Chapter 8: Documenting The Reception & Dinner
I have always considered wedding dinners the friends' and families' love letter to the couple. Especially in Northern Europe where dinner can go on for up to 6-7 hours with lots of speeches mixed in between each course, this part of the day can feel like a double edged sword. On the one hand, the night is ripe with beautiful emotions and moments just begging to be captured. On the other, the hours from 8-11 pm can feel endless and that is usually where I start to lose steam, and really have to pull myself together to keep going.
During cocktail hour I make sure to find the head waiter or host because...
I need to make sure that the candles will be let and the room empty at least 15 minutes before dinner is about to start so I have plenty of time to capture the table setting and the room overall in its prestine state before guests start entering and leaving purses and jackets on their seat. (Later in the evening, as you can see in the image above, I love capturing the beauty of the mess. Those half filled wine glasses, the candles dripping, the napkin casually left behind)
I need a chair to sit on during the dinner which is in eye sight of the couple. Close enough so that I can't get "caught" in the wrong end of the room if everyone suddenly stand up and slide back their chairs, but also far enough away so that I have a variety of angles from which to shoot. And in a place where I'm not in the way of the wait staff (the latter helps me bond with the staff and shows them that I am not an arrogant demanding ass, but genuinely care about their work as well.
I need to confirm that the couple has arranged for me to be served at the same time as the party and that I will eat at my chair, not in a seperate room where I am unable to capture spontaneous events. (I deliberately don't want a seat at the actual table, because I don't want to be a part of the party that way. I prefer to be slightly on the outside, observing, and being noticed as little as possible)
I also introduce myself to the Toastmaster to...
Learn the lineup and number of speeches and approximate time they plan to move on to the first dance or, if not, the dancefloor.
Make sure he or she knows to alert me of any changes, special events, and to always make eye contact with me before ringing the bell and introducing a speaker (just in case I have to make a rare run to the bathroom or have gone outside to do a night shot of the venue)
Confirm that there is a nice 15 minute break in speeches and service just before sunset (of course only on sunny or partially cloudy evenings) so I can sneak away with the couple for a small sunset session. In my experience most couples truly enjoy this little chance to breathe, chat and be intimate with eachother in the middle of all this beautiful but overwhelming crazyness that is a wedding day.
I make it extremely clear to my couples from the beginning that I am NOT a flash photographer, and write directly that I will always prefer a beautiful grainy b/w shot over a flash shot. This is not just a personal aesthetic preference, it also comes down to the fact that I have always desired to be as invisible as possible, and flashing those lights during emotional moments is a sure fire way to ruin it all and draw attention to myself. Even I, however, can end up in a situation where the room is SO dark that I need to pull out my video light. I prefer its soft light to the harsher flash. Sometimes I need the flash during the first dance or on the dance floor, simply because it is impossible to catch people jumping around in the dark without it.
I always feel extremely visible as I move in and out between the tables during dinner, but the one thing my couples haveand their guests have always commented on after the wedding is how much they didn't even see me.
Depending on the room layout and whether the tables are round or long, it isn't always possible to stay in the discrete outer rim along the walls, sometimes I have to move to the middle of the room, and once I have found my spot where I can often cover both the speaker and the couple, I will get low and rest on my knees so I am not in anyone's view. I only ever stand up still in the middle of the room if everyone else are on their feet too.
Here are a few examples of how I usually cover the speeches:
I always stay focused on the couple right after they have made speeches to eachother, because it is almost guaranteed that they will lean towards eachother and have a short private conversation. Experience has taught me to stay put on my knees on the floor and wait for that moment, while all the guests sit back down and continue their dinner. And I know those intimate post-speech moments are something the couple will cherish deeply.
Unless you are dealing with a super laid-back and confident couple, you will most likely see their energy and body language become more relaxed and free once their speech is over with. Now they can relax in a different way :-)
In additíon to those "must-get" images I am always on the lookout for great guest reactions (crying or laughing) as well as small moments of tenderness in some shape or form:
If there are certain people in the company or whole tables who just look displeased during the whole event, I will always limit or completely stop shooting there. I want the couple to see happy smiling faces and remember what a great time they had, not some uncles mopey face.
Most of my clients are foodies, and pick their venue because they serve unique, organic, local or just plain exceptionally prepared food. So I always make sure to photograph not just beautiful food shots but also document the work going on behind the scenes in prepping the food:
As mentioned above I love heading outside several times during the evening to shoot the venue. I find those images serve as beautiful commas in the collection of images. Depending on how far away I can get, I will shoot these with, preferably, my 50mm or if I have to my 24-105mm. I never bring a tripod with me to weddings as I prefer to travel light. So if it's completely dark I will often rest my camera on the ground, on a rock, a table or whatever is at hand, to stabilise it so I can shoot the scene at a slow shutter speed.
Over time you develop certain strengths or specialities and realise where your passion lies.
Dance/party/fun photos have never been my thing. In Denmark many couples still conclude the dinner and open up the dancefloor with a traditional bridal waltz. After that I usually stick around for another 30 minutes tops so I have a few great shots of the couple dancing with their guests, and a few overall shots of the atmosphere and room lit up with the dj's lights. But I have never included lots of dance floor shots on my blog or in my portfolio so my couples know that that is not my forte.
If you love that part of the day, want to attract fun loving couples who party hard and want to be known as the photographer who is just the best at capturig those quick and spontaneous moments, you should definitely hone that skill and show lots of those types of photos in your portfolio.