What is a first look? 

A first look is when the couple sees each other for the first time on their wedding day. It’s typically a staged moment, orchestrated by the photographer. The first look is a chance for the couple to share a moment privately, to laugh, cry, share meaningful words and unveil their wedding attire. 

What does a first look entail?

The first look trend is definitely here to stay. The typical first look involves one partner (traditionally the groom), being positioned away from the bride in a beautiful, private location. The other partner (traditionally the bride), is then brought out while the groom is facing away. 

The bride then taps the groom on the shoulder, he spins around – and laughter, tears and much emotion ensue. 

Another first look trend, that I would recommend in particular for same-sex couples, is standing back to back then when the photographer gives the command, turn around and see each other for the first time. 

There are many different ways of having a first look – basically the only limit is your imagination! What I’ll focus on in this article are the specific reasons for and against having one. 

should you see each other before your wedding ceremony?
Everything you’ve been through together shows on your faces and allows you a moment to take it all in

How to have your first look for SF City Hall ceremonies

As we specialize in San Francisco City Hall weddings, the art of having a first look for this type of ceremony deserves its own section.

The biggest difference is how limited time is (beginning at just 2 hours, in contrast to 8 hours for peak season weekend weddings). This means every second of your photography counts.

The best way I have found to organize first looks at City Hall is as follows. Please note, I’m using ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ terminology for ease of explanation, so please excuse my heteronormativity with these terms.

  1. Text thread is started in advance, with photographer, bride, groom and possible helper of bride if needed.
  2. Groom arrives at exact preordained meeting spot, at the ordained time.
  3. Photographer to instruct groom to look away from where bride will arrive. He is positioned away and briefed on what will happen when bride arrives. For example, ‘feel free to exaggerate your reactions, don’t hold back emotion, look at the whole outfit, twirl her around’.
  4. Photographer checks in with bride and helper via text/ call to inform them the groom is in position.
  5. Exactly 5 minutes after groom’s arrival, bride arrives at the location. Timing is important because if she’s too early, the groom might see her. Too late, and it negatively impacts our planned photo session of the couple.
  6. Bride is briefed by photographer on arrival. She’s instructed which shoulder to tap and what to do.
  7. Photographer gets shots of each partner separately and the slow walk-up is photographed from multiple angles up until bride taps groom on shoulder.
  8. The moment is set up with photographer in best position to capture the actual reveal.
  9. Bride and groom have an organic moment to themselves with no direction.
  10. Romantic photos begin.

Best places for the first look at City Hall are:

  • The bottom of the Grand Staircase (less chance of accidentally catching sight of one another, or going to the wrong spot, in this vast open space)
  • Your private ceremony area (rented space) if applicable
  • If you’re having outdoor photos first, an exact location would be selected at that place (for example, between the gateposts on the back side of Memorial Court – for clarity, the Franklin and Fulton side, NOT the Van Ness side opposite, which would be where the groom is facing toward).

Please navigate to Franklin & Fulton Street – then cross the main street.

The first look takes place between the large blue gateposts pictured below:

The location for the first look when you're beginning your photography session at Memorial Court at the back of City Hall. Address to navigate to (then cross the main street): Franklin & Fulton Street
The location for the first look when you’re beginning your photography session at Memorial Court at the back of City Hall. Address to navigate to (then cross the main street): Franklin & Fulton Street. Partner will be turned away toward City Hall.
The location for the first look when you're beginning your photography session inside City Hall. Enter through the Polk side (main entrance)
The location for the first look when you’re beginning your photography session inside City Hall. Enter through the Polk side (main entrance). Partner will be turned away toward the back of the building.

As you can tell, there is a fair amount of logistics involved to pull this off. However, it doesn’t take that long to accomplish but the big IF… IF both members of the couple arrive on time. If not, then our whole session would have to be compressed and you may not get the photos you’re expecting.

In terms of a time estimate, it can be done in as little as 10 minutes. The key is to keep in communication on the text thread, so as soon as the groom’s in position, the bride can be brought in immediately.

To be candid, my biggest concern when shooting a City Hall wedding is whether the client may be late arriving for their session. It’s something I have zero control over, yet impacts the stress level for the rest of the day quite dramatically. And of course, the output of photos you’ll be receiving.

When there are two arrivals happening (bride and groom), it kind of doubles the stress because if either person is late that would throw off our plans.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen numerous City Hall weddings with first looks where one partner has been over half an hour late.

I will say: only attempt doing a quick 10-minute first look if both you and your partner are known for being on time, punctual people, yes, even with the stress of a wedding day and the complexities of the getting ready process, which most people underestimate by 50 – 100%.

