Photography Lighting Techniques & Tips

As wedding traditions evolve, more and more photographers find themselves shooting in less than optimal lighting conditions. Those ‘safely lit’ church ceremonies are moving outdoors into the harsh sun. Or brides will shift from an afternoon wedding to a romantic evening ceremony at sunset. And it’s not like we can tell the bride “Yes I know that romantic evening ceremony sounds great, but I can’t really do my job as well so let’s go ahead and change your entire wedding day.”

As the industry evolves, so must our skills. There are countless workshops and publications that go into great detail on the subject of lighting, but hopefully these tips will at least get you on the right track for harsh sun or night time portraits.

So let’s do harsh sun first, since that’s the easier of the two. Of course, the best option for harsh sun is finding a shaded area. But sometimes there is that perfect backdrop that you have to get, and it is in the sun. In this situation I snap the Gary Fong diffuser onto my flash, point it forward at the couple from about 4 feet away, and turn up the power of my flash depending on how sunny it is – the sunnier it is, the higher power I want my flash. This acts as a fill flash, even at high power, and helps to prevent harsh shadows on the face. Now during the ceremony, you don’t want to ruin the mood of the event with your flash going off every 20 seconds, but it’s a great option for portraits afterwards.

Here are a couple of shots right out of the camera. The photo on the left is without any flash, and the photo on the right is with my flash turned up to +2 with a Gary Fong diffuser attached, and pointing forward. You can see how it helped to remove some of the harsh shadows, especially on the groom’s face.

I still wasn’t completely satisfied with the look, so I decided to move the couple directly in front of the sun and capture the sunburst in the background. This is the result, which I absolutely loved and delivered to the client.

Placing the couple’s back to the sun, and actually including the sunburst in the composition of your photo keeps the shadows off of the couples face, and creates an artistic lens flare in the background. The rules of aperture apply here. If you shoot wide open, the sunburst will be more blurred and rounded. If you keep your aperture up around f/11, the sun will get a sharper “sparkle” shape.

Onto the biggest enemy of photographers… the lack of light. Sometimes there just isn’t a place to bounce that flash for nighttime portraits. If you’re shooting a bride at the beach during sunset, and want to keep shooting after the sun has disappeared into the ocean, it’s likely that you don’t have anything to bounce your flash off of. Optimally, you want a white photographer’s umbrella to direct your flash. Two off camera flashes are best, both set at 45 degrees from the subject. This will cancel out shadows on both side of the subject, and give more even lighting.

What if you weren’t planning to shoot at night, and didn’t bring those umbrellas? The 580EX II flash has a great solution for impromptu night photo shoots. That little white bounce card that slides out actually works wonders at directing light forward without pointing your flash at the subject. Yes, you have to turn up the power in order to get enough light falling onto your subject, but the results are impressive compared to the alternative of direct flash.

This photo was taken right after sunset, and I wanted to capture the ship lights in the background. I didn’t have anything to bounce my flash off of, so I turned up the flash to +3 and pulled out the white bounce card on my 580EX II. I was about 4 feet from the bride, and this technique was just enough to light her with a great reflection off of the ocean.

There are also a plethora of diffusers, but I have found that the compact, manageable diffusers don’t work well for night portraits. A soft box is great, but it’s not compact enough to be a logical solution, especially when you’re already carrying a roller bag and tripod on a wedding day.

I’m constantly experimenting with lighting, and you really need to find what works best for your style of photography. These are just a few of the techniques I like to use, but I’d love to hear about what others do!

About the Author:

Jessica Vallecorsa, J.Vallecorsa Photography

Jessica Vallecorsa is a Houston based wedding photographer with a modern, edgy style. She loves to photograph an offbeat wedding, and absolutely adores a bold bride. You’ll often find her in two of her favorite cities, New Orleans and Charlotte, rockin’ out a wedding with one of her fashion-forward brides.

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