The unplugged wedding: couples tell guests to put down their devices

Photo by Nora & Troy at, used by permission

So there you are at the altar, gazing into the eyes of your beloved, saying your vows. You turn to sneak a glance at your wedding guests, all your favorite beloved friends and family… and are greeted by a sea of down-turned faces staring at their LCD screens.

When your photos come back from your wedding photographer, all your guest shots include your favorite people staring at their favorite devices. People are smiling, but they're all staring at little screens.

Welcome to the era of the over-documented wedding, where, even if you've hired someone to take photos, every guest has a camera and an iPhone and is tweeting the whole event. They're there with you, but are they really present?

Be nice, turn off your device

As a web nerd who spends the majority of my life plugged into my laptop and smartphone, even I think it's critical to take a few moments to be truly present. Smell the air, look around, feel the texture of the world around us. A wedding ceremony is exactly the kind of fleeting, important moment when it's especially valuable to really be present, rather than relating to the world through a small LCD screen. When you discourage devices at your wedding, you encourage your guests to look up and drink in the world. Let's call it "in-the-moment matrimony."

As a web nerd who spends the majority of my life plugged in, even I think it's critical to take a few moments to be truly present.

While many churches have no camera policies, I'm hearing more and more from nontraditional secular couples that they're considering an unplugged wedding — at the very least, asking guests to turn off their devices during the ceremony.

Now, let's acknowledge that a fully plugged-in, hyper-documented wedding makes perfect sense for some couples. Micro-budget brides sometimes skip professional photography, opting to rely on guest photographs — so of course guest cameras make perfect sense in that context. If you're a digerati who announced your engagement via Facebook, had an iPad-wielding officiant, read your vows off an iPhone, and live-streamed your ceremony, then there's no reason you should unplug your wedding. I'm certainly not here to dictate that anyone needs to have less tech at their wedding.

If, however, you and your partner are looking for a few less beeps and a bit more face-to-face connection with your guests, an unplugged wedding could be a good fit for you.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Seltzer Photography, used by permission.

Don't experience our wedding through a viewfinder: the bride perspective

Philadelphia resident Kathleen Harbin, 27, is considering going unplugged for her June 2012 wedding in Antalya, Turkey. "My ceremony will be very short (perhaps 15 minutes)… it could fly by while someone tries to figure out whether their memory card is full. How can I connect with my guests when I can't even see them through the cameras they're holding up?"

How can I connect with my guests when I can't even see them through the cameras they're holding up?

Carrie Kilman, a 35-year-old planning her August 2011 wedding in Madison, WI, has personal experience with the distraction factor. "As a photographer myself, I know how the act of being behind the lens can distance me from the energy of the moment — I become an observer and interpreter, and no longer a true participant. We want our guests to experience our ceremony in a way you typically can't do when you're staring through a viewfinder or fiddling with your iPhone."

She goes on, "Philosophically, I don't like the way digital cameras and camera phones have encouraged the sense that we need to 'capture' everything in order for it feel complete. I'd rather people simply watched and clapped and smiled and cried — and really listened and remembered, not from the photos they downloaded onto their computers, but from their own memories."

Photo by Benj Haisch, used with permission

Dealing with Uncle Bob: the wedding professional perspective

Wedding officiants are starting to get more requests for unplugged ceremonies, as well. Celebrant Jessie Blum, of New Jersey's Eclectic UnionsThey ♥ OBB; we ♥ them said, "I've had a few couples who have requested that NO photos be taken at the ceremony. Often times, when the request comes from the officiant, guests will take note and respect the couple's wishes. Guests get so bogged down in taking photos sometimes — it's nice to be able to step back, and just enjoy the moment!"

Wedding industry insiders even have a name for the aggressive amateur photographer at weddings: Uncle Bob.

Perhaps the strongest proponents of unplugged weddings are professional wedding photographers, who sometimes experience significant challenges working around guests trying to capture the event for themselves. Seattle wedding photographer Jenny JimenezThey ♥ OBB; we ♥ them observed, "Too many wedding crowd shots these days include distracted people checking cell phones and camera LCDs… especially during the processional and recessional."

Wedding industry insiders even have a name for the aggressive amateur photographer getting in the way at weddings: Uncle Bob. You don't have to look very hard to find a million rants about how Uncle Bob has ruined professional wedding photos with the flash from his camera, photobombing gorgeous poses, kneeling in the aisle blocking the view of the vows, and even standing on pews.

Some wedding photographers will even show their couples photos of an Uncle Bob ruining a wedding photo, as a way to encourage their clients to ask guests to put down their cameras.

