How To Light Wedding Posed Pictures In A Church

We recently released our 14 hour tutorial on How To Become A Professional Wedding Photographer and as promised, we will be releasing excerpts from it for free over the next year. In this video I show you my go to method of lighting posed pictures in a church at weddings. I've tried every method of lighting but I find it easiest to light up the whole sanctuary with my Profoto D1 monolight.

When you are lighting up a group of people for a wedding inside a church there are a few things to think about. First you need to shoot at a fairly high Fstop so that you can keep everyone sharp. F 2.8 will not work well in these situations because you may be forced to shoot multiple rows of people. If you focus on the front row, you need the people in the back to also be sharp. Most churches are dimly lit already so stopping down to F5.6 is going to make it even harder to shoot natural light.

Natural light
In some extremely rare cases the church will be professionally lit and it will not require that you do anything extra. This may have happened once in my entire career. In most cases the churches built-in lights are extremely unbalance from the background or are over the heads of my subjects firing down on them. You don't want bags under your subjects eyes so you are going to have to light the scene yourself.

Lighting with an umbrella or softbox
Lighting with a strobe on a light stand pointed towards your subjects is probably the most standard method of lighting posed pictures at a wedding. There are a few things to worry about when you are lighting this way. 1, your subjects may be appropriately lit but your background may be too dark. 2, your subjects may be unevenly lit if your light is on one side of your camera. This is always a problem when you shoot large groups. 3, a small light source will throw shadows behind your subjects on the background or the back row of people.

Lighting up the entire church (my method)
The key to lighting up an entire church for posed pictures is power. In some small sanctuaries on camera flashes can work but for the vast majority, you are going to need some considerable power to pull this off. I personally use Profoto D1 lights for 3 reasons: They are small, they are powerful (1000 watts), and they have radio receivers built in. I've used other power pack systems in the past and they work fine but they are much more complicated to set up and at a wedding, time is always an issue.

I always arrive to my weddings early, really really early. I want to be prepared for any big issue like a flat tire or a car wreck but I also want to be able to set up my lighting before the ceremony begins. It's important that your clients do not wait around after the ceremony for you to figure this out. When I arrive I look for white walls or ceilings. I will then set up one of my mono lights with a reflector dish and fire the light towards a large white surface. If the church is made of wood I will attempt to bounce off of different areas of the room and test to see if it is possible to white balance out the red reflection. In most cases it is impossible to bounce light off of wood because of the color temperature but in the video above I show you an example where it actually did work.

If I cannot bounce light then I must go to a standard off camera softbox or umbrella lighting scheme. I NEVER direct flash my posed pictures with an on camera flash and you shouldn't either. Your clients are paying you to take professional images so it's important that you learn to light professionally. The last thing you want is for your pictures to look like the pictures their guests are taking.

You can download our full wedding tutorial by going here.

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I need this so so much!

Good stuff Lee. the important part. Why is your belt doing that? 

Patryk M's picture

Being a wedding photographer myself. I do this as well and love the results. I just do NOT do it at the reception for obvious reasons. 

Nice one.

Nicely done Lee!

Just out of curiosity, in the first shot with your assistant, why did you even need to use flash? The church appeared to be reasonably well lit. The reference pic without flash looked to be 4 stops or so underexposed. Since you have a D800, you could have easily bumped the ISO way up and still retained great image quality. So instead of ISO125 - 1/100th - f5 with the strobe, why not use ISO800 - 1/60th - f5? The slower shutter would still freeze the action enough, and the difference in ISO would be slightly noticeable at most.

Don't get me wrong. I absolutely love off camera lighting, and typically use two, three, and sometimes four lights when I create a shot, but in this situation, I don't see a huge benefit to using the strobe. 

