Wedding Reception Lighting

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This is the follow up post to So You’ve Been Asked to Shoot a Wedding.

Wedding receptions can be the scariest part of shooting a wedding because there’s usually no light. This means that you have to create your own light, and make it look good. Over the past couple years I’ve really started to learn what works and what doesn’t, so I’m going to share what works for me. I will include all of the gear that I use (for a Canon system), as well as how I use it, complete with example photos. Ready to jump in? Yay! (FYI – this is a super LONG post!)

The Gear

Before I list my gear, I have to credit Rik Andes for hooking me up with all of this. He was my mentor when I was first learning to shoot weddings and had this set up for receptions. I’m forever grateful for everything he taught me (and continues to teach me!), and for getting me all set up to learn off-camera flash.

So, here is everything I have for reception lighting:

– 2 Canon 430 EX II speedlites
Westcott 28″ softbox with 8′ light stand and swivel mount (I don’t actually use the softbox very much, but it’s nice to have it when I need it. You DO need the light stand and swivel mount, though!)
CyberSync Transmitter (2 – one for backup)
CyberSync Receiver Battery Powered (3 – for multiple light setups and backup)
Hotshoe Adapter (the 430 flash doesn’t have a place to plug the receiver in)
Eneloop Batteries (for the flashes – they are WONDERFUL)
AA Battery Charger (This thing is incredible… it will actually revamp old batteries that don’t hold charges. It also charges each battery individually, so if one battery gets charged before the others, it stops pumping juice into it so it doesn’t ruin the battery. I own two of these, but should probably have a few more.)

Cake Cutting, Toasts – Setup

So, for the formalities at a reception (cake cutting, toasts, first dances), I usually just use one light that is off camera. I’ve found that using a speedlight ON my camera yields results that I don’t really like (ie straight on flash). I also usually have the flash on my camera set to ETTL (auto mode) and I don’t always like how it turns out.

SO. Here’s what I do. For the cake cutting (diagram below), I’ll set the speedlight on the stand off to the side pointed at the couple. I set it on Manual Mode instead of ETTL and adjust the distance from the subjects and the power until it looks good on my camera. (The closer the light is to the subject, the brighter it is. If the light is further away, you’ll need more power.) Super technical, I know, but it’s basically just a bit of trial and error. I usually start around 1/16 power, and adjust from there. Since the couple isn’t moving forward or backward during the cake cutting, and neither is the light stand, the light will be constant on the subject. This allows me to move around a bit without my lighting varying.

Here’s a couple different examples of this (unfortunately I can’t recall what the flash power was set to).

So in this picture, the light was set up exactly the same as the first, but instead of shooting the couple straight on (like in the diagram), I moved to the side of the couple for a bit more dramatic lighting. (Actually I just wanted to get the knife in the shot and it turned out great! Ha!)

PS – don’t be afraid of shadows! Shadows (when used correctly) make images look 3D and show dimension! It makes everything look real! :)

First Dances – Setup

For the first dance, I usually put my flash on the corner of the dance floor pointed towards the crowd. This usually means it’s up by the head table. The reason that I put it there, is because when I end up shooting, I’ll be shooting into the crowd, which is a much better background than the wall of the reception hall. It also is great because you can put the legs of the light stand under the table so it’s less likely someone will trip over them. Here’s a little diagram:

Here’s a shot from this setup:

And sometimes I’ll move and shoot into my speedlight:

And the resulting shot: (Note: I ended up lightening this image in post. Since I was shooting into the light and didn’t use a flash on my camera, I should have changed my settings to make the image brighter.)

Party/Dancing – Setup

Finally, for general dancing photos (when the party starts), I’ll put my second flash on my camera, as well as my 28mm lens. I like to get up close and personal in the middle of everyone dancing. I find the images are more exciting with a wide angle lens and up close than they are from the side of the dance floor. I keep the speedlight on the light stand on the corner of the floor and just use it as a kicker light – meaning it just provides a little bit of extra dimension and light. You just have to make sure that you’re not standing right in front of the light stand shooting, otherwise the subject will get double the light and they’ll be extra exposed (in a bad way).

Here’s what those pictures look like:

Here you can see the light in the corner and the effect it produces:

Two tricks I learned for getting crazy dance shots:

1. Set the camera to continuous focus mode (AI Servo on Canon, AF-C on Nikon << I think)
2. Activate all of the focus points instead of just the center one. I was originally afraid of this, but the camera does a pretty good job of picking the best focus point. Before, I would have to truly try to aim my camera at the subject, but now I can just point the camera in the general direction and 85% it is perfect.

The Gear Setup on My Camera

Okay, so admittedly these images are a bit older but I still use the same setup, with the exception that my main camera is now the Canon 5D mark ii instead of the Canon 7D. Oh, and I also changed the velcro from white to black, so it blends in better! Gosh, what was I thinking with WHITE velcro on black gear?!

So, for the flash that’s on the light stand, you have to have the hotshoe adapter to be able to trigger the flash. The 430 EX II doesn’t have a plug in for the receiver, but if you have a 580 flash, you can just plug the receiver into the flash. I keep the receiver attached to the flash with velcro.

On the camera, when I’m NOT using the second flash, I just have the CyberSync transmitter where the flash goes. When I put the flash on, however, I attach the trigger to the flash with velcro and plug the trigger in to the side of the camera.

Wow. So that was A LOT of information. If I’ve missed anything or need to clarify, I’ll make some editor’s notes if needed! Comments and questions are welcome!! :)


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