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Taylor Nicole Photography is a fine art wedding photography team based out of Denver, Colorado. We specialize in providing bright, classic and refined wedding imagery for our couples. 

We capture a mix of posed and candid imagery that couples will cherish for all the years to come.

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Episode 019. Everything Wedding Receptions

May 3, 2022



Weddings & Life Podcast with Taylor Nicole, a podcast by Denver Wedding Photographer,
Taylor Nicole Photography

wedding podcast, wedding planning advice, wedding planning podcast

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

Intro: Welcome back to the podcast and to the final episode of the everything series. Over the last three episodes I have talked you through the entire wedding day up to the reception, all from my perspective as a photographer. I’ve included every piece of advice, wedding hacks and and opinions I have from seeing so many wedding days. So in today’s episode we are diving into everything about the reception. I am including the cocktail hour into this reception episode too. So if you are planning your reception or you are wondering what that part of your wedding day might look like then keep listening!

Whew the final episode is here. These have been so long to write out, which every episode is to a certain extent but I am really trying to bulk these up so writing these takes a big portion of my day. So the reception, I think this is often the part of the day I see the couples most excited about and I get why. The pressure is off by this point and you are really there to enjoy time with your guests and to enjoy your actual party! The main things to be nervous about here are probably your first dances up in front of everyone and being roasted by your bridal party members in the toasts. (Ps I recorded an episode about toasts and specifically bad toasts just a few weeks ago, episode 12 if you want toast advice!)

Cocktail Hour

So let’s start this out by talking about the cocktail hour. First dilemma to consider- your guests during cocktail hour. I have seen the full range of spending your entire cocktail hour mingling with guests and having all portraits finished before, and I’ve also seen portraits take up the entire cocktail hour and then the couple enters the main reception after. I’ve seen shortened  cocktail hours (30 min) and extended (90 min). There is no wrong answer here.

My semi-unpopular opinion- if you are providing food and drinks for your guests at this point in the day then you don’t actually need to feel guilty from being away from them.

I see a lot of plans made around guilt like well all of my guests are there I should be there too. Now on the flip side if you think that cocktail hour sounds like the best thing ever and you just don’t want to miss it, then heck yes plan around that. My vote is that you plan whatever you are excited about and want to do, not what you feel obligated to do here.

There is a magical formula for cocktail hour and portraits. Depending on how many portraits you get to finish before the ceremony is how much of cocktail hour you will have free to mingle. 

  • So if you are an early bird and finish couples, bridal party and family portraits before the ceremony (yes that means having all of your family arrive 60-90 minutes before the ceremony) Then yes by all means you will have your entire cocktail hour to mingle.
  • If you have a first look and also finish bridal party portraits before you should have about half of your cocktail hour to mingle. Family portraits usually take up about 30 minutes.
  • If you are not having a first look, but you do take bride & bridesmaids and groom & groomsmen portraits before you will save about 10-15 minutes of your cocktail hour to mingle, because after the ceremony you will need to take the whole group bridal party, then the family, then at least part of your couple’s portraits and you will need to plan time around sunset to go out again and finish those
  • If you do not have a first look and take zero portraits before then your whole cocktail hour will be used for portraits. The exception to that would be if you didn’t have a bridal party and only included your immediate family ect.

I hope those ratios make sense. I will note that for Fall weddings when the sun sets earlier in the day sometimes sunset is during your cocktail hour so it would be best to go out and take the golden hour portraits during that time as well.

Let’s talk about seemingly impossible circumstances around cocktail hour planning and solutions- let’s say that for whatever reason you cannot take any portraits before, maybe you’re limited by your venue or something, but you really want to join your cocktail hour too. Then try to extend your cocktail hour beyond the 60 minutes. If you scheduled a 90 minute cocktail hour that could still leave you a good 20-30 minutes to mingle.

The cocktail hour is sometimes the bane of a photographer’s existence because so many couples want to join it and it sometimes feels like it works against what we need to get done. So lean into what your photographer tells you that they need timing wise (to finish family, bridal party and portraits) and then carve time for what you want too, ex extending the cocktail hour.

I know that so far this episode is blending with the last, but I realized that cocktail hour has a lot to do with the portraits anyways and these episodes are all very related anyways.

Bustling The Dress

So you’ve finished portraits, you’ve mingled, your photographer has captured fun candid pictures, one of the last things you will do during cocktail hour is bustling your dress before you enter the reception. This is a big topic because it can throw your timeline way off if this takes longer than planned and guess what, you don’t bustle dresses every day so this can be challenging!

