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Five Tips for Dramatically Improving Reception Photos

When I shot my first wedding in 2007, I was lucky! The reception was pretty bright (and my camera was worthless above about ISO 400, so that was a good thing!) Since then, I’ve learned – sometimes the hard way – that not every wedding reception is inundated with light, and you know what? I love that.

Bright is great, but dark is full of endless possibilities. Consider a wedding reception outside at 2 p.m. under a clear sky (I know, not common, but play along). There’s not much you can do with that light, right? Your hands are pretty much tied; you’re not competing with a cloudless sky with the speedlights that most wedding shooters have in their bag!

Now take a pitch black 9 p.m. reception. Much more common, right? “Oh crap, the bride’s making her grand entrance in 5 minutes and it’s ISO, 12,800 at 1/2 a second in here!” That’s just awesome. Here’s the thing – you can mold that darkness, you can shape it, it can be whatever you want it to be. You can’t say that about a bright afternoon, can you?

Now, I know dark receptions can be intimidating, so here are five tips to help you conquer the dark:

1) Know your focus modes.

For Nikon shooters this means shooting in AF-S, for Canon users “One Shot” in order to activate your flash’s red autofocus assist beam. In AF-C (continuous) and AI-Servo modes, your camera will attempt to track moving subjects, but won’t put out that AF assist beam, which is key to focusing in the dark.

2) Use back button to focus.

After your camera has hunted for and finally found focus (the 5DII shooters out there know what I mean), and you’re ready to take a photo, there’s nothing worse than your camera starting to hunt for focus again when you press the shutter. So, disable your shutter button from activating focus. It takes some practice, but this way, once the camera has acquired focus, you won’t risk it hunting again when you’re ready to take the photo. This works great for static images (toasts, posed shots), and takes a lot more practice for moving subjects.

Another perk here is when you’re shooting in bright light and using a continuous focus mode, you can just keep your thumb on the focus button all day and your focus will always be active.

3) Don’t use off-camera flash as your key light.

I love off-camera flash, and it’s how I shoot most of my portraits, but for wedding receptions when I’m moving and my subjects are dancing, I can’t adjust my exposures fast enough to keep up with manual flash. What’s my solution? On-camera bounce flash with off-camera accent lights (usually 1-2) on the edges of the dance floor at low power, usually 1/64 or 1/128.

The great thing about setting your accent lights at such low power is that if a bride dances over close to a light, 1/128 isn’t enough power to overexpose her, and if she dances far away from it, I’ll just get less of it! If you were using a higher power, say 1/4 or 1/8, you’d get great light spreading across a greater distance, but you’d have to constantly adjust as your subjects approached the lights.

Another perk of low power shooting…I’ve never changed the batteries in my off-camera lights at a reception. Ever!

Here’s another reason to avoid TTL off-camera. Most TTL systems only have a six stop range. That means +3 to -3. Minus three stops from full power could be as much as 1/8 power, and that’s still a TON of power, especially at 1600-2000 ISO at 2.8 where I like to hang out.

4) You can bounce flash off of almost anything.

Here’s the trick though. If you find yourself in a dark reception hall, with dark wood walls and dark ceilings (like the downtown Harvard Club in Boston, or Mechanics Hall in Worcester), in addition to increasing your flash power, zoom the flash head. That enables more light to reach the ceiling, which enables more light return to reach your subjects.

5) If you’re really stuck, mount a flash on a monopod and have your assistant follow you around.

Would this be my preferred choice? Heck no. Is it better than no light? Absolutely. If you find yourself with a reception under the stars (nothing to bounce off there!), mount a bare speedlight on a monopod and have your assistant hold it like a boom overhead 4-5 feet and angled down at your subjects. The look will be similar to bounce flash (the light is coming from the same direction after all), but with a bit more contrast as your light source will be significantly smaller.

Bonus tip: Use PowerEx 2700 batteries in your flashes and Imedion 2400’s in your Pocketwizards (my trigger of choice). The PowerEx batteries have the highest capacity of any rechargeable AA on the market, and the Imedion’s are “slow drain,” which means they won’t die unused sitting in your bag!

About Doug Levy

A wedding and portrait photographer living outside of Boston, Doug Levy spent six years pursuing a career as a professional baseball umpire before deciding a lifetime of road trips and 7:05 starts wasn’t for him. A professional photographer since 2007, Doug’s clients have included Harper Collins Publishers, Starwood Hotels and the Golf Course Superintendents of America. He’ll be teaching “Killer Reception Light” at the upcoming Inspire Photo Seminar in Boston, and offers customized lighting workshops for professional photographers as well. For more on Doug, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

For more from Doug check out his workshops or his “Killer Reception Light” presentation at the upcoming Inspire Photo Seminar in March.

The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!