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. Great article! I am considering sharing this with my clients. As someone who experiences a good deal of his life through the lens of a camera, it is very refreshing to put down the camera and just observe what is going on. Unfortunately, there seems to be some sort of psychological need for people to document every event they go to.

    Adding insult to injury, the majority of the guest photos will range in quality from poor to awful, especially during the ceremony. And these mediocre photographs are then usually dumped on to Facebook, leaving the poor bride and groom tagged in 40 different albums with 300 blurry, unflattering photos each.

    Just so I don’t sound like a bitter wedding photographer, I think that it’s great if guests take their cameras out during the reception-there are usually lots of great things going on, and I can’t be everywhere at once. But leave them alone during the ceremony, the pro has that part under control.

  2. My hunny and I have talked about this, too. I am a photographer of sorts (serious amateur), but I really hate looking at professional pictures and seeing a sea of screens. The only wedding I was asked to photograph, I was also the matron of honor, so the family didn’t take my role as camera-wielder seriously. I eventually gave up, and let them have their Uncle Bob way. Maybe I will have my officiant tell the crowd that they have 30 seconds to take their pictures, then put the cameras away.

    • I like the idea of having a specific time for an “everybody photos” free for all. It seems like a nice compromise – sort of the “please hold your questions till the end of the lecture” statement. Some sort of statement like: “Please let the professional photographer be the only photographer during the ceremony. We’ll have a few minutes at the end of the ceremony for everyone else to take photos with their own cameras or phones.”

      • Yep, one of the officiant wording suggestions tomorrow basically says “Take your pictures now, and then please put your cameras away.” 🙂

  3. I had a no-camera ceremony and I can totally get a photographer wanting no uncle bobs in the way. however when it came to my formal shots, i didn’t have an uncle bob and my incompetent photographer didn’t transfer the pictures correctly and no i don’t have a shot of me and my parents at my wedding. i wouldn’t wish this on a soul of course. to ease the bride/grooms anxiety to get some pics, i would want an uncle bob to take SOME shots during an allotted time but then make damn sure your photographer knows what he/she/they’re doing

    • There are always going to be nightmare stories of the wedding photographer who missed a shot — I’m just not sure having 50 guests with point-and-shoot cameras is the best way to compensate for a potential photographer fail.

      • oh of course. unfortunately i took the no camera thing a little too literally and put too much faith in one person. so the goal is a happy medium 😉

      • I use a snapshooter and can see them also capturing alongside me for the formals in the event something technical should happen. I am a photographer and also don’t think it’s wise to have just one capturing but I also wouldn’t want 50 capturing.

    • I definitely would make sure you get a photographer you’re comfortable with but I really feel that having an ‘uncle bob’ take photos during formals is the absolute worst time. When other people are firing off shots during formals, it makes it that much harder for your professional photographer to get their shots, because everybody else is looking at the family members and NOT the photographer. It makes the formals last longer too and everybody hates that. Just get a great pro and then don’t worry about it! 🙂

    • This is a perfect example of hiring a professional, not someone from Craigs list or someone who always wanted to “Try it”. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been called to see if I could “Fix” the photos their friends had taken.

      • Not every “professional” wedding photographer is a GOOD photographer — and this is no secret in the larger photo industry. Not every person on Craig’s list is a lousy photographer. Brides need to make smart choices, shopping for a photographer based on the quality of their work.

    • All professional photographers have a second shooter. A second Photographer who also photographs the wedding. This is for two reasons, one to get the shots the main photographer can’t get (due to not being able to be in two places at once. And two, to make sure that, even if there is a technical problem, the married couple still gets a nice variety of photos From their big day. If you are thinking of hiring a “professional” photographer, make sure to hire one who works with a second shooter!

      • This is rubbish!

        Not all professional photographers need a second shooter. Most of us are trained well enough and competent enough to know how to capture a wedding well enough without resorting to a second shooter.

