Photographer Makes the Case for Phone-Less Weddings With One Photo

Photographer Makes the Case for Phone-Less Weddings With One Photo

We can argue back and forth for days about if guests should have the right to take photos as they please at weddings, but when it comes down to it, if the happy couple can't experience their special day without a guest interfering, haven't we gone too far? Photographer Thomas Stewart thinks so. 

Australian Wedding Photographer Thomas Stewart recently posted a rant that really hit home with a lot of people, both clients and photographers alike.

To me, the picture says more than I could ever say with words. Nonetheless, I'll express that I couldn't agree more with Thomas. The truth is, this is representative of so many issues in our culture. First of all, did you know that you won't remember an event as well if you're focused on taking pictures of it? So really, why do we feel this overwhelming need to capture mediocre photos of an event knowing full well that a hired professional is there to capture great photos of it? It's quite selfish, in my opinion. Don't get me wrong; I don't see anything wrong with snapping a quick shot as a memento from your seat and promptly putting your phone away; that's no more distracting than Great Aunt Edna's hell-raising sneezes two aisles over. But this culture of hanging in the aisle while the bride processes, of watching concerts through a tiny phone screen? What's up with that? Why do we insist on removing ourselves from the experience and interfering with the experience of others for some forgettable shots? As Stewart puts it:

The guests' photos are usually crap. I'm sorry, but it is true. You can't take great photos with your camera phone by leaning into the aisle of a dark church to photograph a moving subject. Hell, even lots of professionals have trouble with this. 

This is why I have a clause in my contract that gives me permission to act on the bride and groom's behalf in telling people to put their phones away, a clause that I explain fully to the couple before the wedding and one that I've never had met with anything but enthusiastic agreement from the couple. This doesn't mean I play phone police with every guest, but it does give me leeway to address the most egregious offenders. After all, do you go to a fine dining restaurant just to have people throw fast food at you the entire time you're there? Forgive me if I'm being rude in such a characterization, but the fact of the matter is that the couple has hired me as a professional to create the best possible images for them. If you want to take photos for your memories, I have no problem with that, as long as you do it quickly and without exceeding the limits of basic etiquette, my job aside.

But here's the thing: not I, nor any wedding photographer, I imagine, likes being in the position of having to play photo bouncer with guests. I'm constantly toeing a fine line in these situations. My allegiance is to the couple and the couple only; frankly, I don't care if it upsets you when I politely ask you to stop standing in the middle of the aisle. When that couple looks back at the photos of one of the most important days of their lives, I don't want them to be disappointed because the person they trusted to capture that day, me, couldn't simply speak up when someone was interfering. On the other hand, I always run the risk of running into that person who just doesn't want to be told what to do and will cause a scene, no matter how polite I am. My job is to make great images and to be invisible; causing a scene really violates the second half of that. 

But really, Stewart's post and more strikingly, his photo, highlight the real point here: it's not about the guests and it's not about the photographer. It's about the bride and groom. They have granted us an incredible privilege to witness a deeply intimate event and we should never forget that. We are there as witnesses, not actors. When you step into the aisle and block the groom's view of the bride, you become an actor. When I have to interrupt your experience of the event to tell you to sit back down, I become an actor. If someone chooses to share such an intimate and special occasion with us, I think we owe them the requisite respect to at least not interfere with it. Whenever I tie the knot, I don't want the memory of my bride walking down the aisle to also include ten people hanging in the aisle with their phones. I don't want to miss the looks of joy on my friends' faces because there are phones in front of them. I want my wedding to be a beautiful event shared with the people close to me, not some faux electronic extension of them. After all, that's why we have wedding photographers: they're people who are really good at making images and just as importantly, who we don't mind asking to forgo experiencing the event without distractions. Leave that job up to them. 

Image used with permission of Thomas Stewart. 

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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You know, I completely agree with the premise, but I think there are just certain things that a we are going to have to deal with as a culture. The times, they are a'changin! It's up to the bride and groom to let their guests know their wishes as far as phones go...but there are always going to be A-holes out there who don't think and do something this stupid.

On a side, note, though...probably not the best idea for the photographer to post identifiable photos of his bride and groom's guests while talking about them in a disparaging way. I wouldn't call that professional, either.

Great points.

Times are a changing, but we have had manners throughout history, we just need to update them according to the new times. An ass hole is still an ass hole no matter what time period they live in.

It depends on the people having the wedding, some I have been to actually gave cameras to all the guests so they could take photos, at my wedding we encouraged people to take photos. To each their way. If one prefers not too just say so in the invitation.

Honestly, this is the reason I eloped. We wanted our wedding ceremony to be for and about us, not about guests, or photographs, or squabbling family. We have four middle of the road photos of our wedding from the venue photographer, and we couldn't be happier.

It is the time we live in. A wedding is an event for everyone there, not a performance photography show designed to get the best photos on earth. In my experience I have had exclusive access to the couple and their families before and after the ceremony for creative portraits. Why be so greedy, let the guest take photos and video, so what if you think it's "crap" it is their personal experience and some of them traveled far paying thousands of dollars to hang out for a day. Let them enjoy themselves, that is the point of the whole party.

