In whatever form they take: lavish ballroom-style weddings, to humble backyards, and even classic courthouse weddings, wedding photographers have one secret weapon that can help make any type of wedding look amazing, no matter what the chosen venue: lighting.
For many photographers, the main problem is the range of variables - and then deciding what is the best solution for each one. You may be faced with a stunning wall of windows or a chapel lit by ancient candelabra. It could be a modern dance floor lit by flashing neon lights or an even an outdoor park at sunset. You may need to work with an outdoor sitting at high noon. There are so many scenarios and light source variables depending on the setting and style of the wedding.
Regardless of the setup, your job is to capture and create magical images and memories of the couple’s special day. To capture the best photos, all wedding photographers need to learn how to manage whatever form of lighting the wedding day gives you to work with, as well as what you have in your bag of tricks. The process of learning wedding lighting is very gradual and you will find you are building on it with each booking. The more you shoot and work with different lighting forms, the better you will understand how to set up and capture the perfect shots.
You will find that both natural light and flash lighting have unique advantages and disadvantages. One of the first questions that come to mind for wedding photographers as they visualize the shot is regarding the type of light — natural, or flash?
Understand though, that there’s rarely a “correct” or even standard way to light a photograph. At times, using a flash is the best way to get a sharp & technically correct image with the available light. Much of the time, the lighting techniques and equipment that you use - or choose not to - is a matter of personal style, not whether it is right or wrong. So when should you use natural light, and when is artificial light your best option? Firstly, ask the obvious question — in some venues, photographers aren’t allowed to use flash equipment. You should always check with the celebrant or minister before the ceremony, as it is common for many venues to not allow a flash to be used. It is vital to be sensitive and considerate to avoid spoiling an intimate moment with intrusive bursts of light. Your thoughts can then turn to what light sources actually exist within the chosen space. If the lighting is already what you want, easy - you can leave the flash in your bag. If, for example, the bride is getting ready in a room with a large window, you would ask her to stand in such a way that the window light is perfectly positioned for a great photo. No requirement to use a flash.
If on the other hand, the existing light is less than exciting, a flash can be used to add a level of interest to the scene. A flash will also bring greater contrast and sharpness to your photo. The pop of light will also freeze the action, allowing you to shoot at slower shutter speeds. Using a flash will bring a new dimension to lighting even on a cloudy day, with some really interesting effects to play with. Flash can also work as a fix for a range of problems that can and often do crop up in wedding photography, like an overly exposed sky, or underexposed couple.
Sometimes, even if the existing light is already beautiful, a well-placed tool such as folding reflector or flash can add just the right details to the shot - without ruining the rest of the setting. Balancing ambient light with flash can be tricky, but is usually well worth the work. Try adding a flash on its lowest power setting specifically to add little catchlights in the eyes of a beautifully backlit scene. You’ll find as you explore and learn the craft of wedding lighting, you will find the ability to look for the locations that already have amazing existing light, and when you can add to that beauty with the use of a flash.
As you will discover, some shots just aren’t possible without a flash, but sometimes it’s a style decision on how to best light the shot.
A common scenario: a classy wedding day portrait of the newlyweds, framed with sunny backlighting.
A low powered speedlight flash, a higher powered battery flash, or use of a reflector as a fill light to highlight both the details of the couple and the surroundings. Often, without the use of a flash, a backlit sky will be overexposed appearing white instead of blue. Remember too, if you want catchlights, you will require some form of additional light in front of the couple.
You could also shoot that same scene without a flash — and that wouldn’t be wrong. If your style is light and airy, rather than about dramatic colours and contrast, you would shoot the images of the backlit couple without a flash. This would expose the couple’s faces and quite intentionally allow that overexposed look in the sky. That can come out looking amazing too.
Another option is to use a light meter for proper exposure of the couple’s faces. In this technique, you would place the happy couple against a somewhat darker background to maintain that desired contrast. Using the backdrop of a purposefully overexposed sky creates more of that light and airy look.
Another way to achieve backlighting is to use an off-camera flash. You may have seen shots where the flash is located behind the couple, which will bring that golden hour effect to backlighting even on a cloudy day. A flash coming from behind can also freeze any raindrops or create an interesting silhouette or other effects for a more dramatic nighttime portrait of the happy couple.
Defining your personal photography style plays a big part in the decisions on how you want to light a photograph. Some personal styles & effects will obviously use a flash more often than some others would.
While personal styles differ, it’s important to understand flash and not just default to natural light because you don’t know when or how to use flash. A good photographer will be ready when any wedding scenario presents itself that’s impossible to shoot well without a flash. The art of understanding flash, in general, will also work hand in hand with your overall understanding of wedding lighting. Once you’ve learned the basics of using photography lighting and equipment, you’ll find even your photos taken in natural light will benefit.