So let me start by humbly stating that some people like sudokus, others are good at cross word puzzles, and others love real life puzzles and problem solving. My puzzle of choice is a wedding dress bustle. I have seen just about every single bustle type out there over the last 196 weddings I’ve photographed. And I would conservatively guess that I have bustled about 30 dresses myself without having any notes from the seamstress. So I have to admit that the challenge of the bustle intrigues me and I love figuring these out. Doesn’t mean I won’t get stumped from time to time with a new style of bustle but I did a quick google search of bustle types and I have actually helped with each of them. 

However most people like your mom or maid of honor don’t get quite as much bustle experience as I do. And while I love helping bustle dresses sometimes this is the best time in the timeline for your photographer to capture the last bit of the reception room details before your guests enter ect. So let’s talk advice as if I myself can’t be there to bustle your dress, because I’d say that’s fairly common.

So first What is a bustle? It is a way of pinning, buttoning, and tying up the long train of your wedding dress so that it is floor length and you can easily walk, dance and twirl around all night without tripping yourself and your guests on your long dress. Where does the bustle come from? Wedding gowns unless pre-owned don’t come with a built in bustle, that’s something your seamstress will need to add for you.

From my understanding you will meet with your seamstress several times, and when they are finished you will have a final try on. So pro tip time- at your final try on of the dress have someone take a video on their cell phone (or better yet your cell phone if you will have it with you on the wedding day) of your seamstress bustling and explaining how your dress bustles. Hopefully your mom or a friend might be there with you so they can see too. Sadly as the bride you can’t really do much of the bustling yourself since it’s literally on the back of your dress and that would require quite the flexibility to reach around that way. So you will be relying on someone usually mom, sister or a friend/bridesmaid to bustle your dress for you. So having a video taken on your phone that can be quickly pulled up and watched will go a long ways in bustling!

Some seamstresses provide written notes on the bustle, which is good too, but I’d still say a video tops that for sure. Easier to watch vs read.

A few tips with bustling that I’ve come to know- if ribbons are numbered or color coded you match the colors/numbers. If you have to tie the ribbons of the bustle at all then tie them completely tight together, don’t leave space when you tie the ribbons because then the dress will be too long. If there are loops that slide over buttons make sure you have a crochet hook or something to make the buttoning easier too. Maybe one day I can invite and interview a seamstress on the podcast and talk about the ins and outs of bustles and all the alteration things.

I will add that I have commonly seen bustles break during open dancing of the reception. I am sure that even the strongest sewing job after 5 or 6 good steps on the dress can weaken. So having a wrist strap to hold just in case, or some extra safety pins might be helpful here too. 

Okay so that is all that I have for cocktail hour for you. Other than saying that things like live music and signature drinks or champagne walls can be fun and creative accents during this time of the day!


Now we are moving on to the reception. First up is the entrance. You will need to decide who will be announced into the reception. Sometimes it’s the whole bridal party and couple, other times it’s just the couple. I’ve seen things as planned and personalized as playing a section of a specific song as each bridal party member enters, and others are short and understated and the couple just walks into the reception when they’re ready!

Following the grand entrance is usually some sort of a greeting, blessing, toast, and maybe even a prayer before dinner. I’ve seen the officiant pray or the father of the bride or groom make a toast here. I’ve also seen the couple give a quick thank you speech at this time too.

Then usually dinner is served! Wohoo everyone is excited for this moment. I will add here that your DJ, wedding coordinator and caterers all work very hard during this portion of the day to release guests for food, or to bring plated meals to the guests here.

So there is a variety of options when it comes to dinner, buffet or plated. But I’ve also seen several weddings where the reception is more of a snack and relax vs a formal sit down meal. I have a couple this summer planning super fun appetizer stations for their guests so there won’t be a formal meal but this will encourage their guests to mingle and snack as they like. So just so you know there isn’t a wrong answer when it comes to your meal plans.

So let’s go back to the traditional type of wedding where there is a sit down meal. What happens next is actually fairly important. So now is the new receiving line. What does that mean? So the tradition used to be that following the ceremony the couple would stand outside the ceremony room/space and all of their guests would form a line to come congratulate the couple. From there they would probably finish portraits and enter the reception. So that receiving line with 150-200 guests would take close to an hour. Even if the greetings are short. 

So to compare that with the common practice now- the couple sort of hides away from their guests after the ceremony with the purpose of getting their portraits taken as quickly as possible so they can either enter the cocktail hour or reception and be fully present and not keep people waiting. So that still leaves all the guests to greet now the next best time to do this is actually right after the bride and groom finish their dinner.

From my own wedding experience the number one regret my husband and I still have is that we didn’t leave enough time to greet our guests. I don’t feel like we took that long of time to eat our meal but all of the sudden we were several tables away from greeting everyone and our DJ had to tell us to make it quick so we could start our dances. I ended up skipping a table of Austin’s friends to chat with some of my relatives from out of state longer before we had to go into the rest of the night.

