Free Wedding Tutorial: How To Light Wedding Reception Venues

Photographing weddings can be tough for a lot of people, and the area I find most of my assistants struggling is at the reception. Many times throughout a wedding you can rely on natural light, but what is going to make or break your reception images is your ability to master artificial lighting. In this free excerpt from the full Fstoppers wedding tutorial, we share four of our most used lighting setups so you can take the guess work out of properly lighting a wedding venue.

Why is it that taking photos of wedding guests during the reception is so difficult for many photographers? Well for starters, the natural light inside buildings is usually never great. Combine poor natural light with fast moving people and you have a recipe for disaster. When the ambient light levels are low, the only way to capture a correct exposure is to bump the ISO and drag your camera's shutter. Even when shooting at f/2.8 or f/1.4 those adjustments still might leave you with a blurry or muddy looking image. The only remedy to this problem is to enhance your images with flash or strobe light.

Even with a few strobe lights in your camera bag, properly lighting a reception hall is never as easy as it sounds. If the ceilings are white and relatively low you can easily pop a flash on your camera's hot shoe and bounce it straight up. What you are left with is a bight and clean image that is always usable. But more often than not, bounce flash is not going to help you capture the mood of the room. Imagine what happens when your ceiling is not white but instead painted black (or worse a vibrant color), the ceiling and walls are made of red wood, the white ceiling is 30 feet in the air, or the biggest fear of most wedding ceiling at all!

The prepared photographer has to be ready for any and all of the above situations. Even the most beautiful of wedding venues is never without its challenges. There are probably an indefinite number of ways to use artificial flash light to sculpt your photographs, but these four techniques will help you build a solid lighting foundation. When you are faced with a difficult situation and you feel like nothing you are trying is working out, our hope is one of these lighting tips will help you produce the best looking images possible in any situation.

For more information on our full wedding tutorial, head over to our page How To Become A Professional Commercial Wedding photographer.

Patrick Hall's picture

Patrick Hall is a founder of and a photographer based out of Charleston, South Carolina.

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One thing about shooting with Canon, they kind of expect you to rely on the AF assist beam on speedlights, so using pocket wizards can be... tricky in a dark reception. Luckily, the 600EX is such a fantastic system, I deploy 3 at every single reception I work, and I just love the reliability and flexibility of native radio comms in speedlights. Combining bounce and two kickers, I rarely have to go above ISO 800, and tend to do fine with ISO 400, and it just makes a HUGE difference. Can't recommend them enough.

Yeah I can't believe there is not more info out there about the 600EX systems. I wish Nikon would get on board with radio. What Canon has done is a game changer in my opinion yet somehow it did not seem to get the recognition it deserved. If I was a Canon shooter I would be all over that....if it works; Canon's flash system has never been as polished as Nikon's in the past.

I agree, the interface of the 580 was like pulling teeth, and never really competed with Nikon on any level of usability and features. The 600's are a totally different story. They are flexible, reliable and I always want more of them. I'm sure Nikon will radio up within the year, it'd be kind of silly not to. In this shot I was able to bounce the light from one off of a barn behind me with two kickers in the background, got away with ISO 250 under a night sky.

Woops, didn't upload the first time.

great shot! Situations like these can be tough. I hope Nikon upgrades their flashes to include radio. I think the biggest issue is FCC regulations are different throughout the world. I'm not sure how Canon got around it but making everything fire on on set of frequencies is no easy or legally feasible task.

Thanks! While I'm no expert on the frequency regulation stuff, the 600's work with a device ID protocol with a 4 digit identifier that you assign to all of your units, and they will not communicate to devices over radio if the ID's don't match. I've run into frequency issues once and when that happened, an indicator on the flashes showed there was a pairing issue and they won't fire in that situation. I switched the channels (there are 15 of them) and everything was a go after that.

Yongnuo 622`s are pretty good alternatives to pocket wizards. They have a built in AF beam and also allow you to mount a flash on your camera at the same time. Very versatile and awesome for their price

Great video guys. Lee, have you ever considered mounting that PW that you have tethered to your flash on a straight bracket with a coldshoe beside your camera instead of having it dangling? Just curious to your pros/cons on that.

wouldn't the bracket interfere with the grip when you hold the camera in the vertical position?

I don't think so Patrick. It may interfere with you doing a quick battery or card change, but I would assume a straight bracket could put the PW above or below the camera in the vertical orientation depending on which way you mounted the bracket. Again its a cold shoe so it doesnt matter which way you have to slide the PW onto the cold shoe. If you put it on the top side of this illustration, I guess the con may be the cord comes out of the bottom of the flash and has to wrap over to the PW on the other side of the camera.

