Wedding Reception Lighting Techniques Breakdown from the Wedding of Cristabelle and Francisco
Francisco and Cristabelle had an absolute blast of a wedding at the Royal Isabela in Isabela, Puerto Rico. In amazing Puerto Rican fashion, their party did not disappoint! Their reception was a ton of fun, and with plenty of shooting time during the party, we had a chance to pull out all of our tricks and experiment a bit with some techniques we sometimes don’t have time to use. We wanted to share some of our thought process, general approach towards lighting a wedding reception, and hopefully give you some ideas for fun and interesting ways to photograph a wedding reception.
Wedding receptions are an excellent time for experimentation and creation on wedding day. There aren’t the same kinds of “rules” that apply to portraits or other types of photography when you are photographing on the dance floor. Aside from a handful of arranged moments – toasts, first dances, bouquet toss, etc., there isn’t a ton of pressure at any given time during a wedding reception. This is when you can experiment with different wedding reception lighting techniques and see what works in that moment.
There aren’t the same kinds of “rules” that apply to portraits or other types of photography when you are photographing a dance floor.
Once you find a scenario that works, stay there! People will continue to move around, and in most instances you don’t need to be constantly moving or changing things up, you can be patient and let the moments happen.
Since every situation is different, this breakdown will be covering what wedding reception lighting techniques we chose to use at this particular wedding but not necessarily what we would or wouldn’t do under different circumstances. For example, during this wedding their tent was covered with clear plastic, which removed the possibility of using an on camera bounce flash reliably. Under the right conditions we really love the light that is possible from a bounce flash, but at this particular wedding neither one of us used our on camera flash at all, relying solely on off camera lighting techniques. For example, we used an on camera bounce flash for many of the reception photos from the wedding of Melanie & Joe.
We want each wedding to feel unique and true to our couples, so we try to not be confined with any one wedding reception lighting technique, but rather allow ourselves to experiment within (and outside of) our comfort zone for each wedding. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes when trying new lighting techniques. Try working with one lighting setup for a few songs and then switch it up. Out of the different techniques you are bound to find something that looks great if you just keep shooting.
We try to not be confined with any one wedding reception lighting technique, but rather allow ourselves to experiment within (and outside of) our comfort zone for each wedding.
Just for clarification, we no longer have any set in stone approach that we use when deciding what type of lighting (if any) to add during a reception. We like to mix it up, create some variety, and just use our instincts in the moment. Maybe we feel like we haven’t used a particular technique in a while, or maybe depending on the layout of the space and the amount of room available we will opt for one technique over another. We’ve practiced these different techniques at weddings over the course of years, and thousands upon thousands of photos, which is why we are able to be comfortable mixing it up and going by feel and intuition.
To get started, here is all of the lighting equipment that we made use of throughout this particular wedding reception:
- Grids – MagMod grids, one of our all time favorite lighting modifiers. These allow you to very accurately control the exact placement of light, without spilling light into places where you don’t want it.
- Softbox – This is a pretty standard 25″ softbox. Nothing fancy here.
- Gels – During this wedding we used some CTO (color temperature orange) gels, as well as Teal. We use MagMod branded gels as we’ve found them to be sturdy and can hold up to extreme use/heat.
- Clamps – Manfrotto super clamps. Super sturdy, and great for adding rim lights or gelled background lights onto wedding tents without a lightstand.
- Flash disc – Love these little things, very handy for creating an easy, large light source which combos well with a simple extension handle.
- Extension handle – Great for getting a flash just off camera enough to create a little dimension and shape. Love to combo this with a flash disc. Thanks Evan R. for sharing this method with us!
- LED Panel – Simple LED panel, nothing fancy here. We rarely use constant lighting like this, but sometimes it’s just right! We used our LED for about 20 minutes total at this wedding.
- Lightstands – We used one large 13′ light stand and a couple Manfrotto Nano stands.
- Speedlights – These are Godox/Flashpoint Li-Ion R2 speedlights, our standard for wedding lighting for the last couple of years. In my opinion there’s still not another light on the market that compares to these for our needs on wedding day.
