First Dance Reception Lighting

Hey everybody! We hope that you all enjoyed your Christmas holiday and had a joy celebrating the real reason for the season :)

For today’s post, we are super stoked today to be talking about a topic that sooo many of you have been asking about ever since we shared how we light and shoot details for receptions (Part 1, and Part 2). Today we will share with you how we shoot people images at the reception!

There is a TON of ground to cover when it comes to reception lighting, so there will be a few posts to come including some exclusive content with video for those of you who are signed up to our Photography Newsletter. Are you on the IN List? If not, sign up HERE!

OK, so today we are going to keep it simple and build our foundation for shooting the first dance. So, we walk into the reception and here is the scenario (in posts to come we are going to work our way through other scenarios that pose other lighting problems and how to conquer them). We have:

– A dance floor with a stage or DJ in corner of the room
– White ceilings and white walls
– Our super hot couple about to have their first dance

What do we do to get great looking images in this scenario using nothing but our bounce flash that is on our camera?

1. We find the best place to shoot from. The best vantage point to shoot from in this type of situation is NOT where the crowd of people are standing and watching the first dance. Usually, family friends are standing in a half-moon or U shape around the couple and everyone is facing somewhat towards the band or DJ. We don’t want to shoot in this direction because nobody wants to see the DJ or bands reaction to the first dance, they want to see the families. So, we always make our way toward the DJ or band and shoot back into the crowd so that they become our backdrop.

2. We try and position ourselves about the same distance from all walls behind and to the side of us. That way, we will have a very similar exposure no matter where our flash bounces off from (we will be shooting the flash on manual). So, if the walls to the side are about 20 feet away, we try and get about 20 feet away from the wall behind us as well. It doesn’t have to be exact, just close.

3. We take an overall meter reading (with our in-camera meter set to evaluative metering) and adjust our camera settings so everything on the dance floor and behind the dance floor meters at exactly one stop under-exposed (or minus -1) so that if we took an image with no flash, the background would be a little bit too dark. (We covered this as well in our Reception Lighting Part 2. For it broken out a little more, feel free to re-read the post).

The reason we set our camera one stop underexposed is because we want the background slightly darker than our subjects (twice as dark to be exact). This makes our subjects stand out from the background and helps them to be the focal point.

4. While looking at our histogram, we take a test image of an assistant, standing right where the couple will have their dance, with no flash on. The histogram should look something like this (Nikon cameras may have the histogram reversed – check your manual to determine which direction indicates brightness).

5. Then we turn our flash on manual and power it up to about 1/4 power or so, aim it at a 45 degree angle directly behind us (so that it hits where the ceiling and the wall meet straight behind where we are standing). Take a test shot. Look at the histogram. The histogram will either look exactly the same (not what we want) or will be brighter than it was. We then power our flash up or down until the histogram moves all the way to the bright side, making sure that it does not hit the wall of the histogram (which would indicate that the photo is over-exposed).

Over-exposed histogram:

Correctly exposed histogram:

Our camera is set to manual (we are not changing any camera settings), and the only thing that we are changing changing is our flash power. So, as part of the histogram moves toward the center after we adjust the power for each shot, we know that what it is showing us is our subjects getting brighter. Once it looks close to the one above, we now have a perfect exposure, so we are ready to shoot!

Using your histogram to check for exposure is one of the most solid ways to make sure that you have a good exposure. For those of you who are unsure how to get your histogram to come up in your camera, when you press the “play” button to view the images you just shot (talking to Canon users here), hit your “info” button until the histogram appears. Reading the histogram can be a little tricky, but it is way more accurate than simply looking at the image on the back of your screen.

7. The direction (or lighting style) that the light hits our subjects is critical. We don’t need to worry too much about the “style” of lighting that we are creating (more to come on lighting styles in later posts) but need to make sure that we evenly light our couple with every shot. We try and bounce the light up at a 45 degree angle into where the wall and ceiling meet so that the light will come back at a 45 degree angle and light the couples faces first, then the rest of their body. This way, we will get a nice catch light in their eyes and their faces will be the brightest part of our images that we shoot of them.

We always shoot the light so it hits both of their faces evenly, so, if our couple were standing with the groom’s back to us and both of them were looking to camera right (like in our mock example below), we would swing the flash around and bounce it off of the right wall (tilted up at a 45 degree angle) so that the light would come back and hit both of their faces.

