Light it Up: Don’t Miss Today’s Biggest Way to Jazz Up Your Reception


THINK ABOUT LIGHT. IT CREATES HEAT. It gives us the ability to see, and it’s one of the major sources of life on our little planet. Throughout history, many different cultures have seen light as a symbol of protection, wisdom, and healing. It’s been used to venerate life and new beginnings for thousands of years, and today, many marrying couples are clueing in to how much the right lighting can add to the celebration of their lives.

In the past, using special lighting techniques at weddings has oft-times ventured into the realm of the appallingly cheesy. A neon cupid on the wall, plastic hearts strung up at the head table, and a flashing black light giving everybody seizures on the dance floor has been viewed as the pinnacle of romantic style and ingenuity.

Thank Hera, goddess of marriage, that times have changed.

Making Magic with Light

Today’s inventive couples are using lighting as far more than just a way to guide guests to the open bar. The right lighting sets the mood and tone of wedding receptions, effectively tying together décor and theme in a way that encourages people to relax, shed their inhibitions, and have a seriously memorable time.

“A space with specialty lighting versus one without can be compared to dining in an upscale lounge with mood lighting versus dining in a cafeteria under blaring white lights,” explains Matt Murphy of Southampton’s Matt Murphy Event Lighting. And we’ve certainly been to enough of those weddings, where despite all the frills and bows, a rented hall still looks like a rented hall, and a tent still looks like a tent.

Calling in the Experts

By employing the services of a professional event lighting company, couples are completely transforming reception spaces into scenes you might see in your favorite Nicole Kidman movie. The right lighting accentuates décor and flatters guests and the wedding party. This changes the entire dynamic of a reception. “When people look their best,” Matt Murphy tells us, “they feel their best and in turn have the most fun.”

On the other hand, when people feel like they’re under the stark, ugly overhead lights of a truck stop bathroom, they tend to be uncomfortable and self-conscious. Or maybe that’s just truck stop bathrooms…

Either way, good lighting can work not only to accentuate the gorgeousness of your reception, but to hide any flaws or bare areas not quite worth showing off.

Light is also an excellent way of dividing up a large space. Los Angeles’ LightenUp Inc. uses shades, curtains, and different colors and textures of light to mark off dance floors, lounge areas, individual tables, and bar areas in reception halls that can otherwise look cavernous and impersonal.

An Evolving Craft

As MJ at LightenUp points out, lighting can also change throughout the evening — thanks to modern intelligent lighting, which is controlled digitally from behind the scenes. Many couples like something bright and airy during dinner, but want to switch to “a dramatic club-like effect as the night goes on.” In this way, the newlyweds get the exact ambience they are going for when guests arrive, as well as during the after-feast festivities. After all, why settle for just one lighting design.

The power of good lighting is so dramatic and accessible to modern couples, some are straying away from blowing the budget on other decorations, and are instead focusing on lighting as décor. Like flowers, professional lighting can bring a natural, organic quality to a celebration through the use of a variety of light colors, patterns, shades, and silks.

With all these elements combined, a reception space can be transformed into another world — a place where the sun always shines, a moonlit glade, or something from your favorite scene in Shakespeare in Love.

Behind the Magic

There are two primary ways in which lighting professionals create their spectacular effects.

Number one is theatrical lighting, the style used in movies to make the turn of Audrey Hepburn’s head so striking, and to make good ol’ J.Lo look like a goddess. Lighting designers will, for example, cover the roof of a tent in layers of silks and different-colored light to create Arabian Nights-style, diffused effects that put everybody at their ease and in the mood.

They also use an effect called “washing,” which involves indirectly lighting a room by illuminating walls and ceilings in colorful, understated glows. This fills a reception space with light sans the use of harsh spots.

When lighting professionals do use spotlights, they do so very carefully, positioning them in such a way as to avoid glaring into guests’ eyes. Many event lighting companies use small, direct beams known as “pin spots” to highlight the wedding cake, center pieces, and other uniquely beautiful elements of the décor that might otherwise go unnoticed.

The second way in which lighting can be used to transform a reception is through the use of props, such as shades and gobos. Shades can come in a variety of colors and shapes, from detailed stars and moons to simple, elegant Chinese lanterns colored to match your scheme of choice.