The direction the light is coming from often plays a big role in the look of the final image. For weddings, backlighting is a firm favourite because of the stunning look traditional wedding outfits take on when backlit, as well as the beautiful glow that backlighting can create in any well-framed portrait. For example, a bride’s veil will take on a glow when nicely backlit, as will the skirt of many wedding gowns - a nice pop in dramatic backlighting.
Another effective technique for wedding lighting is to position the couple so that the light source is at their side. The difference with this technique over having a flash or light source located in front of the couple is that the sidelights will create some really interesting shadows and is quite a different effect to the standard front lighting.
Just like when using backlighting, an effective sidelight can be either natural sun or a form of flash. The main key to this technique is to watch the way the light and shadows fall across the couple’s faces. You want effects that are flattering to both the bride and the groom, so look at both faces!
You can make small or large adjustments to the intensity of the light to achieve the shadows you want, or you can have the bride or groom tilt their heads/faces towards (or away from) the light. You are wanting to get a balance of light that adds depth while bringing highlights to the bride and groom’s best features. It goes without saying that this can have a downside, for example, avoid large shadows on the nose, or the nose will look larger.
If this is a new technique for you and you’re not sure where to start with the whole idea of using a sidelight, then start with the light source at a 45-degree angle towards the front or even the back of the couple and make adjustments from there.
Windows are loved because they can create soft and flattering light that’s generally easy to work with. Just as we have talked about, working with flash or sunlight, windows can be used to shoot with back or side lighting.
Remember the framing of the shot too - placing the couple in front of a window is a good opportunity for a background or silhouette or intentionally increasing the light exposure the window creates. In general, placing the bride, groom or both at a varying side angle to the window throws soft, flattering light. Overall, you will have more flexibility if you are shooting in a room with windows, instead of a room with no windows at all.
So why use the word terrible in this section? Windows and the lighting options they provide are great for photographers, and yet spare a thought for the photo editors. Consider a shoot at a church with windows at the back of the space. The problem? Your wide-angle shots will have two different white balances, because of the light sources - the back windows and the middle and front overhead lights. To balance the light, a photo editor will need to use something to adjust the white balance in only one portion of the room.
Reflectors have a dual purpose - they are a great entry point to learn how to work with artificial light, as well as a tool that many photographers will continue to use even when they have mastered lighting with flash. The reason a reflector is so easy to use is that it bounces the light that’s already present in the scene. There is actually no guesswork for a beginner to work out just how much light they want to add to the scene.
You will find reflectors work especially well as wedding photography lighting equipment even on those perfect sunny days. When the sun is located behind the couple, you can bounce back some of that light by positioning a reflector in the front. This reflector will act as a fill light onto the couple, giving you a more even exposure between the subject and the background.
A bare flash almost always looks awful for weddings because it’s a really small, powerful light - and it creates unflattering and potentially harsh shadows. You can transform it into a much better version - a softer, and far more flattering light - by bouncing it or using a diffuser. Diffusing the flash means to spread the light out, avoiding that centralised and harsh effect, and gives a softer look. Flash diffusers come in a range of shapes and forms. For a Speedlight flash It is wise to look for something larger than your actual flash head, not like the little plastic pop on covers that are the same size. An example is the FlashBot diffuser.
The other option above is to bounce the flash. When indoors, you usually have the option to bounce the flash around off the ceiling or wall, but in some settings, that ceiling could be 20 or 30 metres up. And if you’re outside there is obviously no ceiling to work with. Bendable flash panels are a newer technology that will help bounce the lighting from the flash when there is nothing else available.
When you are outside, or the ceiling is too high to bounce off, or the sun is harsh, the power of a larger battery-powered studio flash comes to the fore. You can create consistent results every time with a battery flash and a larger softbox. Softboxes come in a range of shapes and sizes, however, one of the favourites for wedding lighting is a folding beauty dish. This 85cm shoot-through style softbox is easier to use when you don’t have an assistant, and can also work well for backlighting. The ring effect from a shoot-through reflector is also quite flattering and works extremely well for portraits.
Diffusing or bouncing your flash is half of the solution. Using the manual settings on your flash is the other half. TTL mode “Through the Lens” mode automatically senses and adjusts the flash intensity based on the light the sensor sees through the lens. But TTL won’t give you the settings needed for the effect you want very often - and it is best to learn how to use Manual mode for best results. Basically, using a manual flash will allow you to control the amount of light, and in doing so, deal with the rest of the shadows that the modifiers can’t take easily care of.
