Foreword by RMSP: After ten years as a wedding photographer, Jesse Boone has learned the lighting challenges a wedding presents, and in this article he tells you how to achieve great light, regardless, at all the major wedding moments.
All photos in this article were created and are copyrighted to Jesse Boone (and his wife, Nelli).Our study of photography begins with light. In essence, every image we’ve ever seen is light recorded. The ability to capture light is what makes a camera so fascinating. Exploring and experimenting with light never gets old. There is always more to learn and discover. I’m quite certain that light is something that will always intrigue me. Its mastery is satisfyingly unattainable. To understand it, and to capture light’s brilliance is the first and last pursuit of the photographer. “To love beauty is to see light.” ? Victor Hugo
I read an article a few years ago by Zack Arias, a well-known commercial photographer and teacher. It was titled “Wedding Photographers Deserve Our Respect.” One of the things he accurately pointed out was how many lighting challenges a wedding photographer faces. While it is possible to schedule for great light when you are shooting portrait sessions, a wedding photographer is trusted to get great light in whatever situation the event may dictate. This is one of the things that separates a professional from an amateur. Not only are you placed in situations that vary immensely – from direct sunlight to a dark chapel – you are also forced to make these changes with very short notice. While one may label themselves as a natural light photographer, a wedding photographer often must adapt to a situation where there is not much light at all. We are not privileged to choose the complete setting of a wedding day, and we are often surprised. We must be able to adapt quickly, sometimes within a few seconds. I’ve broken down a wedding day into five sections to address the lighting challenges that appear in each stage, along with some artistic pointers. The two most important things to consider when photographing a wedding are: story and lighting. Any time I have the power to choose, lighting supersedes the background. My hope is to empower you with the confidence to approach any situation with the knowledge to get great light – no matter what.
Most photographs of the bride and groom preparing for the wedding are going to take place indoors. I will usually be photographing the preparation using directional natural light, bounce flash and occasionally off-camera back-light. One of the best things you can do is prepare your couple for the best lighting possible. Here is an excerpt we send to our couples before the wedding day to prepare them:
When you are prepping, try to choose an area that is close to a window for natural light. If you are choosing a hotel to get ready in, ask for a north facing window. Try to keep the getting ready area free of clutter. Choose an area that has enough room for everyone you want included to move around. Natural light always is better than lamp light, so feel free to turn the lights off/down if the room has enough natural light. A higher stool with window light is ideal for the bride’s make-up and finishing touches because it allows for angles that can avoid distracting background and encourages the best posture.
The ceremony is a stage at which you must be prepared for anything. Sometimes you will have absolutely no control over the light, so you will need to make the best decisions with what you have. I recently photographed a wedding at a lakeside resort where the altar was set up in the midst of a courtyard with the sun blasting the stage. This was an early afternoon wedding without a cloud in the sky. I brought my ISO down to the lowest setting and underexposed for the hard sun, because it was the best I could do in the moment. A higher ISO would have resulted in horribly blown-out highlights during the entire ceremony.
Being involved in the early planning process is helpful. In most cases for estate weddings, your couples will usually accommodate having the lighting behind the ceremony, at an angle, at that specific time of the day. Church ceremonies are different. In the past, church ceremonies were always a little bit iffy regarding the amount of available light you might have. The improvements in ISO have made it much more comfortable to shoot without a flash for these images. I recommend using a bounce or modified flash for the processional and shooting the remainder of the ceremony at a higher ISO. Many of the large church weddings I’ve done are right on the fringe of having enough light. You will usually need to shoot wide open with a slower shutter speed than usual. I’ve found that f/2.8 at 1/100 at around 1600 ISO usually works well with a steady hand. Big churches often have ambient light that I want to capture, so I don’t want to use flash because it might wash out the scene. I definitely recommend a custom white balance in these situations.
3. Family Formals
This is where the well-rounded wedding photographer stands out. Formal family photographs are usually taken indoors where the vows were made. This is the best time to use off-camera lighting. I recommend a strobe with a softbox held high at about a 30-degree angle from the camera. You can also slow your shutter down to capture the ambience behind your subjects. We’ve also used multiple speedlights (flashes) with softboxes and umbrellas in a cross light pattern. As a fast-paced photographer, I don’t like having unnecessary equipment, but this is one time you will definitely see better results with off-camera flash. For the outdoor situation, you will want to make sure to look for consistent light with a large group. The worst thing you can do is choose a position where you have speckled shadows falling on and covering some of your subjects. To avoid this, you can search for solid shade or simply make sure the sun’s direction is at least slightly behind your subjects. Quick Tip: When positioning large groups, check your first shot on your camera closely to make sure the shadow is not falling on someone’s face who is positioned behind your front row. Position the speedlight at a higher angle to avoid this.