Gobos are stencils that placed over spotlights and projected onto walls, floors, and outdoor spaces such as pools in order to create at-worst-cheesy, but at-best-absolutely-dazzling effects. Patterns of leaves and flowers, trendy geometric shapes, or even something of your own creation can be juxtaposed with shimmering colors that turn a very basic area into a palace of textures and light.

Success Stories

A good event lighting professional will employ a variety of techniques in order to create the exact effect marrying couples are going for. Matt Murphy recalls one recent wedding in which he “hung 50 custom-made oversized platinum colored dupioni silk shades throughout the ceiling, and highlighted the band and dance floor in soft washes of pink and amber light. The result was classic elegance.”

Levy Lighting Inc., located in New York, recently lit a tent reception in Southampton in which sculpture from the gardens at Versailles was projected onto the walls, and multicolored flower images danced around the room throughout the party.

Working on the other end of the spectrum, Levy Lighting also converted a white loft space in the city into a prism of pure gold by bathing the room in washes and patterns of stunning yellow light.

Making Your Own Magic

Of course, it’s no surprise that this kind of flash, be it ever so understated, does not come cheap. Luckily, we live in an age where for every spare-no-expenser, there’s an intrepid do-it-yourselfer, and a whole world of nifty DIY options. You can rent your own equipment and set it up yourself, but if you don’t want to deal with the hassle of safety permits, or risk blinding your mother-in-law with a spotlight, there are a few simple tricks you can use to let your love light (and your wedding bling) shine.

Going Natural

Natural light, however simple, is always beautiful, which makes the use of candles a great inexpensive option. In order to avoid the risk of fire, burn floating candles in big glass bowls of water. Throw some flower petals in there for good measure and you’ve got instant polish that looks elegance and stylized, never cheap.

If you’re having an outdoor wedding, you can pretty much go crazy with the ever-popular tiki torch. A few of these will look lame, but if you’re generous with them, the effect will be stunning. Create a perimeter of torches around the party area, or a wide path leading between two major points like the tent and the pool.

As long as you position torches in out-of-the-way places, or together in large numbers, they’re not generally fire hazards. In fact, they can help with safety by illuminating areas where guests might otherwise trip.

It’s also easy to throw together a gorgeous lantern for outdoor wedding lighting. Just start collecting glass jars and bottles. Once you have a hoard, glue crepe paper to the outsides. Create a handle with a bit of wire, and hang these little pretties in trees, along porches, and over doorframes. These might sound like nursery school crafts, but all lit up at night and in large numbers, they possess a dancing, ethereal beauty that will make guests feel cheerful and cozy.

Something for the Electric

In terms of electrical lights, the main priority for the do-it-yourself marrying couple should be to avoid having tons of cables and cords snaking around the reception area, making things ugly and creating danger zones. If you’re going to do the lighting yourself, make sure that the venue for your reception has plenty of three-pronged power outlets. This will reduce your need for power bars and extension cords.

Next, take advice from the pros. Get your walls and ceilings lit with soft, diffused light that brings a glow to the room without actually shoving a big, bright beam in someone’s face. A profusion of strings of white mini-lights, properly applied, can pull this off to great effect, making everything shine and everybody look hot.

Of course, all the bulky cordage that accompanies these little lights isn’t pretty, but it’s easy to disguise with a bit of material. You can twine the cords with ribbons, or, if you are covering the walls and ceiling with lights, you can then drape the lights with panels of filmy material like silk or muslin.

Another modern bride-saver is the LED light. These powerful little lights are inexpensive, they come in a variety of colors, and they can run long and strong off a small battery. LEDs can be placed in centerpieces, flower arrangements, in paths along the ground, or across the ceiling like a host of tiny stars. The light from LEDs is unusual and soft, making them an inexpensive, easy way to bring an otherworldly glow to your reception.

Never Hold Back Your Power

Whatever you choose to do, commit yourself to going big — nothing looks tackier than one little strand of bulbs.

Light represents warmth, comfort, community, and celebration. Light is why holidays are special, why movies are so visually appealing, and why we so thoroughly enjoy the pleasures of staying up and partying all night. So whether you go for the pro show or the low-key, home-style thing, be expansive, be expressive, be natural, be on a budget: just don’t cheap out on the wattage.