If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to read Part 1 in this series. 

If you’’re ready to move on, then let’s spend a LOT of time talking about the reception; because after doing this for 14 years, seeing a better way to do things, and spending most of the time fighting against the wrong way to do it, I have my opinions on wedding receptions and how to maximize your wedding photography potential. …No! This post isn’t going to endear me to a lot of wedding venue managers, nor some wedding planners, and the good ones already know what they’re doing.

BTW! No. I’m not doing the job of the wedding planner, nor the venue manager – I’m just giving you ideas to think about when you’re doing a walk through at the place you’re having your wedding. …ok! So maybe I am going to help them out a LITTLE bit…

First off, Wisconsin is kind of in a general void when it comes to what works best and what doesn’t. Many wedding venues are stuck in the 70’s, and have their “Easy Way” of doing things. They like “cookie cutter” weddings, because it’s efficient for their team – and they know exactly what they’re doing every weekend.

However, what if there’s a better cookie cutter? One that would make it much easier for everyone involved in the wedding, including the wedding couple, their guests and the wedding party? OH! And the photographer, the event staff and the DJ?

I know, right? Here we go!

1. Reception Efficiency:

If you want a fabulous wedding reception that keeps people entertained and from the moment they sit at their table, this is highly recommended. If you can’t do it all, then you pick and choose a few points, and make it happen.

A. Announce the bride and groom – don’’t announce the entire wedding party. Keep it short, don’t draw it out.

B. After the bride and groom (YOU!) entire the room – cut the cake. Be done with it.

Bb. Have the cake sitting in the middle of the room, perhaps even in the middle of the dance floor, where everyone can see it. Don’t have it tucked against a wall, door, or a window overlooking a parking lot (yers, this has happened), or in some corner under the stairs where no one can see you. Talk to your wedding coordinator or reception coordinator and tell them what YOU want. It’s your wedding day, not theirs.

Bc. If you have a small ceremonial cutting cake, then place it on the head table between the bride and groom’s place setting. That’s not a bad place to cut the cake. Don’t let them put a smaller cake on a giant table. At the very least, place it on a smallish bar-height high-boy table. Size relationship matters here.

C. Go into your first dance immediately after the cake cutting. There is always a lull after everyone sits and waits for their salads to be served. Don’’t waste that “dead time”. Use it to your advantage to keep your guests interested and involved.

D. Open the dance floor and encourage everyone to come out and dance while the servers are placing the salads on the tables – three songs max. You’’d be surprised how much energy this creates for the rest of the night. And no, your wedding party and your guests won’t turn you down if you encourage them to join you. Get the DJ to play some kickass music that makes you want to dance – the Chicken Dance is NOT appropriate.

E. After salad, do the Father-Daughter dance and the Mother-Son dance while salad plates are being cleared and dinner is being served. Open the dance floor once again, after the parent dances, (three songs max), and encourage your family and friends to get out and dance. Seriously, if the bride and groom wave everyone out the dance floor, people will come. I’ve seen this happen ‘time after time’... like the Cyndi Lauper song...

Ee. If you have special dinner entertainment planned, this is the perfect time to do it – so skip the second open dance floor.

F. Have speeches after the last table is served dinner - not during the serving. And remind the staff to “not clear the tables until after the speeches”. OMG! This should be a no-brainer, but it isn’t. And it’s a huge distraction and photo bomb when the staff starts cleaning the head table during the speeches. Yes! That actually happens.

G. If you’’re going to do the bouquet and garter tosses, do it immediately after dinner, before they serve cake. Again, it’’s another activity to keep guests involved throughout dinner.

Once all of those little activities are done, that clears the dance floor to get ripp’n, and never let up.

H. Immediately after dessert, OPEN DANCE FLOOR! Nothing gets in the way from that point on. How awesome is that?!? 

I. I don’’t recommend the chicken dance, dollar dance, polkas, kids dances, or most of the traditional stuff that was popular in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s that still lingers today. These are energy killers and always, YES! ALWAYS, clear the dance floor. Ok! A few people stick around, but your high energy people? Gone! This also gives people the perfect excuse to pack-up and go home early.

2. Dining room set up — “What NOT to do”!

You know that giant window with the gorgeous view? Don’’t EVER put a long head table in front of it. In fact, don’’t put it up against a wall either. There are three major reasons why you shouldn’’t have a super-long single-directional-facing head table at a wedding reception.

A. The two people sitting at either end of the head table will have ONE person to talk to. Essentially, they’’re sitting alone. That’s not fun – and weddings are supposed to be fun.

B. They don’’t encourage wedding party interaction. For the people in the middle of the table, you have a person to your left, and a person to your right. That’’s it. Plus, you kinda feel like you’re on display where everyone is going to watch you eat.

C. Long one-directional-facing tables literally suck photographically. If the table is pushed up against are giant window, you have to expose for the shadow on people’s faces, so you blow out the background (aka, that beautiful view). If you do use flash, you become a flashing distraction. Yeah, I know. The worst of it is, “lack of interaction”. See B above – the wedding party is generally disengaged from each other.

The long table also means “crappy compositions”. There is usually a big blank wall directly behind you, and in order to get any meaningful layers (depth) in the photo, you’’re limited to shooting from the sides. Speeches are typically done at one end of the table or the other, or the speaker is in the middle of the dance floor, so there’s a huge disconnected void between the speaker and the wedding couple.

