On March 20, Nic Shackleton married Eric Johnson in the backyard of a friend’s home in Salt Lake City, Utah. Over 100 people witnessed the wedding; 12 were in person. Everyone else was on Zoom.
The COVID-19 travel restrictions had just begun, and the dream wedding Shackleton and Johnson had planned at Devil’s Thumb Ranch, a resort in Tabernash, Colorado, had been cancelled. States were beginning to halt large gatherings, and apologetic guests were pulling out. But neither groom wanted to postpone. So they didn’t.
“Our officiant, who was in Seattle, was the one who suggested getting on Zoom,” said Shackleton, a senior project manager at Cricut, a cutting-machine company. He and Johnson each brought a laptop, so they could broadcast the ceremony from two different vantage points. The officiant gave the sermon. The best man wrote and sang a song. Everyone who watched participated — dressing up for the event, holding champagne glasses up to the screen.
“We actually got more people to see us than originally, because there were people who couldn’t come regardless of the virus,” Shackleton recalls. “I really felt like they were there watching us. We talked to people. We showed them the cake. They wanted to watch us have dinner.”
Technology has been inching its way into weddings for years, via photos snagged by smartphones and hashtagged posts uploaded to social media. Some brides and grooms have splurged on more elaborate high-tech enhancements: photos taken by drones, roaming digital photo booths, even robots doling out doughnuts.
But social distancing and stay-at-home orders and advisories due to COVID-19 have turned technology from a perk into a lifeline — and ushered the livestreamed wedding into the mainstream. And even after the current crisis fades, some wedding professionals predict, livestreaming could become a routine part of weddings, as a way to include guests who are unable to attend for reasons such as age, illness, finances, and pregnancy — and appeal to a generation of brides and grooms who grew up immersed in technology.
“Technology can resolve a lot of issues we didn’t have a good solution for until now,” says Valerie Gernhauser, the owner of Sapphire Events, a wedding-planning firm based in New Orleans. “We will further refine and perfect this, but these offerings are staying with us. This has changed the way we do events forever.”
“I photographed the screen and tried to do what I always do at a wedding: tell a story and find the joy in the event.”Wedding photographer Roey Yohai
Live-broadcast weddings used to be the province of the royals or the ultra-rich; New York-based photographer Andy Marcus has had clients, in the past, who used multiple cameras, switchers, and technicians to broadcast their weddings to faraway guests.
“Back in the day, we had satellite trucks to broadcast the wedding,” says Marcus, who has photographed non-livestreamed weddings for celebrities such as Eddie Murphy, Kelsey Grammer, and Mary Tyler Moore. “Now you can do it with far less equipment and for a fraction of the cost.”
Amid the COVID-19 shutdown, virtual weddings have become the only alternative for brides and grooms who don’t want to cancel their long-planned events. In April, Roey Yohai, a wedding photographer based in Gramercy, New York, photographed a Zoom wedding session for a couple that wanted to keep their original date.
At first, Yohai wasn’t sold on the idea: he would have to join the party via Zoom, like everyone else, and shoot the live streaming experience from his home.
He knew that finding good photos, in those circumstances, would be a challenge. “The lighting was not great,” he explains. “The room was very dark. The rabbi wasn’t in the room but projected onto a screen, and the couple stood side by side in front of her, but you really couldn’t see them.”
Still, he managed to take 80 shots with a high-resolution camera. Most everyone dressed up for the occasion, he says, and he got shots of everyone smiling at him and waving, just as he requested. “I photographed the screen and tried to do what I always do at a wedding: tell a story and find the joy in the event,” he says. And he found that in some ways, the guests were more engaged than they would have been in person. “The attention span is different,” he says. “It’s limited, but people were involved and interested, as opposed to seeing people yawning or looking at their phones during regular wedding ceremonies.”
Yohai developed some tips from the event for filming virtual weddings in the future. “If you’re going to do this once things go back to normal, I’d have a visual person consult,” he says. “If I were involved earlier, it would have made a big difference.”
Marcus says simple technical fixes can improve the experience for guests: “You can increase the quality of the video substantially by swapping out the camera on your computer for a more advanced one.” Still, he predicts that couples who can afford it will still hire professionals for filming and editing.
“With Zoom, what you will be losing is the artistry to edit down the event. A wedding can be six or more hours. No one is going to be on Zoom for the entire production,” Marcus says. “That’s why we take a six-to-nine-hour event and edit it down to an hour. Then we edit that to a five-minute video so the couple can send it to their guests.”
Marcus thinks livestreaming will always be a second choice for couples and their guests. “That little image on the screen will never be a true substitution for being at the wedding,” he said. “We’re accepting of this now because it’s all we have at the moment. It’s a Band-Aid. My clients are chomping at the bit. They want to get dressed up and put on their good jewelry. They don’t want to sit in their PJs and watch their friend’s wedding for several hours.”
But Brittny Drye, editor-in-chief of the magazine Love Inc., predicts that livestreaming will become part of a regular menu of wedding offerings. “Couples that want to unplug or have a phone-free wedding will still have streaming and Zooming as part of their event,” she says. “Zoom is going to be an expectation.”
Gernhauser, too, is bullish on the future of video weddings — and she thinks couples will begin to use the technology in more creative ways.
“I think the next phase of Zooming with be like the show ‘Big Brother,’ with cameras in a variety of rooms,” she says. “Maybe we’ll have a Zoom booth where guests could interact with others logging in to watch the event. We could place cameras in a variety of different locations. All you need to do is toggle from one camera to another or float around different rooms.”
Shackleton and Johnson have become believers — and they say their livestream even had some advantages over an in-person event. On their honeymoon, they watched their entire wedding on video, since, unbeknownst to them, their officiant had recorded the event on Zoom.
“We got to see who signed on and what they were saying. It felt so personal to see their faces and reaction. I got a lot of that emotional connection I didn’t think would be there,” Shackleton says. “We both teared up to see people’s reactions to our best man’s song and to our vows…We got an additional memory out of it that we weren’t planning on having.”