How long should a drinks reception really be?

Apr 16, 2020 | planning tips

wedding drinks reception with the millenium dome in the back ground at Trinity Bouy Wharf London

When I got married, I hadn’t really been to any weddings as I was one of the first of my group of mates to get married. I felt so unsure of how much time to allow for each part of the day. The drinks reception in particular felt like such a long space of time. What would be going on during this time to entertain the guests, I wondered, wouldn’t it feel too long, would they all be hungry?

Well, look no further. Having now spent almost a decade photographing weddings in Wiltshire, Hampshire and all over the world I’m well placed to put your mind at rest about this, and let you in on just how long the perfect drinks reception should be.

But what will we do with all that time?

Until you get married, you don’t realise how much there actually is for to get done during the drinks reception. My to do list as a photographer during a reception is pretty bonkers. I spend the full length of the reception rushing around to capture it all, it’s the busiest time of the day for me.

The mental check list in my head is:

  • Relaxed shots of the guests enjoying the day
  • Shots of the canapes and drinks
  • Detail shots inside the dining room of the flowers, place settings etc.
  • Family Group Shots
  • Portraits of the happy couple
  • Sometimes, but not always, a full group shot of all the guests

That’s quite a lot to get done. To get all of those things ticked off the list I recommend a minimum of an hour and a half for drinks, two hours is ideal if you’d like to feel that you’ve got plenty of time, and that there’s no need to rush.

Give yourself some time and space to relax

It’s always heart breaking when I hear people say ‘we didn’t get a chance to even have one canapé at our wedding’ or, ‘we spent the whole time having photos taken and didn’t get to hang out with our mates’.

Giving yourself time will allow you to balance the bits you need to get done to keep the family happy, but will also allow you to feel like you can get around and see everyone without the pressure of when the next item on the agenda is happening.

To avoid that feeling of pressure I usually advise my clients to spend the first half an hour of the drinks greeting guests, and having a drink rather than jumping straight into the group shots or whisking you away for photos alone. This way, you get a bit of a chance to just come down from the massive adrenaline rush of the ceremony and relax a bit. You can ensure you’ve greeted the cousins who’ve travelled all the way from Australia just for you, and give your BFFS a big squeeze. All this will help you feel more relaxed when we do start the group photos and the more relaxed you are, the better the photos will be!

guests laughing at wedding with bride

While you’re spending that half hour greeting guests and enjoying the canapés I’ll be capturing everyone hugging and kissing you and having a great time. For most of the time I capture things un noticed, and blend in. I blend in so well in fact, that I’m often asked how I know the couple! I’ll also be grabbing a few shots of the food and drinks as well as all the little details of the day in the dining area.

If you know that the lovely relaxed shots of guests are super important to you then I definitely recommend either hiring a second photographer as part of your package or ensuring you go for a full two hour reception. The more time I have the more of these shots I can take, or while I’m shooting group shots, details and with you for a few photos the second photographer can ensure nothing is missed during the drinks reception.

Do we need entertainment?

During this time don’t feel the need to hire or create some ‘entertainment’ for guests if you don’t want to. I remember thinking, ‘but what will people do for two hours!?!’ Don’t get me wrong, a coconut shy or duck herding (both wedding entertainment I’ve seen IRL by the way!) are awesome but people are always very happy to have the time to catch up and enjoy the drinks. As long as there’s something to nibble everyone will enjoy a catch up.

As a wedding guest now, there’s nothing better than a long drinks reception to catch up with old friends and enjoy a few glasses of bubbly. I’m always a bit sad when it’s time for dinner, as the day seems to pass too quickly!

Drinks reception in the gardens at Barley Wood wedding venue near Bristol

There is such a thing as too much time, I once shot a wedding with a three hour reception, by which time most of the guests were boiling hot and sunburnt as well as steaming drunk. 2hrs is definitely the sweet spot. Getting everything done in an hour or less would be virtually impossible, even if you hired a second shooter. And you’d spend most of your drinks reception being rushed about for various group photos with almost no time for fun and relaxing with your mates.