A note on flash power…
Throughout this breakdown I will be sharing our camera settings, but since cameras don’t record flash power, there’s no way for me to share with you what our exact settings were in each scenario. That said, I can share a few things to know about how we use flash in general. Very, very rarely are we ever using our flashes at 1/2 or full power. Whenever possible, we are adjusting our camera settings to allow us the ability to fire at 1/4 or less. Since it’s generally possible to do this by either raising our ISO or lowering the aperture, we use this as standard practice to lessen the strain on our flashes, lower recycle times, and ensure that every time we want to take a photo while firing a flash, it works. Misfires suck, so we’ve learned to work with our equipment, not against it. We use manual flash settings with Godox/Flashpoint lights. Sometimes we are sharing a light on a stand, sometimes we each have our own lights on stands, and sometimes one of us is holding a light for the other. Flash power is adjusted as needed the same way we adjust our other camera settings.
Setting Ambient Exposure
Here’s an example photo that we took while setting our ambient exposure. What we are doing is turning off all of our lights and taking a frame to see what our baseline ambient exposure will look like. In general we are trying to avoid blown out areas in our photos while preserving the ambiance of the scene. You can see that the background lighting on the table and the stage is bright and easily visible, but the two people in the foreground are completely dark. If we were to adjust our exposure enough to have the subjects exposed, the background will be completely blown out, losing detail and resulting in a photo which doesn’t resemble how it looked in person, or capture the feeling of the space.
Here’s a before/after ambient photo + a photo showing the placement of our softbox while we were getting ready for the toasts:
We like to keep our small LED panel on hand because it can be very useful, and especially helpful during the occasional moment where there is a space that is totally dark. A good example of this is Carrie and Jenns wedding which was pushed back until after dark, leaving us on the beach with virtually no light (just two tiki torches). Constant lighting saved everyone in that scenario, as it would have been extremely difficult to see. This wasn’t the case at this wedding, however. When Cristabelle and Francisco made their entrance, it was a touch after sunset during twilight, when there was still some light in the sky, but it was relatively dark. We just wanted a little kiss of extra light to keep the focus on them and have our subjects lit so we opted for the LED panel.
Another cool thing about using an LED: motion blur. This was a high energy, fun dance party with a bomba band playing. Bomba is a time to dance with a dress in Puerto Rico, where dancers will grab, twirl, flow and play with their dress while dancing. Using a longer shutter speed allowed us to capture that in the form of motion blur. Like any other technique, we don’t rely on this exclusively, but we love to add variety to our collections. Constant lighting + motion blur is one of the ways we like to mix it up. We took some photos during this scenario with purely ambient light as well as some with speedlights, but here are examples of the photos we captured that were lit with an LED panel:
As it got darker we added a flash in combination with the LED panel to freeze movement while still including motion blur:
For this wedding reception lighting, we decided to put a small soft box on a lightstand up very high (approx 9 feet) in the front corner of the dance area angled downward. This softbox was on a large lightstand, snuggled up alongside the rack of DJ equipment in safe and sturdy spot. We didn’t move the softbox from this spot at all during the wedding, although at times we rotated it to point in a different direction as needed. A softbox like this creates a fairly soft light, but with a limited spread compared to a bare flash. Unlike bare flash, it’s nearly impossible to shoot into the direction of the light without it appearing in the frame. There’s no hiding a softbox behind someones head or a foreground element. In a tight space this would never work, but in the vast reception area at the Royal Isabela we decided to set up the soft box to give us the option of having a softer light source available during the dancing.
Above photo showing the placement of the softbox in the reception space.
During this first dance this photo the couple is lit with just a single soft box set in the corner of the dance floor up high. There is a soft, gentle shadow fall off and large light spread from the softbox. See the dinner table in the above photo? I’m standing behind it, using it as a foreground/frame for this photograph. Also notice in the above photo the dappled yellow DJ lights hitting the table, which are lighting up the glasses and creating the beautiful bokeh we see in the foreground.
Here the parents have joined, and we’re lighting all four together, still with just the single soft box.