The flash is on top of the camera, facing camera right so it hits the wall and comes back into our couple’s face (the extra lights are showing you the path the light takes). The crowd is ooohing and awwwing in the background and the DJ is mixing it up in the foreground!

Real life examples:

Now, if our couple turns so that they were both parallel to each other with the sides of their faces facing us, then we would bounce the flash directly behind us (and up at a 45 degree angle) so it would hit where the wall and ceiling meet and then come directly back at them and hit both of their faces evenly.

Real life example:

We would do the same thing if they started turning to the left (see image below). We are constantly adjusting the direction of the light so that it hits our couple in both of their faces. If the couple were both facing to camera left and we bounced the light directly behind us, then the person closest to us would end up being brighter than the other, and we don’t want that!

That is the trick! Next week, we will be showing you how to properly add a super cool separation (or background light) to your shots to take them from nice, to WOW factor like the ones you see here. This will have a video tutorial and it will be available only on the newsletter. Make sure you are subscribed to the photography newsletter if you want to be a part of the goodness.

In future posts will will show you how to get killer lighting when there are NO walls to bounce light off of and we will be covering how to shoot exit shots that are super dynamic and stylized! Ah, so much fun to share! Stay tuned!

  • Damita

    Thanks for this! Pictures are so nice!

  • Kevin

    You ever shoot ETTL flash? Sounds like everything is manual.

  • Michelle Hollingsworth

    Love it!

  • Seshu

    Loved this blog post. One question for you though – imagine walking into a barn (no white ceilings for miles), what then? Where do you park your lights? And you would obviously go for a gridded or snooted option straight on the dance floor (nothing to soften that light, right?)

  • Liana Randel

    Thanks for these tips and tricks! They are sooo

  • Matthew Saville

    …I took a dremel to the guts of my flash so that I could
    bounce backward in either direction without having to go all the
    way around the front. Best thing I ever did for my on-camera flash
    images!!! Beautiful examples, you two! =Matt=

  • Erin Watson

    Awesome as usual guys!

  • Diana Peters

    Thanks so much guys, this is what I needed! I’m looking forward to the rest of these lessons!

  • Neil Patel

    thank you! for helpful tips n techincal data info. question
    on diagram. placement n bounce, are the strobs diagram to show
    direction of on camera Flash bounce? or actual placement of strob?

  • Zach


    Yep! The extra lights that are not on the camera in the diagram are just showing the direction the light takes, or the path. :)

  • TJ McDowell

    Fantastic advice! This post rocked the house with some great diagrams and detailed explanations. Hope you guys have a great New Years!

  • Molly

    Wow! This is the best how-to on using flash at a reception
    I’ve read. Love the diagrams to go along with it. Got my 580 and it
    there’s definitely a learning curve. Thanks for the twitter add
    otherwise I would’ve never come upon your great blog. Thank you for
    sharing your time and knowledge!! -mollykatephoto

  • Kenny

    Great info! Tnx for the add on Twitter. Great blog and of
    course great images! Cheers

  • Wendy

    Thanks for sharing! Great tips!

  • Julie Salzmann

    Hey there!
    New subscriber here. I’m a video girl that has started to do much more photography work and am loving it. I’ll be shooting photog for a few weddings this summer (I ususally shoot 20-30 weddings doing video) and wondered if you could recommend a flash. I’ve done some research but every says something different. I’m using a T2i. Love your posts, I’ll be back often. Thanks!

  • Juan Peña

    Very helpful tips! How do you avoid focusing problems in a
    dark reception hall? Thanks!

  • Emma Godfrey

    Awesome post! This is so well explained. I love your blog and your photography. I only wish I lived closer so I could do one of your workshops! Come to Switzerland – it’s beautiful!!

  • Aaron Gonzalez

    Thanks for share this valuable information to us!!

    Please keep sharing


  • Melissa C.

    Great tutorial! Thanks so much! You guys are awesome!!!

  • Chris Backe (AKA Chris in South Korea)

    I can confirm that the Nikon histograms are the same as those you show on the post – dark on the left, light on the right.

    Great work, guys – keep it up!

  • Stephanie Stewart

    Awesome tips, this is something I’ve been wanting to work on! Thank you!!!

  • chesley

    just reading back over these & curious if you use any sort of battery pack for your flash that is on the stand.