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First Looks are the Best and This is Why

10 min read

First looks have become a much-loved staple of wedding photography. Here’s why we think first looks are the best – for clients and photographers! (Featuring HILARY KOON PHOTOGRAPHY)

First Looks are the Best and This is Why

What truly makes a first look special isn’t the pictures; it’s the people. You can be the most accomplished photographer in your hemisphere, yet without your couple’s enthusiasm, their first look will be just another chore on a long list of “must-have” wedding day photos.

Here’s why we think first looks are so special, and how to inspire your clients to embrace a first look tradition of their very own.

A bride taps her groom's shoulder and he turns toward her for their first look.

Photos by Hilary Koon

Wait – What’s a “First Look,” Anyway?

Okay, we’ll back up a minute. “First looks” first appeared on the wedding photography scene around the turn of the century – the 21st century, that is. The trend toward wedding photojournalism motivated photographers to pursue more authentic, natural moments; and first looks offered a gently directed approach to intimate portraits without the stiff pageantry of posing.

Today, first looks are nearly as common as first dances. Couples coordinate with their photographer to plan the perfect first look. Great location, gorgeous light, and raw emotion intermingle in the pictures of these sweet, unforgettable moments.

A bride smiles back at the camera as she approaches her groom for their first look.

Photo by Hilary Koon

Get to the Heart of the First Look

North Carolina photographer Hilary Koon is a big fan of first looks. In fact, she encourages every single couple she photographs to incorporate one into their wedding day timeline. Sure, it’s great for her as an artist; but her real passion lies with her clients and their once-in-a-lifetime wedding day experience.

“My favorite first look was when the groom paused for a good thirty seconds. He was in awe of his bride’s beauty and just – paused. It was to the point that we were almost worried about him,” describes Hilary. “But as soon as he snapped out of it, he cried like a baby. He hugged her for a solid five minutes, and kept pushing her out to look at her, and then wrapping her back up in his arms over and over. It was truly a beautiful moment that I will never forget.”

A bride taps her groom on the shoulder and her turns to her for their first look.

Photos by Hilary Koon

It’s that untethered emotion that makes first looks so powerful. Individuals who might otherwise be shy with their feelings are free to express themselves in the privacy of a first look. At the front of a church or in front of hundreds of guests, Hilary’s groom would never have focused a full five minutes on simply admiring his wife-to-be. But the first look gave him the freedom to show emotion, express adoration, and connect deeply with the person he’d chosen as his life partner.

Hilary shares another powerful story: “At my most recent first look, the groom was very shy. But when he saw his bride, he let out the biggest tears I have ever seen! He was so excited to have that moment with just her, rather than in front of everyone.”

A bride and groom hold hands and gaze at one another during their first look.

Photo by Hilary Koon

First Looks are 100% Practical

Along with being wonderfully emotive experiences, first looks are also highly practical. Most wedding celebrations are a chaotic whirlwind of “hurry-up-and-wait” and “go-go-go-now-now-now!” From the early morning hair and makeup appointments to the impeccably timed cake-cutting, couples can find themselves at the mercy of an inflexible timeline that doesn’t allow a moment to breathe, let alone just be.

“With a first look, my clients are more relaxed during their ceremony,” shares Hilary, “and often, even with the family photos after the ceremony, they are able to make it to their cocktail hour and spend more time with friends and family.”

A first look is more than a moment. It’s an opportunity for a couple to enjoy their day more fully while feeling more connected to one another and their guests.

A groom twirls his bride then pulls her in for a kiss during their first look.

Photos by Hilary Koon

You’ll Get More Photos with a First Look

You’ve heard it (and possibly said it) a million times: when the wedding is over, all that’s left are the photographs. (Well, and hopefully a lifetime of love and happiness.) For Hilary, including a first look helps her deliver the most complete story with the maximum number of images. “First looks allow for so many additional photos throughout the day,” she explains. By photographing the couple earlier in the day, she can free them to enjoy their celebration with more flexibility and spontaneity – which also allows for more photographs of natural, unplanned moments and all the emotions they entail.

A bride and groom stand forehead-to-forehead under a tree for their first look.

Photo by Hilary Koon

How to Plan the Perfect First Look

Though first looks are typically unposed, they aren’t free-for-alls. A successful first look requires quite a bit of planning, preparation, and communication. And since there can only be one “first,” you want to get it right!

“Couples spend months and months trying to make everything perfect, and it can get stressful,” says Hilary. “This is the first time they see each other in their formalwear” – which means everyone wants to look their very best. Set the stage for a picture-perfect first look by following Hilary’s advice:

A bride and groom exchange gifts outside during their first look.

Photos by Hilary Koon

#1: Scout the First Look Location

“Have a location picked out before the first look,” recommends Hilary. She also advises photographers to take a few test photos to make sure the lighting looks great, and that the background is clear (no road signs or trash bins or unwanted passersby.)

#2: Communicate with the Couple

“Make sure the photography plan is known by both the bride and groom,” says Hilary. This includes getting the couple into position, instructing them on where to stand and when to walk, and letting them know where you’ll be shooting from so they don’t turn their backs to you. “Having a plan ensures that the first look goes off without a hitch!”

A bride and groom hug during their outdoor first look.

Photos by Hilary Koon

#3: Make the Most of the Moment

“Don’t be scared to get in close and grab great detail shots,” Hilary suggests. And since some shyer couples have been known to freeze like deer in headlights, she has a few easy prompts prepared. “Draw her in for a kiss,” she’ll say, or, “You guys look beautiful! Wrap each other up in a huge hug!”

#4: Don’t Interrupt!

Except in rare cases where the couple freezes, Hilary is adamant: “Do not stop the first look in any way! I have seen professionals stop a first look because they were not ready, or because the couple didn’t follow directions properly. This will only make the moment awkward,” she explains, “and will ultimately result in less emotion and connection. Roll with the moment and capture as much as you can in the first few minutes.”

A bride and groom exchange gifts and hug during their outdoor first look.

Photos by Hilary Koon

How to “Unpose” the First Look

First looks are an imperfect blend of detailed planning and wild uncertainty. Will she trip on her train? What if he just stands there awkwardly?

In the case of a bride and groom, Hilary prefers to position the groom in a pre-selected location, then motion for the bride to walk up behind him and tap him on the shoulder. At this point, the groom will turn and the couple will be perfectly placed for a series of unobtrusive photos.

A bride in a long-sleeved lace dress prepares to twirl under a tree during her first look with her husband.

Photo by Hilary Koon

Get Your Gear in Order

Hilary photographs first looks with:

If you’re photographing with a partner, consider shooting from a distance with a telephoto lens while your second shooter stands closer with a wider lens. And, whenever possible, avoid using flashes that will distract the couple from their moment together.

A bride and groom kiss while standing under a tree for their first look on their wedding day.

Photo by Hilary Koon

Be Part of Something Bigger

“The first look is a moment between the couple when they can relax, soak it all in, and enjoy one another,” expresses Hilary. Her emphasis on her clients’ experience is what makes their first looks so memorable. Yes, Hilary works hard to craft beautiful images. But her primary focus is on the couple and what will best enhance their day.

When you take on a first look, you’re not merely adding to your shot list; you’re telling a love story. Tell it well, and your clients will have memories to cherish for the rest of their lives.

How do you photograph first looks?

Share your insights in the comments below!


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