7 Unconventional Wedding Reception Tips From a (Somewhat Cynical) Ex-Photographer

I’ve been to over 200 weddings in my lifetime. I’ve seen brides and grooms at their best, their worst, and their drunkest. I’ve seen the bowels of many churches of varying denominations, musty and cold. And at none of these weddings was I a bride, a bridesmaid, or a significant guest in any way.

Let me explain: I’m a retired assistant wedding photographer.

It was the family business for the better part of two decades. My dad, the head honcho, truly loved shooting weddings. I was just there because I got paid to carry equipment and take candid photos. I'll confess, I've become a bit jaded over the years by the calculated rituals of a successful wedding. Sit down, stand up, have a drink and a tiny sandwich; don’t forget to sign the guest book on your way in/out. Oh, the monotony of it! How many times have I heard “Celebration” or “Brick House”? And how many pairs of impractical heels have I seen puncturing immaculately manicured lawns all over the southern United States? And all those bouquets, boutonnieres, and hand-me-down pearls?

I’ve lost count.

But I did learn a few things from attending so many wedding. If you must have a wedding, here are seven unconventional tips from a behind-the-scenes, well-seasoned perspective.

1. First, consider not having a big wedding reception at all — and saving the money instead.

Seriously. I’ve seen people drop six figures on a dream wedding, only to file for a divorce before even getting their wedding album back. And yeah, it takes a while to get a custom-made leather-bound wedding album shipped to you door, but I would assume that marriages should last more than a month.

After watching the perpetual circus of “my party was way better/more expensive/had a better mashed potato bar than yours,” I started to fantasize about what I would do with all that money instead of having an expensive wedding. Why not just get married in the woods and have the reception at a cool local brewery? Or an abandoned building and pretend you’re in an episode of Walking Dead?

There’s so many other things you can do with those fancy wedding dollars — like buy a car, or have a down payment on a house, or take that trip to Iceland. Me, I’d probably buy a lot of furniture. Those reception hors d’oeuvres will only last a minute, but that nice antique dining table will last forever. Plus, if cousin Joe drinks his weight in free whiskey, he might end up breaking a table and peeing into the garden pool. Some deposits you just don’t get back.

2. Wedding cakes are a weird tradition anyway, so have a sense of humor about them.

I can tell you, without taking a single breath, how to abstract the perfect sliver of wedding cake like a tooth onto a plate so you can do the obligatory “feeding of the cake” thing.

But let’s talk about this: Why is this even a thing? No one ever ordered 8x10 prints of themselves with cheeks full of cake. And a lot of times, it ended in semi-tears because the bride ended up with smeared lipstick and white fondant smeared all over her face.

My solution: embrace the fact that you will wear some of your wedding cake. Laugh. Some of my favorite pictures from weddings are when couples show they can have a sense of humor, and that’s one thing that keeps a marriage strong.

And about those cakes: kudos to the handful of people that had cakes shaped like Stormtrooper masks, desktop computers, books, and scenic mountains (complete with tiny trees and “rock” candy). Honorable mentions to the cakes made of doughnuts, cupcakes, and miniature cherry pies.

3. Drink tickets are a really good idea.

Because in an open-bar situation, someone is probably taking pictures of you while you slosh all that free booze on the dance floor (hey-o!), creating a slippery surface for Grandma Judith to navigate through on her way to the bathroom.

I suggest a two-drink maximum. Save the heavy drinking for the after-party at the bar down the street — where you’re likely to be less embarrassed by falling down there in front of your friends versus your entire family. Plus, the photographer will not be there to document said event, saving you a lifetime of being That Drunk Person in the Wedding Album.

4. Don't be afraid of staining the dress.

I get it. It’s all about The Dress; the thing that makes you shine like the sun on your way down the aisle. But after the ceremony is over, the truth is this: it’s going to make you sweat. The corset boning will chafe your armpits and we’ll have to “Photoshop that out” later. You will essentially be walking around in a big white space-heater made of satin and taffeta, that will also cause you to need at least two bridesmaids by your side when you have to go pee.

Don’t be the bride that has her wedding in a barn and Freaks! Out! when a little bit of dirt gets on it. Girl, you’re outside! Brides are terrified of extra tulle wrinkles, dust, dirt, and general smudges that no one cares about. If you’re going to be The Crazy White Dress Lady about it, at least let loose after: do a “trash the dress” photoshoot. Not only are they fun, they can look really cool (I’ve seen mud-splashing, swimming, and tree climbing).

5. Consider flip-flops.

Ladies: wear comfortable shoes. For real. Flip-flops down the aisle never offended anyone, and no one sees your feet anyway. This especially goes for when you're dancing.

6. Feed Your Vendors

I can’t stress this one enough: feed your vendors. Some of them work 15 hour days without breaks. They don’t survive off of tap water and wafts of your perfume (crazy, I know!). Be nice to them.

7. Always remember: It will be over soon.

One of my jobs as an assistant was to “hide” behind the Happy Couple with a spotlight, thus creating a nice “glow” for the photographer in front of them. This is where I heard a lot of interesting conversations between the bride and the groom, all the while wishing I’d done more leg exercises to improve my squatting stamina.

The things I’ve heard while kneeling behind the wedding party is a continuum, where depressing and exasperated are on opposing ends. Towards the end, everyone is tired and grumpy and “so glad it’s over.” But I tried to offer up a little perspective for them — a light at the end of the “congratulations!!” tunnel: it’s almost over, so get all the hugs you can, because those people probably bought you a Tiffany-blue stand mixer that you get to open later. Plus, leftovers. Get a to-go box on your way to the hotel. You’ll thank me later.

Oh, and in case you were curious, I do have a boyfriend. But let me just say, if he ever proposes (and I say Yes — you never know), I’m getting hitched somewhere weird, like a treehouse in Delaware. We’ll serve coffee and a cake shaped like a fox, and I’m wearing flip-flops. You’re invited.

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