4. Creative Session
During the time we have with the bridal party and couple, we are expected to create beautiful art no matter what. The first thing we look for is light. We schedule all of our engagement sessions for golden hour because the light before the sunset is a beautiful directional light. However, with weddings, we don’t always have control over the exact time we will be shooting. And we certainly don’t have control over the weather.
While most brides and grooms pray for a bright sunny day, that light can be one of the more challenging situations for a photographer. The sun is a very powerful light source that is a great distance away, so the effect it produces when hitting your subjects’ faces is not flattering. The direct sunlight will produce a flat image and harsh shadows. On a sunny day, I like to find a shady area where light is coming in from about 45 degrees behind the subject. This provides a beautiful edge-light that adds dimension, makes the subject slenderer and produces attractive bokeh effects in the background when shooting at an open aperture. I’ll usually shoot this light at about a stop over-exposed. I enjoy exploring lens flares and silhouettes you can create with back-light as well. However, a strong back-light from the sun can produce a hazy image, just like shooting with your subject in front of a window.
A strobe and the right modifier can help balance out the sun. I shot a wedding in New York City, with the creative session on the Brooklyn Bridge mid-day with glaring sun overhead, no clouds, and shadows falling on the couple from the bridge. We did not have many choices when it came to light. We were on a narrow section in broad daylight with the purpose of capturing an iconic landmark. But our bride and groom had black shadows under their eyes. Fortunately, we had off-camera flash, and we used the flash in High-Speed Sync to paint those shadows with light.
Quick Tip: When shooting a backlit subject, try moving your camera into the shade. Even if your subject is in the light, this will remove the haze from the image. This is when lens-hoods/shades are vitally important.
Cloudy, overcast, and even lightly raining days are actually great for photography. In these situations, you can focus more on your background and on composition. The clouds act as a giant softbox. In this case, you will find the best lighting with your subjects facing the light source. Days like this feel a little more carefree, as I typically will leave the flashes in the car.
You may have been able to get by without it until now, but the reception is the scenario where a good wedding photographer must learn flash. Fortunately, the new pro DSLRs are so much better in low light than when I first started. I’m comfortable shooting around ISO 2000 at times during the reception. During the reception there are some obvious important moments to capture like the entry, the cake cutting and the first dance. Bounce flash works great for most of these situations. White ceilings and the underside of a white tent are great, but explore bouncing off of walls for a more dimensional look. Since the best outdoor lighting is usually during the reception, we will often invite our couple out for a walk after the dinner. We will often use an off-camera strobe just before sunset to produce beautiful lighting and still capture the ambiance.
Even indoors, you want to use just enough flash to light your subjects without it being so powerful that you lose the light of the room when properly exposed. I recommend taking some safe shots with bounce first – to make sure you have the story – and then exploring the other lighting options. Try using the DJ’s lights as an edge light and placing your flash behind your subject on a light stand. I always end the night by playing with light. Try dragging your shutter while making rapid movements with your camera. Quick Tip: Just like direct sun in the face is the least attractive outdoor light – the flash on-camera aimed at your subject produces the same flat ugly light. It’s probably even worse because it has no downward direction. You’ll always get much better results when bouncing the flash off of something or getting your flash off your camera.
Adapting to unpredictable lighting is perhaps the most considerable challenge for a wedding photographer. Being able to adapt and change to lighting conditions is what separates a professional from a guest with a good camera. Most accolades for wedding photographers are given to capturers of one amazing image at a perfect location in perfect lighting. Most competitions highlight the beauty of the singular image. To me, the most fulfilling part of photographing weddings is walking out of the reception knowing you captured the entirety of an important story – finding the beauty of light in even the most difficult circumstances.
If you’re interested in learning a bit more about wedding lighting, Jesse & Nelli have a free PDF download: “How to Conquer The 5 Toughest Lighting Situations at Weddings.” Jesse Boone has been photographing weddings for over ten years. You can see more of his work on www.jesseandnelli.com.