride/bridesmaids to go after the guys to give them more time? Simple: many brides prefer not to have guests see them before the ceremony. Guests begin arriving up to 45 minutes before the ceremony starts, which is when we are in the middle of photographing groom/groomsmen. If we planned to photograph bride/bridesmaids during that time, guests would see the bride before the wedding. Scheduling bride/bridesmaids first also provides them an additional 30 minutes or so for touch ups/relax time before the ceremony, something that will be much appreciated once the day rolls around.


The Cocktail Hour

If opting for the traditional format, the most important thing to keep in mind is ensuring that you plan for and provide ample time for your photographer to capture everything you are wanting. What photographers don’t want to happen is to go into the ceremony having to do family portraits, full wedding party and bride/groom portraits post-ceremony with the grand entrance scheduled for 30 minutes after the ceremony end time. Assuming the ceremony started 10 minutes late (always assume this) and it took 15 minutes for the couple to make their way back to the alter for photos after recessing, that leaves the photographer 5 minutes to get about an hour’s worth of photos done. Do yourself, your guest and your photographer a huge favor: plan a cocktail hour. The cocktail hour will keep your guests occupied while you and your family are getting your photos done without the constant stress of “not wanting to keep the guests waiting.” They’re still waiting, however they’re going to have the opportunity to grab refreshments and light fare, as well as mingle, leaving you with nothing to worry about while your rock star photographer goes about doing the job they were hired for.

With that in mind, a proper cocktail hour begins once your guests are expected to arrive, not as soon as the ceremony is over. The bride & groom need just as much time to get to Point B as a guest (if not more), so that time should be factored in.

The timeline should not be this:

6:00pm Ceremony

6:30pm Ceremony end time

6:30pm Cocktail hour begins

The timeline should be closer to this:

6:00pm Ceremony

6:30pm Ceremony end time

6:30pm Guests move to reception/cocktail hour area

6:45pm Cocktail hour begins

The best-case scenario? Everything goes as planned and you arrive ready for your grand entrance as planned.

The worst-case scenario? Possibly better than your best-case scenario: you arrive with time to spare and can mingle with your guests prior to your grand entrance.


Which One is For You?

All of this being said, there are countless ways to have your timeline. Opting for the First Look isn’t for everyone, and neither is a lengthy cocktail hour. Where are you getting ready? When is your ceremony? How long do you have your venue? All of these factors play into what will work best for you on your wedding day. The best thing to do from here is for the bride and groom to talk with their photographer to explore their options.

In next week’s edition of the Wedding Tip Series I will dive into how other vendors affect our job as photographers. This will especially be helpful if you are still in the processes of piecing together your wedding vendor team!