        There are exceptions of course; if i am having a 250 plus people wedding (like in Ireland or in Italy) then yes, I will bring a second shooter as I want as many moments captured as possible and as the professional that is my call as I ultimately will answer to the brides. But it is disingenious to suggest that ‘If you are thinking of hiring a “professional” photographer, make sure to hire one who works with a second shooter!’

        Education goes a long way with brides and having a discussion on this issue is truly wonderful, but to slam professionals who do not work with a second shooter is simply rubbish and you should not be making such foolish statements… It’s not about the quantity – it is about the quality!

    • So sorry to hear that you didn’t hire a professional photographer. We see this on a daily basis in our studio, folks hiring a fly by night company or an Uncle Bob with a nice camera and they end up disappointed in their photos or with no photos at all. There are places in your wedding budget to cut costs, photography is NOT one of them. Read reviews, see their work, talk to previous clients….do your homework folks. When the day is over the photos are what remains, your choice of photographer is crucial.
      As for Nicole’s comment. This is just another generalized statement from someone who hasn’t done her homework. Not every wedding requires a second shooter. Yes, most pros have someone who does second shooting with them but to try to tell folks that ALL “real” professionals ALWAYS have a second shooter is ridiculous. A true professional can handle any situation independently. We have the training and understanding of a wedding and how it plays out and are competent in our ability to cover it independently or with another photographer as each individual case requires. Again, do you homework folks, it is one of the most important decisions you will make that day.
      An unplugged wedding is a beautiful sight to all pros…we love [email protected]

  4. I think if people want this at their wedding, they need to turn around and offer some generosity in return: Make sure their photographers and catching all of the guests at the wedding and reception, and then make photos available to the guests. People take pictures because they want memories. And most couples are pretty stingy with their photos, even when they are getting the rights to print them as they will.

    • Yep, all the copy ‘n’ paste wording that I’m offering tomorrow includes mentions that the couple will share photos with guests after the wedding. I think most couples WANT to share their photos with guests — the issue is more often just the delay in getting the photos back from photographers.

      • I’d be careful stating this. Most photographers don’t allow their clients to “share” the files. That is considered copying. Just sayin.

        • I think this is becoming less and less true, to be honest. Photographers now are very aware that people want to share photos online and so on, and are finding ways to do it. For example, many photogs have a blog where they post a small gallery of photos for everyone to access, or have an arrangement like my cousin’s where she paid a little extra to have low-res, watermarked copies of all the images to put up on facebook.

        • Most professional photographers post all the wedding images in an online gallery. You are then welcome to see them all, and even purchase files or prints. If the couple has purchased the high res files, you could track her down for any particular images you would like… tho it may be easier and quicker to buy the prints on line from the photographer.

      • Hi. I am dying to know what the official word is on sharing with guests the unplugged preference. I’m getting married in 2 weeks on Manuel Antonio Beach, Costa Rica. Need to be prepared for the big event.

        Love your site!

    • Agreed.

      The problem with no guest photos for me is that as a wedding guest I have never been offered a copy, digital or otherwise, of the professional photos and the best I’ve gotten by asking for them was a suprised, slightly confused reply and 3 tiny pictures of the bride via email.

      So my experience is that if I want pictures of a friend or family members wedding I have to take them myself or go without. I don’t really enjoy taking photos so I don’t go over-board but if that’s my options I’m going to take photos.

      • The question, Danikat, is it your wedding or theirs? It should be their choice whether they want you to have photos or not. Most do not care about the reception but the ceremony and the formals are for the bride and groom. They invite you to share it, not own a part of it. Why do people so desperately need to document everything under the sun, even when it’s someone’s else’s sun? Why not live in the moment, appreciate being invited, remember the good times with your brain and if you desperately must have an image to hold onto ask the bride and groom for one and let them decide whether they wish to share or not.