The Dreaded Group Photos

The group shots are often the part of the drinks reception that people dread the most. And they do have the potential to take over the entire hour and a half if you let them. I wish my wedding photographer had told me to slim down the list I gave her. On the day I got fed up, and ended up making a rushed decision to cut some photos.

wedding party on station platform at horsebridge station

To keep them to about 15-20 minutes I have a suggested list I work to. I’ve honed this over the years, having had long lists, and ushers hunting around for the illusive family member who is in the loo. Trust me, this is the simplest, fastest solution.

  • Partner A’s Extended Family (aunties, uncles, cousins etc- basically anyone related to you)
  • Partner A’s Immediate Family (parents, siblings)
  • Partner A’s parents
  • All Parents
  • Partner B’s Extended Family
  • Partner B’s Immediate Family
  • Both Partners and the wedding party (Bridesmaids/Ushers both together and separately)

Of course every family is different, and with separations we sometimes add a shot or two here to accommodate both sides of the family, but this generally covers all the bases and keeps everyone happy without the need to do a million versions of essentially the same family photo. I also know you might want a photo of just you and your Dad or Mum so I try and do these either at the end of the preparations or before the ceremony so we’re basically maximising the drinks reception time for drinking and having fun.

guests relaxing on hay bayles at wedding

Make some time for just you two

Towards the end of the drinks reception I’ll sneak you away. By this point nearly all of your important jobs are done, the group shots are over and you can just relax and enjoy some time away alone. I generally keep you for about 20 minutes for these shots. Not too long, but time enough for you to relax into it without feeling rushed as this will help us get the best possible results. If you want to know more about couple shots, feel free to read this post here.

Time depending I like to leave you in a secluded area alone for a few minutes as for the whole day you’re surrounded by people. It is amazing to have everyone you love in once place at one time but it can also be overwhelming and taking some time out to reflect and drink it all in is really special.

Make some time for everyone!

The one final thing I do during the drinks reception is get everyone together for a full group photo. It’s not always possible to do a full group shot at every venue. You really need to be able to get to a good vantage point in order to see everyone. Having a window overlooking gardens is ideal, or some steps to work with.  Getting everyone together does take some time, so it’s best to nominate someone with a good voice who can make an announcement that everyone hears at once. (I make a point of not being the shouty photographer!)

After the standard photo I’ll usually take one with everyone cheering too, which is a really nice crescendo to the drinks reception. Once this is done I’ll tell everyone they can move into the dining room (don’t worry I make sure I’ve checked with the staff first) so this message is received all at once which speeds up that transition from drinks reception into dinner.

I really hope this has been a helpful overview of why drinks receptions are often perceived to be so long!  Hopefully it’s put your mind at ease about what to expect during the drinks as well as giving you an idea of how long you’d like to make your reception.

If you need any advice on your timeline or anything else I’m always here. I’ve been to hundreds of weddings now so I’m happy to share what’s worked well and where the potential pit falls are. Just ask.

table football at horsebridge station wedding venue

Finally, My recommendations…

You really don’t need to spend extra budget on entertainment for the drinks reception. But if you are looking for something unique here’s a few links to the best things I’ve seen at drinks receptions over the years.

  • Oyster Meister – decadent and entertaining, these guys roam your reception in bretons and shuck oysters for your guests, a truly unique canapé option and certainly a talking point!
  • The Air Stream Photo Booth – the most beautiful photo booth ever?
  • Duck Herding with Chris Farris Events – when I was a bridesmaid for my bestie her husband hired this team to put on duck herding during their reception as a surprise, and it was so much fun!
  • Coconut Shy – this is a classic all ages will love.
  • Bubble Bros. – awesome prosecco van and bubble bike to keep your guests’ thirst quenched.
  • Gold Diggers Brass Band – live music definitely adds to a reception these guys created a fab party atmosphere during the drinks.
  • The Jonny Hepbir Trio – for romantic ambiance & atmosphere this jazz trio are truly wonderful.
  • Mariachi Band – friends of ours were led from their ceremony location to the drinks reception area by a Mexican mariachi band, AMAZING!


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