Apparently, shortly after this photo was taken, the officiant turned around and firmly told this guest to go sit down. Photo by Joe Sanfilippo Photography, used with permission.

Is unplugging right for your wedding?

I want to clarify again: I'm certainly not saying that all weddings should be unplugged, or that guests are doing anything wrong when they have their cameras and phones out. If it doesn't bother the couple, then it's not a problem. As with all things Offbeat Bride, ultimately this wedding decision comes down to what feels right to each couple.

That said, I do think that in this era of 24-hour connectivity, where there's an iPhone in every pocket, a Facebook status update in every encounter, and a digital hobbyist photographer in every family, it's important to carefully consider the issue. Digital devices are ever-present in our daily lives; what role do you want these devices to play at your wedding?

  1. We got married two years ago in a Catholic ceremony, and asked our officiant to announce from the pulpit that the bride and groom would like the guests to be fully there in spirit and in body, and therefore not to take photos during the ceremony. It worked, and noone took a photo after he said it.

    In fairness, most people didn't take photos of me walking down the aisle, but there is a lovely one of everyone looking at me and my Dad, ruined by someone in the foreground fiddling with her phone. (I am aware of the irony of a guest taking one of the best photos).

  2. As a wedding photographer nothing makes me happier when a couple comes to pick up their wedding photos and they are elated with their pictures, because its the first time they see their pictures. Because they didn't see any of them posted on FB. I always discuss this with my couples why I prefer that no one take photos except myself for that reason and also to avoid ruining group shots cause everyone is looking in a different location. So far I have not had any couple reject my request.

  3. I would not allow this many cameras. its obscure! i know my name is diamond and sounds obscure but this is not very good to do at a wedding nor having or seeing a bunch of people looking at you with cameras. keep it old fashion!

  4. As a photographer who trained pre-digital age I can't help but feel that I should be adamantly pro-unplugged weddings. However I am also an absolute social media addict, especially when it comes to photography, be that professional work or my beloved iphone images.
    Whilst I can certainly see the benefit of shooting with no risk of uncles, aunts or over-enthusiastic friends popping into shot at that all important moment I also have to admit it has never totally ruined a shot for me either.
    Truth be told, I feel that if people are snapping away on phones, point and shoots, disposable camera's or anything else this is all part of the story of the day. Some of my favourite images incorporate this modern phenomenon – children running round with disposable camera's, grandparents deciphering touch-screen style shooting etc.
    I suppose the fact is the portrait photographer in me would be grateful at least, to not feel like I am in some kind of polite paparazzi scrum whilst trying to capture intimacy and romance between newly married couples (as an ex music photographer I served my time elbow jostling for pictures!), but the documentary photographer in my enjoys the additional sub-narratives that play out in the background.

  5. Hi, I find this very interesting as I'm getting married soon and wish that people won't get In The way of the professional photographer however my fiancé is looking to do a live stream for all the folks who really wants to be there but finances won't allow. My question is since we are planning the live stream would it look bad to ask guests to unplug?

    • You could remind them of the live streaming video. Remind them that they will look a lot better on tv WITHOUT their phones in front of their faces.


  6. From the other side: We DIDN'T have an unplugged wedding, and I'm SO glad. Through a long chain of events, we got a photographer the day before the wedding. Looking through his portfolio, he was an amazing photographer/digital artist, though not a wedding photographer. There were several shots he either didn't get at all, or didn't get good shots. We got a hundred or so images, but they were almost all of the ceremony (from the same spot, so they all looked the same) and of the table decorations (again, almost all looked the same). Without our friends and family taking pictures, we would have missed out on a lot of the tangible memories.

  7. This is absolutely crazy! It's funny because photographers have such strict rules at churches now, but really the guests are a much bigger distraction!

  8. I am a wedding photographer myself and cannot thank you enough for writing this article. Having guests taking photos during the weddings I photograph is the number one problem I face currently. Everyone is a photographer and wants to get on the ay to capture the wedding day. Sometimes I wonder why the bride and groom actually hires me to be there wedding photographer.

    I usually ask the couples to send a message to their clients that we will have "unplugged" wedding but still many cannot resist the urge. Hope many brides and grooms will read and share this blog so we can have better view of them during the ceremony. If one hires a wedding photographer, why not let his or her do their jobs. One thing which I found useful is to add a clause into my wedding contract stating that if guests interfere I will not be liable for missed photos or snapping their backs.

    Good to hear how others are dealing with this problem.


  9. I think this is something that we should communicate with our couples. Guests busy on gadgets really don't make good subjects for our pictures. :/

  10. The link for "standing on pews" in the Uncle Bob section leads to a site infected with malware, that proceeded to try to infect my computer with malware. You should remove the hyperlink :)

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