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!

  • Ginny Corbett

    Sweet post, homie!

  • Mark McCoy

    Ya’ll are generous & genious!!!! Thanks for sharing!

  • Mikey S

    Excellent and very informative.. hang on that sounds like those spam messages I normally get. oops. Anyway, I am definitely human and enjoyed this post a lot. Thanks for sharing.

    Mikey S

  • Tyler Neu

    Great stuff!

  • Helen Montoya

    Very informative. Thanks for being so generous with your knowledge!

  • Joe O’Daniels

    Insanely helpful! Been waiting for this post since last week’s. Thanks so much for sharing!!

  • Debbie

    Ah the finance degree in me loves a good ratio!! Super helpful post that I will def come back to in the future! I love Tuesdays :-)

  • Zach and Sarah

    Always good to have a refresher!! Refresher…is that even a word?! Ha!

  • Nate Perkes

    Zach and Jody! You guys rock! Thanks so much. This makes so much sense. I’m honestly going to try this right now in my kitchen. Thank you!

  • Paul Daugs

    Great post!! I have been trying to understand how to work with ratios. Now I think I know enough to be danger and learn as I go. Sweet!

  • Nancy Center

    Such great info. You guys rock! Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Liz

    Thanks! I’ve always shot on-camera flash for most receptions—I like to move fast, so I’ve never set the strobes up in the reception…but these posts really are reminding me that with a good system, it can be done- fast…Thank you for taking the time to do this!

  • Joel and Amber

    Great tip and great explanation!
    However, if your subject (cake) is twice as bright as your background (couch), doesn’t that mean it’s a 2:1 lighting ratio? A 3:1 ratio means it would be 3x as bright, not 2x.
    I’d also love to see a post on where you show how to light the entire reception area when there are people involved – specifically the dance floor. I have my own techniques which, from the photos I’ve seen from you all, are exactly the same, but I’d still love to see a more detailed post as to how you work your lighting there. Maybe a Part 3!!

  • Amy Hedges

    I’ve been waiting for this patiently since last Tuesday and it didn’t disappoint! Would LOVE for you to come to Albany (New York) to do a workshop in this area- we are MAJORLY lacking in that department!!!

  • Aly-Rae

    :) which btw way is one of my favorite emotions… AHA! hehehee…. just thought I’d throw another in for good measure.

  • Mike Hansen

    Awesome post. Super helpful. Y’all rock!

  • Zach

    Joel & Amber-

    Great question about the ratios! The reason we did not get too detailed is because there can be a lot of confusion when talking about those terms (and depending on the textbook source, there is still more confusion). Basically, if you start out with your subject 2 times brighter than your background, then you will get great ratio results! If you want to get super technical about whether it is 2 to 1 or 3 to 1 ratios, then we have to start by defining the terms. If the ratio is the difference between the key (and how it falls where the fill will be) and the fill light, then one stop brighter on the key light is technically 3 to 1. You have one part light from fill, add two parts lights from main, 2 (main) + 1 (fill) = 3 to 1. If you are talking about the power differences in the lights, then if the key light is say, f/11 and the fill light is f/8 (same exact lighting as above), then it is a 2 to 1 POWER ratio. This quote is from legendary film photographer Gary Bernstein; “Lighting ratios are a measure of the difference in INTENSITY between
    two light sources directed at a subject. With a main and fill light
    of equal intensity, a 2:1 ratio is produced.” I know that is super geek of me, but there might be a few people that enjoy this response! :) Happy shooting!

  • Joel and Amber Palmer

    Zach – thanks so much for that response! It was SUPER geeky, and I loved it!! (I’m the geeky type myself when it comes to light.) I was under the assumption of it being a power ratio, not a light ratio, so your explanation clearing that up was superb. I’m used to talking in stops as well (a bit easier to understand); so your main light is simply one stop brighter than your fill light. Cool stuff. And I’m glad someone else enjoys the technical stuff so much too!

  • Sean von Tagen

    Quick question: what metering method (spot, partial, etc..) do you use when figuring out the exposure?

    Thanks for the great post (as usual)!!

  • Mark Mangan

    Great Post guys! Sorry I couldn’t make the San Fran workshops… You MUST bring one to Denver.. or maybe Omaha again..wait..Nashville…That’s close to my hometown…Yea, Nashville. Thanks for the post!

  • robyn Mcisaac

    I too have been waiting on this post as well. Thank you for
    sharing. I feel like I am still sitting in your class when I see
    one of these video’s of you guys. I miss you guys so much and would
    love to get together again sometime. I have a question about white
    balance with this, do you expo or just put camera on flash

  • Lily Glass

    Receptions are definitely my weakest spot – this is super helpful and I already feel more confident. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Emma Godfrey

    I am totally going to try this out in the living room this weekend!

  • michelle heaps

    You two are amazing! Thank you so much for sharing advice! I have been photographing weddings for just 2 years and I really appreciate any advice!

  • Susan

    Thanks guys! I always love geeking out and reading tips like this ;)

  • Wendy Hithe

    You have a way of explaining techie stuff that makes it seem so simple. You two are THE BEST!!! <3

  • Susan Nawyn

    I have been looking for a post like this to explain in plain terms, how to accomplish great reception lighting. THANK YOU, from the techie challenged.

  • Kaley

    Great tutorial. I have a question though… What are you metering to when you first adjust your in camera settings? The subject or background? Also, are you spot metering or…? Thanks!

    • admin

      Great question! We use evaluative metering and are metering the background (if the background is brighter than the place our subject will be).