It was close to midnight at a holiday party for the beauty brand Lashify and the acquaintance I was chatting with suddenly dropped her Moscow mule down on a nearby table with a loud clunk.
“Excuse me,” she said in a low voice. “My friends are going to the photo booth without me.” She swiftly turned on her heels, off to jump into their frame right before the flashbulb went off.
Once reserved for carnivals or an afternoon spent renewing a passport, photo booths have become a requisite element of any good event, right up there with an open bar and stocked cheese board.
Even Meghan Markle can’t resist their allure. At an after-party for the British Fashion Awards, the duchess committed a royal family party foul by mugging for the mini-camera with award-winning designer Claire Waight Keller and actress Rosamund Pike.
According to some sources, the move may have been too gauche for social media-shy palace officials, as the gif was quickly scrubbed from Instagram the next day.
Many party hosts are opting for sleek setups such as Markle's preferred gif-making option or 360 photo booths, which stitch together individual photos to create a time-lapse video.
“Everyone wants a photobooth, but it’s never just a plain photo booth,” Brandy Carbone, co-founder of B. Lee Events, an NYC-based party planning service. “Those days are over.”
Carbone means that the days of a traditional photo booth materializing at a party (the kind of booth where once you got your passport and other official ID photos) had been superseded by the booth of now, which is more like a red carpet step-and-repeat, where groups of friends and co-workers are shot en masse by a photographer, extremely flatteringly.
Carbone’s partner Lisa Cokinos said the photobooth-at-parties trend had begun, with the old simple model, at bar mitzvahs and other children’s parties. “It used to be a kid thing,” Cokinos said. Children delighted in the gratification that came with getting their cake-stained hands on photos in seconds, and hipper parents appreciated the nostalgia.
The dawn of Instagram in the early 2010s helped move photo booths from the kid’s table to the mainstream. Suddenly, it was not enough to simply attend a wedding—as the cliché goes, if you did not Instagram a picture of your bridesmaids clinking champagne flutes together, then the entire thing did not even happen.
The Kardashians, who often pop up during thinkpieces on social media narcissism, also helped photo booths reign.
In 2014, Kim Kardashian flew LA-based photo booth MirMir in for her Italian wedding to Kanye West. Guests left with photos that were lit (and retouched) so well that it left their skin looking baby-soft and almost alarmingly poreless.
MirMir became colloquially known as “the Kardashian photo booth,” and four years later was booked for the holiday parties of companies like HBO, Design Within Reach, and Slate.
Ryan Glenn, MirMir’s co-founder, told The Daily Beast that manning the camera for five years in numerous cities has taught him a lot about human nature.
“Every city has its own personality,” Glenn said. “Even from Dallas to Austin, you have totally different crowds.”
Glenn cited Austin as “laid back, fun, and out for a good time.” Those who live in Dallas, Austin’s neighbor to the north? Not so much. “Dallas has the façade of being a little more proper,” Glenn said. “Sort of like the family photo from the ‘70s and ‘80s where everybody wore the same sweater.”
In New York, “the cool fashion crowd” reigns, according to Glenn, and subjects often want to pose in very specific, tried-and-true ways. Across the coast in LA, people are more willing to “let loose.”
To encourage merrymakers to cheese it up with abandon, party planners like Carbone are strategic with where they place photo booths. According to the pro, they can't just go anywhere.
“It's all about the flow in a room,” Carbone said. “You never want a photo booth to be near the food, ever. You don't want it to be near the bathroom, either.”
Her suggestion? Plop your booth right by the bar. Not only are the imbibed more ready to strike a pose for the camera, but having an activity so close to a bar might help distract revelers from how long lines for free booze can get.
But for those shy guests who get clammy just thinking about waiting in line for a photo booth, there are signs that the prop is losing popularity. According to Matt LaBombard, co-founder of NYC-based event planning service Hessney & Co., many companies have ditched the step-and-repeat format for a more open space vibe.
“Our clients are looking for something a bit more creative,” LaBombard said. “We work with a certain part of a room to create a moment, whether it be a beautiful Christmas tree or floral arrangement [guests] can take their own pictures by. That for us is much more impactful than a silly, sharable 'I put a Christmas hat on' photo booth.”
For a recent event celebrating the release of the Starz mini-series Howards End, LaBombard's team built a faux stone backdrop on a wall in New York City's Whitby Hotel.
“We built flowers upon flowers upon flowers on that wall,” LaBombard said. “We tend to steer away from the props and the photo booth, and instead do intricate, beautiful work.”
That said, LaBombard recently went to a holiday party that had—guess what—a traditional photo booth. Guests were encouraged to pose for their pictures in gaudy Christmas hats. “That was fun,” he admitted.