D. Speaking of voids; there is usually a giant void of space between the head table up against the front wall right here, and that last table over in that corner………way………back……..there! Yeah! I know there is a sea of tables between that back table and the head table. But when you’’re sitting way back there, in the corner…..you kinda feel a insignificant.

3. Dining room set up — “WHAT to do”!

So what to do? Get rid of the long table, and use a big round or square table. Rectangles are OK, but they’re still limiting for the people on the ends.

Place the table in the middle of the room; even if the table is right up against the dance floor. Then surround the rest of the dining room tables around you. This simple table detail does multiple things to create a better reception experience and environment for your wedding guests.

A. It allows more guests tables to be closer to you, allowing everyone to feel like they’’re all a larger part of the celebration. Nothing is worse for guests than sitting at the absolute opposite side of the dining room than the head table. When that happens, the guests can be quite rude or distracting as they entertain themselves during speeches. It happens. All. The. Time.

B. It allows your wedding party to interact with everyone else at the table – they have people immediately to the left and right, as well as the people across the table. When the wedding party is engaged with each other, they have a better time. And that alone makes for more meaning wedding photography.

C. When someone gets up to give a speech, they can stand closer to the wedding couple because they’re not pinched up against a wall or window. This allows the photographer to capture the connection and interaction between the speaker and the wedding couple. …see more in section D….

D. Photographically, it gives your photography a better sense of space. When there’s spacial depth behind the bride and groom, the photographer can shoot across the table, through table decor and between other people to get more creative framing, and capture the reactions of the people sitting behind you. It creates more compelling photography.

E. I can’t led this go unstated – “no sweetheart tables”. Don’’t isolate yourself from your friends and guests. If you’’re not going to have a wedding party, and some people don’’t, then sit at a table with your parents and siblings or grand parents. People want to be with you, so stay involved with everyone.

Remember, “weddings about people and relationships”. The more you open up and interact with them, the better your wedding photography. 

4. Let there be Lighting:

I know-I know! Photographers can use flash. Flash on camera, and off camera flash. IMO, too much flash is a distraction for the guests – and that’s even if they don’t get flashed directly in the eyes. Shit! That’s annoying for me.

What can you do?

A. Uplighting adds color and mood to what would otherwise be a blank ordinary space. Some DJ’s and live bands now include this with some of their packages. There are also companies that specialize in ‘event lighting’. Seek them out and see what they offer. Any little bit helps.

B. Spotlights. Having a few (three, four or five) spot lights set up on tall stands in the corners aimed at a few key areas of the room (Head table, cake table, a few center pieces, and the dance floor) can make all the difference in creating a dramatic dining environment that leads the guest’s attention to specific areas.

Photographically, if the lights crisscross across the room, it creates layers and depth – aka, dramatically lit photography. You can even gel the spot lights so they’’re warmer or cooler, adding to the mood of the room.

C. Both uplights and spotlights would be even better. Colored uplighting on the wall with spotlights on the head table, cake table, and dance floor? Get outta here!

OK! So you don’’t want to go for neither uplighting nor spotlighting. Then what?

D. If you have big windows with a lot natural light, then set yourself up so the light is directional in relation to where you’’re sitting – aka, position your seats so the window is either to your left or your right. Shadows create mood and texture – use it naturally to your advantage for better photography.

At worst, position yourself so the light is shining on you, and not directly at the back of your head — that’’s the most important bit of advice when it comes to windows. Don’t sit in front them with the light shining in behind you. People can still get a wonderful view if they turn there heads a little bit. It’s not an inconvenience.

Just know, if you’’re simply relying on the big windows and natural light, as the sun sets, you’’re going to loose the benefit of the natural light, and you’’ll be stuck with the venue’’s built-in over head lighting or small wall sconces. You really need to know what those lights look like by their onsies at night to get an idea if that’’s how you want your reception to be exclusively lit.

E. Candles. LOTS of long burning candles. Candles are GORGEOUS! They create a beautiful warm glow, and if you have a LOT of them, the amazing depth you can create with the candle speculars (out of focus background candles) in the photography is simply breath taking.

Even if you have big windows and opt for uplighting and/or spot lights, you can’’t EVER have too many candles.

If you have the perfect storm, where you have an environment with lots of gorgeous natural light, uplighting, spotlights, and hundreds and hundreds of candles, you’’re absolutely golden. 

There’s definitely more to write, but Lordy Lord, this might be enough for today. 

When you’re planning your wedding, I hope you at the very least, think about some of these ideas. You’re wedding photographer will thank you to the HIGH Heavens.

Here are a few wedding examples from the Milwaukee area that illustrate various lighting and tables. The first table is from a dining room filled with directional natural light, uplighting and candle lights. The head table seated the the wedding party on both sides, and their room had a lot of visual depth; not only in terms of spacial depth, but color as well.

This next photo shows candles coupled with spot lights to create a dramatic effect. Again, a lot of visual depth to the room, especially with the romantically dark background.

This last photo shows a long two sided head table in a tent, lit with a directional natural light. A big square table here would have been better. But really folks, long, single-sided tables should be banned from weddings. LOL ... Just saying.

LOTSA candles and uplighting. ...and then, even more candles… like I said, you can’t possibly have too many candles. You will also note the lack of flowers in this last set of photos. You don’t need tons of flowers to create a beautiful dining room setting. Lots of candles and stemware to create lots of sparkle. Voila! A beautiful dining room.