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WEDDING RECEPTION SITES: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY

As you are planning to book that dream reception venue, the most important thing for you could be making sure that the important moments happening inside are captured by your photographer. Although these two priorities can often be at odds, you can get the photos you want, in the setting you love, with a little bit of input from some of our award-winning WPJA members.

LIGHTING

Brides and grooms shopping for a reception venue rarely include “good lighting” in their requirement list, yet negotiating with staff on your wedding day can be a nightmare. It’s important to nail down lighting arrangements well in advance. When a bride is touring a reception site the staff will ‘yes, yes, yes’ her to book the day, so consider getting a guarantee in writing that they will work with the photographer on reception lighting issues during the wedding day.

Photograph by jessica miller, colorado of removing the garder

Photo by Jessica Miller

Ambient light is crucial for a photographer looking to elegantly capture the many memorable moments of your reception, and should be a top priority. Since wedding photojournalists are not spending time staging each photo (i.e., arranging every person in their best light, figuratively and literally), they need to depend on natural light or pre-arranged lighting while capturing the unplanned moments of the reception — wherever they might happen.

What other lighting options should you be thinking about? Wedding photographer Jessica Miller says her favorite lighting for a reception is in the late afternoon or early evening in a room with lots of windows and natural light streaming in “I love when the sun is setting during the first dance and speeches,” she says, yet a sunset is never guaranteed. If it’s a night wedding, she advises, quadruple the number of candles you think you’ll need for the reception. “Some of these rooms can be extremely dark, which can make the guests feel pretty sleepy and make the photos a little tricky,” she says. “Then it will still be dark and moody, but not so dark you can’t see where you’re walking.”

You can always ask the reception coordinator if the venue has more lighting for darker areas, such as the dance floor, and Miller even uses the extra lighting that the DJ brings along (“as crazy and funky as it may be”). But that doesn’t mean that wedding photojournalists can’t pull off wonders.

PERSONALITY

WPJA award recipient Cameron Gillie would sacrifice good lighting for a place that has a big personality. “I don’t care how great the lighting is, it’s really hard to get an interesting set of photos in a completely sterile environment.” For example, there’s a famous jazz hall in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where he shoots a lot of destination weddings, and all the photographers hate shooting there. “It’s a nightmare to shoot in; it has black walls and black ceilings,” he says. “but I’d rather shoot at a place like that than a place beautifully lit that lacked character. The photos have a sense of place. They have personality. They turn out great because of the character of the venue.” If you are booking a dark reception site, talk to your photographer to find out their perspective on shooting in dungeons. Ask to see samples from other dark reception shoots. Look to see if the background is completely black or whether it reflects any ambient, warm light, which will measurably enhance the quality of your photos. And ask yourself: Do you like the look?

SCHEDULE

A rigidly scheduled reception, however convenient for the wedding coordinator, can be detrimental to the real moments that happen when there’s an organic flow to the event. It’s a good idea to schedule somewhat loosely, and to give the photographer a basic final itinerary beforehand, so that someone isn’t constantly intruding on the photography with updates to a schedule. “It’s good to know the story, but coordinators need to make sure they aren’t interrupting something,” Cameron notes that wedding photojournalists don’t need advice about what to take photos of — and if someone is continuously directing, the photographer might miss a great shot.

The biggest issue with a schedule is what can happen if the wedding coordinator makes judgments about time that will be spent on photography—specifically portraits. Gillie explains that this common problem arises because most people assume that a photographer will be spending an hour or more taking a slew of posed group shots — especially in places where people are more accustomed to traditional weddings. He takes all group photos at the church, and he knocks them out in 20 minutes or less. Then, when everyone gets to the reception and there isn’t an hour or two of group shots and portraits, it throws the entire schedule off, and the coordinator has no idea what to do with the bride and groom.

Bottom line: Try not to let the coordinator press you into a strict schedule. But, if it’s necessary, then make sure to explain your chosen style of photography, as it may be a concept that isn’t always fully understood. With wedding photojournalism, coordinators don’t need to schedule large chunks of time for portraits to be taken; instead, the best photos will be taken throughout the night as the natural flow of events unfolds.

POSING MOMENTS

A parallel issue, also a consequence of not understanding the concept of wedding photojournalism, is some reception coordinators’ affinity for posing shots for the photographer. This is a nuisance for wedding photojournalists, often resulting with the coordinator winding up in many of the finished photos.

Gillie describes a recurring scene from the cake-cutting table: “The coordinator is always reaching into the photo, saying ‘No, no…you don’t hold the knife like this.’ Evidently, there’s a very specific way to hold the knife. My philosophy is just let them cut the cake. That awkwardness can make nice pictures.”

Gillie says that at some of the more traditional venues everything is about staging the photo — not what’s really happening in the scene. He was once asked if he wanted to stage a fake bouquet toss before the real one, and there’s usually not even an actual toast behind the tradition of “bride and groom toast photos.”

Of course, the photographer can just say "Great idea," and brush them off (professionally, of course!), like Miller does. “I really try to stick with what the couple has asked me to do, and that's capture interesting moments at the wedding as they unfold — not to coordinate and plan the moments artificially.”

The key to many of these issues is a little education, and the more enlightened wedding coordinators do get it. “They realize, wow, the bride and groom don’t need to pose for photos for two hours at their reception,” says Gillie. “They can have fun for the evening instead of posing for pictures all night.”

— by Meghan McEwen for the Wedding Photojournalist Association