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Wedding Cocktail Hour: The Perfect Time for Photographer Portraits

You will arrive at your venue shortly after your ceremony. Then the cocktail hour will take place, which is a real blessing for a talented professional wedding photographer in the Twin Cities! Indeed, photographers can capture tremendous candid portraits. So let’s see how a typical cocktail hour looks like, what are your options and how your decision can help improve your photographs.

What’s the cocktail hour, and why it’s an important moment

After your father walks you down the aisle and when the ceremony is over, you can mingle with your bridesmaids and groomsmen. That’s just the beginning of a long celebration!

You Can Relax

For most couples, it’s the opportunity to enjoy the guests. Newly married couples will try to exchange a few words with each of their guests. For you, it’s finally time to relax and really start enjoying your event. However, time will fly fast and you won’t have a second for you. Indeed, everyone wants to tell you something, comment on your ceremony, on your dress, or on your jewels.

For your guests

For some of your friends, it’s  an opportunity to take advantage of the open bar to get drunk quickly.

For your best guests, it’s the opportunity to meet new people, especially on the other side of the family. And for family and friends, it’s the opportunity to see each other after a long time.
The cocktail hour is by definition the time to mingle, where people are still well dressed, have a lot of energy, are excited and enjoy the beginning of your reception.

TIPS: time flies pretty quickly, and it could be over without you enjoying your food. Make sure someone of the bridal party brings you some food and something to drink.

How long wedding cocktails usually last

In EU, cocktails usually last 3 hours, starting at 5 p.m. and ending at 8 p.m. (sometimes even more). In the United States, cocktail hour tends to be significantly shorter, lasting 1 to 2 hours, starting around 5 p.m. and ending at 6 p.m.

How long do I recommend to make it last

For a photographers, the longer it is the higher chance of getting good shots you will have. You must also take in consideration the number of guests. If you have a large wedding, you would prefer a longer cocktail. If you have a very small wedding with twenty people, then one hour should be more than enough.

First guests depart

In Europe it’s pretty common to invite guests enjoying the cocktail hours, but not the entire reception. That also happens in the USA, but maybe less frequently. Those are distant friends and people you know but with whom you don’t have a tight relationship. That said, you still want to invite them to be polite. For instance, they are people living in your neighborhood, or your in-law’s friends. Don’t worry, they won’t be offended not to be invited to the dinner, and they know when they should leave the cocktail.

Why I enjoy cocktail hour so much: Great candid shots

The cocktail hour is the perfect time for me to take candid shots of all of your guests (more alive than formals ones). Everyone is well dressed and happy. Women wear their nicest dresses and special jewelry for the occasion,  while men put their fancy suits. Furthermore, you will go from guest to guest to have a few words, and I will capture the reaction of people. They will congratulate you for your ceremony and your reception, asking to see your wedding ring and engagement ring. On this day, you are like a queen and king.

I also enjoy capturing other moments, such as the grandmother, hiding in the corner and gossiping with an aunt.
Another example are the kids, out of their parents’ control and doing silly things, which often provide me great material for good images.

Speech during the cocktail

In France it’s pretty common to have speeches at the beginning or during the cocktail. They are, of course, a fantastic opportunity to catch laughter and tears. The more famous one is the groom’s speech, which usually takes place at the beginning of the cocktail to officially announce that the bar is open.
For him, it’s the opportunity to thank everyone for coming and to have a sweet word for his wife. His wife can also say a few words, or handle the entire speech if she is more confident in speaking in public. This is an important and not easy speech. So I recommend that you prepare it before your ceremony day and not during the groom preparation.

Father(s)’s Speech for emotion

It’s the opportunity to publicly congratulate and welcome the new daughter (or son) in the family and also thank the guests. They can be funny or pretty formal. The father’s speech usually takes place in the middle of the cocktail, or shortly before the end. Speeches could be performed by one or both sides. That said, the father’s toast is less and less common, and usually reserved for fathers who are used to speak in public. Of course I love all speeches and toasts, because it’s always an opportunity to catch amazing portraits full of emotions.

Where is the best place to host your cocktail hour

To increase your chances to have amazing candid shot during the cocktail hour, it’s better to host it in a spacious and beautiful place, wether it’s indoor or outdoor.
If it’s indoor, it will be better to have natural light coming from large windows and to avoid a mix of natural and artificial lights.
If it’s outdoor, then the best is to pick a place under the shade of huge and old trees. Thus the light is usually better and allows your photographer to shoot images in almost every direction. Also make sure to avoid the immediate proximity with elements that you don’t want to see in your photographs such as cars, trashes contenairs.

Should You Offer Alcohol

That’s a question you should answer regarding your personal feelings and beliefs. You should also check if your venue has restrictions. Moderated alcohol quantity, helps people to relax, favoring extrovert behaviors which are better for pictures.


