There are a lot of strong opinions out there when it comes to first looks. (And yes, I have a rather strong opinion myself) But what's particularly complicated about deciding whether or not to do a first look is that it's an either/or option. You only get one chance to see each other for the "first time" on your wedding day. So what are the options? Let's talk about it.
No First Look (The Traditional Approach)
The classic movie moment of the woman walking through the church doors for the first time is what most people think of when they think of seeing each other on the wedding day. There's actually a kind of creepy back story to this, and it ties into other traditions too like the veil and groomsmen. In the days of arranged marriages, the bride and groom weren't allowed to see each other (or meet at all) until they were at the altar. The idea was that if the groom didn't like what he saw, he might try to make a run for it. The groomsmen were actually there as "enforcers" to make him follow through with the marriage and the veil covered her face so he wouldn't be able to get a close look at her until the marriage was already official (just before the kiss).
So yeah, the tradition isn't romantic at all, but let's ignore that for a second. A lot of people say they prefer this option because it's a moment they've envisioned for a long time and they feel a first look would make it less special. Is that true? In my experience, not at all, but I'll explain more in a moment.
The First Look
Couples have recently started opting for a "first look" moment where they see one another for the first time in a private moment prior to the ceremony. Typically this is a "grand reveal" moment prepared by the photographer or wedding planner. The couple sees each other for the first time and shares their emotional reactions in private. The "first look" is increasing in popularity for many reasons: the moment is more intimate, there is less pressure to react a certain way in front of your guests, you can get through portraits and group photos before your ceremony so you have more time with your guests, being with your partner before the ceremony will help calm your nerves, and many more...
Blind First Look
Similar to a first look, the couple is posed in a way that they cannot see each other (back to back, on either side of a door, or around a corner) and can talk or hold hands without seeing each other. This is a good compromise for people who want to calm their nerves a bit and interact with their partner while holding true to tradition. However, you won't have the added time bonus from taking portraits early and you'll still be sharing this personal moment in a high-pressure environment with all your guests.
What I've Learned About First Looks
Most people only have one wedding, so it's hard to compare experiences. But as a photographer I see a lot of weddings behind the scenes, and I've seen every combination of first look or lack thereof. From my experience, I strongly recommend a first look, and here's why:
1. The first time you see your spouse-to-be will rarely go as planned. If you're imagining that movie moment, consider that you very well may not get it no matter what you do. First look or not, you can't force a romantic moment whenever you want one. I was so nervous when I got married that the walk down the aisle was a blur. Everyone was staring at me and I didn't know where to look. Emotions were so high that the memory is just a blur of faces, feelings, and a couple quick glances at my feet so I didn't trip. I do remember my first look, though, and it was really great and special to me.
2. That aisle moment will still be emotional. My husband cried during our first look. He also cried as I walked down the aisle. Everyone is different, so some people may hold back their emotions when everyone is watching, whereas others may just not be the emotional type at all, but I've never seen an 'aisle moment' that wasn't intense. It doesn't matter how much you see each other beforehand, that moment is always going to be a big one.
3. More than anything, you'll want more time on your wedding day. Everyone says it goes by fast, but man, when it's your wedding, it's insanely quick. You get very few opportunities to bring all your favorite people together, so having that extra time with your guests (and actually being able to enjoy your cocktail hour) will be really worth it.
4. Almost all of my couples who didn't do a first look told me they wished they had. And I've never asked. That's crazy, right? They all told me that without prompting. Inevitably you get tired of taking photos while being away from your guests and your party, you just want to get to the fun!
So What Do You Do?
Whatever the heck you want! I definitely recommend the first look because in my experience that's the way to have the best wedding day and I'm confident you won't regret it. But if you want to do something different, do it. In planning a wedding you'll find that everyone wants to pressure you to do things your way, so never feel guilty if you want to ignore someone's advice. You know yourselves best.