Wedding lighting technicals

On January 8, 2013 by Simon Fleming

I have been asked on a number of occasions about what sort of lighting I use at weddings, and how I use it, so I thought I’d umm, shed some light on the matter…

I shoot both available light/ambient light images as well as strobed images – it will often depend on the situation, and how much control I would like to have over the look of the image. There are times when shooting a wedding that discretion is more important than creating the ‘perfect’ image, so to minimise my intrusion into proceedings in those cases I will shoot ambient light only. If the ambient light looks beautiful as is, and I don’t want to balance or differentiate subject with background then the powered lights stay switched off. Sometimes there just isn’t time to get a strobe into the right position, you shoot as you are currently setup or you miss the shot. And sometimes the conditions determine which way you fly. The image below of the three guys was shot on the way to the church, unplanned and purely spur of the moment. It was an absolute stinking hot day – near 40 degrees celsius – and very strong and hot north winds. One, there was no way I was going to try and use any sort of lighting and modifier in this shot, and two in those conditions you want to make it happen really fast. This bit of road suited the composition I had in mind really well, and the guys were up for my crazy idea. So we pulled over and ten shots and two minutes later we were back in the air conditioned car on our way.

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Having said all that, my ‘style’ if you will, does tend to involve the use of strobes of some sort more often than not. I like the look they allow me to achieve and the extra control they give me in my exposure and composition. In the case of a wedding where things are on the move all the time, fast, light and simple are the way to go. My choice here normally involves Nikon speedlights – SB-900 or 910’s – shooting through some sort of modifier. Depending on the shot (and available space) the modifier is going to be a medium or larger sized umbrella (100 -150cm), or a 24 inch softbox for individual portraits. These days that softbox is a Joe McNally version of Lastolite’s Ezybox – often used with a grid. With Rhonda’s portrait below I wanted a glowing white background, almost like shooting on white seamless, so I exposed to blow out the lace curtains & windows in the background and added front fill lighting via a medium sized umbrella and speed light. For Nick’s portrait (different wedding) I wanted to go the opposite way – dark background but enough separation of his dark suit against it. For this image I established an exposure to give me the look I wanted against the venetian blinds and lit Nick with the Lastolite Ezybox & one speed light. In both images the modifiers are in as close as possible, just out of frame.

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My aim when using strobes is not to necessarily overpower the existing lighting but rather to blend in with it to varying degrees depending on the desired result. The use of strobes can also allow you to retain a lot more background detail/colour/exposure when shooting in backlit situations too – doorways, windows, sunsets etc – unless of course you are going for that really overexposed washed-out look, which is fine too. In the image below of Nick and Jes on the bench seat I have underexposed the late afternoon background (golden light has all but gone) by about a stop and a half and then lit them with a couple of speedlights through a large umbrella in as close as I could get it.

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Sometimes (a lot of the time) at weddings the time you are shooting images at can be the worst time of day to be doing so… sun is high in the sky, no clouds to diffuse it etc. etc. That’s just the name of the game. Often the best alternative you can find to shoot in regards to harsh sunlight and comfort of your subjects can create a whole new set of problems. In the image below of Barton and his two groomsmen I’m shooting under a verandah consisting of blue/green roofing panels… how do you get their skin tones looking good without making the background really weird? Not to mention really flat looking contrast. This was lit with a speedlight (gelled warm) through an umbrella with white balance set to daylight – which keeps the background looking natural, as well as skin tones normal, rather than green. I’m also cramped up against the wall of a house, balancing precariously on the edge of a spa trying my hardest not to fall in… which has nothing to do with the lighting but finding yourself in cramped/strange/precarious places is a common occurrence when location shooting.

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I am fortunate enough to have an assistant when shooting weddings which has a number of benefits, the primary one for me being I have a mobile voice activated light stand (commonly referred to in the photographic industry as a VAL). This makes my life a LOT easier shooting the way I do but you can still shoot this way on your own – and I have many times. You just need a lightstand that’s solid enough to not fall over too easily but light enough to move around without busting yourself PLUS something to keep it weighted down in the wind like sandbag(s) or a heavy bag / backpack (umbrellas especially like to pull things over).

The image on the left was shot with… ambient light only. The light was perfect as is, and lighting them where I wanted them to be lit – don’t mess with it. In the B&W image we were actually on our way to another location but I really liked this spot. The background was lit with very bright late afternoon sun but Hannah and Barton were in quite a dark shaded spot under the trees. I liked the composition but they definitely needed some extra light to make it work, so underexpose the scene by about a stop and in close with a big umbrella and a couple of speedlights.

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For this last group shot I had a little more time to set up so I decided to employ a few more lights to make this work. This was shot right at the back of one of the underground cellars at Hardy’s Winery – very dark and dingy. After establishing a base exposure of essentially a black image, the groups’ light is coming via a single speedlight through a large umbrella, whilst in the back there are two speedlights at work – one is Justin Clamped to the wrought iron door behind the bride and groom, gelled orange firing back into the group to create a back/rim light. The second is on the ground pointing back at the wall behind them to show details in the stone work and barrels (gelled orange as well).

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One last image to finish off. This portrait of Hannah was shot in really bright midday sun – super harsh light. I found about the only spot in the garden where we could squeeze her in that had just enough open shade to make this work . Again I underexposed the whole scene by about a stop and then had my assistant aim my light pole with a couple of SB-900’s through an umbrella just out of frame to provide a little soft balanced fill. To shoot this at the focal length I wanted, from memory I had carefully shoe-horned myself in between some prickly bushes and a fence, whilst trying not to tread on anything delicate… ah the joys of weddings : )

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