I am not sure if there is a magic number of minutes that should span after the last guest is served their dinner and when the main events should start happening but we must have run out ourselves. So my best advice here is if you are planning to greet your guests eat quickly and then get to talking! I know as the photographer I eat my meal very quickly so I can be back in the room capturing candids and group pictures during this time too.

Now even more important than being able to greet everyone so you can start the main events is actually the number one problem I see at wedding receptions. Guests leave early. It’s like there is this internal social limit that gets filled and after dinner the amount of casual party time limit is different for every guest. So I’d say as soon as 30 minutes after dinner and for the rest of your night you are going to be approached by guests who are leaving early. Sometimes more will stick around through the main events like dancing and toasts, when the cake/dessert is served. But in general not that many guests actually stick around for the whole reception. So greet them right after dinner because that might be your last opportunity.

And greeting the tables might be a bit different if you did spend part or the majority of cocktail hour with your guests too. This is just general advice.

Okay so now you’ve entered, had dinner, greeted your guests. It’s probably time for some of the main events. Here is a common order that I’ve seen-

After dinner comes toasts (so guests can continue eating their meals if they were served later)
Following toasts is usually cake cutting (so that the caterer can go cut the cake to serve during your next events)

Then the first and special dances.

So let’s break those down a bit, for toasts here are common toast practices/speakers of the wedding days- the parents of the bride or groom often give toasts, the maid of honor and best man are the classics, even if there are multiple usually I see them all giving a toast. Siblings and also grandparents of the bride or groom can give toasts occasionally too. And then very occasionally I see couples do some sort of an open mic time where the DJ invites anyone who would like to toast the couple up to the mic. There needs to be a fairly strict time limit here or it can derail the rest of the day. I’ve mentioned that toasts are probably my least favorite part of the day to photograph, but I will admit that I’ve seen a lot of very sweet toasts coming from family members before. And then the couple will sometimes give a quick thank you at this point in the reception too.

For cake cutting- I am seeing a lot of couples skip this or make it more private. I say good for you, you definitely don’t need to keep every tradition here. A general run down for cake cutting, let your photographer tell you where to stand so we can get a good angle of the cake and the space with you both. Usually you will stack your hands together on the knife, make the slices in the cake. If you are planning to save the top of the wedding cake for your first anniversary (yes a tradition is to freeze the top of your cake and then thaw and eat it on your first anniversary, I did this with my husband and it wasn’t that great haha but I liked the idea behind it!) An alternative would be to just order or make a new cake together on your anniversary because freezer burn is real friends haha. So if you are saving the top then don’t cut the top here and make sure your caterer knows in advance too. But you make a slice together then use the serving piece to dish the slice out to feed each other. This is when the classic cake fight can happen where you act like you’re feeding each other but actually smash cake all over. So personally I thought the cake smash was SUPER fun, my husband and I talked about it before and we planned to smash the cake together so no one was surprise the day of. So try to be on the same page about feeding vs cake fight. I have seen some very angry brides who did not want cake smashed in their faces and I don’t think that’s the best time for your first married fight! So after you feed each other, no matter how messy, take a second to give a quick kiss after. It’s a super cute photo op and your guests will usually cheer. 

Okay now for the first dance and parent dances. Can I add in some photographer specific advice or preferences here? I have to let you know that I love love love it when the couple does their first dance AFTER the mother son and father daughter dances. This order doesn’t happen often, but those parent dances give me a chance to get more familiar with the room and the best angles so that I’m warmed up and ready by the time your first dance as a couple comes along. Like I mentioned this is totally my preference and no need to adjust unless you like the idea of that order too! 

Then after the special dances usually the dance floor opens up. Sometimes if you want to get your guests out on the dance floor and get some sweet portraits you can do an anniversary dance- where you invite every married couple out to the dance floor and play some sweet romantic slow songs. Then the DJ announces lengths of time like 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years ect. And couples who have been married that long stay dancing while couples who haven’t been married that long step off the dance floor.  It ends up being like a little game to see who has been married the longest. Depending on your family situations this can usually end up being grandparents or something. I’ve sent the bride and groom gift something to this couple for winning like a bouquet, or the DJ asks the winning couple their best marriage advice. All so sweet! Now I can’t discuss this without adding yet another photographer opinion. If you are doing an anniversary dance at your wedding my opinion is that it is YOUR wedding, so if you want to stay out on the dance floor the whole time you should get to! Personally this is a great way to get pictures of the two of you dancing next to your loved ones like parents and grandparents on the dance floor. So if you like that idea have your DJ make a note to say that you’re exempt from leaving the dance floor just because! Whew it’s fun to share all of these little opinions about things I see so often!

