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Reception Room Lighting – It’s Easier Than You Think!

February 10th, 2010  |  Published in Featured, Shoot  |  13 Comments

Lighting is the key to creating great photographs.  As professional photographers, we have been taught to look for the best light in any setting and take advantage of it to make great photographs.  For most of the average wedding day we typically have the freedom to utilize the available light to the best effect.

But what about when we get to the reception and the available light is too low?  Or just plain ugly?  In settings like this we have to create the best light for our photos.  For most of us, creating light begins with an on-camera flash.

In my first years I just used an on-camera light, bounced when possible, even in the darkest of receptions. I achieved a look that I see over and over: well lit subjects with black hole (or worse, ugly orangy tungsten) backgrounds.

Photographs like this:
Stacy&Shaun320

In the above photo, the subject is well lit, with flattering, diffused light from my flash, but the background is dark and orange.

So one day, for kicks, I arrived at the reception site early and set up a battery powered monolight that I kept in the car for formals. I didn’t replace the light from my on-camera flash, but used it in conjunction with the flash. The monolight lifted the ambient levels in the room while my on-camera flash still lit the subject. Processing that wedding was a revelation. Instead of dark hole or ugly orange backgrounds, I had well lit backgrounds that showed off the rest of the room.

Photographs like this:
NicoleLance704

To better illustrate the difference, here are a couple of photos that I took in quick succession.  In the first of each of these photos, I only used an on-camera flash, in the second I used the on-camera flash plus an off-camera flash:

On-camera + off-camera:
AnaSteve20071020205851-

Just on-camera:
AnaSteve20071020205805-

On-camera + off-camera:
EmilyBrian20071110220136-

Just on-camera:
EmilyBrian20071110220139-

As you can see, the advantage of using off-camera lights during the reception is the ability to create lighting which allows you to see what is going on in the background and also to get rid of the ugly orange!

Now that you know the advantages of off-camera reception lighting, let’s take a look at how I do it.
1) I start by finding the optimal location for my light placement. For most rooms, I like to place my lights in two opposite corners of the room.

2) I set the power on the light to a level that I think will be correct based on the size of the room. For the average ballroom I typically find it to be 1/8 to 1/4 power. Keep in mind that I don’t mind shooting at ISO 800-1600 all evening. My goal is to have an exposure of f4 in the middle of the room.

3) I take a couple of test shots to determine the correct exposure at various places in the room. By breaking the room into exposure “zones”, I can quickly adjust my exposure based on where the person I am aiming the camera at is standing in relation to the lights. If the subject is closer to the lights, I use a smaller aperture…farther away from the lights, I use a bigger aperture. So if I am at f4 in the middle of the room, as the subject moves closer to the lights in either direction, I might change to f5.6, then to f8, etc.

In my head the room looks something like this (NOT to scale):

That’s it! Since both the flash power and the camera are set to manual, the only variable is the distance of the subject to the light. Much easier than fighting your TTL all night!

Here are a couple of examples from weddings this year:

This room was gorgeous but it was also a lighting nightmare!  It had 30 foot ceilings of dark wood, dark wood paneling on the walls, and dark lighting. A friend of mine compared it to the elevator in the Haunted Mansion at Disney World – and he was spot on!

Here’s a photo with just the ambient light (f1.4, 1/50, ISO3200)!
LeilahJeff213608-

So given how we’ve been taught to bounce to avoid direct flash, I bounced over my shoulder off of the granite part of the wall above the wood. FEC at +2, 1/25, f4 ISO3200. Here’s the most my on-camera flash could give me:

LeilahJeff204426-

Note the video light from the videographer lighting the speaker’s face. Not exactly album material.

Luckily I had arrived at the venue early, had scoped out the room, and had taken a couple of minutes to devise a lighting strategy. Here’s what I came up with:

I lit the room from both sides with small Sunpak flashes (a 383 on the left, and a 120j on the right), both set to 1/4 power. I fired them with my skyport trigger plugged into the PC socket of my camera, with my on-camera 580ex bounced off the flip-up card providing fill.

Here’s what the same scene looked like straight out of camera with the lights (1/60, f4, ISO1600):
LeilahJeff204554-

And a couple of finished images from receptions at this venue:
LeilahJeff380

HilaryJoe0870

HilaryJoe1072

So my strategy is to use the off-camera flashes to light the room and my on-camera flash to light what I am shooting.

I had a very similar room the week before.  It was an old barn converted to a reception hall. It was dark with a dark wood ceiling. There were balconies to get the flashes up high, but beams running throughout the room, so I had to be careful of shadows. My solution was to place the flashes on the balcony at a level that was below the ceiling beams, aimed straight at the support beams. This ensured that any shadow cast by the beam fell on the next beam over, instead of on a person in my photo.

