A quick 3 light setup for wedding portraits

When most people start out with photography I know that once the light goes down you tend to throw the flash on top of your camera and start firing away. I am a huge fan of quick, portable off camera flash and have written many articles for this site on how to use off camera lighting for wedding and portrait photography. You can check out a few of our older articles here: An Intro To Off Camera Lighting, creative lighting for first dance photos, and Using off camera lighting for wedding photography.

Today I want to talk for a minute on why using 3 lights for portraits can give you some awesome results and how quick & easy it can be to setup 3 lights. When getting started with off camera lighting it can be a little daunting but with some practice you will get the hang of it quick, so don’t be afraid and start to experiment. First you might be thinking why 3 lights, won’t one be enough? One of the main reasons for adding additional lights to a scene is to add extra dimension to your images. Having extra lights to the side of your subject or behind will make the image look more 3 dimensional and give the photo more depth and pop. I’ll walk through what the lights all really did in this image and give you the tech settings so its easy to understand and for you to get out there shooting your own off camera lighting images.

First the final shot and a little about the gear used. I always love to share recent and real world examples so this was from my wedding a few weeks ago. It was a quick setup at the very end of the night to give the bride and groom something different from what we had shot earlier in the day. There is a awesome olive grove at the venue that they have lights strung throughout the trees. It makes for a pretty dramatic backdrop at night so I knew I wanted to do something with the bride and groom in there. Here is one of the tighter cropped frames so you can see the effect of the lighting.

iPhone iPad

Other than the lights in the trees the lighting is very dark. There is really no other ambient lights since the olive grove is out in the middle of a vineyard. Here is a view of the setting that I took when setting up the lights.

3 light setup for weddings

I wanted to sit the bride and groom on the ledge of the fountain and setup a very simple and quick lighting setup all with small speedlights. My lights are triggered by Pocketwizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5’s. The main light I set to ETTL and was about 15 degrees to the right of the camera and up high on a light stand. Since I generally only have a few minutes to setup a shot, the ETTL does a pretty good job of getting the exposure correct. For this main light I used a Canon 580II speed light. The purpose of this light is to expose my subject while not overbearing the entire scene so I can still get the beauty of the lights in the background.

The 2nd light is to the left of the bride and groom pointed right at his right arm. This is setup to just give a little more dimension to the image. It should have been angled slightly more towards the grooms back though since it cast a shadow on the brides arm. This light was a Canon 550 set to manual and 1/16th power. It is meant to provide just a small kick to the side of the grooms body to add some dimension.

The 3rd light is setup directly behind them pointed at their heads. This is to give that cool backlight rim that shows around them. Again it just adds a little dimension to the photo and helps them to pop out from the background a little more.

Here is what the scene looked like without the bride and groom. Without having a test subject I used the main part of the fountain as a quick gauge on how I wanted the light ratios to look. Weddings are tricky since you only have a few minutes to setup shots and then have to roll with it.

3 light wedding portrait setup

Also you can see a quick lighting diagram here for more details on how the lighting was setup:


Tech Specs for the shot:

Shot with a Canon 5d.
Canon 580II, Canon 550, Vivitar 285.
Manfrotto Tripod
ISO 400
1/8th of a second at f/ 2.8
Canon 70-200 L lens set to 130mm

Another really cool thing about having a backlight setup is you can change around the angle that you are shooting to include a little bit of the light. Sometimes i’ll position the light just an inch over the grooms shoulder to create some nice lens flare or other times will include the whole light for a more dramatic look. Here is my favorite shot during this time when I just moved position a little to shoot lower and to the side so that the backlight comes into the frame. Remember to always experiment and move around, a few feet to the side or getting real high or low can sometimes make all the difference between a decent shot and a great shot.

dramatic lighting for wedding photos

If you are interested in learning more about off camera lighting check out this intro I posted awhile back: An Intro To Off Camera Lighting

Also I have a list of our Lighting essentials here: Digital Photo Buzz Lighting Essentials

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Author: Mark

Mark is a fine art wedding and portrait photographer from Northern California. He has been passionate about photography since childhood and started his studio 12 years ago to bring a fresh style of photography to the wedding and portrait world.

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  1. The images don’t show in IE 9 even when Compatability view is used. I see the images in Firefox just fine

  2. Great explanation. I love working with 3-4 flashes at a time to create a unique look and separate our work from competition.

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