So later in the night usually is when the bouquet and garter tosses happen. A lot of couples skip this now, so no pressure to do these. I think I shared this during the getting ready episode but brides- you don’t need to wear the garter the whole wedding day. Unless it is super comfy and will for sure stay up and in place. I’ve seen some garters slip down the leg and off as the bride walks down the aisle for the ceremony haha so anyways, if you did opt to wait on the garter then make sure you have the garter with you and ready to go for later in the reception. Usually your bridesmaid can help you put it on quickly.

Pro tip- let your photographer set you up before you toss the bouquet or do the garter. We have our flashes set up in the reception room and know the angles that light well at that point.

Okay so moving on, let’s chat about portraits that could happen during your reception. So sunset or golden hour portraits is often happening during dinner or right after depending on time of year. Having your photographer in communication with your DJ about this is good that way they aren’t trying to start events without you when you’re out for these portraits. 

Another type of portrait you can take during the reception would be a night portrait. This only works if your photographer understands how to use flash. I also personally think these are better when there are hanging lights outside of your venue somewhere. Like the string market lights work well for these.

Send off

Okay and one of my last topics about the reception to discuss with you is the send off! So I am actually going to make a full episode about send off options. I think that is scheduled for next week actually so fun timing. A lot of venues will not allow sparklers, at least if you’re out west like I am where wild fires are so crazy that sparklers don’t make sense. So I will share all of my alternatives with you and you can decide what options you like there.

But let’s talk about send off timing and mock send offs. 

So the send off or grand exit is at the very end of your reception and couple’s have made this a cute celebration of the wedding being over by exiting through a tunnel of their guests who hold or toss  something at them or above them. Like sparklers or old school rice (I don’t know of anyone who allows rice anymore, I think it kills birds or something! Yikes)

So I’ve already mentioned the problem of the guests leaving early. No matter your efforts to keep everyone entertained guests will trickle out through the night. Also something to note, if your venue requires or has contracts with shuttles so your guests will leave on buses or something similar then there will probably be one or two shuttles that take off during your reception to allow guests to leave when they’d like too.

Thankfully for photo purposes you can have 100 people or just a handful of people there for your exit photos and it will still photograph high energy and fun.

Also let me take this chance to mention again the idea of the ceremony exit photo. I mentioned this during the ceremony episode but here is a summary again- before your ceremony you pass out flower petals or some sort of toss item to your guests, then after your first kiss when you’re walking back down the aisle you have your guests toss those over you as you leave. First bonus- all of your guests are there! Wohoo. Next, it’s a bright moment- usually ceremonies take place in daylight. Finally, then you have the photo with the high energy feel and don’t have to worry about that in your reception.

So with that being said you don’t necessarily need to involve all of your guests to get an exit ‘photo’. We could actually gather up your most sober bridal party and family members (because let’s face it all guests tend to go downhill later on in the reception) and have them come hold sparklers or your exit item for strictly photo purposes. If you do this out of site of your guests you all can go back and enter the party again without anyone knowing that you took these photos. So that is a mock exit in essence. Why is a mock exit a good option for some weddings? Because a lot of times wedding receptions span 5-6 hours and paying to have your photographer there through your entire reception can be pricey let’s face it.

In general I recommend my couples have photography coverage about 3.5-4 hours of their receptions on a minimum side, that way we don’t have the DJ cramming in all of the main events too quickly for the photo sake. So that might be a reason the mock send off is a good idea. Or also if you like the idea of send off photos but you actually aren’t having a clear cut off for your reception. If it’s a backyard party that will go until people leave sort of a thing. Then you definitely won’t have photo coverage the whole night and you might just want to plan the photo opp.

One other alternative is to be completely honest with your guests and ask them to step outside for a photo op. The DJ will have to explain to the guests that this is not the real exit but just for photos and that everyone should come back inside after. So you take all of your guests out early, take the exit photos, then everyone comes back in to continue dancing. I think this can be hard for DJs because it does take everyone away from the dance floor and their job or at least part of it is to keep the party going. So totally up to you but aside from having the grand exit photos at the very end of the reception these are the options that I know of for you. 

Well that is everything having to do with the reception that I can think to share. I hope this was helpful either for the order of your day you are planning or the extra pieces of advice I shared about certain events or cocktail hour timing and planning. I think I have officially and thoroughly  talked you through the entire wedding day now friends! After photographing 196 weddings now myself you got all the behind the scenes details that I could think to share. There are already little things I’ve made note of to share in future episodes too, but if you were wedding planning with very little wedding experience yourself these episodes should give you a fairly good idea of what to expect in a traditional wedding.

If you liked these episodes or found them helpful I’d love to know. I love to chat on instagram about these, and if you have a friend who is in the thick of wedding planning you can share the episodes directly to them as well! Thank you so much for listening along friends!


Taylor Nicole

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