The Reception: Where The Action Is

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The wedding reception is where you win your battle stars. Events unfold quickly and sometimes simultaneously. You have to be very organized to stay on top of the action here. Enter the arena armed with cameras, lenses and battery-powered, on-camera or handle-mounted flashes. As the newlyweds make their dramatic entrance, you’ll want to precede them, and using a wide-angle lens, capture them together as they’re surrounded by guests. Once you’ve photographed the newlyweds, let them pass and follow them from that point with the camera held above them as they make their way through the crowd towards their table. At the same time, a second camera, if possible, should be covering this portion of the event from another angle.

Throughout the course of the reception, there will be a variety of mandatory photos, as well as the serendipitous ones. Required pictures include speeches by the best man, maid of honor and others; toasts; the first dance of the newlyweds; the bride’s dance with her dad and the groom’s with his mother; the cake-cutting ceremony; the removing of the garter (in some cultures); the traditional bridal-bouquet toss; and any other happenings worth preserving.

The caterer, DJ, or whoever is directing the reception can key you in to the order of events before they occur. This should be discussed in your pre-event consultation with that person. Prepare a list based on this meeting and have it with you during the reception.

Depending upon the cultural, religious or regional customs being followed, the first dance might be followed by the newlyweds being hoisted aloft in chairs, with everyone but the wait staff, emcee and band joining them on the dance floor, or by some other similarly all-encompassing and totally photo-worthy event. You’ll be busy trying to capture the moment from as many angles as possible using your on-camera flash, perhaps with support from an assistant wielding a slaved fill flash attached to an overhead boompole or similar mount.

Capture dance shots from as many perspectives as possible. If you’ve brought along a stepladder, use it to capture the bird’s-eye view as the floor fills with guests. If a group is dancing in a large circle, try to get into the center and pan in the same direction as the dancers. While you’re at it, try turning the flash off—depending on the ambient light levels—and maybe bump the ISO up a bit, slow down the shutter speed and try to grab a few pan shots under these conditions. Quite often, the blend of motion and static expressions can make for powerful still images.

In addition to wide-angle dance shots, it’s worth spending a bit of time capturing tighter close-ups of guests dancing using a mid-to-long telephoto lens. Candid and casual grab shots of guests mingling and enjoying the occasion are also important to capture, but try to avoid pictures of guests hoisting forks to their mouths, chewing food or caught in similarly awkward or unflattering moments. When food is around, always allow your subjects a moment or two to swallow and use their napkins before firing off a shot.

Table photos (see the InDepth article Tips for Shooting Table Portraits) are always required. They should be taken earlier rather than later, while the place settings are still fairly tidy on the table and some guests have not already left. A moment or two before the main course is served is a good time to corral the guests for these photographs. You’ll also be allowing the bride and groom the opportunity to catch their breath and enjoy their dinners. Keep a checklist with you and cross off each table after you photograph it. If guests are wandering, take note of their table number and keep returning until you can cross it off the list.

Depending on the size of the hall and the number of guests, table shots often require an ultra-wide lens and a flash that will cover the lens’s field of view. Have each table’s occupants form a semi-circle around the table, half of them seated and the rest standing behind those seated, making sure to remove any centerpiece, decoration or carafe that might hide a seated guest or cause an irritating distraction.

After all the formal and candid photographs have been taken and dessert has been served, leave some space on your memory card to photograph the happy couple as they escape via limo, motorcycle or whatever mode of transportation they have chosen for their dramatic exit.

As a wedding photographer, has your coverage of receptions always gone smoothly? Have you got any tips to help neophyte wedding photographers avoid pitfalls and have a successful shoot? Feel free to share your experiences or ask questions in the Comments section below.