Church light is usually pretty flat and can be spotty (with hotspots) depending on what type of incadecent/fluorecent lights they have in the front of the church.  The white balance can be different from one side to the other depending if any staned glass is in the windows. It will be much easier to get a good white balance if 90% of the exposure is done from the strobe bouncing off of a white surface.  Although the noise levels at ISO 800 is good on the D800, the group shot for that set up was huge.  Each head only has a tiny pice of real estate on that photo so any noise you can cut out will make those faces will retain much more detail in the facial features especially if someone were to order a large print.  If it was a group of 5-10 people, it wouldn't be so bad but that was a pretty large group.  As mentioned before, because of the size of the group, there could have been some hotspots of light scattered throughout the group.  The last point is consistency between shots.  You could have the entire shot set for when it was cloudy outside and all of a sudden the sun comes out.  Or if clouds are passing in front of the sun, there can be a stop or two of variability between shots or groups and then it just becomes one more issue to deal with instead of focusing on the groups themselves.

Lee Morris's picture

The church was bright but very poorly lit (lights from above) by lighting it this way I created flattering light rather than just a correct exposure.

Dan Lalande's picture

You can really see the the 3 dimensional contrast in the faces of the subjects.  Definitely much more pleasing.

Using just available light for a group in that situation guarantees raccoon eyes. Just a note, I use metz 60 series flashes for large groups like that. There are Lithion Ion batteries available for them now that are very light and provide almost endless juice. I use the same units for large wedding and family groups out doors.

if only I had $1,700 for a light... rather put that towards a very wide aperture prime lens and lighten it up in post.

Dan Lalande's picture

You could get away with an Einstein or even a B1600. (640W/s).  You don't have to break the bank to achieve similar results.

 It is much better to get it right in the camera. You can buy high powered strobes for a LOT less than $1700 a piece. I mentioned the Metz 60 series. I use them because they are portable and use batteries. You can buy used ones for literally next to nothing because most people haven't a clue how to use them right anymore. They also dismiss them as too old , which is not the case. They last forever. Using them with radio slaves bounced out of umbrellas worked 25 years ago and still works today. I am not dismissing larger units. I also use 800 WS Photogenic Flashmaster packs in large venues IF there is time for setup. Otherwise I can set a couple Metz units up quickly and get good quality consistent light.

Patrick Hall's picture

Battery powered units can work (vagabond) but battery units are going to slow you down with the recycle rate. I like to take 3-6 photos of each group so if you have to fire at full power that's a lot of time waiting inbetween each shot. Having even a cheap AC unit like an Alien Bee is worth its weight in gold simply because your recycle rate is negligible.

Daniel's picture

So, what do you do when you can't just bounce off the walls and ceiling because they aren't white and won't reflect colors that can easily be white balanced?

 Youll have to buy the DVD, They talk about it there =]

love my wedding dvd.. gotta find 15 hours to sit down and watch it though... i dont like breaking up stuff.. i like to just sit down and watch it all and take notes!! thanks again for picking me as a winner! this has given me the motivation to find the time to watch it.. I've also got the Peter Hurley DVD that I have to watch.. such a procrastinator..

Correct me if I am wrong but I do not see a reason to shoot ISO 125 with D800 and the PROFOTO mono-heads can be easy replaced by flashes like SB 910. To keep f5 for depth of field using ISO 800 would work out just perfect and the quality would be very good, and to push the shadows and hue away a flash triggered by pocket wizards to that ceiling or walls would do the same job, because the GN/guide number/ affects - distance - output of flash unit which increases with ISO number there would be enough juice to cover that church. Even better option could be , using a tripod, lower the ISO to e.g. 400 or 200 and use a remote to trigger the D800 and remote flashes without touching it and how great that would look with ambient light taking care of that nice altar and added fill in from flash unit/s from front for the faces :). I shoot it this way, no extra wires, mono-heads, $$$, gone from church after the groups are done in 5 minutes... so we can go for bridal party outdoor formals... :) And plus I use a 3 step ladder to get me slightly above the group so no double chins :) and people look slightly up so the light hits them softly and no hard shadows are visible anywhere ;) That is my opinion and workflow I am happy with - when you are happy with yours Lee that is great. Enjoy the 2013 season. :) JP

Dan Lalande's picture

If it's a smaller church, the sb910 could work.  In a big church if you tried to do it with a SB-910 (or any similar flash), you run the risk of having cross light contamination.  now your ratio of ambient to flash is to even and getting the proper or an even colour balance across the frame could be an issue.  Outdoor lighting conditions can also influence that.  If your working alone at the wedding, hauling some studio stobes (even just one) would be a drag at the ceremony, but if you have an assitant, it can be their job to load/assemble/dissasemble so it doesn't impact your mobility and your attention/time.  Recycle times would also be a huge concern as you would have to wait a lenghty amount of time to recycle between shots in comparison to studio strobes.  You also would not necesarily want to drop your shutter much lower than 1/100th if you don't have to because small children generally will still wiggle around and move somewhat during large group photos.