    • Bingo! You get it. Off all the comments on here, this is the only one that get’s to heart of the matter. All those guests with their point-n-shoot and the Uncle Bob’s are just trying to make sure THEY get a photo of the wedding. They mean no real harm. One of the most brilliant things my sister-in-law did for her wedding we providing sitting time for close family and friends with the photographer. A few months after the wedding we each received a CD containing shots from both the wedding and the reception. He even provided a framed print for close family. No one interfered with his wedding photographer.

    • Sorry, but many people will not pay extra for a second shooter. Also the bride and groom need to encourage people to be respectful of the pro. Many churches are starting to ban all photography during the ceremony, with the exception of a pro either in the very back or up in the balcony, again in the back.
      Having an Uncle Bob shoot formals along side the pro is often a violation of the pros contract. It’s hard enough to get people to relax for formal shots without having to get them to look first towards the pro(you) then toward Uncle Bob.
      I don’t expect people not to take pictures at a wedding, but I do expect them not to get in my way. I have (nicely) stepped in front of an Uncle Bob to get an important shot. Its my name on the line if I don’t get the shot, not Uncle Bobs.

  5. Wow, I had no idea people found guest photography to be so offensive. Makes me wonder how many people i have inadvertetly upset without even knowing it. I can definitely see couples asking that their guests turn off or silence their cell phones during the ceremony, but I always like seeing other people’s views of the wedding. This is especially true when the couple are friends who couldn’t afford to invite everyone they know to the wedding and aren’t going to publish their professional online gallery to the masses. Also, those Facebook photos are great to relive the event and see other perspectives right away, as opposed to months later when the professional pics are complete and the couple chooses to share three of them with their friends.

    I of course understand “Uncle Bob” and how inappropriate these people can be, but isn’t a professional supposed to be able to deal with these people? There is no shortage of cameras at Fashion Week and those pros still manage to get great shots. Getting in the way of the camera is unacceptable but just taking pictures? These people are your guests and asking for no photos, especially if you don’t make a gallery readily available to them, seems a little selfish.

    I look forward to seeing both the pros and my friends’ photos of our wedding. The pros are the ones I will save forever – the non-pros are the ones I will giggle or groan at because they were taken through the eyes of people who care about us.

    • I don’t think there is a problem if you take SOME photos at a wedding but I have seen so many people who are getting in the way of the professional in their eagerness to take a photo. I have almost tripped over people who are hanging over my back trying to get the same shot I am getting. Yes, every professional does their best to deal with obnoxious guests, but why would someone want it to be okay for their guests to possibly ruin a shot from the person they paid good money to capture their wedding. I am really not against all cameras, but it’s just the obsessive nature people tend to have nowadays that’s the problem. I think it’s easier to say ‘no cameras at all’ versus saying.. no cameras for specific people! 🙂

      • I’m a professional videographer and we have been pretty lucky with the guests getting in our way. You always have to try and stay proactive. The worst we find is for the cake cutting, so what we do is allow all of the guest 2-4 minutes for a mocked cake cutting, just so that every guest can get a shot. From there we step in and do the actual cake cutting, this way no one is in anyones way.

    • K, as I said in my post, I’m NOT asserting that every wedding should be unplugged or that there’s anything inherently wrong with guest documentation. If the couple getting married isn’t bothered, then it’s not a problem. I’m not accusing an etiquette breach or bad manners — it’s just an issue of personal taste.

    • We had a good mix – no one got in the way of our one pro photographer, and we got great pictures. We also had three guests who took their own pictures, but not during formal shots (which we staged in a room where people couldn’t find us!), and not very many during the ceremony. The benefit to allowing that was that my parents’ oldest friend developed the photos overnight, and left them a photo album of the entire wedding on their doorstep at 8am the next day, in time to bring it to the post-wedding brunch. It was an incredibly thoughtful gesture, since we didn’t get professional photos for another month. We really enjoyed those photos! And she was able to accomplish it WITHOUT getting in anyone’s way.

