I never thought much about surprise wedding photography until working with Sam + Sal; their surprise wedding at Danfords in Port Jefferson NY was a big hit with their loved ones, and the guests' reactions made for some wonderful candid photographs.

Guests and family members applaud and cry happy tears at a surprise wedding ceremony in Long Island NY.

Get you a documentary photographer who can capture ALLL the surprise wedding feels and guest reactions <3

Sam + Sal's surprise wedding was a big success, and I have a few suggestions for couples planning a stress-free surprise ceremony of their own: read on for my Top 3 Tips for DIY surprise weddings!

Wedding officiant and couple laugh as they announce that there surprise wedding ceremony is about to begin.

"You're not at Sam and Sal's engagement party," the officiant announced, "you're at their WEDDING!" The guests, about 50 or 60 in small intimate party room on the second floor of Danfords in Port Jefferson NY, burst into applause, cheers, and laughter...after getting over their initial surprise and shock.

Surprised guests react with shocked expressions to learning that they are at a surprise wedding not an engagement party.
Happy guests loved being at a surprise wedding ceremony and began applauding when they couple announced their big news.
The groom's niece holds her hand over her mouth in surprise upon learning that she is at her uncle's surprise wedding.

Tip #1: Surprise your GUESTS, but keep your vendors "in the know" (we promise: we won't ruin the surprise!)

For us wedding vendors, delivering our "A-Game" is about being prepared, and knowing all the major events of the day that are important to you, our couples! Preparation is especially important for me as a candid documentary wedding photographer: since I don't stage or recreate moments, I need to know what's coming up so I can capture all the emotions fully as they unfold. Surprises happen in life, but if you have the option of informing your vendors in advance about the nature of your event, definitely do so!

All vendors, such as your venue, your DJ or band, even your hair and makeup artist (if you go that route) will want to know they are preparing for a (surprise) wedding, and not just a party. Many vendors have different pricing, package options, and a higher level of service / attention to detail for weddings than we do for non-wedding parties and events.

Need more convincing to spill the surprise wedding beans to your vendors? Check out THIS REDDIT THREAD and THIS OFFBEAT WED ARTICLE.

Black and white candid portrait of the wedding couple's young child learning of her parent's surprise ceremony.

This was the exact moment that Sam + Sal revealed to their 10 year old child that TODAY was their wedding day. Once she was IN on the surprise, S + S included her in all special moments of their surprise wedding celebration; so sweet!

Candid portrait of a child laughing with joy at her parents' wedding in Long Island NY.

This sweetheart knew her parents were engaged and about to marry after 10 years of partnership, but she was surprised and overjoyed to learn that their wedding would be TODAY, at what she previously thought was their engagement party.

Tip #2: Carefully consider how your family, friends, and guests may react: surprise weddings are a fun option, but only YOU know best whether your crew can handle this level of spontaneity.

As with all DIY non-traditional weddings options, such as elopements, self-uniting ceremonies, or micro weddings, you really only need to ask yourselves 2 questions before you commit to a surprise wedding celebration (and the second question is OPTIONAL, but useful):

  1. Does this kind of event fit US as a couple? Do we love this idea? Does a surprise wedding play to our strengths? Does this celebration format make our wedding more joyful and less stressful for us? If you both love the idea and it just feels right, awesome: full speed ahead.
  2. Does this kind of event fit our important people? Are my closest loved ones likely, based on what I know about them, to find a surprise wedding fun, exciting, and meaningful? Or, do any of my VIPs "hate surprises", respond poorly to loss of control, have physical or mental health conditions that may make a surprise wedding hard for them to enjoy? What about loved ones not in attendance? If relatives don't attend our "backyard BBQ" or partner's "birthday party", might they experience serious FOMO when they learn that they actually missed our surprise wedding?

Let me be clear: I'm NOT saying that your wedding planning should be dictated by what others want; this is YOUR day as a couple after all. However, if the goal is for YOU to enjoy your surprise wedding ceremony, thinking beforehand about how others may react can help you decide who to invite, how and when to disclose the surprise, etc. Honestly, anything you can do to avoid wedding DRAMA while staying true to your own needs as partners is always a win ;)

For the record, everyone at Sam + Sal's surprise wedding LOVED the surprise element: their family members, friends, and guests were all relaxed, joyful, and fully celebrated the couple's DIY non-traditional format.

Black and white photograph of bride wiping her tears while holding her child's hand during a surprise wedding ceremony.

Not all wedding photographers prioritize capturing real candid moments without intervention; here, I'm working up close yet the image is natural, like the subjects are not aware of my presence. If this kind of candid documentary reportage wedding photography is important to you (ie: you want to remember real moments not stiff poses), then you need to choose a photographer who works consistently and effectively in this style.

Tip #3: To fully capture the SURPRISE energy of your surprise wedding ceremony, hire an alert and responsive candid documentary wedding photographer.

I'm not just saying this because I happen to fit that description :) The truth is, there are so many different styles of wedding photography, and whenever you plan a DIY non-traditional wedding, you want to choose a photographer who 1) Has a style you LOVE, and 2) Has abilities and strengths that are well-matched to your event.

For example, some wedding photographers LOVE to pose and direct shots for most of the day, resulting in highly-refined, glamorous and conceptual, magazine cover type photographs (often called "editorial wedding photography"). When this is done well, it's beautiful. But this approach also requires hours of picture taking on your wedding day: instead of enjoying your cocktail hour, you and your partner might be posing under an archway behind your venue because the light happens to be really good in that exact spot. This can go on for hours, over and over again until half your wedding day is lost posing for "epic" shots like you're on a movie set while your guests eat, drink, and dance without you.

If your goals for your wedding day are to look like models, show how high-end your venue is, or be featured in a wedding magazine, then yeah you'd probably benefit from hiring an editorial wedding photographer.

But that's NOT how I work: I say, there's a time for art-directed "photo shoots", and it's not your wedding day. You want to enjoy real moments and look back on real memories, so that's what I focus on. I'm fast, alert, and can work "quick and dirty" in difficult light: I can better capture the SURPRISE elements of your surprise wedding ceremony.


A wedding couple embraces with their young child and their arms form a circle around their embrace in black and white.

I LOVE this image: the moment right after Sam + Sal's wedding ceremony concluded, they embraced as a family with their 10 year old daughter, and I shot this frame. Looking back at my images during editing, I was struck by all the elements in this quiet, simple photograph: their arms form a subtle circle, not unlike the shape of a wedding ring; all their faces are hidden, so they seem to form one single entity rather than 3 separate individuals--an apt metaphor for being a family.