It almost sounds like a cliché at this point to say it, but 2020 wasn’t easy for anyone and the wedding industry was hit particularly hard depending on where in the world you were.
Here in the UK, we’ve had several variations of restrictions, everything from as normal up until March, to not allowed at all and everything in between. I’ve had the joy of experiencing all of these, including having to photograph a wedding on the day that Boris Johnson announced our very first full national lockdown.
It was a very bleak outlook being self-employed. My job role changed from being a wedding photographer to juggling wedding dates around and dealing with hundreds of emails with the silver lining being my typing speed increased.
When weddings were allowed back on, we were restricted to 30 guests with anyone working at the wedding being including in that figure. This then was reduced to 15 guests but with staff or wedding suppliers not included.
Most of my couples had already rescheduled their date to either later in the year, or another year completely but a small handful decided to keep their date and have their weddings in accordance to whatever rules we had to abide by.
As the clock struck midnight seeing in the new year, it became apparent that COVID isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and the UK has once again been placed into a full lockdown until at least March. Despite a slow rollout of the vaccine, we would be naïve to think that after this lockdown, weddings will be back on as normal, so couples will be wondering whether to reschedule, possibly for the 2nd or 3rd time, or to go ahead with a wedding despite restrictions.
So the question they will be asking is ‘Should we still go ahead?’ I’m not here to give you the answer to that question, but I’d love to talk about both my experiences of photographing restricted weddings as well as some of the couples I’ve photographed in 2020.
Jade and Jack started planning their wedding back in 2018, had booked their venue and suppliers, and had created their guest list with 90 attending the day and 130 in total with evening guests. They both have very large families spread all over. When COVID hit in March 2020, they didn’t panic much since October, their wedding month, seemed far away.
As the months rolled closer, it became apparent that COVID wasn’t going anywhere and news came in that weddings were reduced to 30 guests.
“We’d waited this long we just wanted to be married!” Jade told me. “I wanted to put that dress on and feel like a princess and nothing was going to stop that!”
But then, just 3 weeks prior, Jade describes the feeling of being told that it’s now just 15 guests allowed. “The world fell from underneath me, we were heartbroken. BUT we had come this far and what if it got worse so we decided to still go ahead with just our closest family… just mums, dads, grandparents, and siblings.”
I could tell from her emails that she was very upset by this. Despite this, though, the wedding was held.
“The day arrived and quite honestly it was amazing!” Jade says. “Having such an intimate wedding meant we could spend quality time with those who are closest to us. It made us appreciate our family too and having all of them travel from around the country was truly heartwarming.
“We got to spend more time taking photos with everyone because you weren’t rushing to get 100 people in a photo which honestly is a lot less stressful!
We were also able to go away with [our photographer] for over an hour to have some time to ourselves and laugh with each other which on your wedding day is very important!”
“A smaller wedding may seem an anticlimax to what you originally planned, but we wouldn’t change it for the world,” Jade and Jack say. “Looking back on our day now, it was the best decision under the circumstances and we are man and wife!
“Also, there is nothing stopping you in the future from having a huge party/reception and doing it all again!”
Their experience is by no means an outlier.
I asked clients Karenza and Edward how their experience was.
“Our wedding felt like it changed a hundred times in my head,” they tell me. “The plan for 2 years was to marry Edward [on] April 7th, 2020, a date that was set in my head since back in February 2018 when we fell in love with our venue and booked the date.
“From a guest list of 52 originally it changed to 30 then 15. I went through all the emotions, there were tears but as soon as Edward and I sat down one evening, we both thought to let go of our original dream wedding and decided that what was the most important to us was that we got married, I stopped worrying.
“I married Edward at the beautiful venue we both fell in love with, we had all the original personal touches that we spent months, actually 2 years of planning. It was a very special and intimate ceremony. I cannot imagine it being what we originally planned now. We might have a party once we get back to normal, but I was so keen to do the official ceremony. I feel so lucky that we got to do it. It was a small ceremony but it was perfect.”
Yet another couple I photographed had to also change plans many times to accommodate the ever-changing rules. They originally planned 70+ guests but had to cut down to 30 and then 15. Like the two previous couples, they streamed most of the day online to their friends and family who were unable to attend.
“We are planning on a wedding party in the near future,” they tell me. “We actually preferred having the intimate wedding as this made it more meaningful to us and still created a special memorable day!”
The stories are similar with all the couples I asked, with the initial shock and being upset that the day they had originally planned can no longer happen, yet on the day itself and afterward, they all thoroughly enjoyed the more intimate experience.
So often I feel that couples put on large weddings with guest lists ranging in the hundreds and costs and budgets out of the window because they feel they have to as it’s “just what everyone does.” The day should be about them and their closest family and friends. 15 guests has been difficult for all of my couples and sacrifices have unfortunately had to be made but none of my couples have regretted their choice to carry on with their special days.
From a wedding photographer’s point of view, these smaller weddings have had pros and cons. For me, as a documentary photographer, at times during the lulls in the day there hasn’t been as much to photograph as with such small numbers of guests. After a meal, for instance, they have chosen to stay sat at their tables quietly talking.
I try very hard to capture moments as they are happening, which again has been slightly more tricky as my presence is made more aware when there are only a handful of people, whereas with larger numbers, I am able to blend in better and capture a much more genuine moment, emotion or interaction.
Something I have enjoyed is being able to spend more time with the couple as they don’t feel as rushed to get back to the rest of the guests. I’ve felt more involved with their days too as parts of the day such as the bridal prep have had fewer people so they often involve me in their conversations. This has allowed me to get to know my couples on a much more personal level which I’ve enjoyed.
I’ve also been able to spend more time photographing the other guests. I’m sure we’ve all had emails from couples after their special day asking if we managed to get any photos of them talking to ‘Uncle Joe’s cousin’s brother’ etc. Not always a simple task with 100+ guests!
I’ve personally really enjoyed the smaller weddings despite knowing that 15 guests can be quite a sacrifice for the couples and can at times mean I have to try and be a bit more creative with the slower times of the day.
After our current lockdown, there will be no doubt that these restrictions will be back in place for a number of months, which means reschedules or cancellations. The other option is to let couples know that it doesn’t have to be their dreams shattered and that people have enjoyed their smaller, intimate weddings much more than they thought they would.
About the author: Steven Prebble is a wedding photographer based in Cornwall, UK. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Prebble’s work on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.