      So, it’s possible to get photos from friends without having it be a disaster. It’s hard to communicate that succinctly, however, and we got lucky because we didn’t instruct anyone.

    • As a professional wedding photographer I do my best to work around guests and Uncle Bobs but sometimes it is impossible. Some of these people come to the wedding with the mindset that they can do a better job than me and wish to prove it. I had one man actually shove me out of the aisle at a wedding.I had to put a clause in my contract regarding aggressive guest interference! It can get bad!

      • As wedding professionals, we definitely have experience and know (hopefully) the right way to deal with other photo-takers… But if I’m politely asking uncle bob to not be in the background of every single photo of the first dance, guess what I spend less time doing… taking photos of the first dance!

        Educating your guests about your photo desires (no matter what they are) will only help things in the end.

    • To the fashion week comparison….just remember the models are professionals too. But a bridal party is not. They are easily confused at who to be looking at. Plus music and energy is playing a factor on the runway. Plus most pro photogs at fashion week are not using flash but rather te complex lighting provided by the designer of the show. Uncle bobs pop their flashes off when it suits them not the bride and groom. Believe me if they pulled that at fashion week they would be shown the door.

    • I agree 100% with the comment by “K.” People are naturally going to want to take their own photos, so long as they aren’t interfering with the pro and stay out of the way (which I am VERY BIG on making sure of myself when I attend a wedding), big deal. People are WAY too schizophrenic about photography these days sometimes. I once was photographing the ducks at a lake near where I live & a woman screamed “don’t take my child’s photo, you pervert!,” when I wasn’t even doing that to start with (and even though it’s actually LEGAL to do so anyway if I were).

      Besides not getting in the pro’s way, I understand also about not having the phone beep & buzz every 5 seconds too. I also understand couples renting out a nursery room & having guests drop off their kids in there because kids can be noisy; I have kids & that doesn’t offend me any at all.

      But in terms of “stare at me not at the LCD screen,” why should that matter so much? If I’m just sitting in the pew & not taking any shots, maybe I’m staring at my phone because the wedding song playing is familiar & I’m curious to look it up & see who the singer is. Maybe I bid on something on eBay before I left the house and need to check on it real quick. Regardless, so long as my phone isn’t going off and making a FUSS during the ceremony, what business is that of anybody’s? Since when did a LITTLE BIT of phone interaction in public, especially if it’s discrete, become equivalent to blowing cigar smoke in people’s faces?

      The bride & groom have EVERY RIGHT to ask ANYTHING THEY WANT of the guests, sure. The bride & groom can even make ridiculous requests such as “only fans of the New York Yankees are allowed to attend our wedding,” but it doesn’t mean it’s not RIDICULOUS.

      • I *hate* photos of myself, and I think I have a right to ask people not to take them.

        And as far as staying out of the way of the pro goes, I think the photos above and elsewhere online demonstrate quite clearly that many amateur photogs do not.

        Phone interaction in public is one thing, phone interaction during an intimate and touching moment is quite another. I for one would be very upset if instead of watching the ceremony one of our friends/family spent the time playing with their phone. And personally, I don’t think it’s ridiculous at all to ask that people put their phone away for twenty minutes. Some things are, or should be, more important. These people have gone to a lot of trouble to craft a ceremony which is funny/warm/touching/whatever and if you don’t care enough to pay attention for twenty minutes, I think that’s a bit sad.

      • No. Absolutely not. If you’re with people– even if you’re with close friends– you should excuse yourself to talk on the phone. Whether you say, ‘This is probably my fiancee- mind if I text him I’ll call later?’ or physically excuse yourself to a quiet, discreet place to talk, it’s always rude to interact with your cell phone instead of the people you’re with, because it sends the message that your cell phone (and the artist of the song whose name you can’t remember and that thing you bid on through eBay) are more important than the people you’re with. And that is never, ever polite. Ever. Just so we’re clear.

