Photography and Related Subjects: Before or After?

Photography and Related Subjects:  Before or After?


Formal Photographs:

Before or After?

About thirty-five years ago, I began shooting weddings with a business partner who was an experienced wedding photographer. At the time, some studios were offering to do Formal Photographs of the wedding party and family before the ceremony instead of afterward. This was a new idea, and they were charging an additional fee, because it required that they arrive three hours earlier than normal. Dave and I opted NOT to charge more. Shooting ahead of the ceremony was much easier on the clients than doing so afterward, and easier on us, too. What is more; the photos came out better, and we were able to give the clients all the poses and combinations of family and wedding party they wanted. Everybody’s clothing and makeup was fresh. No one had been crying or sweating or kissing or drinking. No one was distracted by other things going on. No guests were under foot trying to take shots of their own. The only objection we ever heard was that the couple would see each other before the Big Moment when the Bride walks down the aisle on her Father’s arm. Experience had taught us that the moment was not so big after all, and that people who insisted on doing photos afterward more often than not regretted it.

In the Old Days – say 50 years ago – there were only a few black & white photos made of the Bride & Groom and maybe immediate family and the wedding party. Technology limited what could be done, so spending a half hour making a dozen photographs afterward was reasonable. Arriving at the reception afterward gave guests time to settle in, but did not have them waiting over long. So, when the newlyweds were announced as they walked through the door, everyone was excited to see them.

With improved film and camera technologies, people want more photographs. With social changes – specifically more divorces and remarriages of parents and siblings, and wedding couples blending families – more combinations of people are required, too. A typical photo session for a medium-sized wedding now requires one-and-a-half to two hours. Even small weddings can easily take an hour or more. It is not reasonable to spend that kind of time between the ceremony and the reception. From the point of view of wedding guests, it is simply rude to make them wait that long for the Bride & Groom to make their appearance. If for no other reason than being considerate hosts, photos should be done before the ceremony.

Split Formals:

An alternative has been offered by most studios: “Split Formals.” In this scenario, the Groom, his Family and Groom’s Men are photographed about two hours ahead of the ceremony. When they are done, they are sent away so the Bride and her Party can be photographed unseen by the Groom. Then, after the ceremony, photographs including the newlyweds are made. In theory, the guests are not kept waiting for more than an hour.

The down side of split formals is three-fold:

  1. Neither the Bride nor the Groom is in the family photos of the other.
  2. They will need an additional half hour of organizing/transition time, because now there are three groups to organize instead of one.
  3. As I mentioned earlier, photography is the single most stressful thing they will do all day. That stress is now spread out from two hours before their ceremony until an hour or more afterward – four hours or more – and it affects the spirit of the ceremony itself.
  4. The Couple is competing with their Reception for the attention of their Family and Wedding Party, so everything takes longer. If it was like herding cats before the ceremony, it will be like herding cockroaches afterward. People wander off to get a drink or talk to people they haven’t seen since the last wedding. They are hard to find and harder to extract from conversations. No one pays attention to instructions, even though they repeatedly interrupt to ask what they are supposed to do. And now the Bride’s Mother keeps breaking in to ask how much longer it will be… which makes the session go longer still. (A patch of hair just fell off the side of my head!)
  5. Brides, anxious to get done and go to their reception often cut photography short, so they do not get images they had specifically requested of their photographer. (I know a studio that charges $200 more to do formals afterward or for split formals, because they lose money with every wedding that goes that route.)

Three reasons NOT to do your photos afterward quickly grew to five. I can come up with more, if you like. One should be enough.

But WAIT!      There IS more to be said on the subject.

How about a romantic reason to do them beforehand that has nothing to do with photography?

Remember that Romantic Big Moment when the groom sees his Bride for the first time as she walks down the aisle on her father’s arm? I’ve already said that in my experience that moment is not so big after all. He is glad to see her, for sure, but rarely is there the massive surge of emotion they were expecting. It may be because the Groom is only half conscious from nerves, stress and fatigue. (We know this because his eyes are glazed over and there is a little bit of drool on his chin.) Or, what is more likely, the fantasy is just too much for the reality to live up to. Besides, this tradition comes from a time when social/religious rules declared that a woman who permits her face to be seen by a man who is not family is a floozy. There is nothing romantic about that!

Dave and I would stage a First Look before we began making photographs in earnest. There are variations on the practice, but essentially, the couple gets a few moments of privacy where The Groom can say, “Holy Crap! You look wonderful!” …or something in that vein.  He gets to see her up close, give her a long embrace and tell her how much he loves her and how proud he is to be marrying her.  He might even get to kiss her if he agrees not to smudge her make-up. They can sit for a moment and pray, or bitch about their siblings, or just share a few minutes of peace before they begin a busy, sometimes frantic day. This is often the truly Romantic Big Moment for the day. We would get a few photos, and then leave them alone for about fifteen minutes.

The feedback was that this was better than they had hoped for. One Groom we asked told us that when he saw her coming down the aisle on her father’s arm, it was still the first time he saw her coming to marry him and was every bit as special as it would have been otherwise. He did not believe they had lost a thing. Indeed, he had gained a few private moments with his Bride at her most beautiful.