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WEDDING RECEPTION TENTS:
A CREATIVE PALETTE

There’s nothing quite like a wedding reception in a tent, with its uniquely informal atmosphere, customized decor and proximity to the elements outdoors.

Weddings and receptions with an outdoor component are incredibly popular in the warm months, with a tent considered de rigueur for such events considering the fickleness of nature. And, with larger, more sophisticated tent structures boasting such comforts as built-in heating, tent receptions are even taking hold in the colder seasons as well.

Yet tents are so much more than simply shelter. With the naturally soft light created by their white walls and the often-creative lighting schemes within, many wedding photojournalists tend to love tent receptions for their natural intimacy, picture-friendly conditions and creative possibilities.

THE PALETTE: CREATING YOUR UNIQUE ENVIRONMENT

One of the nicest things about tent receptions is the creative possibilities they enable. Unlike the typical reception hall, a tent is indeed like a blank slate upon which you can build your own world, creating exactly the atmosphere you desire for your grand celebration. This not only makes your reception more memorable for you and your guests, but also makes possible a unique and powerful set of visual elements that will translate to beautiful photographic memories.

Matt McGraw, a North Carolina, USA-based WPJA photographer, says that tent receptions are his favorite kind, precisely because of those creative freedoms. In fact, he states he would love to shoot a tent wedding every weekend if he could. “At a wedding I shot recently, the couple had a tent on which they probably spent $20,000 on decorations alone,” he recalls. “The ceiling was draped with white lights, flowers were everywhere, and they had a dance floor out there. It was beautiful and elegant.”

“What’s great about them is that you pretty much have a blank canvas and you can do anything,” agrees wedding photographer Linda Wallace, another North Carolinian. “You don’t have to consider the decor of a hotel ballroom, which might be a completely different style than what you want to do.”

Pennsylvania, USA-based wedding photographer Doug Benedict relates the story of the bride who was horrified when she first saw the tent that was to hold her reception, simply because it was completely bare.

Benedict encouraged her by saying it is possible to decorate in such a way that “when you’re finished [you are not] aware of the tent in any way. A lot of brides have done creative things to fill that space...[such as] lots of greenery...banzai trees, and more-so than in any reception hall, they have a lot more latitude to create a specific feel.”

TENT LIGHTING

Wedding photographers tend to love the light in tents, whether they’re shooting during the day or in the evening.

Benedict notes that with a tent, especially in the summer months, you benefit from wonderful ambient light coming through the walls until 9 o’clock, allowing most photographers to work with or without flash much longer than they would in a reception hall.

“And when it gets too dark to shoot with available light, I love lighting tents because they’re like a big soft box to shoot up into,” he says. “If I can put a light on the post of the tent 10 or 15 feet above the floor and point that thing into the top of that tent, it’s wonderful, beautiful light. From my perspective as a shooter, it’s a perfect situation.”

McGraw says he has a tendency to set up flashes everywhere, but when he shoots tent weddings and receptions he shoots a little differently in order to fully capture the atmosphere. “After the sun goes down I’ll still try to keep the ambiance. I’ll bounce lights off the ceiling, and it’s nice to stand back 50 yards away, pop the flashes, and light off the whole tent on the inside.”

His atmospheric wide-angle photo from a recent WPJA contest beautifully conveys the special setting his clients were able to create, as well as a great moment between the bride and groom during their first dance. “That was one of the prettiest tent weddings I’ve done because of the lights,” he recalls. “I tend to shoot in wide angle at tent weddings, because you obviously want to bring more ambiance in. You’re pretty much surrounded. Your eyes go around in circles and then come back to the subject.”

Despite the overall enthusiasm, there can also be challenges in shooting tent receptions, especially if certain sides of the tent are open. One scenario arises when the sun dips below the ceiling and starts to shine directly into the tent, presenting some exposure challenges. “You’ve got lighting all over the place. One side of the tent will be really bright and sunny, while the other side is dim and ‘twilighty,’” says Wallace. “It’s a little tricky, but nothing that can’t be managed.”

