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CHAPTER 3 Basic Production > Using the Natural Light

Using the Natural Light

In many professional settings, shooters have the space and time to set up expensive equipment to perfectly light their subjects. A basic studio lighting kit would include a key light (or main light, used to light the scene and subject from the front or side), a fill light (a less powerful light used to fill in the shadows of the key light), and a backlight (to create depth behind the subject). In contrast, wedding photographers must often rely on harsh sunshine, dim church light (where flash photography is often prohibited), candlelight, colored lights, and strobes from a DJ, and whatever small lights or flashes might be in their gear bag.

In this section, we’ll cover some ways to use the light as best you can in any given situation to make your shots look studio lit. As we discuss each section of the wedding event in later chapters, we’ll revisit lighting to talk about specific ideas. For now, we’ll discuss basic concepts that are imperative to your basic shooting techniques.

Lighting Basics

Ideally, you always want the light to hit your subjects from the front or gently from the side to keep them well-exposed. Even light distribution makes for the easiest and often cleanest shots. As the sunshine is likely to be your light source for a lot of the day, aim to shoot from an angle where the sunlight is hitting your subject (or subjects) evenly, or front on. If the sunlight is hitting your bride from too much of an angle, part of her will be well lit and part of her will be in dark shadow. Will your subjects be squinting and blinking and cursing you when you make them look into the sun? Well, maybe. But they’ll like that better than a bunch of backlit pictures later on. If the sunlight is extremely bright and right overhead, watch for shadows. If you have a flash, you can use it to fill in shadows in this situation, or you might want to consider shooting in the shade if it is an option. (See Figure 3.15.)

If you are manually adjusting your camera’s exposure settings, make sure to do it based on the subjects, not the background. A blown-out, or overexposed, background is more visually acceptable than a blown-out subject—not to mention easier to fix in post production.

The prettiest time to shoot tends to be about an hour before sunset—when the sun is low in the sky and the light is gold-tinted, warm in color temperature, and evenly dispersed. Depending on what is going on pre-sunset in the timeline of the particular wedding you are shooting, you might be capturing vows, toasts, setup, or send-off; regardless, if you happen to be outside, make sure you have your camera on you and ready to go when that golden light appears.

Figure 3.15 Even light is the easiest to shoot in, but the speckled, or dappled, pockets of light of outdoors can create a nice highlighting effect, as shown around the cake in the first photo. Be careful of the harsh pockets of light and shadows that outdoor lighting can create, though, as shown in the second photo. (First image courtesy of


Shooting in Low Light

Shooting in low light is as common in weddings as shooting in the bright summer sunshine. Churches, receptions, and dance floors all tend to be poorly and unevenly lit. Here are some things to consider to improve your exposure in dim settings:

image Focus. In low light, your aperture will be more open, shortening your depth of field and making it hard to focus. So hard, in fact, that if your camera isn’t receiving enough light to find the subject, it will autofocus on various elements in the scene (or nothing at all) as it searches. This lends itself nicely to getting pictures of blurry, unrecognizable subjects in dark, dingy backgrounds. If you have the option of manually focusing your camera, you’ll have a much better chance of actually getting the shot. Your eye is much more adept at finding focus quickly than the autofocus mechanism, and even in that short depth of field you should be able to get cleaner shots.

image Gain and grain. Many video cameras have the option of adding gain, which amplifies the signal sent to the sensor. Literally more voltage is sent per pixel to be read. Gain is measured in decibels (dB); a gain of approximately 3dB is the equivalent of opening the aperture about one f-stop. That sounds great, doesn’t it? All your low-light problems solved! Well…not really. Gain can be very helpful, and I recommend you look for manual gain adjustment on your camera, but be very wary of overusing it. That amplified signal, which in moderation will lend light to your scene, can very easily turn into a source of noise, or grainy images. While each camera performs differently in low-light situations, a general rule of thumb would warn you against boosting your gain by more than 6dB in any scenario to avoid grainy pictures that lack rich color and detail.

image Streaking. When you are shooting video in an otherwise low-light scene, a small area of bright light can cause streaking in camera movements such as pans. While some of those streaks might be artistic and desirable, if you are looking for clean footage, make sure to manually focus to prevent your camera from continually trying to focus on the small light. If your camera doesn’t have a manual focus, make your camera movements very slow to avoid continual auto focusing (and refocusing), and consider framing the small lights out of the shot.

image Blurring. Lowering your shutter speed is a great way to boost the amount of exposure your sensor is receiving while you are shooting in low light. Be careful, though. Unless you are using a tripod, you are likely to blur your footage when you reduce your shutter speed too much. You simply can’t hold your camera perfectly still for those longer-duration shutter openings. You and your camera might vary slightly, but a general rule of thumb would indicate that anything slower than 1/60 of a second should be on tripod.

