Wedding Photography
5. The Reception

Wedding receptions are full of surprises! Although the majority are treated as formal banquets and protocols are followed, few of the participants are bound by protocol. Be ready.

Set your equipment to manual and use hyperfocal ranges. Do not rely on autofocus or autoexposure. AF is too slow, and AE is sketchy at best. Use a standard (prime focus) lens for your sensor size (50 mm for full sensor, 35 mm for crop sensor). Set your aperture to f8, your focus to 5 meters (15 feet), and make sure your flash has enough power to properly expose at that distance. Then do point-and-shoot photography. Concentrate on composition and expression, and don’t touch the focus or exposure.

Do not assume that the bride and groom will feed you, but make it clear that you have to eat. Ask them when they are scheduled to cut the cake. You need to know when you are to return after breaking for supper. Usually, they will then set a place for you so you don’t have to leave. If you stay, remember that you are there to take photographs.

Take a place at the back of the room. You are not in the way, and you can see everything that is happening. Pay attention to the room.

Be prepared to interrupt your meal for photos.

Do not, under any circumstances, pick up an alcoholic beverage. If you pick up a drink even to hand it to someone else, there will be a photo on someone’s cell phone showing you with a drink in your hand! If the bride or groom insists, then simply tell them you prefer ‘not to get fuzzy’ as it might affect the photos. Tell them you would be happy to have a drink after the photography is finished, then avoid the question and keep taking pictures.

The same goes for smoking. If you take a break to have a cigarette, you will probably miss at least one good shot, and you will stink of tobacco smoke when you return. If you smoke, learn to abstain for a day while you work!

Still life of wedding cake.

If there is to be a receiving line, be ready as the first guests approach the bride and groom. If you fail to get the shot at the beginning, you will probably have your view blocked by large groups stopping to talk to the parents. After you get your initial shot, move around to the back and watch for a couple of emotional candids.

If you have the opportunity, get a shot of the wedding cake while the receiving line is proceeding.

Do the shot of the head table when they assemble there before the food is served. Take the time to arrange the bouquets along the front edge of the table to provide a floral foreground. If the bride’s maids are seated at another table, have them put their bouquets on the head table for safekeeping during the meal. Later when you are taking photographs of speeches and kisses, keep your camera position low enough to obscure the half-finished meal and soiled table linens behind the flowers on the edge! Nothing ruins a reception photo like a messy table.

Bride and groom kissing after clinking of glasses.

During the meal, the majority of your shots will be at the head table. Make sure you get the following:

  • Groom kissing bride when glasses are tinkled. Do not bother with the first one; it will be tentative. The second or the third will be more passionate. Stop when you have a good one. Do not be a nuisance.
  • Toast to the bride.
  • Groom responding.
  • Any impromptu speeches or presentations. Make sure they are special. Do not try a shot of every bozo who thinks he is a comedian. Keep your eyes and ears open and stay sensitive. If you hear groans, the bride and groom will probably not want to remember it.
Bride and groom cutting the wedding cake.

The cutting of the cake is typically at the end of the meal, although it may be delayed. This shot is posed! If the table is cluttered, move the bouquets from the head table and arrange them around the cake for your foreground. A good start is the groom behind the bride, both right hands on the knife. Do three shots with both looking at the cake, both looking at the camera, and both looking at each other. If they give each other a piece of cake, it is a fourth shot. (As with the group shots, hold your composition and shooting position, and let others take what photos they wish from other vantage points after you have completed your three shots.)

Bride and groom - first dance.

While the entertainment is being set up, the bride and groom will visit the guests, usually distributing chunks of wedding cake and favors. Grab a few candid shots of interactions with parents and the bridal party, then back off.

Arrange the first dance with the bride and groom before the music begins. Let them know where they need to be on the dance floor, and where you will be. Have them keep in mind that you need to see both their faces. Have them keep themselves sideways so they can both see you out of the side of their eye while looking at each other. Get your shot quickly, and get off the dance floor. When capturing the candids of the bride and groom dancing with their parents, concentrate on capturing the parents’ faces. Their expressions are the most important.

Crossed hands showing rings with bouquet and candles as background.

About 2/3 of the way through the reception, the bride and groom will be ready for a break. Enlist the aid of the maid of honor, and find a private room where you can set up for some candle light portraits. You will need a holder for at least 8, and preferably 12 candles. Have the maid of honor collect the bride and groom, and the bride’s bouquet. When they arrive, put your camera down and have them sit and relax for a few minutes.

Picture-in-picture: Candlelight portrait of bride in silhouette of groom.

You need them relaxed for the portraits, and it gives you a chance to improve your rapport with them. If they provided a meal for you, thank them and tell them how much you enjoyed and appreciated it. It is quite likely they need to hear this. There is always someone at a reception who thinks its cool to complain about rubber chicken.

When they are relaxed, light the candles and have the maid of honor act as your light stand, moving the candles to where you need them for the shot, and moving them away as you set up the next (Those candles are hot!). Do a few of the bride and groom alone, and a few of them together. Remember during this entire effort to speak gently, and to keep a smile in your voice.

Removal of the garter with Bride standing on a chair.

After the shots are finished, take the time to talk to the bride and groom about the throwing of the garter and bouquet. Like the first dance, they need to be aware of what you need, to allow you to set up the shot, and to act on your direction. Your directions should not detract from the mood of the moment, so arrange subtle cues that they can watch for. This should be fun.

The removal of the garter is generally managed by the single males in the room. Preserve a clear shot and choose your angle to emphasize the bride’s leg. (That’s lleeegggg!) Her gown should be shown raised as high as decency will allow, so use a low camera position, and try to capture the fun as the groom begins to slide the garter down.

Catching of the garter.

The throwing of the garter and the throwing of the bouquet are both done the same way. To minimize flash fall-off, you angle your position to the action as much as possible, and, if you can, feather your flash toward the group of single males (females) who will be catching the garter (bouquet). Your position should be elevated (stand on a chair) and the shot composed so the groom (bride) is in the foreground. Keep some headroom in your shot. The group will be reaching up.  The farther you can get from the action, and still maintain a clear shot and good exposure, the better. You are shooting for peak action.  Signal the groom (bride) to make the toss, and wait that fraction of a second for the group to react. You are trying to photograph the group just as they are reaching to make the catch.

The only thing left is the departure. The bride and groom might change their clothes on site, then leave, or they may leave to change. Grab a couple of candid goodbye shots, then follow them to the car and do a shot of the groom holding the door for the bride.

Have a final word with the couple, wishing them a fun honeymoon and a happy life, and let them go.

Pack up your equipment and leave quickly. Do not get involved in the activities after the bride and groom leave!