Hi Daniel,
it always depends on the size of the location. I am discussing and addressing my thoughts regarding the churches or chapels showed in this video. Ambient light was couple stops weaker in your video, so it means there would be no problem with cross light sources! The ambient light specially in these unique cathedrals like the one I showed you below is amazing and I still prefer to mix it with flashes or video lights for small groups than simply overkill it with white flash burst. Personal thing but when client requires opposite why not :). I do not work alone and flashes are still the easiest form of lighting for us and had no problem with recycling times at all with our battery packs :). I agree in one point with you and that is kids who might move when using tripod option for ambient light exposure. Well it can still be done when you hit them in 1 of 5 shots :) Below is a retouched image of ambient light / daylight from windows 5200K/ mixed with tungsten video light /3200 K/ at Vancouver St. Rose Mary Cathedral. The mood which it creates is priceless. We just love ambient too much. Thanks for you comment from

Patrick Hall's picture

If you are going to edit your final photos in the instagram look then that gives you a lot of flexibility in how you light it. I do not see any reason to really keep the ambient light "natural" if you are going to mute the colors and give the image a cross processed look. In this case I'd almost make the argument for using all natural light or killing all natural light and strobing the entire place.

As for using a single SB910 for posed photos, it simply own't work even at ISO 3200. Basically your flash is going to have to be at Full power to achieve any sort of usable result and even then your recycle rate is going to be super slow. The difference between a Profoto pack at full power and a speed light at full power is probably about 4 - 5 stops so you go from ISO 100 to ISO 1600 easily and many times the speed light's bounced light source is much smaller than the size a monolight can produce.

Have you ever tried this in a European "full sized" church ?
Even if your flashes were powerful enough the reflected light would suffer from a massive shift in hue.

Patrick Hall's picture

Surprisingly we have a lot of European style churches here in Charleston because it's one of America's oldest cities. You are right, sometimes you have to adjust the hue slider in Lightroom afterwards or directly light the ceremony stage with umbrellas so you get white light that bounce flash won't give you. It's all about being flexible and having several tricks up your sleeve.

How do you get time to arrive at the church so early? If you are shooting getting ready, and then moving to church... in between you need to catch her getting out of the Limo? 

Disclosure: I'm an aspiring wedding photographer w/ no real wedding experience though.

Patrick Hall's picture

It just depends on the day and timeline. Sometimes brides don't hire you to shoot getting ready. Sometimes getting ready shots are actually at the church. Other times you can leave the getting ready location and beat them to the church and setup within 10 mins. Also you can send your assistants ahead of you. I have very few brides who show up in a limo from the getting ready location to the church....they mostly leave the church in a fancy car. There isn't a correct answer to any of these questions, it's mainly about being flexible and quick with any decision you make on the wedding day.

David Leyland's picture

Correct me if I am wrong but in this shot I can see catch lights in the eyes which suggest a soft box or umbrella of some sort?

Patrick Hall's picture

The only light from this session was bounced off the wall to camera left.

`any chance for discounts(coupon code) or installment plans??

I agree with your bouncing of light. But if you can't build a group to where everyone is in a window (heads between heads) you are not only losing sales but not looking very professional and then the lighting was all hard work for nothing. I'm seeing a lot of heads behind heads in this video. Just sayin'... odd row, even row. You do have to use some math when posing groups. Enjoy the videos though, keep up the great work.

I am having a hard time thinking of getting a 1000 watt or 800 watt. Can 800 watt monolights work too?