Practical Off-Camera Lighting at Weddings


This shot is very different than what you see with most modern wedding photography and we are going to talk about why. Now the pose and composition are obviously not something new, but the lighting and depth of the shot are and that is why it is not something you see a lot of at weddings. Lit shots like this one usually are not done because they take too long to set up, require lots of powerful lights which are heavy, and can be too in-your-face for some clients. So how do you solve all of those problems at a wedding so that you can get this kind of a shot that is really different and really cool?

First, we will talk about how we captured the shot, then we will talk about how we made it practical at the wedding.

The first thing you notice with a shot like this (and what many shooters ask us a lot) is that the background must be “photoshopped” in and how did you do it? The answer is honestly, I have no idea how to do something like that in Photoshop and it is all real and all done in the camera. Promise!  There is no retouching done on this shot either with the clients skin, no dodging and burning in Lightroom or Photoshop, and no color enhancements of any type.

How we did it:

Light – The lighting rig is a 500 watt mono light with a 24×32 inch Westcott soft box. Many shooters will use small light sources like 580 ex speedlights and so on, which are awesome, but unfortunately can’t produce a big light source with a lot of power. And as we talked about earlier, the bigger the light source, the softer and prettier the light. So the 24×32 softbox is big enough to give us pretty light from about 4 to 6 feet away, but small enough that we can throw it in ourcar without breaking it down and can easily move it around attached to the light stand.

Lighting can seem complex, but I use a simple system that gets me shots like this every time. I put the bottom of the box at chin height (of the subject), pick my lighting pattern (in this case straight on glamor lighting), take a meter reading until my meter tells me that I am at a 3 to 1 lighting ration (which takes about 10 seconds), take a shot and then adjust the background to taste with my shutter speed. That may seem complex, but when you know the system and how it works it is like magic!  In our IN-CAMERA: Light workshops we discuss and go through this whole process.

For those wondering about white balance, since we’re using flash, our white balance setting is set to Flash.

Why the shot works:

I create the light on my subject to be a bit more than twice as bright as the sky in the background (which ensures that the sky will have detail in it). When doing these shots I look for some cool sky, but then look to see if there is some really cool dark area (like the trees and ground in this shot) which makes the image naturally contrasty.

The composition on this kind of shot is super important because we have tons of depth in the shot, so if there is something distracting in the background we can’t hide it! The dark trees also make for a nice natural vignette right in the camera. I put the couple in the bottom third of the frame to make it more of an artistic shot that is about the whole scene, and not just the couple. I shot the image from slightly below waist level (and at a wide angle) to give the shot a look of drama and to make the couple look slightly taller than they are.

Something that is incredibly important is to either shoot an image straight or obviously “crooked.”  When an image is SLIGHTLY crooked for no apparent reason it diminished the power the image can have and looks a bit unsettling.  You can even buy grids to put inside your camera so you can get your lines right and not have to fix it later in post. Be a straight shooter!  :)

Speed is also key with shots like this at a wedding and it is not too practical if you can’t do it fast. So we solve that by using our math skills and knowing what lighting ratios will give us the look we want, and then use our light meter to get those ratios. Some people may say that this is too in your face for clients and that all that gear takes away from your rapport with them on the day. Well, that could be true, but in business it is all about how you do business, so if your client feels from you that this is cool and relaxing and fun and how it gets done, then that is how it will be! So leading up to the wedding we do engagement shoots which get them used to how we shoot, and most of our clients come from referrals and have heard about what we do and expect this type of shooting from us (so we better deliver!).

The last thing is that you need to know when to use it, and when NOT to use it. We use it a bit on the day and do a few shots, then put it away when the wedding starts.

The stats:

Canon 16-35L f/2.8 at 16mm
ISO 50, F/8 1/160th of a second shutter speed
Editing time: 5 seconds

Thanks for reading!!