Lighting options during a Wedding reception


Marquee’s at wedding receptions usually provide an easy setting to use some nice directional bounce flash. A 360º canopy of white surface can’t get much easier! Heading into the evening reception at a recent wedding, this was exactly how I had anticipated lighting the first dance and evening shots…only to be welcomed by one half of the marquee being black.

To give you an idea here is a shot I took as part of preparing for the main shot above standing underneath the black half of the marquee where the dance floor was. The black canopy stretched above my head and behind me, covering about 1/2 of the marquee in total.  Bouncing flash off this surface  is a big no no.


Faced with this, four options were available for taking the shots:
1. No additional lighting. Cranking up my ISO, opening up my aperture and slowing my shutter speed for ambient light only exposure. With conditions this dark the motion blur would have been awful. NOT an option.

2. Standing underneath the white half of the marquee and bouncing my flash behind me. The light would have been soft and enough would bounce back to the light the couple, although they would be against a pure black backdrop. While this might be ok for a portrait, for a first dance this would look strange and not provide any context to the setting/occasion. Not ideal.

3. Direct on-camera flash. This would enable me to have the marquee and other guests in the background, providing a nice backdrop and context, but the light would have looked flat. The light from the on-camera flash could be softened by attaching a small 8.5″ x 8.5″ soft box (Lastolite Ezybox). I could have made the light more directional by holding the flash in one hand and firing it wirelessly from the camera, but this would have been awkward and required a measure of decent aim with a relatively small light source. Not ideal but probably my second choice in this scenario.

4. Off-camera flash. This would allow me to face the marquee and other guests. Perfect. The light would be directional. Perfect. Using my 54cm x 54cm Lastolite Ezybox with the two baffles inside the light would be soft. Perfect. I could also fire the flash in TTL mode with my Pixel King Pro triggers meaning that I didn’t have to worry about the couple moving away or towards the flash. Perfect. THE BEST option.

Having made my decision all that was left to do was to set up my soft box in the corner of the dance floor, and set my camera exposure based on the brighter background.  Although the background is lighter than the subject, the levels are still fairly low, meaning a ‘high’ ISO and wide aperture would allow me to retain a relatively quick shutter speed to prevent any motion blur.

Camera settings ISO 500, f/3.5, 1/160.

A pop of the flash and the result can be seen!


Adding off-camera flash to create drama……

Sometimes we can have perfect, directional, soft ambient light. No additional lighting required other than what is before our very eyes to capture a beautiful portrait, great!! However, we might also envisage a different look for our image. Something with a bit more punch and drama…..

The above two photos illustrate this perfectly (click on the images to enlarge). The light under the arched passage way was great – soft and directional. I could shoot under these conditions without any additional lighting and get great flattering photos of the bride and her stunning dress. However, I also had a different image in mind before shooting that involved using some off-camera flash. Cue the image on the left….

The process of this is simple and effective. Pull down the ambient lighting by a certain amount (in this case 2 stops) and have the flash metered to give us correct subject exposure under these settings. In this particular instance the settings for both photos was as follows:

Ambient lighting only = 1/250, f4.0, ISO 800
Off-camera flash = 1/250, f4.0, ISO 200

Pulling down the ambient lighting was as quick as lowering the ISO setting and then triggering the off-camera flash, which was pre-metered for f4.0 and ISO 200 before the bride was in position. The flash was fired in a Lastolite 24×24″ Ezybox to give nice diffuse lighting, expertly held in position by my assistant for the day (cheers Derek Thomas!). In this scenario it is up to individual taste how much we want to lower the ambient lighting. If we want to have the subject in a pool of light we can lower the ambient lighting even lower (within the power of our flash gun).

I was able to mix up the lighting in these photos quickly and efficiently…
I always have the function button on the front of my Nikon cameras set to disable flash. By disabling the flash fire and shooting at ISO 800 I used ambient lighting alone and by lowering the ISO to 200, releasing the function button and allowing the flash to fire I was able to use off-camera flash. Shooting this way I was able to get a series of bridal portraits, which I was very happy with, with within a space of a few minutes.

And there we have it! A touch of off-camera flash to create a bit of drama to an already gorgeous setting.

It always makes for a great ending….

Rather ironically, my first post is entitled ‘It always makes for a great ending….’.  Of course, what I mean by this is in reference to the Bride and Groom’s first dance on their wedding day.

As a photographer you can always bank on getting some genuine, natural Bride & Groom interaction; loving expressions and more often than not some laughs too.   Easy, we just need to be on hand to capture that, right?

Well, what can we generally expect at this point? Low light conditions, dark, often large venues, lots of incandescent lights, a moving subject and, quite frequently, an unpredictable light show from the DJ.    Not as easy as it sounds! So where as a photographer do we start?  There are a couple of essential pieces of equipment required; a fast lens (F1.8 – 2.0 territory), a high ISO capable camera, a powerful flash gun with a 180 degree rotating head, a ‘flag’ for the flash (I use the Spinlight 360) and a gel to warm up the flash light.

Lets handle the dark, cavernous, conditions.  There are 3 camera settings which impact ambient exposure; aperture, ISO and shutter speed.  Increasing any of these will in turn increase the exposure of our photograph.  In this scenario our flash will be the main source of light for our subjects, however, we want the ambient light to register to a degree in our photo in order to provide setting context and to avoid the commonly found ‘black hole’ background.  To do so we could increase any of the aforementioned camera controls.  Historically slowing the shutter speed was the ‘go to’ method of doing this, as this as the only independent control of controlling ambient light when using flash .  In turn, movement such as a dancing couple could cause motion blur in our final photo.

With digital cameras and TTL flash guns we do not have to be restricted in using shutter speed alone.  We can increase ambient exposure by using aperture and ISO in order to maintain a relatively fast shutter speed.  In turn, our TTL flash gun will add the ‘correct’ amount of flash based on these settings.  How much  ambient exposure we allow to register by is down to personal taste.

Settings for the final photograph above were f1.8, ISO 1600, 1/80. Flash TTL

When flash light is a large contributor to a photo I always try to avoid direct flash light.  As a result the flash was bounced behind me, off a rear wall, at an angle I would want the light to come from in order to provide some directional lighting.  In addition, the cold light of the flash is warmed with a 1/2 CTS gel to help the flash light blend in with the warm ambient lighting.  My flash gun is ‘flagged’ using a black card via the Spinlight 360 modifier to tightly control the direction of light.

The result? I hope you agree, is a very naturally looking flash-lit photograph coupled with a loving expression of a very happy Bride & Groom.