        In a perfectly polite world, emergencies would never come up in the middle of conversations or dinners or weddings, but since they do, we understand that people need to have their cell phones. That isn’t a license to prioritize auctions and pop culture trivia over your relationships with people. It is a license to leave your Aunt Muffy’s no-children vow renewal if the baby-sitter texts you your two year old is asphyxiating and turning blue.

        *NB- I do relax this guideline (hypocritically) and will text when I’m eating dinner with someone I live with without excusing myself first. This is rude, and completely my fault. I’m not expecting that everybody put down their cell phones whenever in public, but a little more technology etiquette or discretion would go a long way.

        • Emma and M, you absolutely hit the nail on the head.

          Emergencies and excused calls/texts are one thing. However, it is completely inappropriate to be checking the status of an eBay bid, or looking up a song, or anything else of that nature during ANY special event. Especially a wedding. Really, a wedding usually only lasts 15 to 20 minutes. Can you seriously not wait until after the ceremony to do any of those things? I could care less if you utilize reception time to do these things… but during the ceremony? That’s beyond disrespectful. It honestly looks like you’d rather be somewhere else than to be at the couple’s wedding. Something that many couples work very hard on, might I add.

          The last wedding I went to, I watched my aunt, uncle, and their two children stay on Facebook during the entire ceremony. All I could think was “REALLY?! You can’t stay off Facebook for fifteen minutes?”. I was beyond furious to see this.

          While I am on the fence about wedding guests taking photos, and ultimately think it should be the couple’s choice, phone interaction should NOT occur during a wedding. With the exception of emergencies, of course.

      • A & I are particularly annoyed by the use of cell phones during social events. Hells, we have a basket that cell phones go in whenever we have guests over – because we want to actually focus on the people we are spending time with.

        Beyond that, we feel that it is rude to pull out your phone in a place of worship. We observe the traditions and courtesies of our friends’ faiths, when we participate in one of their functions, so it doesn’t feel “ridiculous” to ask the the same of them.

        I plan on stating in the invites that cellphones and cameras are welcome at the reception, but not during the ceremony. We are also going to have our ushers reiterate it as they greet guests and hand out programs.

    • Just remember, a bride is PAYING the pro photographer for every minute they are there and they only have the photographer for so long. Every minute a photographer spends dealing with or obliging everyone that can’t lower their Iphones or cameras is a minute the bride loses that she paid for. So essentially, being a guest that has to get all of “the shots” for their personal pleasure are basically stealing from the bride and groom. Js.

  6. YES. Amazing article. We asked our guests not to take photographs during our ceremony by putting a note in the program, and everyone was very respectful. I wanted my guests there and in the moment, especially since our ceremony was so short.

    As a wedding photographer myself, I didn’t want any of MY uncle bob relatives getting in the way of the people we paid lots of money to officially document our wedding. I guess I was hyper aware of how annoying it is to the professional, and I wanted to keep our photographers happy. And our ceremony was very personal, so I didn’t want to see any photos of it popping up on Facebook later.

  7. I have photographed one (intimate) wedding where the officiant asked that none of the guests take photos. It meant that everyone had to pay attention to what was happening, and honestly, the vibe in the room was palpable. Everyone was so taken in by the ceremony – it was amazing. I do think that having a camera up to my face puts a layer of distance between me and what I’m photographing. I certainly understand why guests want to photograph weddings and I respect the choice to have an unplugged wedding, both as a photographer and as a guest. In the end, it’s up to the bride & groom to decide!

  8. My ceremony was going great, then it happened, one person just had to have their phone on and it rang! Didn’t let it bother me but looking back boy was that rude!

    • I remember the red flush of embarrassment I’d get when mine went off during class. I can’t even imagine how mortified I would be if my phone went off during a friend’s wedding.

  9. THANK YOU for posting this. It’s something that has bothered me tons going to concert and events but I hadn’t even thought of this happening at our wedding until you posted this..we are going unplugged baby

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