When I shot my first wedding in 2007, I was lucky! The reception was pretty bright (and my camera was worthless above about ISO 400, so that was a good thing!) Since then, I’ve learned – sometimes the hard way – that not every wedding reception is inundated with light, and you know what? I love that.

Bright is great, but dark is full of endless possibilities. Consider a wedding reception outside at 2 p.m. under a clear sky (I know, not common, but play along). There’s not much you can do with that light, right? Your hands are pretty much tied; you’re not competing with a cloudless sky with the speedlights that most wedding shooters have in their bag!

Now take a pitch black 9 p.m. reception. Much more common, right? “Oh crap, the bride’s making her grand entrance in 5 minutes and it’s ISO, 12,800 at 1/2 a second in here!” That’s just awesome. Here’s the thing – you can mold that darkness, you can shape it, it can be whatever you want it to be. You can’t say that about a bright afternoon, can you?

Now, I know dark receptions can be intimidating, so here are five tips to help you conquer the dark:

1) Know your focus modes.

For Nikon shooters this means shooting in AF-S, for Canon users “One Shot” in order to activate your flash’s red autofocus assist beam. In AF-C (continuous) and AI-Servo modes, your camera will attempt to track moving subjects, but won’t put out that AF assist beam, which is key to focusing in the dark.

2) Use back button to focus.

After your camera has hunted for and finally found focus (the 5DII shooters out there know what I mean), and you’re ready to take a photo, there’s nothing worse than your camera starting to hunt for focus again when you press the shutter. So, disable your shutter button from activating focus. It takes some practice, but this way, once the camera has acquired focus, you won’t risk it hunting again when you’re ready to take the photo. This works great for static images (toasts, posed shots), and takes a lot more practice for moving subjects.

Another perk here is when you’re shooting in bright light and using a continuous focus mode, you can just keep your thumb on the focus button all day and your focus will always be active.

3) Don’t use off-camera flash as your key light.

I love off-camera flash, and it’s how I shoot most of my portraits, but for wedding receptions when I’m moving and my subjects are dancing, I can’t adjust my exposures fast enough to keep up with manual flash. What’s my solution? On-camera bounce flash with off-camera accent lights (usually 1-2) on the edges of the dance floor at low power, usually 1/64 or 1/128.

The great thing about setting your accent lights at such low power is that if a bride dances over close to a light, 1/128 isn’t enough power to overexpose her, and if she dances far away from it, I’ll just get less of it! If you were using a higher power, say 1/4 or 1/8, you’d get great light spreading across a greater distance, but you’d have to constantly adjust as your subjects approached the lights.

Another perk of low power shooting…I’ve never changed the batteries in my off-camera lights at a reception. Ever!

Here’s another reason to avoid TTL off-camera. Most TTL systems only have a six stop range. That means +3 to -3. Minus three stops from full power could be as much as 1/8 power, and that’s still a TON of power, especially at 1600-2000 ISO at 2.8 where I like to hang out.

4) You can bounce flash off of almost anything.

Here’s the trick though. If you find yourself in a dark reception hall, with dark wood walls and dark ceilings (like the downtown Harvard Club in Boston, or Mechanics Hall in Worcester), in addition to increasing your flash power, zoom the flash head. That enables more light to reach the ceiling, which enables more light return to reach your subjects.

5) If you’re really stuck, mount a flash on a monopod and have your assistant follow you around.

Would this be my preferred choice? Heck no. Is it better than no light? Absolutely. If you find yourself with a reception under the stars (nothing to bounce off there!), mount a bare speedlight on a monopod and have your assistant hold it like a boom overhead 4-5 feet and angled down at your subjects. The look will be similar to bounce flash (the light is coming from the same direction after all), but with a bit more contrast as your light source will be significantly smaller.

Bonus tip: Use PowerEx 2700 batteries in your flashes and Imedion 2400’s in your Pocketwizards (my trigger of choice). The PowerEx batteries have the highest capacity of any rechargeable AA on the market, and the Imedion’s are “slow drain,” which means they won’t die unused sitting in your bag!

