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. May I suggest, if one decides no photography during the event, that one therefore compensate by providing the guests with a free pic, either make it the favor or tuck it in the thank you note.

  2. I was diagnosed with Epilepsy this year and I can’t handle tons of flashes. I have been really struggling with the weddings I’ve attended since my diagnoses. Most of my guests don’t know that I have Epilepsy. Has anyone gone unplugged for the reception? It will be much darker than our ceremony and I’m more concerned about flashes then, although I’d rather not have them at all outside our photographer. If you’ve gone reception-unplugged: how did you do it?

    Thank you! I am excited to hear the wording ideas. Also so glad I am not the only one.

    • Unfortunately I haven’t decided or had my wedding yet, but I’m also considering going unplugged at the reception as well.

      Are you comfortable sharing with many of your guests that you have epilepsy? It’s a pretty solid reason to ask people to leave their flashes off, at the very least. You could maybe use another excuse for going unplugged on any written mediums, but assign parents or your wedding parties (anyone else your guests might talk to about the wedding) to discretely explain in more detail before the wedding to anyone insistent. If you’re comfortable with discretely disclosing, anyone who argues might not be worth having there at all.

      • I took your advice on this one: most of my friends and some of my family know I have epilepsy, but I’m not sure all of them will think through what a lot of flashes could do to me.

        I asked my mother and future mother-in-law to spread the word. Nobody (this request got to my dad and grandma in about 20 minutes) liked the idea of just asking people not to take pictures without mentioning “a medical condition,” which I thought was very telling regarding why this was even a blog entry in the first place. It’s surprising that people won’t just do what you ask of them at your wedding without questioning it.

        I have a vision of “Now, Kathleen, I know I’m not supposed to take any pictures, and I’m sorry to hear about your epilepsy, etc” from the concerned elders at the wedding. I’m used to that reaction but don’t feel like hearing it on my wedding day. Hopefully people will use their manners and think about “time and place” of their comments. We’ll see.

        • Do the guests need to know that it’s you who has the epilepsy? Your family could just pass the word that one of the guests or one of the wedding party members or something has it (technically true) and to not use a flash, and then you’ll avoid uncomfortable commentary.

    • I do not have epilepsy, but my one working eye is very light sensitive. We’re definitely talking to our photographer about not using a flash, and there will need to be a note in the program.

      Your health concerns (and my inability to walk post being hit with a flash) need to be respected and left alone. If anyone approaches you and discounts your request, you are entirely within your rights to shut them down.

  3. I’m terrorifed of the Uncle Bob photos. FH has a Uncle who thinks nothing of getting in peoples faces to take awful photos and ignore all requests to go unplugged.

    Really looking forward to stealing tomorrow’s wording and translating it into Dutch so he has zero excuses.

  4. Holla! I want people to be present at my wedding. Like, fully. Plus I’m paying an obscene amount of money on someone I researched completely and whose work I believe in.

    The only person I want to have a camera at the wedding is my future father in law; He’s legally blind (but can still see shapes and colors) but has been taking photos since high school (he says he got into it because he could FINALLY see things in detail when he blew up photos in the dark room). I just wonder if there’s a polite way of telling him that I want him to bring just one of his smaller cameras for some snapshots and nothing else (I’ve seen him go to the zoo with a camera bag the size of a small duffel bag with three different lenses!). Also, I wonder if other guests will be offended… I want him to be able to see the details that he wants to see, and not letting him bring a camera would hinder that. But I don’t want anyone else to be hiding behind a screen or lens!

    • You could just explain “We’ve hired a photographer, and FH’s father will also be taking some pictures on the side. Anyone who wants a copy of these photos will be more than welcome.”

    • AWESOME. Another legally blind photographer! I’m sure if you tell him that you just want him to bring one camera, he’ll oblige.

    • Two things: Read Andrew Keen’s books on the invasion of personal space by the digital self-promoting social networks. And… check out this new wedding mobile and web app called Capsule! My WP turned it on to me. It’s private, photo-sharing for the bride and guests. The inevitable picture-taking is given a home for all my guests to contribute to. It’s free too! http://www.capsuleweddings.com

  5. Excellent! Pretty sure I’m going to lay down a strict no-cameras and phones policy for my ceremony. I’ve seen bands throw down one song long no screens policies just to get the crowd to be there fully for at least one song, so damn it, I think I will too. Blanket no electronic devices for guests (other than pacemakers, insulin pumps, hearing aids etc.) starting…now!

    • Really off-topic but I hate when bands do that.

      I don’t like looking at the screens anyway, I’d much prefer to see the stage but since I’m short and often towards the back at most gigs I don’t have a choice. When they turn them off I feel like what they’re really saying is “Only the 50 or so people close enough to see the stage clearly get to enjoy this song. The rest of you are being left out for not making more of an effort.”

      It’s the complete opposite of making people pay attention, it makes me feel like I may as well be at home listening to the CD because I’m not really part of the gig anymore, I’m just hearing it from outside but still with some guys sweaty armpit in my face.

  6. I think I’m just going to say something along the lines of “turn off your damn camera or I will stab you in your face!” Haha. Just kidding, but I am really looking forward to your post tomorrow!!

  7. So what about when ‘uncle bob’ is a real life professional wedding photographer?
    You would think that a pro wedding photographer would know better as a guest to not be the uncle bob that all of us professionals complain about.
    But, I’ve seen it happen.
    They should know better!

  8. I have actually stopped really caring about taking tons of photos at weddings — I don’t really need to relive the event myself as a guest, and the few photos I take at the reception will capture what needs to be captured. I think in general, I’ve gotten a little oversatured by everyone documenting everything ever and putting every event on Facebook…putting the camera away is nice sometimes because you focus yourself instead of fumbling for the focus button. I have to ask myself, why would I want this photo later, given that there are sure to be 800 other versions of it later on facebook?

  9. If I don’t care enough about you to pay attention at your wedding, I just won’t go. (I will send a nice gift). Baring folks that are in the medical or public safety sector, everyone who is at your wedding, should have their phones turned off, and their minds turned on to the friends and family at hand. An “unplugged” wedding should be the standard- afterwords, if there are going to be pictures of the bride/groom and family, letting them join in then seems the best solution.

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