Otherwise, it introduces stress that isn’t worth it in my personal opinion. You also have to factor in that you’ll be getting hair and makeup done immediately prior, may be in a city you’re not familiar with, may be getting ready at a hotel, or relying on others for rides.

When weddings run late, it’s the photography that suffers. We’ll still have to get you to your ceremony on time, so that won’t be impacted, but the photos would be. My main goal when shooting a wedding is to give the couple as much as I possibly can – and this takes time.

If you’re the type of people that don’t love rushing around, or are prone to lateness, then I highly recommend adding an extra half-hour to the photography. We can always use that time to get extra photos and give us a bit of a buffer. It wouldn’t be ‘wasted’ if we don’t end up needing all of it for the first look. And we could always allocate 15 minutes of that time at the start of the session and the remainder post-ceremony so you could get some extra just-married photos outside!

All of this isn’t to put you off – first looks at City Hall can be really beautiful, but part of my job is education, so I want to give you the fullest picture I can so that you can make an informed decision about whether it’s right for you, or whether you want to arrive together and use all of that time just for photos of you, rather than waiting around for this one moment (which in all honesty is usually quite underwhelming, as your partner may not ‘express themselves’ in the way you hope or have seen on Pinterest. Especially as you’re not warmed up in front of the camera and the photographer yet!).

The advantages of having a first look

1. A first look allows you to have more photos and a backup plan

When you have a first look, you will end up with more photos of the two of you – these are the ones you’ll want to frame! When doing a first look, we will go straight into a mini-portrait session. This is really good to have under our belts. Why? 

Because as the day wears on, there is always a chance we lose the opportunity to do a full photo session. The first look also acts as a backup plan, because if there is a snag, there will be other options later in the day such as during cocktail hour or even during dinner. 

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2. You will be able to get family formals done before the ceremony

Another great benefit and the reason I suggest this to my couples is that family photos will be done straight after the first look. This is a benefit because it means that after your ceremony you’ll actually be able to enjoy cocktail hour, rather than using that time to do formal family photos. 

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Cocktail hour is really the number one time for those gorgeous candid photos you’ve seen – everyone’s having a great time, people are mingling, drinks are flowing. And all your guests are there to talk to YOU!

Prior to the ceremony is a less chaotic time, where it’s easier to step away for half an hour or so. Guests haven’t arrived yet, so use this time of preparation to get the big photo moments out of the way!

3. Alleviates nerves and allows you to center yourselves in each other

The wedding day is a blur of emotions. Allow yourself this short time to feel connected and share a few words before the ceremony itself. Sure, there is something beautiful about seeing each other for the first time in front of all your favorite people, but it can be overwhelming for some. Particularly those who dislike being the center of attention. 

This time of connection can be an important opportunity to say a few words to each other, remembering you’re marrying your best friend. 

pros and cons for and against having a first look on your wedding day
A joyful and fun first look at the church where this bride was confirmed and then got married!

4. Hair and makeup is freshly applied and everyone looks their best

You’ve spent a lot of money on professional hair, makeup, bouquet and dress. Wouldn’t it be nice to capture all of that while it’s still fresh – no makeup smudges, no wilting boutonnieres, the dress still completely clean? With a first look, we can do that.

Just be sure to have your HMUA stay the first look is complete, so you can look fresh going into the ceremony.

5. The first look allows you to steal away some alone time – when you need it most

You don’t need me to tell you, but the wedding day will go by so fast! Moments for true connection between you and your partner when it’s just two of you, can be pretty sparse.

Without a first look, by the time the ceremony rolls around, you may have spent quite a bit of time apart from each other! Probably spending that night in different places so you can be up early and ready to prepare for the wedding day – GO, GO, GO!

Times of calm during this part of the day are relatively few and far between.

So, embrace every opportunity you have to be unforced, unposed, and just let yourselves release all the nerves, excitement and joy of what you’re going to embark on. Trust me, it will make for not only amazing photos but meaningful memories.

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what is a first look and why should you have one?
A very casual first look when the bride got out of her Uber on the steps of SF City Hall

Disadvantages of having a first look

1. It’s less traditional 

If tradition matters to your wedding values, you may prefer to see each other for the first time when you walk down the aisle. And it’s not necessarily purely about tradition, but the purity of that moment when you catch sight of each other and all your favorite people are there to witness the tears and the joy. 

However, bear in mind, the moment when you walk down and aisle and see your partner will still be just as special, even if you’ve already seen each other prior.