Here are a couple of images with the setup:
LaurieAdam328

LaurieAdam333

CherylMark395

and here’s the diagram of that room.

Every room is different, but with a little experimentation, it’s easy to devise a lighting strategy that will add a little extra pep to your reception images.

~Jamie Wexler

About Jamison Wexler

Jamison Wexler has written 15 post in this blog.

Jamie is a Boston Wedding Photographer who believes every client is a rockstar.

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Responses

  1. Tanya says:

    January 27th, 2011 at 9:44 am (#)

    Very informative! Thanks so much for taking time to write the post (as well as include diagrams!)

  2. Julia says:

    June 9th, 2011 at 2:14 pm (#)

    Thank you so much for posting this! It was exactly what I was looking to find! If you don’t mind me asking, how much did your off-camera lighting equipment cost you? Thanks again!

  3. Admin says:

    June 9th, 2011 at 8:22 pm (#)

    Happy to help Julia!

    To light like I do, all you need is a couple of small flashes that allow you to set the power manually, and a way to trigger them. I personally use Elinchrom Skyports to trigger Canon 540ez flashes. The whole setup was less than $500.

    –JAMIE

  4. Lisa says:

    August 6th, 2011 at 8:03 pm (#)

    Thanks for this. Do you usually bounce the off camera flashes of a wall or ceiling or point them directly into the room from each corner?

  5. Admin says:

    August 7th, 2011 at 6:55 am (#)

    Hi Lisa,

    I usually point the flashes directly into the room for two reasons: 1) I use small, battery powered flashes on high lightstands, and hate having to take them down to change batteries. By pointing the flashes into the room, I can use a lower power setting and the batteries last longer. 2) I like the more dramatic lighting that direct, off-camera flash gives to a scene. When off camera lights are bounced, they tend to raise the ambient in a very flat way…there is no edge to the light. When the flash is direct, there is an edge to the light that I can use to make the off camera effect more dramatic.

    –JAMIE

  6. emergency led lighting says:

    October 18th, 2011 at 1:55 pm (#)

    Good article , thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner as well

  7. amie says:

    November 9th, 2011 at 9:45 am (#)

    Great post – super informative!

  8. Suzan says:

    April 18th, 2012 at 10:59 am (#)

    Great article – thank you for the tips!

  9. Yaneck Wasiek - Chicago Wedding Photographer says:

    April 18th, 2012 at 3:05 pm (#)

    This article is awesome! the best explanation of reception lighting I have seen. Thanks so much for posting it!
    Yaneck

  10. matt haines says:

    April 18th, 2012 at 3:51 pm (#)

    Just came over here from DWF where I saw this post mentioned. You’ve done a really nice job of explaining the lighting and the diagrams are very helpful.

    It looks like you’re dialing in some sort of underexposure with your on-camera TTL flash. Can you elaborate on that? And if you’re firing off the bounce card, then most of your light is heading toward the ceiling? Thanks!

  11. Admin says:

    April 18th, 2012 at 4:04 pm (#)

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks so much for your questions. With the on-camera flash I tend to ride the flash exposure compensation all night to get the exposure that I want on the subject. Exactly like I did before I started using off camera flash. I keep a careful eye on my histogram to ensure the exposure will be how I want it to be. Since the off-camera flashes are manual they act completely independently of the on-camera light. As for the bounce card, I use a Demb Flip-It, which allows me to control the amount of light that is being directed at the subject by adjusting the angle of the card. In a room with a dark ceiling, I tend to angle it forward more so I don’t lose the light and wear down my batteries too quickly. It’s a great piece of kit. Hope this helps!

    –JAMIE

  12. Steph says:

    June 15th, 2012 at 3:15 pm (#)

    Hi,

    Thanks for all the tips – they are very helpful! I’ve been shooting with two SB900′s off camera on stands around the reception hall, triggering them with Pocket Wizards, but I haven’t used flash on camera with this set up. After reading your article, I thought, hey, I really should. Would you happen to know what kind of connector I would need in order to sit an SB900 in my camera hotshoe and be able to use it along with triggering the two other flashes on stands? I’ve been trying to research this but there is so much information out there about flashes I haven’t quite found a specific answer. I’m thinking I can just use some sort of sync cord from the flash PC conector to the camera PC connector?? Or would that just be too simple? ;)

    Thanks,
    Steph

  13. Earl Christie says:

    June 15th, 2012 at 11:22 pm (#)

    Steph,

    You can use a sync cord that goes from the PC connector of your on-camera flash to your pocketwizard or you can use the same cord going from the PC connector on your camera body to the pocket wizard. I do the latter as that way the off camera flashes will be triggered even if I turn my on camera flash off.

    Here’s a good place to get that cable: http://www.flashzebra.com/products/0030/index.shtml

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