3 Simple Steps to Lighting a late-evening Outdoor First Dance

If you have EVER been freaked out when your couple decides to have their first dance outdoors, RIGHT after the sun is GONE from view, then you are not alone! Today we are going to show you how to EASILY solve that lighting problem to get stunning images like this!



When Bret and Jillian did their first dance, the sun was close to being gone and there were NO lights on them at all. You could see them OK with your naked eye, but the lighting was getting really dull and VERY dark, so we needed to rock out some off-camera lighting to make it look great. Here are the 3 easy steps to take photos JUST like this! (Note: we shoot almost ALL of our flash images on MANUAL so everything is consistent, and so WE are in control of our lights and not the camera).


Step 1. Expose for the ambient light FIRST.


(The above image was taken with none of our off-camera lights firing and a little constant light from the video guy,and you can see just
how dark and difficult the lighting we had to work with was. So, here is how we SIMPLY created the final image). 


We started by getting a reading of the background’s ambient light with a faster shutter speed (1/160th of a second). Our background happened to have the sky in it, but yours may have trees only or a building or something else. We wanted that background light to be -1 stop under-exposed according to our in-camera meter. (We will explain why the shutter was faster in a second).

Action Steps: 

– Point you camera at the background you will have while shooting the first dances.

– Keep your shutter speed faster (1/160th or 1/200th ish).

– Open up your aperture to let light in (we shot the final image at f/2.8).

– Adjust your ISO until the IN-CAMERA meter reads -1 (we shot this at ISO 1600).

– Final settings of OUR image (yours will vary): ISO 1600, f/2.8 at 1/160th shutter speed.


(In this Canon in-camera meter example, we would want the meter to read minus one where the red arrow is.

Be sure to watch the + and – symbols, as these can be reversed on some cameras).


The reason that the shutter speed is higher to begin with, is so that as the sky (or whatever your background is) gets darker and darker, we can simply slow the shutter down to compensate to let MORE light in. That way our background won’t get too dark as the dances progress.


Step 2. Add your MAIN light


Once we had a nice exposure of the sky (-1 on our in-camera meter), we then added the main light at a 30 degree angle at about 10-12 feet away from the center of the stage.

We powered that light up (taking readings on our light meter) until it read the EXACT SAME SETTINGS as our camera had. We manually set the meter to 1/160th shutter and ISO 1600 and then powered the light up until it read f/2.8.

The main light was a Canon 580 ex Speedlight shooting through the NEW Westcott 26 inch Rapid Box. The main light was feathered off to camera left to create some dynamic looking light which was boomed up nice and high for a little added drama.


Action Steps: 

– Set up the main light in the position you like keeping it 10-12 feet from your subject (the reason you keep it further away is so that when the client moves a little closer to it, it won’t get too bright and vise versa).

– Put the ISO and shutter speed settings that are on your camera,  into your hand-held light meter. 

– Stand where your subject will be and power the light up or down until it reads the SAME F Stop as your camera.

– You now have a PERFECT exposure of your subject, and a -1 exposure of the background for a good lighting ratio!


Step 3. Get extra credit by adding kicker light/s 

If you REALLY want to have your images look cool, and you have the extra gear and TIME, then try this!

Add 1 or 2 kicker lights! The background lights in our final image were two more 580 ex Speedlights that were barebulb with half CTO Gels attached with Velcro to give an amber, warming effect. These were flown at 45 degree angles to our bride and groom’s backs from the camera position (which was near the stairs pictured), and were powered up until they were about 1 stop BELOW the power of the main light. This allows them to look really cool and be very obvious, but not blow out anything they hit.


Action Steps:

– Put 1 or 2 extra lights on stands, and place them at 45 degree angles to the clients backs.

– Place CTO gels over them for added effect.

– Power them up until they are exactly 1 stop DARKER than your main light (our main light was ISO 1600, Shutter 1/160th at f/2.8, so, our kicker lights would be the same settings at f/2.0 which is ONE stop darker).



Final image: ISO 1600, 2.8, 1/160th at 35mm



As the father daughter dance started and so on, and the ambient light got dimmer, I just slowed my shutter speed down to compensate while my lights kept a constant exposure on the bride and groom. That is it!

The result is an image that showcases the bride and groom, pops them out of the background and gives great contrast to the image and allows us to capture all the great moments between them.


Final Specs:

Canon 5D Mark 3

Canon 16-35L 2.8 Lens

Cyber Sync CST Transmitter and CSRB Receivers