Reception Lighting Part 2!

OK, so last week we did a post on gear that we use to get reception shots. You know, all of those little details at a reception when there is not any light on the cake or table settings AND there is no place to bounce light off of. So, today we are going to explain how we balance the light so that we get just the right amount of flash vs ambient light in the shot, get it every single time and do it REALLY fast!

Here we go!


Ever point your flash at a cake or person in a reception hall and the background is pitch black? Your flash is blasting out your subject but there is no detail in the background, thus losing part of the story.


Lighting Ratios!! Hang in there :)

So, where we like to start when shooting reception details and getting awesome shots, is a 3 to 1 lighting ratio. “Whoa!” you might be saying already, “did you just say ‘ratio’ and are you going to talk about math, going to make me read some schematics and make me more confused then when I started?” No sir! We say that because 1) we want you to think we are smart ;o) and 2) because all that means, is that our subject (in this case details at a wedding reception) are a little bit brighter in our image than whatever is in the background. Specifically, the subject is twice as bright as the background.

So, how do we get there without a slide rule, without a hand-held light meter and without guessing?

This is our system:

1.) We point our camera at the composition that we want to shoot (in the case of the shots above, we pointed the camera exactly at the shot we wanted to take, but without using any lights yet).

2.) Adjust our ISO, aperture and shutter speed until the IN-CAMERA meter tells us that we are about 1 stop under-exposed. We are usually around 800 or 1600 ISO, with an f/stop at 2.8, 2.0 or faster. The IN-CAMERA meter should look close to this when you are looking through the lens). Note: if you use Nikon, this may be reversed. Just make sure the little dot (right now it is under the -1 symbol) is towards the minus and not the plus.

3.) Take a test shot and then look at your histogram (check your manual for how to view the histogram), it should look close to the one below.

(Side note: The histogram is incredibly accurate in how it measures light. On a Canon, anything that is towards the left of center, like in this histogram, is under-exposed, and anything to the right of center is over-exposed. Once it gets so far to the right or left that it hits the wall, those parts of the image are either completely black or completely white with ZERO details.)

If we took an image right now, then our shot would be a little bit too dark. Perfect! Just wait, were getting there!

4.) Next we turn on our flash to manual power adjustment (usually the starting power setting is something fairly low, like 1/32nd power), bring it in about 4 to 6 feet away (make sure it is not in your shot of course) and point it 45 degrees down at your cake or center piece, and 45 degrees away from your camera (check out the diagram below).

(I added the little couch as a nice background just for all of you!)

5.) Take a second test shot and check the histogram again. Then manually power the flash up or down until the histogram is almost to the edge on the right side (Canon cameras show brightness to the right, and Nikon to the left by default, so if you shoot Nikon, the histogram MAY be reversed depending on how you have your camera settings). The histogram should now look something like this when you have it close.

You now have a perfectly lit shot with a 3 to 1 lighting ratio! And remember, this means that your subject is two times brighter than the background! This looks great because the attention is drawn to the lit subject, but the background still can be seen.

You now can go anywhere in the room, put the flash in the same position (be sure it is around the same distance away from whatever else you shoot next) and fire away!

If you go somewhere else in the room and the background happens to be a little darker than the one in your first shot, then just check the IN-CAMERA meter, adjust ONLY your shutter speed up or down until the background is 1 stop dark like we did in step 2, then shoot again. The flash will still expose your cake or center piece exactly the same (as long as you don’t go over your x-sync speed*) and you will have a perfect shot ever single time!

(IF, after turning on the strobe and taking your test shot, your histogram looks the same as it did in your very first shot that you did before your turned the flash on, you will need to turn your flash power up, but if it looks like the one below, then turn the power down.)

We can usually shoot details in the whole room this way in just a few minutes!

A few rules to keep you safe from getting bad shots:

  • Always keep your shutter speed as fast as your lens is long (if you are using a 50mm, then 1/50th of a second is the slowest shutter speed you want to shoot at, if it is 70mm then faster then 1/80th and so on). You CAN get away with much slower shutter speeds when using a flash like this since the flash freezes movement, but this rule will guarantee you to not have blurry shots. We do, though, shoot as low as 1/15th of a second sometimes to draw in more of the ambient light, so it can be done!
  • Keep checking your histogram to see if anything is too bright (your screen is not 100% accurate so don’t fully rely on that)! If you are unsure, turn on the blinkies (there is a setting so your camera will warn you if anything is blown out) then you will know for sure if something is too bright.
  • Be creative and shoot lots of angles, just be sure to keep your flash at the same distance to get consistent results.
  • Try and get other, cool looking existing lights in the background, because that really adds to the look of your shots.
  • If you happen to like moodier, darker looking backgrounds, then simply speed up your shutter a few clicks to make those backgrounds dark and mysterious (and this will NOT effect the exposure of your flash. Keep in mind the x-sync speed*). If you like a bit brighter backgrounds, then slow your shutter speed down to let more ambient light in, just make sure you don’t slow it down by more than half of what you started at, otherwise your cake or center piece might get blown out due to all the extra ambient light coming in.
  • * The x-sync speed is the maximum speed you can put your shutter to before it goes so fast that it cuts off your flash from the photo. This is usually around 1/200th of a second, but check your manual to find out the exact speed and do NOT exceed it or you will start to get black bars on the edges of your frame.

Have fun!