Tech Tips : Wedding Reception Lighting


A few months ago, I started an installment of Tech Tips, an opportunity for me to answer questions directly related to technical aspects of my photos. One of the questions I received the most after last week’s wedding was dealing with the reception lighting, specifically what I use and how I do it. I’ve blogged about the photography gear I use as well as my off-camera lighting set up, so you can read about that more in detail if you’d like.

Last week Lyndal asked for lighting/flash tips during receptions and Inca followed with this question: did you use flash in the indoors section at all? Or is it all with the ambient light? I could not find sharp shadows, but the depth of field is wide enough to suggest you are not shooting with 2.8. Maybe then, high ISO with the new Mark III?

The first thing I do when I walk into a reception is find a location I can place my off-camera light, as to not be noticed. Most of the time it’s by the DJ’s speakers, but the layout at my last wedding would’ve drawn too much attention to it, so I hid it in a corner of the ballroom (this ballroom had small niches/alcoves that served as multiple corners in the room as seen in the right photo below).

Left photo: 50mm f/2.0 1/60 640ISO (only off-camera flash used)
Right photo: 50mm f/2.5 1/100 640ISO (only off-camera flash used)

I always place the light toward the dancefloor since that’s where most of the evening’s events take place and I don’t move it for the rest of the evening.

50mm f/2.5 1/60 640ISO (on-camera flash and off-camera flash)

In the photo below, the off-camera light is directly right of the bride and groom (you can see highlights on the bridesmaids’ hair on the right side of the photo). I felt comfortable shooting with wide apertures during the First Dance because the couple is what I call hug-dancing. Part hug, part dance, all love. Because their faces are pressed next to each other, only one person will need to be in focus (because the back of the head of the opposing person needn’t be tact sharp).

I always ask in advance if there’ll be a choreographed First Dance because that’ll change how I approach the first dance (I usually stay away from shooting wide open and I ask where the couple will end the dance and facing which direction…this is so I’m ready to capture the inevitable Dip that comes at the end).

24mm f/2.0 1/60 640ISO (on-camera and off camera flash)

Sidenote: I shoot almost exclusively with the white bounce card that comes in my Canon 550EX Flash…it really helps provide softer illumination.

24mm f/2.8 1/60 640ISO (on-camera and off camera flash)

In the photo below, you’ll see the niche I placed the off-camera flash. I love the light because it adds dimension to the room and provides the type of depth I prefer in my photos…

24mm f/2.5 1/50 800ISO (on-camera and off camera flash)

So here’s a moment when JD anticipated a moment and was ready…I seriously love that guy. The cake was rolled out, but was positioned in such a way I’d lose the off-camera light (due to distance and angle of the room). JD brought out a video light and illuminated what was a very dark portion of the room…

35mm f/2.5 1/80 1000ISO (ambient light, no flash, just a video light JD held while simultaneously shooting…he’s like a Hispanic Chuck Norris.)

I was given the option to shoot with a wide aperture because the bride was consistently looking at the groom, so my focal point was primarily on him. I’ve learned to anticipate the ebb and flow of a groom’s speech, so when I thought he’d toast his bride, I rotated my focal point to her (to capture her reaction), while JD kept his focus on the groom.

Whew, that was a doozey. I hope it made sense and if you have questions, leave them in the comment box and I’ll try to respond tomorrow or if others care to join and help the conversation, that’d be awesome!

Stay Fabulous,

Edited to Add: Here are the answers to your questions!!
@Dawn &Michael Mitchell: The light is roughly six feet tall on the tripod and the power setting for the off-camera flash is set at 1/16th power so it recycles quickly and proffers just an easy pop of light.
@Orsi: The off-camera light is sitting in a soft box to diffuse the light.
@Brenda Landrum: Yes, I’m pointing my flash straight toward the ceiling, but use the bounce card with the flash to reflect the light onto my subjects’ faces.
@JC: When working with Pocket Wizards to fire my flash, I’ve never had a problem being too far away. Considering a reception is usually in a ballroom, the trigger distance hasn’t been an issue.
@Sarah D: Yes, my flash is always pointed at the ceiling (with the bounce card) or I’m bouncing it from a nearby wall…I can’t remember the last time I pointed my flash directly at someone.
@Adam: My flash is set to ETTL.
@Tony: I clean my camera every other month or so.
@Debbie: This is the video light I use.
@Tony Whitmore: I use my off-camera flash at every reception…in fact, I love it so much that if I couldn’t use it, I might cry! 😉
@Prema Buck: I change my lenses quite a bit and each swap takes me less than three or four seconds, so I’m not worried about missing a moment during the First Dance, especially since my second shooter is also shooting at the same time.
@Evie Perez: Once I set up my off-camera light, I don’t move it…so the detail images I posted were tables close enough to the light to pick up its effects.