About Doug Levy

A wedding and portrait photographer living outside of Boston, Doug Levy spent six years pursuing a career as a professional baseball umpire before deciding a lifetime of road trips and 7:05 starts wasn’t for him. A professional photographer since 2007, Doug’s clients have included Harper Collins Publishers, Starwood Hotels and the Golf Course Superintendents of America. He’ll be teaching “Killer Reception Light” at the upcoming Inspire Photo Seminar in Boston, and offers customized lighting workshops for professional photographers as well. For more on Doug, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

For more from Doug check out his workshops or his “Killer Reception Light” presentation at the upcoming Inspire Photo Seminar in March.

10 Comments

  • While agree some of these tips are good for someone just starting out in weddings, there are many other camera options left out.

    I actually shoot a lot in low light in AF-C quite often, with the Nikon D700/ D3/D3s you can still track subjects in low light by choosing AF-C with the AF selector on the back set at AUTO(that’s the big white rectangle symbol). – Note on the Nikon D4 this is now done in the VF as there is not AF selector switch on the back of the D4. Much of focusing also depends on lenses. Slow lenses(f3.5/5.6) are going to have trouble regardless of AF-S or AF-C, for the best results use faster lenses (f2.8-f1.4). Yes as Doug pointed out the AF focus beam on a flash will help in darkness but I feel it’s best to know all your options in your camera. Practice in low light with all your AF settings. Don’t just go into a reception with one menu setting in mind, you don’t want a dark reception hall to be your crash course in lighting at a wedding. Here’s a tip as well. Believe it or not we can still use manual focus. Say your AF assist goes out, stops working, it’s been know to happen right? If you’re using a wide lens (35mm or wider) you can see the manual focus at 5ft to 10ft, set the aperture at f/5.6 and you now have a good focus depth from 5ft to 15ft depending on how wide of a lens you are using. A wider lens sucj as a 24 or 28mm will give you even more of an in- focus distance.This works great at a dark reception where many times you are photographing subjects at close distance.

    – Off camera lighting as a key light. Actually this works quite well once you get the feel of what you,your camera and flashes can do. Many times I do not use a flash on camera, sometimes this takes away the room’s ambience. I want as much natural room lighting as possible.

    Best results will come from knowing your venue, knowing where to put lights, how to judge where the light is coming from, be able to make quick adjustments.

    Just my 2 pesos.

    Chris

  • This is a great, easy-to-understand article. I’d like to use the on-camera bounce flash with off-camera accent lights setup. Do you bounce the off camera flash off of a wall or ceiling or is the flash head pointing at the dance floor? Thank you very much!

  • Doug says:

    Hi Chris,

    You make some good points – I’d never present these as the only option, it’s about knowing what’s the best fit for each room. But you’re right, I probably made a bit of an unfair assumption that wedding pros are shooting with 2.8 glass or faster – throw in a variable aperture zoom and things become increasingly difficult. I’m a D3 and D3s shooter, and it will be exciting to see what opportunities the D4 opens up when it comes to low light shooting, but as for shooting with the AF set to auto for tracking, I’ve had mixed luck with that, enough that I won’t trust most (any) things auto to an important shot.

    Thanks for reading!

    -D

  • Robert Abreu says:

    Shoot a fair number of dance type images. Finally am able to manage my images better. Was having a lot of situations blowing out the high lights. Seems to be better wiht a Yongnuo 565EX speedlite set at moderate and not overpowering the subject.

  • […] portrait on the site where I used a flash. Like many other photographers, I’ll bring out aflash for the reception, but when I shoot portraits – whether at a wedding, engagement session, or family shoot – I […]

  • David says:

    Doug, good info. One thing you may want to clarify; the FEC, for Canon at least, is plus or minus three stops from whatever exposure the ETTL metering algorithm sets for the flash. Thus if the proper flash exposure is 1/16th power minus 3 FEC would set the power to 1/128th and plus 3 would be 1/2 power.

    With the new 600EX-RTs ETTL for the off camera speedlites is much easier to control. Nicest feature is ability to change the remotes from ETTL to manual from the unit on the camera.

  • […] 3. Five Tips for Dramatically Improving Reception Photos by Doug Levy […]

  • That was a very interesting article. Do have a look at our website for some more reception planning tips.

  • […] it said, “Pocketwizards are bulletproof and if you know the tricks, they work over 95% of the time.” And then last weekend happened. Over the course of two weddings, three of my eight wizards […]

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