I just imagine the rotating screw would be sticking out where the palm of your hand touches the bottom of the camera. I don't think the PW would be in the way but rather the bracket and locking screw itself.

I'm thinking something like this Vello Bracket with the Universal flash mount may be a good addition.

Good solid info. I might suggest that instead of letting your pocket wizard dangle, get a silicone wristband to strap it to your on camera flash. We get custom wristbands with our domain on it so we can get in a little advertising while we're at it.

Not a bad idea....we have a ton of Adam Elmakias's bands.

Now this is more like the Fstoppers I used to remember. :)

I will literally, LITERALLY stab one of my photographers for turning in a 6400 iso image... I don't care what camera your shooting on.
That being said. This a pretty decent video. Sales pitch for pocket wizard but whatever.
Also, I've mastered the Fong cloud spear so hard I use NO OTHER light modifier ..well maybe an umbrella once in a while.
If you don't own a Q flash....what are you doing!

Stab? Really? I mean 6400 is pretty high up there especially if you have the chance to strobe your subject, but if the light is good they should look awesome. I know a lot of Sports Illustrated photographers and they shoot at 6400 without thinking. And some of those shots have made the cover of SI magazine. It all depends on how accurate the exposure is when shooting at ISOs that high.

It depends on the picture really. For dancing pictures, 6400 would be just fine, but if it's a picture that's going to get blown up, even on the D600, there is still noticeable noise. It's kind of lazy to just put the camera on 6400 and forget about it.

Back when I used to work at Fritz Camera (yeah that was a loooong time ago), I did a few high ISO tests. The main thing I took away from it was that even when images look grainy and muddy on my monitor, for some reason they usually print with WAY less grain than expected. The largest print we could print was 36" by whatever length but even those looked great. There is probably something technical that is happening when viewing an image on a screen vs in print but I've learned that even grainy images I might consider non acceptable actually look fine when printed on actual photo paper.

Edit: And at that time the best camera available was the D200 or I imagine the high ISO quality now would be even better.

I don't know why but I have found this to be true. Or maybe it looks more natural on print??

Yea, stab is harsh! As long as the image is clean, who cares. Personally, when I saw an image shot in very low light at a reception @ 6400 ISO (no flash) on a jaw hit the floor. It's unreal how well that camera produces clean images at those high ISOs. At that price point though, I guess I shouldn't have been as surprised.

I prefer to light in a similar way to the tutorial but im with Patrick, there's nothing wrong with an ISO 6400 image. It also depends on the camera as well as the lighting but most full frame cameras will produce very clean images at high ISO

Master of the Tupperware Fond Dong?

If you're considering all of those lightstands near the dance floor... sandbags, sandbags, sandbags... and safety cables. One sandbag isn't going to stop a guest with a few too many pops in them from kicking that stand over, sending your speedlight to the ground. Better yet, find a way to use super clamps and magic arms if possible.

Well freakin done, guys. You are awesome. Thank you!

Nicely done. It's not just "This is how I do it every time." and you mention the compromises of each technique. I'm still debating whether it's worth keeping my studio lights around but there is always a time when I need them.

I have an alternative to the dangling Pocket Wizard. I use a 1/2 inch piece of all-thread and mount my PW to the bottom of my camera. Use a washer and/or nut to create a spacer for the best fit. Feel free to use this basic idea. (Patent pending)

The problem with this is you can't shoot vertically now. Where does your palm go?

Sure you can. Just have to use use the regular grip and just turn it like you didn't have a vertical grip.

i thought we were supposed to see all 4 setups?

I thought we were going to see all 4 techniques like he said in the beginning?

Interesting lighting. Thanks for explaining how you use it in your personal wedding photography.

So the kickers are in manual mode, at what power typically? And is the on-camera also manual or E-TTL?

So when using the bounce/kicker method, how many kickers do you use and how many are turned on at a time?

I usually place two lights on the dance floor and alternate between the two depending on where I'm standing. Last week I shot a wedding in Aruba where the reception was outside with no ceiling to bounce off of so I setup 2 kickers and had them both on most of the time. It was one of those rare occasions where I used direct flash as my key light which doesn't look too bad if you supplement it with some backlight from the kickers. I only had 1 assistant and didn't want to take her away from shooting simply to light for me like in the video.

Sorry, I'm just seeing this. lol Ok, that makes sense. I feel like 2 would pretty much take care of any given spot at the reception. One other question is how do you determine the flash power of the lights? It would be a pain to have to lower the stand every time to make an adjustment while you are trying to dial it in.

Right now,I'm using Yongnuo 685's with a 622 to control them. I love the fact that I can adjust the flashes as needed from the camera, but I also like the way you can quickly turn a flash on or off from the pocket wizard. If I felt more comfortable setting the power on the flashes, I would love to switch over the the pocket wizards.