I love this question, because I think we’ve all been there - the horrible, gross reception hall that’s stuck in the 70’s with hideous brass lighting fixtures, wood panelling, and my personal favorite, movable walls. I freaking DETEST movable walls. (They probably have a real name, but that’s what I call them. You know what I mean those, those ugly panels that fold up.)
Here’s the dirty little secret of wedding photography - not every wedding is going to be pinterest-worthy and it’s rare that you’ll have days where every part of the day is aesthetically pleasing. That’s just the truth. It will get better as you book clients with bigger budgets at better venues, but especially when you are starting out, you are working in some rough places.
If you can make that VFW hall look good, you can make anything look good. This is a good skill to have.
I don’t mean to come off like a snob. Sometimes clients have very good reasons for choosing less expensive venues. Sometimes that reason is even so they can afford YOU. So don’t judge them from it. Their wedding isn’t about how fancy the tablecloths are. But if you can take a place that is pretty dire, and make it look normal, or even nice? Your clients will appreciate that shit. They aren’t expecting their photos to look like the Ritz Carleton, but if you can make photos that don’t call attention to the faux-marbled paneling and linoleum dance floor? They will sing your praises.
The second wedding I ever photographed was for a friend of a friend. It was a very low budget wedding - the couple already had started a family and been together for awhile, the wedding was just to make things official. There was very little in the way of decor, the hall was spectacularly shitty.
How shitty was is? A mouse fell out of the ceiling during the ceremony. There’s some stuff you can’t make up. Only my friend and I saw it, but we both exchanged looks of horror and then tried not to dissolve into giggles, because seriously, if you saw what this place looked like, and then added CEILING MICE to it, you had no choice but to laugh.
That said, we took the best photos we could and put that wedding up on our website and booked rodent-free weddings as a result.
So anyway, enough of me rambling on. Here’s some suggestions for dealing with ugly venues, mouse-ridden or otherwise.
- Go back to those basic “improve your photography” rules. Shoot tight. Keep backgrounds clean. Rule of thirds up in that bitch.
- Generally there’s at least one wall that is less horrible than the other three. Shoot everything you can so that wall becomes your background. Maybe it has some ambient light that looks pleasing when it’s bokeh-ed out at 2.8. Or maybe it’s just a clean wall not littered with the crappy “decor” the venue purchased in the 80’s.
Along these lines, find a good bounce surface and bounce off that all night. I like to bounce directionally, rather than up at the ceiling, when I can.
There will obviously be times you have to shoot in another direction, but try to work the best parts of the room exclusively as much as possible.
- Long lenses are your friends in receptions. This is true of any reception, but they’ll really help you out in fugly venues. You need a wide angle lens for the big sweeping room shot, and maybe some informal dance shots once the party gets started. But details, speeches, first dances can all be shot at 85mm and up. (Ok, maybe get a couple full length dance shots, but then go back to your long lens.) Let the narrow field of view and compression blast that reception ugliness into blurry oblivion!
Nothing pisses me off more than reception details shot with a fisheye. Ditch the fisheye. That shit was cute when you were just a hobbyist.
- Get an off camera light. You can still have a flash on your camera, just plug your pocket wizard into your camera. You can then either velcro that sucker to your flash or use a straight flash bracket, which is what I do. Beautiful light always helps. Use it as a kicker to add a little side lighting to subjects’ faces, and try back lighting the first dance. Just don’t do that shit where the flare obliterates the B&G’s faces. That looks dumb.
- I kind of started off mentioning this, but it bears repeating - simplify, simplify, SIMPLIFY your compositions. If you’re shooting candids, shoot tight - they’ll have more of an impact AND show less of the venue. See if you can recompose a shot to remove distracting elements. Even beautiful venues have things that don’t look great, like exit signs, beat-up kitchen doors, and fire alarms.
When I’m shooting a close-up of table details before guests arrive, I always will remove crap like sugar packets, ugly salt-and-pepper shakers, and so on. Just put it back when you are done as you found it. NEVER move the clients decor, even if it’s fugly. But I have no problems with picking up that horrible faux floral arrangement the venue inexplicably put next to a perfectly fine cake so I can get a shot of the cake without it.
- Be a diva and tell everyone where to stand for speeches, which direction to cut the cake in, where to stand for bouquet toss, and so forth. No one knows what to do anyway and they are usually grateful for the guidance. If you ask the DJ if you can put the couple somewhere else because the photos will be better, 99% of the time they won’t care.
- And naturally, a shallow DOF always helps when you are trying to minimize distracting background elements. But make sure you have enough in focus. This is not carte blanche to shoot everything at 1.2.
I know I’ve already written a novel here, but to answer the second part of your question about making things look less snapshotty - well I think a big part of it is doing the things above, and the remaining part is looking for and waiting for the right moment to shoot. When you are new, you just want to run-and-gun and make sure you get everything. When you get more confident, you’ll KNOW you got the safe shot and then you can sit there and wait for (or hunt down) the interesting shot. Wait for the punch line of the joke during speeches, walk around the floor and find a unique angle. Open mic does sound like a painful thing to sit through, but I bet there were awesome opportunities for silly, ridiculous candids.