Photo by Linda Wallace, North Carolina of couples dancing

Photo by Linda Wallace

She certainly handled such a situation well when she captured an award-winning shot of couples dancing against what appears to be a stark, white background. Wallace explains that the sides of the tent were open, with a golf course beyond. However, she set her exposure for the dancers in the shade and allowed the background to “blow out,” which worked perfectly for this image. “It was just a great moment,” she recalls. “These couples were spread out. I turned around and saw what was happening and managed to catch it.”

HEATING ISSUES AND OTHER DETAILS

Trouble could be lurking in the details, and with the additional creative freedom of tents comes some added responsibility to assure that your reception is successful and memorable. It comes down careful planning.

Climate control is an important consideration if your reception is taking place during the heart of summer when the air can be warm and sticky, or in a month when the outdoor temperature may be chilly. Fortunately, most tent rental agencies and party planners offer a range of heating and air-conditioning systems, which will assure that your guests stay comfortable. But again, examine every detail before committing to a particular heating or cooling scheme.

Wallace shot a reception in November that had heating issues. “It was only warm in the places where the heaters were, and everywhere else it was frigid,” she remembers. “And the people who were warm couldn’t hear anything because they had the heaters cranked up.”

“I booked a really big wedding for next year which will involve three tents that are all fully air conditioned,” Benedict explains. That’s going to be a spectacle. At some point it’s almost like having it inside a building again.”

The wedding at which McGraw captured his award-winning photo benefited from superb planning, he says. And again, it was attention to detail that made the difference. “You walked in and they had a big coatroom that was hidden from the main room. The chandeliers were made out of antlers. And they even had ‘his’ and ‘hers’ porta-johns, both of which were covered in their own tents, so you couldn’t even see them. There were Christmas lights all over the trees outside. So the detailed planning was evident all the way through.”

CREATING AN INTIMATE ATMOSPHERE

If you use a tent’s creative freedom wisely, you can assure an environment that not only reflects your own aesthetic, but also creates a sense of warm intimacy that would be difficult, if not impossible, in most banquet halls. And the direct proximity to the outdoors opens up an entirely new dynamic of atmosphere and social interaction, as individuals and small groups will wander out onto the surrounding property.

“What I really like about the whole tent idea is that you’re one step away from being outside,” says Benedict. “One of my favorite things to do at a tent reception is to go outside where there will always be people gathered on the lawn or in the woods. From a distance, at nighttime, the tent just glows, and there’s muffled music and voices. It’s got this really warm feeling.”

Photo by Douglas Benedict, Pennsylvania of couple sitting at table outside of tent

Photo by Douglas Benedict

For that reason Benedict makes it a point to leave the confines of the tent and linger outside camera in hand for opportunities that may arise. One such diversion resulted in his award-winning photograph of a couple talking romantically outside of a glowing tent. “That picture was nice because they also had the candle on the table, and I could see their faces,” he says. “It’s warm and inviting, and the bride loves that picture because it says to her that her reception was a success. She managed to create this feeling. And so much of what we do, is to try to show what this couple has spent months trying to create.”

He adds that the couple did a good job of detailed planning and didn’t let little things get to them. As he says, “They brought the blitz that day, and it really shows in the pictures.”

And if it rains? Well, bring it on! Many people would agree that there’s something romantic and cozy about being in a tent with the elements raging a few inches away. What better place to feel enclosed and protected than at your wedding?

“Receptions are all about creating the sense of intimacy—the sense of space and place,” Benedict states. “If you’re inside of a ballroom, you’re oblivious to what’s going on outside. There could be a tornado out there. And it’s the same static place no matter what is going on outside.”

Wallace says that there was one wedding she shot that had a really great indoor/outdoor feel because for several hours after the reception started there was still some light. “People hung out and watched the sunset and it was really fun, pretty and casual,” she recalls.

“All tent weddings have that magic feel to them that I think brides always look for when they get married,” McGraw says. “It sounds cliché. It’s like when you go home to your mama’s house, and you walk in, and it’s all pretty and decorated for Christmas, and you get that feeling of ‘this is absolutely beautiful.’ And the food is great...or even if it’s average it tastes great. It’s a warm feeling.”

Benedict wishes they all were outside. “It changes the dynamic. People who are looking for a more formal event may not want to have it. They want to have their event in a grand ballroom. But for the people who are not hung up on that, I think that tents give them a lot of latitude in creating the kind of event that they want.”

—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association