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

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Photo by Nora & Troy at Aurora-Photography.com, 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 Unions 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 Jimenez 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.

[related-post align=”right”]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?

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

  1. YES YES YES! When I have the couple who elects to do this.. I am SO HAPPY. I don’t understand how someone can even enjoy the event with a camera glued to their face. It’s really out of control with today’s wedding guests. That is why there is a professional photographer.. So you can capture the day. I am not against bringing your camera to get fun shots of you with your friends but geez, don’t keep it up the whole day.

    • Fighting against social media is like trying to stop a freight train. Try using something like a photofiesta kiosk. That way guests can upload a professional image or two to social media without disrupting the event, and hopefully they can keep their cellphone in their pocket – where it belongs.

    • It’s a tricky on this. I love the dynamic of have so many camera screens to use in my shots, but It’s all a bit sad. Personally I’m there working so I don’t mind the detachment of looking through the camera but for the guests it’s a shame. Also with so many cameras at weddings now the groups shots now need more head swapping as the poor guest don’t know who to look at. The professional photographer or there significant other who will be p*ssed that they were not looking at them when they took the photo.. I’m all for unplugged weddings but I don’t see how you can make it stick. Everyone is a photographer these days

  2. AMEN! I’ve been concerned about this very issue for our upcoming wedding, and the info here is just the inspiration I needed to be firm with the guests on this issue. TOO MANY photos now show the majority of folks making double-chins staring intently at their device missing everything, and essentially techno-photo-bombing the shots.

    Thank you!!!

  3. Yes, I absolutely agree! Thank you for pointing this out. I had the same experience at our Stag & Doe on the weekend and as much as I would appreciate some photos and videos of the event, I don’t need 80 people doing it! I really wanted to party it up with my friends and have fun but they all had their cameras out getting in the way! I’m definitely considering an unplugged wedding and will suggest this to my guests. I want them to experience it first hand, not through their viewfinders!

  4. I AM SO DOING THIS. Am completely going to steal the “official wording” as soon as you post it. Photos during reception, yes preeez, but doing the ceremony por favor no 😀

    • Yeah I am eagerly awaiting a look at the wording tomorrow. I am actually putting off printing our programs for one more day so I can steal this idea.

  5. I’m thinking of a hybrid idea. I probably won’t be able to provide a professional photographer, and will probably have a number of broke friends who take decent pictures (much like myself). So I’m thinking of letting a few people take pictures as a gift to us, and telling everyone else to turn everything off.

  6. I wanted to put a line in our programs requesting guests keep their cameras, phones and camcorders off during the ceremony. My husband thought this was bossy and uncalled for… but I had been to so many weddings where everyone was experiencing the wedding via their screens and viewfinders. Ultimately we didn’t put the note in our programs and I felt a little bugged when I walked into the wedding to find a bunch of lenses pointed at me. But the nice thing about our looooong Catholic wedding was that by the time we got to the important parts, people had clicked away to their heart’s content and were more or less paying real-life attention.

    • Yeah, my hope is that with the wording offered tomorrow, we can find a way to make the request without coming off as TOO bossy.

      • I am a big fan of: “I want the only stars I see to be caused by the sight of my beloved. Please don’t bring your cameras, cell phones, or boxing gloves to the ceremony… Or at least leave them off until we’re done”

    • This is what I put on my wedding programs:

      We are so honored you want to capture our special moment, but we would much rather see your smiling faces, so please refrain from taking photos during the ceremony. Don’t worry, we have full rights to our professional photographer’s photos and we will share them with you

      • I think the “we have full rights to our professional photographer’s photos…” bit will be essential when it comes to avoiding an outcry from guests.

        I take a lot of photos at weddings (and, well, everywhere else), but that’s largely because I genuinely want photos of the happy event. Since no bride or groom has ever offered to share their professional wedding pictures with me, I have to rely on my own shots. Without the pictures I take, I have no photos of the event. I’d be more than happy to put down my camera if I knew that the bride and groom would give me (and all guests) access to the professional wedding photos!

  7. This is something I wouldn’t have considered, until a wedding I recently photographed. Now, I’m not a professional photographer, so I haven’t experienced a ton of weddings… but I’ve been to quite a few. At this wedding that I was the photographer of, it was a complete nightmare for me… and I blame the guests, a dozen Uncle Bobs.