A background music during the cocktail would help people mingle. If the room is very noisy and it’s full of guests then it’s probably not a necessity given, it might even not be heard.
Real musicians are always elegant and upgrade the level of your reception.

What the bride and groom do during the cocktail hour

For the bride and the groom, there are four options. You can “just enjoy the cocktail”, or you can do a receiving line, or you can use this time for more pictures, or you can escape.

Receiving Line

The receiving line is still popular today but absolutely not an obligation. The bride and the groom stand at the cocktail’s entrance and welcome each guest. Thus it’s a very good way to make sure you shared a word with all your guests. The organization of such a line is more adapted for small to medium weddings. Indeed, if you have a 300 guests wedding, you may not arrive to greet all of your guests.

Opportunity for More photos

The cocktail could also be a time for more photos

  • The bride and the groom

You can escape for some moments for some couple pictures. But skipping the cocktail hour is usually not appreciated, so it’s better to make it short.

  • Extended family and formal photos

It can be the opportunity to do more group photos, such as additional family members, or pictures with the bridal party.
For groups, you should have a pre-written detailed list including all parents.

  • Reveal the dinner room

The Dinner room reveal becomes more and more popular. It’s basically the wedding coordinator (or the wedding planner) that will invite you to have a first look on your dreamed decoration before all the guests enter to seat. You are supposed to look shocked and amazed.

  • Bouquet toss

Once the ritual is done, the bride can toss her flowers for the bridesmaids and girls ready to catch it. It’s better to go outside to chose a lawn than a hard floor. It’s not unusual to see guys trying to catch the bouquet!

Escaping with groomsmen and bridesmaids

It’s not unusual that some couples escape with their bridal party to a close bar. It usually happens when your venue doesn’t serve alcohol. Of course it’s not super cool for all the guests.

What do other people do during this time


Some of your guests, such as the mothers, may use the cocktail time to change outfits before the dinner.

Guest book

Most of the couples have a guest book standing on the table close to the decorated wedding urn.

Photo booth

Guests usually love capturing goofy memories. You can add some props for more fun. That said, some couples prefer to start it only during the dinner time.

Dinner room Set Up by vendors

If the ceremony takes place at the venue, the caterer team or the wedding venue vendors can turn the ceremony and reception room into diner room. They can install and dress tables. Or they can just move tables if they are already dressed, and ending the setup by lighting the candles.

  • The florist would be there finishing installing flowers properly.
  • The DJ would adjust his installation.
  • The photographer would install flashes for the grand entrance and take some detail pictures of the room.

How to end the cocktail: a picture with everyone

A good way to end the cocktail hour is to include in your timeline a big group picture with everyone. It takes around 5 to 10 minutes to gather people, making sure no one is missing such as parents and grandparents. I usually require a ladder or use a balcony or a window to have a view down on the group. When everyone is ready, I capture a formal picture and another one with more fun in it. Once it’s done, all the guests are ready to start the dinner, expecting to party soon.

How to help improve images during the cocktail

  • Prefer nice glasses: Avoid cheap color plastic glasses or colored straws. That might catch too much attention. Indeed, when you hold glass in your hands are close to your face, we will see them on your images. Can you imagine James Bond drinking his martini in a beer glass?
  • Avoid cans: Avoid soda or beer cans
  • Nice light: Try, as much as possible to avoid rooms with very low yellow artificial light.
  • Nice background: the background should be nice and you should avoid everything that can catch attention.
  • Games for adults and kids: Wooden games bring some fun and interaction, and good portraits.
  • Check hair and makeup: After all this day hugging hundreds of guests, you may need to fix your hair and adjust your lipstick. Also, use a straw for drinks to protect your lipstick longer.
  • Comfy seating for old guests: Pay attention to your older guests, and ask that the comfy seats are reserved for them.
  • Babysitter for kids: If a lot of kids will be present, it’s great having a sitter entertaining them while parents enjoy the event.
  • Avoid getting drunk: Everyone wants to share a drink with you. With all the stress gone, you may not realize how many glasses you drink, and it can easily be a bit too much. You still have the dinner and the entire party to handle, so drink responsibly!

Black and White Portrait of Alexandre Mayeur, photographer at French-Touch-Photography

Born and raised in Paris, I am now a proud Wedding Photographer in Rochester, MN, serving MPLS.

I don’t only capture emotions in candid pictures, I also create timeless images and artful photographs.
Recognized as one of the best photographers in the Twin Cities.

I serve Duluth and also far beyond the 10,000 Lakes State (Wisconsin, Iowa, and destination). I am more than happy to discover beautiful landscapes and new horizons.

Have a look at my previous publications to learn more. As an experienced professional photographer, I don’t limit my field to lifestyle, family, or event photography! I invite you to visit my portfolio and discover my photography and work out of the studio.