Some wedding trends may come and go, but the idea of an unplugged wedding is one that deserves to stay. What is an unplugged wedding? Taken to a hypothetical extreme, it is one where literally only the hired professional photographer (and videographer, if applicable) are allowed to take photos and video of the event, with everyone else leaving their phones and cameras in their purses and pockets throughout the entire ceremony and reception.
However, that’s impractical (and generally unecessary). Instead, in the more common and realistic form, this applies primarily to just the ceremony and the formal group shots, as well as perhaps certain portions of the reception such as the couple’s first dance, the cake cutting, etc. Basically, you are asking your guests to not take photographs during the ceremony, and optionally also abstain from doing so (or to keep it to a minimum) during the other important portions of your wedding day.
Why is this important? It benefits everyone involved.
It benefits the guests themselves!
In this age of social media prevalence, many of us feel a constant pressure to record and share every event we attend. We want to post a picture or video to Facebook or Instagram and have everyone “like” it, compliment us on the picture, offer their congratulations to the couple, etc. But the downside is that filming or photographing a wedding through an iPhone means you are watching it through a little screen and not with your own eyes. Studies have shown that this does actually negatively affect how you remember a scene. More simply put, yes, you recorded it, but you didn’t experience it.
By specifically requesting that guests refrain from using their phones or cameras during the wedding ceremony, you are actually doing them a favor. Because the decision has been taken out of their hands, the pressure to pull out their phone is gone, and this enables them to actually be there in person to share this special moment with you, and not end up watching it through the screen of an electronic device.
I have personally experienced this from the dance competitions and recitals one of my daughters participated in. The competitive events almost always have a professional photographer and videographer, and are very strict that no attendees can capture pictures during performances. Recitals have similar rules, though they do allow photography during the dress rehearsal the day before. There is a huge difference in the experience of photographing her during the dress rehearsal compared to actually watching her during the performance. Of course, as a father, I feel compelled to document these kinds of activities that my kids are participating in, but honestly it's really a relief to be told that I cannot do so sometimes.
It benefits your photographer (in other words, your photographs!)
It’s not an uncommon occurrence… the bride is just starting to walk down the aisle with her father, and suddenly the scene is filled with the bright screens of dozens of iPhones (and, inexplicably, sometimes even comparably huge iPads) being held up in the air. Even in a best case scenario, this presents a plethora of distracting elements in these images which detracts from the beauty of this moment. But at any given wedding, there’s a distinct possibility that an even more significant problem will occur.
Wanting a clear shot of the bride's processional (and not realizing the problem they are causing) guests will sometimes lean out into the aisle, and/or stick their phone out with their arm (or even a selfie-stick). Similar obstructions can occur as guests try to get shots of other things, like the ring exchange, first kiss, or the bride and groom’s recessional. These are time-critical moments for which there are no second chances for me to capture, and often there is only one spot from which to get the best shot. If I’m in position for the kiss at the end of the ceremony, and suddenly a guest leans out into the aisle, I may be able to quickly shift my position to a less obstructed (but also less than ideal) angle to minimize the adverse effect of this, but in many instances there’s simply no other place to move to, and usually the kiss is so brief that I have no time to move.
In addition, during ceremonies that take place in a courtyard or other non-church venue, guests sometimes will maneuver around the area where the bride and groom are standing, or even end up right behind the couple! While in some cases their presence may just be brief, with minimal impact on your photographs, if they happen to be lingering back there during, say, the ring exchange or the first kiss, there’s not much I can do about that… they are going to be prominently visible in these pictures.
Of course, I don’t believe that any guest would purposely and knowingly obstruct the couple’s hired photographer or otherwise ruin these pictures, but caught up in the moment and seeking a clear angle to shoot from, it’s very easy for a guest to forget or not realize that the professional photographer is shooting behind them or that they have positioned themselves where they will be within the frame of the professional’s shot, and that they’ve substantially degraded, or maybe even ruined an important picture.
Lastly, but certainly not any less important, it benefits YOU!
In addition to getting better photographs of your wedding, you also will immeasurably enjoy the moments themselves more as they happen. You’ve invited friends and family members, all of whom are special to you, to witness the most important event of your life. Imagine how much nicer it will be when you’re looking out among them during the ceremony to see their actual smiling faces instead of just a sea of electronic devices being held up!
Also, having guests shoot alongside me during the formal group shots makes the completion of this portion of the wedding day take longer than it otherwise would. The reason is that if others around me are shooting at the same time, some people in the group will be looking at me while others will be looking at the other cameras. While the effect of this may not be obvious at the time, the eyes looking in different directions will be very noticeable in the photographs. So, I typically have to put my camera down and wait for them to finish before I can shoot each group, or ask everyone each time to only look at my camera. While each instance of this might only take 15-20 seconds or so, when you have multiple guests each trying to get their shot, and with multiple groupings, that time adds up. So, asking your guests to refrain from photographing during this time will get you and your wedding party to the reception faster!
So how do you go about having an unplugged wedding ceremony?
It’s very simple! Couples usually buy or make a nice looking wooden sign, politely requesting that all cameras and phones be kept put away during the ceremony, which can be displayed near the entrance so that everyone sees it as they are walking in. A simple Google search for "unplugged wedding sign" will yield hundreds of results from Etsy, Zazzle, and other online retailers.
A note to this effect on your printed wedding programs is also a good idea. It’s also advisable to ask your officiant to make an announcement before the ceremony begins. In some cases, the church can play the "bad guy" (with good intentions, of course) in this situation, as some have rules that guests are not allowed to take photographs or video during the ceremony. In talking to wedding coordinators at churches that employ this restriction, their goal is twofold... first to minimize disruption and distraction in order to respect the sanctity of the religious ceremony, and secondly help protect the quality of the professional photography (and videography, if applicable) that the bride and groom have so much invested in (both financially, and emotionally). In most cases it's still left up to the couple to communicate these restrictions to their guests before the event.