Wedding Reception Tents: A Creative Palette

Todd Laffler, of New Jersey, is a wedding photographer for Crossed Keys Inn, New Jersey

Photo by Todd Laffler , New Jersey, United States

There’s nothing quite like a wedding reception in a tent, with its uniquely informal atmosphere, customized decor and proximity to the elements outdoors.

Weddings and receptions with an outdoor component are incredibly popular in the warm months, with a tent considered de rigueur for such events when considering the fickleness of nature. And with larger, more sophisticated tent structures boasting such comforts as built-in heating, tent receptions are even taking hold in the colder seasons as well.

Yet tents are so much more than simply shelter. With the naturally soft light created by their white walls and the often-creative lighting schemes within, many wedding photojournalists tend to love tent receptions for their natural intimacy, picture-friendly conditions and creative opportunities.

THE PALETTE: CREATING YOUR UNIQUE ENVIRONMENT

One of the nicest things about tent receptions is the creative possibilities they present. Unlike the typical reception hall, a tent is indeed a blank slate upon which you can build your own world, creating exactly the atmosphere you desire for your grand celebration. This not only makes your reception more memorable for you and your guests, but also makes possible a unique and powerful set of visual elements that will translate to beautiful photographic memories.

Once you get past the transient, temporary nature of tents, you quickly realize that your design options are limitless. Creatively, anything goes, and you’ll never have to fight against the gilded décor of a brick-and-mortar reception hall.

Be forewarned: this sort of carte blanche can be a double-edged sword. By liberating yourself from brocade wallpaper and Fleur De Lis carpeting, the overall design of your space now takes on a much more important role. And it’s easy to overreach. Some couples have been known to spend tens of thousands of dollars on tent decorations alone. The very idea of building off a literally blank canvas can be both intoxicating and overpowering.

On the plus side, it is quite possible to decorate a tent in such a way that you’re completely unaware that you’re in, well, a tent. Even consider the possibility of a clear-top tent and the opportunities to incorporate the natural surroundings of the venue. This trend allows clouds, trees, sunlight, or even rain to be part of the scene. Imagine even being able to have the reception in the evening beneath the stars and moon. In addition to the openness and access to natural scenery these tents can provide, the panes on top add a unique structure and architecture to play off of as well.

Through the clever use of greenery, lighting and tasteful flourishes, you can seamlessly transition your space into a blissful tableau that belies its simple canvas origins. This is the Promised Land of interior decorating, and it requires a very steady hand.

TENT LIGHTING

Wedding photographers tend to love the light in tents, whether they’re shooting during the day or in the evening.

With a tent, especially in the summer months, you benefit from wonderful ambient light coming through the walls until 9 o’clock, allowing most photographers to work with or without a flash much longer than they would in a reception hall.

And at night, the tent becomes a virtual lightbox, bouncing the photographer’s flash off the walls and ceiling to create a gorgeous inner glow. Some wedding photojournalists will even set up strobes inside the tent in different areas and at varying heights; triggering them remotely to create a backdrop of dazzling luminescence.

Lens choice also plays into the strengths of interior tent lighting. A wide angle lens will certainly bring in more of the warm ambient glow, even though your eyes will be working overtime, dancing across the room in every shot before settling on the subject at hand. The results can be quite beautiful, however, revealing an unexpected intimacy at the center of a wide open space.

Despite the overall enthusiasm, there are of course challenges to shooting tent receptions, especially if certain sides of the tent are open. One such scenario arises when the sun dips below the ceiling and starts to shine directly into the tent, presenting some unwelcome exposure issues.

On the other hand, the bonus to this atmospheric intrusion is that it provides an opportunity for some very creative imagery by blowing out the background with bright light. The abundance of white contrasts beautifully with the darker subjects, resulting in some stunningly arresting visuals.

HEATING ISSUES AND OTHER DETAILS

Trouble could be lurking in the details, and with the additional creative freedom of tents comes some added responsibility to assure that your reception is successful and memorable. It comes down to careful planning.

Climate control is an important consideration if your reception is taking place during the heart of summer when the air can be warm and sticky, or in a month when the outdoor temperature may be chilly. Fortunately, most tent rental agencies and party planners offer a range of heating and air-conditioning systems, which will assure that your guests stay comfortable. As always, examine every detail before committing to a particular heating or cooling scheme.

Also keep in mind that portable heaters have their limitations. Particularly when it comes to range. The last thing you want in the middle of an autumn wedding is to have your entire room full of guests huddled around the tent’s only three heaters, unable to hear anything because of the loud flames. Self-preservation is a natural human trait, for sure, and nowhere will that be more prevalent than in a white canvas icebox.

Same holds true for those sweltering summer nights. If you’re planning on pumping air conditioning into the tent all day to cool the troops, you better have excellent execution. No amount of Photoshop will be able to fix the slideshow of guests’ chest and armpit stains as they sit panting in your big white sauna.

CREATING AN INTIMATE ATMOSPHERE

If you use a tent’s creative freedom wisely, you can assure an environment that not only reflects your own aesthetic, but also creates a sense of warm intimacy that would be difficult, if not impossible, in most banquet halls. And the direct proximity to the outdoors opens up an entirely new dynamic of atmosphere and social interaction, as individuals and small groups will wander out onto the surrounding property.

For that reason, many wedding photojournalists will make it a point to leave the confines of the tent and linger outside, camera in hand, for opportunities that may arise.

Few things are as beautiful as those small moments of guests congregating outdoors, framed by the glowing tent in the background. These images carry a lot of meaning to brides and grooms, who view it as validation of all their hard work to make a warm and inviting atmosphere for their friends.

And if it rains? Well, bring it on! Many people would agree that there’s something romantic and cozy about being in a tent with the elements raging a few inches away. What better place to feel enclosed and protected than at your wedding?

Receptions, at their core, are about creating feelings of closeness and camaraderie. When the sky outside is raging, your guests will connect through their shared experience of celebrating your love in the face of nature’s fury. You just can’t get that inside of a controlled windowless ballroom.

To be fair, some people couldn’t imagine celebrating their wedding anywhere but inside a thick-walled banquet hall. There is obviously a lot of tradition and ceremony that goes along with these types of arenas. But for others, tents provide the latitude to design your event exactly how you want it, without the restrictions set forth by an indoor space. You own the day, and can take pride in the custom experience you crafted for your guests.

In the end, emotions carry a lot of weight in these decisions. Tent weddings tend to stir up a sort of sense memory for many brides. The warmth and the intimacy of the space hearken back to days of childhood; days spent at the family home during holidays, with beautiful lights and crackling fires, home cooked food and sharing time with loved ones. There’s an immediacy here; a palpable feeling to these moments that give us an inexplicably warm feeling inside.

If a tent wedding can help stoke those magical feelings, even if for just one day, then the only question you should be asking is: “Where’s the hammer and stakes?”

Updated:  May 28, 2019