I think this photo illustrates a photographer that sounds pretty jaded. Just get a different angle. That is your job. Or make the isle wider. People are going to bring their phones to weddings, it's just the time we are in.

He is a professional paid THOUSANDS to do a job, they are interfering with that job and potentially ruining shots the couple paid THOUDANDS for. Now I'm no pro, in fact I just started the photoshop class at school, but I'm pretty sure the couple would be less than thrilled to have people with their cell phones out in the middle of every shot.

One of those 3 women is likely the mother of the bride, and likely paid for everything.

Your right, its annoying and would be ideal if it didn't happen, but I shoot enough weddings to know its not going to change real easy, people don't want to be told what to do.

Sounds good in theory, but statistics point to the notion people tend to remember more about an event when they're not constantly taking photos. I went to a wedding where a guy with an iPad was standing on the pew, leaning into the isle, raising it high - just making a spectacle of himself.

"In a new study, psychological scientist Linda Henkel of Fairfield University presents data showing that participants had worse memory for objects, and for specific object details, when they took photos of them. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science."

It's not about a "performance" for the photographers, most good photographers go unnoticed. He's not really saying the guests shouldn't have photos, but that they're going above and beyond for photos that most people don't really look at later. So much so that it might be better to just have them put them away during the ceremony.

Congratulations, you've tripped across a study describing a well-known phenomenon of the human memory that's been known for decades called 'memory displacement theory'. You may be surprised that this extends beyond photography and into other areas of human memory, including writing things in the comments section below articles on a website.

The article cited also does not favor your argument that people "[are] going above and beyond for photos that most people don't really look at later." If anything, the results of the study suggest that people are *more* likely to look at them later, as it's an external component of the memory of a wedding.

Thomas brings up a good point that this is not necessarily people getting in the way of the photographer and their professional shots, rather that the guests got in the way of the groom, who would want to see his bride for the first time in that wedding dress.

If I were the groom I'd be annoyed, if I were the bride I'd be annoyed, if I were the photographer I'd be annoyed. If I were the guests taking that shot I'd be thrilled, after realizing that I got in the bride and grooms way though I'd feel bad.

Yes this is "the world we live in", to me though that just means it takes a little extra work to inform your guests of what you want. Remind friends and family via social media shortly before the wedding day, put a note in the invitations (and hope people actually read those), get the ushers to remind people as they get to the venue and take their seats (and have the ushers speak specifically to anyone carrying an iPad), have the wedding commissioner remind guests before the ceremony starts. It's all just work if you don't want your guests to get in the way.

This gets me wondering though in regards to the "these are the times we live in" remarks. I wonder what people thought when photographing weddings first became possible. I'm willing to bet that guests were very annoyed by these photographers who kept getting in the way.

Alex, I think you need to lighten up. Or you're fortunate to have no really big issues to worry about.

One of my favorite wedding shots was the bride and groom facing each other, with people in the aisle seats in both rows leaning into the aisle to take a photo. If you're going to shoot couples under 30, expect that.

I think Michael Andrew said it best above: "A wedding is an event for everyone there, not a performance photography show designed to get the best photos on earth."

I've been to a number of weddings over the past several years, including a few with highly-paid photographers in our midst. The people who were getting married and the people in attendance always managed to figure out how to keep everyone out of a photographer's way. It's not rocket science. "Please refrain from photographing the couple during the ceremony. You will have an opportunity to do so afterwards." Two sentences by the marriage officiant takes care of 99% of all problems encapsulated by the photo in the rant. (There's no such thing as a 100% guarantee... sorry.)

I actually don't mind that people take pictures, but what I make sure the MC/Pastor/Priest announce at all the weddings I am contracted for is for everyone to stay out of the aisles and keep there phones and or Ipads away from the aisle as well. It has worked every time so far.
The one image I couldn't control was a bouquet toss in Times Square. Where a random "Tourist" saw what was going on and tried to cut in front of me with her phone to take a picture. I didn't even notice till after I looked at the image on the LCD screen and when I looked up she was gone!
Anyways, could've been worse. What do you guys think?

That's part of shoo trying in Times Square.

It's funny because I see articles like this all the time, and it's never been a problem I have dealt with because I've never shot a wedding where the guests stood up during the processional. Even if they turn and have their phones out, they're still not blocking anyone. Just make them stay seated and get their crappy phone photos with their butts on their seats.

First, a relevant XKCD reference, just to reel in the 'stop taking crappy photos and enjoy the ceremony' comments:

Second, the link to the photography and relational memory study article is irrelevant, as it only implicates memory displacement theory at work. It does not imply that people are going to somehow remember the particulars of a wedding less. Really, Alex, you're just using it as a straw man to set up guests who choose to photograph the wedding with their phone as idiots.

Third, having been to a number of weddings recently, there is nothing about such situations that cannot be solved by a wedding officiant saying, "Please refrain from taking photos during the ceremony. You will have an opportunity to do so afterward." It's not a 100% guarantee, but nothing ever is, not even a clause in a contract.

