Ahh, the “unplugged ceremony”. This is a phrase that’s universally understood in the wedding world now, but that didn’t really exist – or need to exist – until the last fifteen years or so with the rampant rise of cell phone usage. Today, I’m going to dive into what unplugged ceremonies are, why so many couples prefer them, what’s at stake if you don’t address guest cell phone use during ceremonies, and most importantly – how to get what you want without offending your guests.
Before we dive in, take a look at the ceremony image below. What stands out to you? First, it may be that even though we can see many guests’ hands, there isn’t a single cell phone in sight! Instead, we see them clapping with excitement for the couple, looking ahead and taking in the moment with smiles on their faces. There are no distracting black rectangles. No one is looking down at a screen.
Imagine how much less impactful this image would be if everyone was on their phones or worse, a giant, clunky iPad. Imagine if a well-intentioned guest had raised their phone up right in front of me, thereby inhibiting my ability to capture this moment at all. Unplugged ceremonies help to avoid this tragically common scenario!
What is an unplugged ceremony?
Simply put, an unplugged ceremony is one in which no non-authorized cell phones, cameras, or other recording devices are utilized during the duration of the ceremony itself. You may also hear it referred to as an “unplugged wedding”, but I don’t like this terminology as it implies that cell phones are discouraged for the entirety of the event. It’s really just the ceremony that we’re concerned with!
Wanting an unplugged ceremony does not mean that a couple or the photographer are trying to control guests. The reality is that over the last twenty years, cell phone usage has become rampant in every facet of our lives.
It has become human nature to pull out our phones and document every moment, but the reality is, a wedding ceremony isn’t the guests’ moment to document and share. That moment is about the couple alone, and they deserve to share it in the way they choose.
For many couples, this means investing significantly in their professional photo and/or video teams. It could also mean that they want and encourage their guests to take photos and share them later, or perhaps the couple has specifically asked someone to record the ceremony for guests that cannot be physically present. It all boils down to the communication of the couple’s preferences.
Why are phones during ceremonies such a big deal?
I hear this often from guests on wedding days, and even many of my couples say they hadn’t thought about it until they were in the moment on their wedding day. In fact, many will even say that this is the photographer’s problem, and that we should just move out of the guests’ way or crop them out later.
While unplugged ceremonies certainly make my job easier, that alone is not the reason that I advocate for them. I am by nature an introverted and anxious person, as are many of my brides. I deeply empathize with them when they express a real fear of having so many eyes on them, being recorded without permission, and having awful cell phone shots being the first impression they receive from their wedding day.
Well-intentioned aunts and uncles don’t know what it’s like to walk down the aisle – an incredibly intimate and emotional moment – with twenty cameras pointed at them. They also don’t realize that most couples don’t want their blurry, poorly-composed cell phone shot. In fact, how often are these photos taken and never even shared with the couple?
For many people, myself included, simply the awareness that so many people are taking my photo is enough to put me in my own head too much and prohibit my ability to let my guard down and truly enjoy myself. If you’re like this too, this means that you may end up looking stiff and uncomfortable not just in those unwanted iPhone photos, but even in the professional ones.
All of this has led to a majority of couples wishing to limit, eliminate, or control cell phone usage during their ceremonies. But how? What’s the most effective way to approach this topic, in a way that’ll actually communicate your wishes without upsetting your guests?
The most effective approach to avoiding cell phones
If you found yourself nodding along with everything above, then YES – an unplugged ceremony is the right choice for you! There’s a few steps you can take to ensure the outcome you want, and luckily, they won’t cost you a dime.
First, take an honest look at your guest list and identify the most likely offenders. We all have that one relative that always seats themselves right on the aisle at every family wedding, cell phone in hand. Your first line of defense is to proactively approach these folks from a place of love and appreciation a few weeks before the wedding.
Give them a call or pull them aside at a gathering and say how excited you are to be celebrating with them soon, and that you can’t wait to take photos with them during cocktail hour and share some selfies on the dance floor. Say nothing about requiring them to put away their phones yet. Instead, approach from a place of mutual excitement and start laying that groundwork for the parts of the day where cell phone use is totally fine and encouraged.
On the wedding day, don’t fall for the trap of displaying those cute “unplugged ceremony” signs and calling it a day! These signs will go totally unnoticed if not outright ignored. Instead, a few moments before the ceremony is to begin, ask your officiant to make an announcement that goes as follows:
“Hello honored guests! NAME and NAME are so glad you’re here to celebrate with them today. They need your help with something, though. It’s important to the couple that they’re able to see your faces during the ceremony, and they want us all to take a few moments to really be present together as they make this commitment to each other. With that in mind, the couple asks that all phones and cameras be put away at this time. They’ve hired an amazing photo/video team to document the day for them (GESTURE TO PHOTO/VIDEO, BONUS POINTS IF CALL THEM BY NAME), so you’re off the hook for today! There will be plenty of time for selfies later, but for now, let’s get these two married!”
An announcement like this, delivered in a cheerful and non-authoritative tone, accomplishes so many things. Importantly, it demonstrates everyone working together to achieve a common goal – celebrating your marriage. Spoken from a place of love and excitement, it communicates your wishes and defines roles and expectations for your guests. After all, they likely have no idea who your photographer is! They don’t trust us the way you do, and may think their cell phone shots are “insurance” in case the photographer messes up. These words humanize your photo and video teams, putting a name to our faces and positioning us as the experts in memory preservation.
What about the phones you DO want?
Now more than ever, smaller celebrations and limited guest lists are the norm. It’s very normal to have loved ones that cannot attend in person, and to want to have the ceremony recorded in some way for them to watch in real time. In these cases, it’s crucial to identify who the designated guest is that’s in charge of the Zoom or Facebook Live recording, and to talk about it ahead of time with your photographer.
On the wedding day, this person should be seated in the front row, NOT on the aisle, but towards the far end away from the center aisle. Every ceremony location is different, so I’ll work with this person directly to ensure we’re both able to do our jobs.
This post is a long one, but I hope it’s helpful! To learn more about having me as your wedding photographer, click HERE. I’d love to work together to make your unplugged ceremony dreams a reality!