    I was tripping over people standing in the aisle to get good photos of the wedding party and the bride walking down. A woman rudely asked me to move out of her way.

    During the ceremony, people were leaving their seats and surrounding the couple as they said their vows, just to take pictures. I had NEVER seen this before at a wedding, in my life. This seems so incredibly rude to me… not only that, it was distracting for the couple and the officiant. And of course, they got in the way of many photo opportunities. Groomsmen were taking pictures with their phones, wtf!?

    After that, the formal shots. Once again I was asked to please get out of the way, without a ceremony happening I was finally able to explain (okay, and I probably got pretty snippy) that I was the photographer. Still, people were like, “Okay then, we’ll let you take the pictures… after we take just a few more.” The groom had to keep telling the groomsmen to LOOK AT ME instead of the million other people taking pictures.

    I managed to get some beautiful photos, but I think I could have done 10 times better if the other guests would have just put their cameras away for a bit and enjoyed the ceremony and the party.

    • I had the same experience at a wedding I photographed in the fall! There are always those people at weddings who own a fancy dslr, but have no idea how to use it. I actually had a guest of that wedding come up to me and start asking me a million and ten questions about giving him tips and how to use certain settings on his camera. And this was while I was trying to pose the bride, groom, and about 20 of their family members!

    • This is why I like weddings with two locations and a cocktail hour-I do the formals at the ceremony location while all the guests get out of the way and enjoy the cocktail hour at the reception site. If that isn’t possible, I usually have my assistant shuffle people away during the formal photos. I will quite literally tell the wedding party to look at me and ignore everyone else, but in a joking tone of voice so I don’t come across as a jerk.

      • Man, it’s amazing the chutpah and total self-absorption of some people. They have absolutely no clue. Leave the official documentation to the pros! I would imagine this couple is fuming over having their wedding photos ruined like this. I know I would be!

    • I took the pics for a family member..I’m not a professional either and had several uncle bobs that were there. Very similar to this story. I had pics messed up due to flashes, ppl in the way, etc. I can see both sides of the fence. Its up to the bride and groom to let ppl know what they want…and its up to the guest to respect those wishes.

    • I think i will consider this on my wedding day. Trust me i looove to take pictures, but you have to know when is it appropriate to do it and when not… at least for the ceremony.. and our photographer will give us all the photos they take anyways…

    • I was a professional videographer for 20 years and can’ even guess how much time and material was wasted due to this problem. Taping of the ceremony required little movement so my assistant and I were very seldom seen. But several times, the guest attending, went into the altar area and took flash pictures over the minister’s shoulder while he did his thing. I have also seen picture takers asked to leave the church.
      The easiest way is to get the officiant to announce, before the ceremony, that no pictures be taken during the service. This gets you off the hook.
      Since most photographers stage so many shots afterwards anyway, it won’t be much of a problem for them.

  8. Amen! I’m so glad you are putting up copy paste stuff tomorrow coz this is exactly what I need! I don’t want to hear 40 photo clicks a second during the ceremony, put them away! Everyone will have access to the pro photos, why do you need your own one from a bad angle?!

    • Exactly! My photographer will have an online viewing album about a week after so no need for bad pictures. If its not included in the copy/paste I may add this fact so people aren’t “worried” they will miss something LOL

  9. While it made for some interesting logistical issues, I was super glad that our wedding ceremony and reception were in a dead zone for cell phone service because I didn’t have to worry about people’s phones ringing during the ceremony. Of course, this was in 2008 so before many people had smartphones. Remote locations FTW!

      • Well presumably there was a landline avaliable, unless it was a REALLY remote location.

      • That speaks to an issue of having priorities straight with that person. If that person is unable to stay away from their phone for 30 minutes tops in many cases, emergency or otherwise, then they should not be at the ceremony. Either set the expectation that you’re unavailable during that short time window and make alternate arrangements, or respectfully decline the invitation and deal with that pressing issue.

  10. We have even started a photo wesbite for all of our guest to upload their pics! We definitely want to see their pics! LOL!!

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