Hi Michael,

I don't think, nor did I directly say or imply a guest who chooses to photograph a wedding with their phone is an idiot. That was never my point. I think you're a bit confused. The quoted study is not about memory displacement effect, as the subjects were not committing anything as experienced on the camera or the phone to short term memory, thereby displacing environmental details from STM and reducing the impact on longterm memory. Instead, it's an example of cue dependent theory and directed forgetting, in that the brain formed an assumption of the presence of a cue for remembrance (the picture) and thus, cleared that memory to make room for another in the STM, something which directly implies that indeed, people focused on taking a picture at a wedding are less likely to remember the wedding. You can read more on theories of memory here:

Thanks for the comment; I'm always happy to chat about learning theory and memory!

Ah, interesting! I do see the difference between memory displacement and cue dependent theory and directed forgetting. That does make sense. Psychology and human memory is very intriguing to me, and this does help me better understand it.

My issue with the use of the study in this article still remains, however. It's mostly in the manner by which it is framed. "The truth is, this is representative of so many issues in our culture. First of all, did you know that you won't remember an event as well if you're focused on taking pictures of it?" The first sentence primes the reader to interpret the second sentence - including the study - as a salient yet negative point. Practically everything else that follows it is negative. You're implying that anyone who does this is doing something wrong, is probably forgetful because of their habits, and is generally a boorish person. (I'll walk back the 'idiot' comment, so long as this point is clear.)

The article also doesn't go on to include the full context of the study: Are they forgetting what happened in that particular moment when they took a photo (probably), or is there a lasting effect on memory that continues immediately afterwards or for a longer duration (who knows)? Do the photographs create tools for memory retrieval? (They do.) Does this affect only people using smart phones? (No, it's anybody with a camera, really.) Some of that information defangs it's relevance, especially considering the arguments that surround it.

Lastly, the first sentence really has nothing to do with the second sentence. There's no cultural link between a scientifically observable memory rift caused by the act of taking a photo and people taking photos at weddings with their phones. You're making that link, however, and anybody who doesn't think about such things for longer than 2 seconds (like I apparently do) will accept the study as contributing evidence when they really shouldn't.

As much as I appreciate learning new things about the human memory, this feels out of place in what is otherwise an opinion piece. Had it not even been there, I probably wouldn't have said anything - you're entitled to your opinion. Heck, if you left it out, it's still a good article, even if I disagree with it.

When I was in my senior year of high school, I was in a work study program, and my boss brought in her wedding album. They were all Polaroids and duplicates from her guests because the wedding photographer she hired had skipped town. Nowadays, with social media, business practices like that wouldn't fly!

Anyway, I think there was a time and place for guests to photograph weddings, but that was also before digital cameras, and as a guest, you had to be careful to not waste exposures from your small roll of film; you needed to plan to make it last over the course of the wedding festivities. Now people can throw in a 64 gig memory card and take photos and video through the whole thing! Is there still a chance that memory cards could malfunction? The chance is so slim and even then there are things that can be done to recover the images.

As wedding photographers, we can only capture the wedding as it happens and I highly recommend that guests unplug. We don't unplug enough in our lives as it is, right? Everyone will have a much better experience if they're fully in the moment.

Finally, someone that actually makes sense! This whole new thing about social media, has most of us on a craze about getting the right "snapshot", which in return, disconnects us from the most important thing..the moment. Thank you, Angela!

The picture that started this discussion tells us nothing new. Never forget that the guests may be relatives or may have known the couple for decades and get naturally excited when seeing them on their wedding day. When they reach for their smartphones they are not thinking about the paid pro or much else for that matter. This is a reality that wedding photographers have to work with, rather than wish to uninvent the smartphone.

With regard to the picture I would see it as question of assertiveness/crowd control. The Groom's "first look" is such an essential picture that the photographer needs to respectfully move guest further away and not expect them to respect his need for a given picture. I have never been afraid to adjust seating etc to ensure that guests do not get in the way of an important photograph. I have never had a guest flatly refuse relocate in order for me to take a picture.

There are practical things that can help such as phone clauses in the contract but nothing works as well as good natured assertiveness.

These days I think we all come across weddings like this where there is a breakdown in communication with guests about photography. Yes, the officiant stating to the guests to respect the couple's request to put phones away will help, but there are many people that will never listen. And to those people, I feel their selfish need to have their own images makes sense for them, but they are being rude at the same time to the couple.

The worst to me are those with selfie sticks that stop the couple to get a selfie, even during the procession (sorry, but I'm not going to stop the procession for a jerk with a stick that jumps in the way). I will advise the couple/family to control their guests at the time of the contract and at times during the wedding, but if they choose to do nothing about it, then it's pretty much permission to guests to do whatever they want.

Guests disrupting weddings are likely to continue to get worse as newer technologies become more common. I'm just waiting for guests to all have drones at weddings, and as cool as it sounds to see a dozen or more flying around, I cringe at the idea of hundreds of distracted guests and the couple all looking at different directions worrying if they will get assaulted by these things.