SOFTBOX + GRID
In this photo, the father of the groom is giving his speech lit with the soft box that we had previously set up. Cristabelle and Francisco are lit with a gridded flash aiming directly at them, placed just in front of the table, maybe 5-6 feet away from them. Notice how there’s little light spilling on the table, chairs, or other people behind them? This is one of the ways that we love using grids. Adding light just where we want it without splashing light all over the place in the way a bare speedlight will. Using a grid allows photos like this one which are layered and show more of the important elements of a scene while maintaining a background that looks natural.
HANDHELD FLASH DISC
Next, here are a couple shots taken with a flash disc handheld in my left hand with an extension arm. This light has subtle differences from what you would get with an on-camera direct flash, or by bouncing flash. Although this disc is only 14” wide, since it is being held just outside of the frame and is probably about 3 feet away from the subjects, it creates a large, soft light source. For grip n’ grin style photos this technique is amazing. It looks great, doesn’t require an assistant, and is near impossible to miss.
Here is an example of a photo taken with an assistant holding the flash disc off camera. Another great technique, this is your “portable soft box.” Directional light which adds dimension and shape, but relatively large enough to the subject to create gentle shadow fall off. Notice how only the subjects are lit with flash, but not the entire scene? This is very important to us. We want the yellow ambient background lights, path, candles, etc to be a part of the photo in order to show the ambiance and vibe of the evening.
Later in the night we wanted to mix it up a bit. As well as balancing out the very prominent and bright yellow lighting in their space, we decided to add a touch of teal to the mix. To do this we simply clamped a bare speed light to one of the supports of the wedding tent and added a teal gel. We were going for a kiss of color and some variety to the reception photos, and are pretty happy with how it turned out! Choosing complementary (opposite) colors that balance each other out can be a fun way of adding variety to a space if the DJ lighting is dominated by one color in particular (in this case a bright yellow). No, this isn’t a 100% authentic representation of how their space looked… but we don’t care about that. These photos just make up a part of a whole, and we are very upfront with our clients about our creative process and how we like to experiment/play/try new things. We don’t feel any pressure to maintain a strict documentary portrayal at all times, especially during the fun party atmosphere of a wedding reception.
One thing to be aware of when using color gels is that splashing a bright color across someones face can be a fun and artistic approach, but must be used appropriately, or else it won’t look natural within the scene. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing on it’s own, but is very important to be aware of. Having a colored light firing directly into a dance floor means that you are more limited in the angles you can shoot from, while having one as an uplight/background light will give you more flexibility when finding angles.
You don’t always have to add light! Nice light is nice light, regardless of the source. We try to be open to searching for light everywhere and staying flexible in our approach. There were some very bright ambient lights in this space creating some areas with very interesting light. Notice how we are using ambient lighting in these photos. We’re looking for highlights or little zones where light is landing on our subjects and creating separation between them and the background. In general we try to avoid just cranking our ISO in order to expose our subjects in a reception space. Not to say that this isn’t a viable option at times, but whenever possible we are trying to avoid having overly bright background elements which can be distracting. Again, these are general guidelines, not steadfast rules. These photographs were taken at this wedding using only available ambient lighting.
This is a fun little “mid reception” technique we like to use sometimes when we want to try to capture candid photos of family members and others who might not be dancing during the reception. We try to not get stuck on the dance floor, ignoring other important family and friends who might not enjoy or be able to dance. This method is done without an assistant, and with a gridded and CTO gelled flash on a light stand. With a grid and a gel on the flash and the flash power turned down low, the flash is barely noticeable, and the majority of the time people do not notice that there is a camera flash popping in their direction. We’ve coined this method the Grid Snipe, because we generally will do this with a long lens while being undetected. In this scenario we added a 1/2 CTO (color temperature orange) gel to the grid to mimic the orange twinkle and candle lighting in the background.
A Little of Everything…
Here we’ve got a little bit of everything! A touch of motion blur, bright yellow ambient light from the DJ’s, our softbox in front to the right, and a teal gel as a side/rim light. This photo may not be perfect, but I think it does a great job of portraying what an exciting and fun moment this conga line was!
I hope you gained some insight into different approaches towards wedding reception lighting techniques, and if you have any questions, thoughts, or requests for more in depth articles about anything covered, leave a comment below!