Shooting in Bright Light

Shooting in bright light is difficult. Your camera will adjust for the light source rather than your subjects, which may be underexposed—possibly even silhouetted. You also have pesky shadows and the possibility of overexposure to contend with. Here are some ways to combat especially bright light:

image Subject settings. As mentioned, be sure to adjust your settings to appropriately light the subject, not the background. This might still result in an overexposed background, but that is a better option than a well-lit background and an overexposed subject.

image Neutral density filters. Many higher-end cameras include neutral density filters, which reduce the amount of light allowed into the camera without changing the color levels. They can be very helpful; often, your camera will tell you when one should be applied. Don’t forget about the filter when you go back inside, though; that is embarrassingly easy to do.

image Shadows. There is no way to magically erase shadows. The best you can do is become better at watching for them as you shoot. Of course, sometimes you might actually want to shoot a shadowy scene or use the dappled light as part of the composition (see Figure 3.16), but do so with awareness. You’ll kick yourself if your own shadow is in every shot by mistake.

Figure 3.16 Shadows aren’t always a bad thing. On the contrary, a shadow can be the element that makes an image work, as is the case here. However, shadows must be used carefully. This shot works only because of the precise placement that is highlighting the child’s expression. (Image courtesy of Rick Collins;


image Overexposure warnings. Many camcorders and higher-end video cameras use zebra stripes, or lines over your image to point out any parts of the image that are overexposed (red lines) or approaching too much exposure (green lines). Still cameras often use histograms, or bar graphs, to show which part of an image might be getting too much exposure, or have a feature where overexposed parts of the image can blink red. Some shooters find these warnings a distraction (especially since overexposure on small parts of an image isn’t a big deal), while others rely on them to create a well-contrasted image. There is no right or wrong way to do it, but it’s worth figuring out what your options are if you think you are going to be shooting in a situation where overexposure is likely.

Using Additional Light

Flashes are so very tempting to use in the low-light settings that so often plague weddings. After all, if you need some extra light, why wouldn’t you use the light that’s right there built into your camera—especially when the automatic settings or your camera are telling you it’s a good idea?

The fact is, built-in flashes aren’t great for low-light shooting because they aren’t designed to deliver very much light. Most likely, a built-in flash will highlight your subject a little bit (often in a ghostly and uneven way) and leave your background totally underexposed. The first thing you can do to improve the quality of your low-light shooting is work really hard to avoid using your flash—most especially your built-in flash—by following the advice in preceding chapters: increasing your ISO, opening your aperture, and using longer exposure times. If that doesn’t help, many cameras also offer night mode, which will briefly expose your foreground with a flash but use brighter exposure settings appropriate for the dark background in an attempt to even things out. Often, in night mode, the longer exposure of the background will have a soft or blurred look, which is stylistically appropriate for a wedding.

So when do you use your built-in flash? Somewhat counterintuitively, built-in flashes work best on scenes that are already lit, but perhaps unevenly so. A flash can even out and soften poorly distributed light such as sunshine hitting your subject at too much of an angle, creating uneven exposure on opposite sides of the face. A backlit scene (so often warned against) can be mitigated if a flash is used to give the subject additional light to help compensate for the bright background; dappled light can be smoothed with the addition of a little bit of extra light from a built-in flash.

External flashes do an even better job of adding discreet light than built-in flashes. Not only are they brighter, but you can point them in the direction needed. For example, if sunshine is hitting your subject brightly from the left, you can orient your external flash to compensate with additional light on the right. External flashes can be metered; you can adjust the amount of light thrown off manually or using the through the lens (TTL) metering function of higher quality lenses. Some built-in flashes can be metered also; check the settings of your camera to see if that is an option.

Another benefit to an external flash is the ability to bounce light. A wide light source (such as the sun) will provide more even light than a narrow light source (such as a flash, lamp, or small window). However, in photography, the last place that the light hit is considered the source, so if you shine your narrow flash at a wall, and the light from the wall bounces onto your subject, you suddenly have a wider source (the wall) sending off a more even, soft light. Bouncing flash requires some practice, but can dramatically change the look of your shots; try bouncing a flash off of a wall, the ceiling, or a piece of white poster board.

Using an external flash can elevate your photography quickly. You can start playing around with multiple flash combinations and bouncing light with more sophistication. Remember, though, that even for professionals, weddings don’t offer a lot of setup time, so fancy lighting configurations won’t happen all that often. As a beginner, you are much better off having a relatively simple setup that you know how to use well.

The Most Important Things to Remember About Flashes

Learning to use flashes requires a book in and of itself—and not a short one. But here are some important basic reminders for beginners when shooting with flashes:

image A built-in flash won’t light the dark. A built-in flash is not designed to put out a huge amount of light. The best use for the built-in flash on your camera is to fill in shadows and even out exposure when shooting in bright light, not to shoot in the dark.

image A flash has limited range. When shooting in the dark, anything outside the range of the flash will be underexposed, possibly to the point of being invisible. In these cases, you are better off in night portrait mode (sometimes called slow sync flash).

image You can change the output power of the flash. Using your camera’s flash exposure compensation control (or controls on the flash unit itself, if you’re using an external flash), you can dial the output of the flash up or down to shine more or less light into your scene.

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