Most photographers find it challenging to learn how to deal with lighting for wedding photography. No two weddings are the same, and no two of them have the same lighting.
There is always a mix of fluorescent, tungsten, and natural light, making it much more difficult to balance and use them to create beautiful compositions.
Below is an overview of the essential types of wedding photography lighting.
When to Use Natural Lighting for Wedding Photography
The type of wedding photography lighting you use depends on the type of venue that you’re at. Some offer incredible architecture and lackluster outdoor environments, while others can give you amazing natural lighting.
The truth is that you’ll probably end up using both natural light and artificial sources for every wedding. For example, most reception venues you’ll work in have amazing window lighting in most directions, while an indoor ceremony location is usually lit with electrical lighting.
Not only will this give you a variety of compositions and lighting techniques to work with, but it also offers the photographer some flexibility in how they approach their shot list.
In most cases, you will generally get away with using natural light in situations like:
- Reception venue (dining tables especially)
- Bride, groom, wedding party photos
- Candid shots throughout the day
Artificial light is best saved for the dance floor and other dark situations, such as if the venue uses intimate lighting.
The Versatility of Flash in Wedding Photography Lighting
Flash is generally used to fix exposure and add creativity to your shots. You’ll find yourself needing to use a flash as a fill light to reduce shadows and eliminate distractions in your shot when it is simply too dark for your sensor to see anything.
On Camera Flash
The on-camera flash sits on your camera and can be pointed in any direction, making it an effective bounce flash. Many wedding photographers will use an on-camera flash when they have to move around the room quickly. If there is a low ceiling, aiming it toward it will help create well-lit photos.
Off Camera Flash
An off-camera flash is mounted on something, either a stand or tripod, for stability. It offers great control to the photographer as they can aim it anywhere they want and then control the intensity and timing using a remote. Many photographers will set up several off-camera flash devices so they can get interesting wedding photography lighting.
The Top 9 Essential Wedding Photography Lighting Tips
Use these tips to help improve your technique and help you recognize when and where you should use them. The best suggestion is to keep it simple, as complicated setups will interrupt your workflow.
1. The Backlit Method
You have your main (key) light, and you have your backlight. The backlight, as you are aware, is used primarily for subject separation. In addition to the main light, the backlight creates dimension, which is what creates a sense of depth in an image.
Backlighting is a whole concept in itself, and we are not going to delve very deep into it here. Simply put, when you use backlighting, you give yourself a creative option to play around and produce magical photos.
2. The Bounce Lighting Method
The bounce method is the easiest to set up and requires very few external lights to accomplish. It encompasses the use of a single light. Even the built-in pop-up flash on your camera will do.
If there is a white wall or a ceiling in the room, this method requires you to point the flash toward the wall/ceiling and bounce the light. The result is a flattering, soft, and uniform light that is ideal for portraits and getting-ready shots.
3. Using Studio Strobes for Wedding Photos
Strobes can be real lifesavers when it comes to creating beautiful wedding photos, especially when you cannot use smaller speed lights and the ambient light is too difficult to be properly white-balanced. If there is a mix of tungsten and fluorescent lights, you will have a hard time white-balancing your images.
Additionally, when bouncing the lights is not an option (too high ceilings or no white walls), smaller speed lights or the use of the bounce technique is impractical. You need to find a way to overpower that mixed light. Strobes are ideally suitable because they are more powerful than speed lights, last longer, and have shorter recycle times.
4. Mix Ambient Lights with Artificial Lights
Though we just finished highlighting the overpowering features of studio strobes, the fact is that sometimes you need to be able to use both ambient and artificial lights for the right effect. For example, when you are shooting a wedding party or the couple outside against a setting sun.
Of course, a setting sun closer to the horizon will create a metering nightmare, and you should ideally be shooting when the sun has gone down and not still at the horizon; the thing is, you will have to mix both ambient and artificial lights in such situations for the best results.
Both speed lights and strobes are great for that, and you could also use continuous lights. In any case, the trick is to meter for the background and then add artificial lights to light up your couple/wedding party. This ensures that you don’t overpower the ambient light and add just the right amount to properly illuminate the couple.
Another example of the use of artificial lights with ambient light is when you are shooting in a room with large windows on one side. Essentially, the side of the face and body facing the windows will be properly exposed, whereas the side facing away will have shadows. It is yet another situation when you will need to use a daylight-balanced artificial light source to fill in the shadows and balance the exposure.
5. Using Colored Gels
Using gels may sound a bit weird. After all, when every photographer is trying to correct the white balance using colored gels may seem like a drastic step. However, there are some advantages to using colored gels. The thing is, colored gels can add some spice to your wedding photos if used properly.
Depending on the white balance that you use, speed lights or strobes fired through colored gels will produce a light that will appear either warm yellow or cool blue in the final image. This adds to the overall image, especially the photos you take when the wedding party hits the dance floor.
6. Use Natural Light as Much as Possible
Window lighting is free, effective, and perfect for wedding photography, specifically portraiture. It’s a bonus if the wedding reception lighting is primarily made up of natural lighting with windows.
The nice thing is that windows generally provide soft light that works for both the subject and the area around them. For portraits, it is an interesting light that complements skin tones while helping invoke emotion from the subject.
Overcast days provide the most even lighting through windows but have a tendency to sap the color out of the image a bit. Avoid harsh sunlight as it will often blow out the details in the highlights.
7. Add Light Stands in Different Corners of the Room
A light stand is what holds an off-camera flash and can be set up anywhere you want. It’s a great way to add simple or dramatic lighting to your shots.
Setting up multiple light stands can provide side and fill lighting without you having to move them around. It saves time and lets the photographer focus on perfecting compositions rather than worrying about a light source.
The reception is often the most difficult part of the wedding to photograph simply because of the lighting obstacles. You have to manage the color temperature and intensity of the flash while also contending with the lights the DJ has set up. Often the venues will dim the existing light during this part of the wedding, which can introduce sharp lighting and high contrast problems.
8. Don’t Point Your Flash Light Straight Up
You might be tempted to shoot the flash directly above you so that the ceiling can help diffuse the lighting. When used in conjunction with variable flash power, you can get some pretty neat effects. This combination is a common wedding photography technique that is used to help soften the sharpness of a flash.
The major downside to this method is that the light will be reflected onto your subject’s head, causing their brow to shield the eyes from some of that light. This makes it seem like there are dark circles around the subject’s eyes and is commonly called “raccoon eyes” by wedding photographers.
The best way to avoid this is to angle the flash instead of aiming it straight up. The most flattering light will come from a 45-degree angle and is even better with some fill light coming from the other direction.
9. Don’t Forget to Use a Light Reflector
Bright ambient light can cause harsh shadows and loss of detail in your shot. It’s one of the main obstacles in dealing with outdoor wedding photography lighting. Instead of using additional light, a wedding photographer may use a light reflector to help provide the full light for the front of their subject. It eliminates any guessing and lets you make use of the available light to help brighten the entire shot.
A good example of the right lighting gear is to use a shoot-through reflector. It only requires one person to use it effectively, and it makes great use of bright sunlight or any form of backlighting.
Wedding photographers can’t just use one lighting to get incredible shots. You have to use a combination of skills and equipment depending on the location and type of wedding photography you’re shooting.
As long as you stay away from using direct flash, prepare the lighting and camera settings for the room, and make ample use of natural window light, you should be okay for most situations.
For a complete lighting guide, check out our ultimate wedding photography guide!