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If you do this, however, prepare to invest in a second photographer who can capture the face of the partner standing at the altar, while the lead photographer captures the partner walking up the aisle. One photographer can feasibly do both, but for large or awkward spaces sometimes it just isn’t possible. 

As a photographer I sometimes spend quite a bit of my time and energy trying to keep the members of the couple apart – energy that could have been spent taking photos!

emotional photos from a wedding couple's first look
The emotion on this grooms’ face was priceless! The setup may be contrived but the feels are real.

2. It may involve an earlier start time

To do a first look usually involves allowing time also for couples’ portraits plus family portraits (and even wedding party pictures), all before the ceremony. This may mean an earlier start time.

You will definitely need to plan ahead if you want to do a first look. Make sure your photographer and family members are clear on the plan. Chat with your HMUA about how long everything will take. You would potentially need to get up very early, so that’s a decision you’ll need to make. 

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3. You may need hair and makeup to stay longer for touch-ups

As mentioned in one of my points above, it makes sense to have your makeup artist stay a bit extra to fix your makeup after the first look. There will almost certainly be tears and definitely smudged lipstick! 

You may get away with a touch-up kit that most makeup artists provide, but make sure you have some sort of plan in place so you look as fresh as can be for the ceremony. 

4. There is a risk guests could see you during the first look as they arrive 

With the smaller weddings that are now de rigueur, there’s a possibility that guests may sneak a peek of you if we’re photographing while they’re walking in. And believe me, there are always some guests that arrive early – at every wedding! Some couples prefer to be sequestered away prior to guest arrival. 

People walking in might bother some marriers, or be a distraction, but it isn’t normally a big deal for me. Folks understand that you’re in the middle of your photo session and will say hi and then take their places. 

5. Lighting isn’t ideal during the time the first look normally happens

Time of day plays a huge role in the way the finished pictures turn out. For most wedding days, the first look and family photos etc, would take place when the sun is highest overhead. That’s not the best time of day to take photos – the best time is as close as you can get to sunrise or sunset. 

Harsh light from the midday/early afternoon causes harsh shadows under the eyes and people squinting into the camera. A photographer can only do so much to mitigate these effects. They will be largely at the mercy of the specifics of the venue. 

Don’t worry though, photographers can normally get creative and find some shade or position folks with the sun behind them. We are used to dealing on the fly. 

the first look is a time on your wedding day to savor a few moments together before a whirlwind of a day!
Relax and savor a few moments together before a whirlwind of a day!

So that just about wraps it up. Hopefully this has given you plenty to think about when it comes to deciding whether to have a first look or not. Before I sign off, I will just add that the most important thing is what makes you feel comfortable. 

Though I’ve tried to be as unbiased as I can, as a photographer, it’s in my nature to steer you towards optimizing for photography. There are almost countless other factors that come into play when it comes to making this decision. 

Whatever you decide – and even if you want to do something completely different! – the big thing is to get married that way that suits you best. Some couples get ready together. Others want to do a ‘mock’ first look, or dress up in a novelty outfit just for fun. Some want to hear each other’s voices and hold hands, but not to see each other. 

It’s completely your call! Ultimately, a good photographer will be able to get good photos, whatever the timeframe they have to work with. It’s your wedding day, not a photoshoot. 

Let me know in the comments what you would like to do for your first look on your wedding day! For more helpful wedding-related content like this from an expert wedding photographer, check out more resources linked below.

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Pin a graphic to your Pinterest board to bookmark this blog post! Follow @zoelarkinphoto on Pinterest!

Information that will help you decide whether to have a first look on your wedding day. This trend has been around for quite a few years now, and the main benefit is that it allows you to get photos early in the day, before guest arrival and a chance to ground & center yourself in your partner. The First Look is here to stay! Decide whether a first look is for you with a San Francisco Bay Area wedding photographer’s guide to the First Look | #firstlook #weddingphotography | zoelarkin.com
A guide to whether or not to do the ‘first look’ on your wedding day, the trend where the bride and groom see each other prior to the wedding ceremony. Everything you need to know about the benefits as well as disadvantages of opting to have a first look so you can decide what works best for your wedding day | #firstlook #weddingphotography #bayareaweddingphotographer | zoelarkin.com
Zoe Larkin
Zoe Larkin

I’m Zoe, a wedding photographer based in San Francisco! My style is candid, capturing authentic moments for my couples all over the Bay Area and Northern California. Creating content is my passion! Follow along the blog and Insta!

A first look is when the couple sees each other for the first time on their wedding day. It’s typically a staged moment, orchestrated by the photographer. The first look is a chance for the couple to share a moment privately, to laugh, cry, share meaningful words and unveil their wedding attire.

What is a first look and why should you have one?

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