It’s no secret that timeline planning is one of my favorite parts of being a wedding photographer! That may sound crazy, but knowing I have a thoroughly detailed and vetted outline for the day helps me feel at ease on a wedding day, especially when working in Washington, DC, because most of the hiccups have already been accounted for. The one part of the timeline I don’t usually dive TOO deeply into, however, is the reception! From a photography standpoint, once we arrive at the reception location, we are there for the evening and can pretty much work around whatever the other vendors need… with the exception of sunset portraits, of course, since we can’t control the light! But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a standard order of events for this part of the day! Much like the ceremony, there is very much a beginning, middle, and end. And unless you attend multiple weddings a year, you may be totally unaware of what to expect, so I wanted to break it down!
1. Guests Seated (10 minutes)
First thing first, let’s get your guests seated for the reception! This may seem like common sense, but you’ll absolutely want to account for it in your timeline as it takes longer than you may think!
2. Introductions (5 minutes)
Once the guests are all in their seats, the DJ or MC will begin introductions! Who gets introduced is up to you! I’ve seen the newlyweds, the wedding party, and parents all be included as well as about every different combination of those you can imagine.
3. First Dance (5 minutes)
9/10, my couples will go straight into a first dance to kick off the evening! This is a great way to get their nerves out so they can relax and just enjoy the rest of the reception with their guests! If they are having a live band, occasionally they will invite guests up to dance during a short set.
4. Welcome/Blessing (5 minutes)
A welcome and/ blessing is a fairly common way to thank everyone for coming! This is usually done by one or both of the parents of the bride before dinner is served. I usually allocate 5 minutes, but I advise you to talk to your parents in advance to get an idea of what they have planned — I’ve had welcome speeches go for 30 minutes which is totally okay, but you’ll want to account for that so the food doesn’t get cold!
5. Dinner Service (45-120 minutes)
Dinner service timing varies greatly based on what type you are having for your guests. Common sense will tell you that the more courses or the more guests, the long it will take. But this is true for buffet service as well; it can take guests quite a while to get through those lines! Chat with your catering staff and plan accordingly.
6. Speeches (15 minutes)
I usually suggest having speeches begin after all guests have been served. This is beneficial for several reasons: catering staff won’t be walking around delivering plates, guests who were served first won’t be sitting too long with nothing to do, and you can get to the dancing sooner!
7. Parent Dances (5 minutes)
8. Open Dancing!
Parent dances are a great segway into open dancing because guests are already surrounding the dance floor and the band/DJ has resumed the music! Often times, the last pair to dance will invite others on to the floor with them! PRO TIP: Start with a slow song — both older and younger folks like dancing to these, so it’s a great way to get everyone out at once and usually more people will stay if they are out there already! This is a great time for the Anniversary Dance, if you’re doing one!
9. Cake Cutting (5 minutes)
After about 45 minutes of open dancing is a great time to take a break for some cake! You’ll want to do this at a reasonable time in the evening so that older guests can leave when they need to without missing anything! This is your first “task” as a married couple, so be sure to cut that beautiful cake together!
10. Group Photos (10 minutes)
Right after cake cutting, since you already have everyone’s attention, notify your DJ or MC to call out the group photos you’ve requested! Usually we save any HUGE groups or your friends for this time. PRO TIP: Notify these folks in advance to expect to be in photos so you don’t spend 15 minutes looking for Aunt Margaret while the rest of your family is quiet on the dance floor…. awkward!
After this, open dancing resumes for the night until the last song is played! What about the bouquet or garter toss, you might wonder? I think that’s a tradition that has mostly disappeared within the last few years. I think they prioritize other traditions that may be more meaningful over these so their guests can have more time dancing!
As with any timeline, these aren’t hard and fast rules, simply suggestions! Things can vary greatly based on whether you’re having a band or DJ or I’ve even had clients with no dancing at all! Make the day yours and I promise it will be a blast!