For the new photographers, understand that manual flash is adjusted in fractions, or in Stops. For power adjustment in fractions, 1/1 is full power, while 1/4 is 25% power and so forth. For stops, each stop down reduces the light by 50%. If power level 9.0 is full power, 7.0 will be 1/4 power, and 6.0 will be 1/8 power. Learning manual flash is more about experimentation than anything else. Most of the time, the full power of the flash is too powerful, so start with a lower number like 6.0 or 1/8 power and adjust up or down from there to get the look you want. Learn to watch for bright spots on the skin or dark shadows behind the subject - these are the 2 most common problems. If they appear in your shot, then your flash power is still too high.
It is important to understand both the use of flash, and exactly how the camera settings will work with your flash. Knowing the shutter speed on your camera will determine how much of the ambient light gets through to the background of the photo. If the shutter speed is too high, you’ll get an overly bright subject and a really black background.
If the shutter speed is too low, both the flash and any ambient light will appear in the image, with the upside of preventing that black background. If the setting’s background is distracting or unwanted in the shot, a fast shutter speed with flash, then in theory, can help to keep that hidden. If on the other hand, the background contains important details that the couple want to be captured, a slower camera shutter speed will help keep both the couple and the background appropriately lit. You could take both and compare the effects.
As discussed, you can adjust the brightness of the flash using manual settings. But the actual aperture will only affect the brightness of the flash-lit area, leaving the entire background alone. Lowering the f-stop will create an effect similar to increasing the power of the flash. The less the f-stop setting is, the brighter the flash will seem.
Many photographers tend to use the lower end of the manual flash settings, and much of the time, using a wide aperture. If you find the flash isn’t enough light just using the settings on the flash itself, you can use a wider aperture. The reverse applies for situations when the flash feels too bright, even with manual settings and use of a diffuser. For this, try using a narrower aperture.
Finally, bear in mind that ISO will also affect the look of the flash — but ISO will affect the entire image, just like when you are not using any flash lighting at all. Shutter speed will determine how much of the ambient comes through, while aperture will affect the brightness of the flash.
If you feel that you have worked to get the background and the flash perfectly balanced, but the image overall is still too bright or too dark, you could leave the shutter speed and the aperture settings alone and simply adjust the ISO instead.
Lighting the couple from the front is probably technically correct. And while soft front lighting is flattering, usually the shadows created from a wide or backlit setting are much more interesting. On-camera flash work does not create the same level of interesting shadows and depth that an off-camera light will.
This is your next challenge - if you feel you have mastered the balance of flash with the existing light, now you can explore off-camera flash. An inexpensive flash transmitter and receiver set up will allow the flash to “talk” with the camera even while off the actual camera. These days there are wireless trigger systems available for all popular brands of camera. With this in place, a tripod or light stand can securely hold the flash for you, or you can resort to paying an assistant to keep the flash where you want it. A self-folding light stand can make it faster and easier to move the flash around when shooting solo.
Like we discussed before regarding using manual flash and diffusers, this all works the same with an off-camera flash. You now have the additional flexibility to create different angles and effects. Using an off-camera flash, the most popular and classic angles are a 45-degree angle towards the back or front, or completely behind for a backlit effect.
So it is a bit of a trade-off, depending on the look you want. Off-camera flash brings perspective, depth and dimension, whereas on-camera flash can be relied on to create a flatter image because all the light movement is coming from one direction - the front. This may be what you are wanting - no right or wrong here! Off-camera flash can be more time consuming and a bit less friendly for those who need to be mobile, such as during the ceremony and wedding reception. When you don’t need absolute mobility, taking the flash off-camera makes a huge difference to the way you approach wedding lighting.
There’s an added advantage to learning how to use flash well - not only to understand how to effectively light pretty much any scene but also how to identify when amazing natural light already exists. The more you work with the variances of wedding setting lighting, the more you’ll be able to quickly make decisions on a scene’s lighting potential and capture the creative, well-lit shots you want with the right gear.
Even armed with this guide, learning wedding lighting technique isn’t a quick process. You can’t even put all this information into practice in one afternoon. Our advice would be to take one tip at a time, and give it time and practise with a friend. Then, add the remaining tips in one at a time until you have a good handle on all forms of light, from ambient light through to flash and how to balance it all.
A final tip would be to avoid trying something out for the first time at an actual wedding shoot. A wedding really isn’t the best time to learn how to use new lighting equipment or techniques, because the stakes are high - you don’t want to blow the chance to capture the images that matter.
Getting great photos of the special day for your clients is about recognising the mix of natural and artificial light, how the light plays an important role in style when using a flash makes a shot great - and when that flash will ruin the shot. Start by practising your work with windows, reflectors and the sun, then move on to learning how to make a flash look good. With some effort and practice, you’ll be able to craft a beautiful relationship between the natural light and the introduction of flash that will make your photos sing.