Caroline Wolfe Papocchia, expert event planner and student advisor for the Sheffield School’s Wedding and Event Planning course, dishes on the essential ingredient for perfect wedding reception ambiance. The Sheffield School is based in New York City and offers a comprehensive home study program that has successfully trained event planners across the United States and around the world.
After years of planning weddings and events, I have learned that nothing can make or break an event like lighting – yet many don’t give it a second thought. In my opinion, illumination is the single most transformative element in any space, and professional planners often encourage clients to set aside part of their budget for a lighting package. These days there are so many options, from the most basic to the most extravagant. One thing that we stress in the Wedding and Event Planning Course is that you don’t need a big budget to create a fabulous wedding - and lighting is a perfect example of how that idea comes into play.
On a limited budget, you might use string lights or simple pinspots (small bright spotlights directed on the tables to highlight centerpieces). Paper lanterns and candles are also quite romantic and inexpensive. While they sound simple, in the hands of a talented designer these small elements can pack a lot of pow.
Brides can opt for a more exciting installation of colored washes or break-up patterns —stationary lights that are fitted with a gobo, a disk cut with a specific pattern that becomes the projection. This kind of lighting is set in an elevated position on freestanding trusses or metal columns that are provided and installed by the lighting company. Some venues have rigging points, allowing lighting vendors to hang lights without a truss.
While gorgeous, break-up projections don’t necessarily break the bank. If a couple wants to save money, a break-up over reception tables or a lounge or cocktail area will be less expensive than pinspotting each table because it involves many fewer fixtures. Less fixtures = less labor = less money.
Washes are perfect for tented weddings—the white ceiling and walls act as a canvas, and the tent structure is ideal for hanging lights. The dramatic results can be breathtaking. Even without anything else in this tent, the beautiful vibrant orange lighting has created a dramatic party atmosphere.
With a different fixture, light projections can even be set to move and dance around the space. This is ideal for a dance area, and a savvy bride might maximize her budget by keeping the cocktail and dinner lighting simple while spending a bit to make the dance floor fantastic. The space below has it all: a wash of light and color on the tables and through-out the space, and moving projections on the dance floor.
In addition to adding color and design, lighting can also be cleverly used to accentuate or de-emphasize parts of a space. Simple colored uplights that project colored light onto a wall are a quick way to add color while also highlighting architectural elements like gothic stone arches or the beams in this barn. Pattern washes can be projected in nearly any direction – even to decorate an otherwise plain ceiling.
If you are planning to have an outdoor reception, don’t make the mistake of thinking that lighting is not important. The same kinds of lighting—everything from string lights to luminaria to professional installations—are even more exquisite and romantic in a natural setting.
If you don’t have the budget for a separate lighting package, look to the venue or wedding hall. Oftentimes, venues that specialize in weddings or events have some ability to customize the lighting in a space. They might even have an in-house system of pinspots or something similar.
At the very least, check with the venue to see which lights in the space can be dimmed. In a hotel ballroom, for example, you might find that the overheads can be dimmed while the perimeter lights or decorative wall sconces stay bright. Dimming automatically sets a party tone, and it is essential if you are using candles on your tables. With a little creativity you can take full advantage of a room’s lighting options to customize a mood.
At the end of the day, wedding lighting can truly set the entire tone of the event, and it should not be disregarded. As with any vendor, professional planners often stick with lighting designers that understand their vision and requirements, and brides can benefit greatly from that relationship. If you go it alone, take the lighting as seriously as you do your invitations, cake, attire, catering, and so forth. You will not regret it!