Creative lighting for first dance photos

One part of the wedding day that I really love to photograph (actually I love it all, but for the sake of this article one part I really love) is the first dance and father/daughter, mother/son dance. Normally these are in the reception venue where the lights come down, creating a nice dark room. I love to think of dark places as a nice blank canvas ready to create whatever vision is in my mind.

There are a couple of things I normally do at reception venues to create artistic light. With an average size room what I will usually do is put 2 lights on opposite corners of the dance floor. One will be an alien bee B800 which produces a lot of light. If you are looking for a nice and portable monolight, these alien bees are great. We have used 3 of them in the studio for about 6 years, they are reliable and priced very well. Check them out here:

Depending on the size of the room I will normally point it towards the ceiling and have it around 1/2 power. This will bounce off the ceiling and give a good overall light covering the dance floor from above. Then I will setup a smaller unit like a Vivitar 285 ( Vivitar 285HV Auto Professional Flash) or just a canon speedlight. I will adjust the power of this depending on the distance to the middle of the dance floor and how dark the room is. This will be used sometimes as the main light or a dramatic backlight depending on what angle I shoot from.
To read a review of the vivitar 285’s read this review we did, Vivitar 285 flash review

There are so many different things you can do with this type of light. Here is an example with a vivitar setup on one corner of the dance floor and on the other opposite corner an alien bee. In this shot the vivitar was set to 1/2 power and positioned right behind the brides head. The alien been was set to about 1/4 power bouncing off the ceiling to give a good fill light. Shooting with the vivitar right behind the subject but just barely visible creates that really cool burst of light and also an interesting shadow on the floor coming towards the camera. The light on the other side fills in their face so they are well lit.

creative wedding lighting

This next shot is on the same dance floor. If you are looking at the image above, the camera for this 2nd shot is going to be just to the left of the heat lamp that is in the background. So the vivitar flash is now coming in from the left of the camera at about a 45 degree angle and the other light is still just giving a broad fill to the dance floor. You can see the really nice dimensional light that this gives to the girl in red though. Look at her face and the dimension that you have from the light coming in from the left side. Also since the alien bee is coming in from the right this does create a little highlight around the right side of her arm giving it shading and again more dimension to the photo. Using a few lights off camera can really make your images pop and the options are only limited by your creativity!

creative wedding reception lighting

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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. I’m shooting my first wedding in January and I can’t wait to try out some fun dance shots. I have 3 Alien Bee 800’s and 3 Nikon Speedlights. I want to get some great lighting. Do you have any suggestions for a dance floor that has a super high ceiling (25-30 feet)? I’m concerned that the strobes will be too bright if aimed right at the couple and not bright enought if bounced.

  2. If you have the alien bees they should be plenty powerful to light up the dance floor. Even at 30 feet those can bounce off the ceiling no problem and be very bright (unless its a very dark ceiling and just sucks up the light). You can also try bouncing off the walls to soften the light or put an umbrella on the lights to bounce off of. Good luck with the wedding and let me know how it goes, would love to see images!

  3. Wondering how you trigger you lights and also if you incorporate gels.

    Also, do you ever use on camera as fill in this kind of enviro?

    Like the composition of the top image a lot. Thanks for the info. Jimmy

  4. Hi Jimmy,

    I trigger the flashes with Pocket Wizards (the new miniTT1 and Flex do TTL and are pretty awesome), post about those here:
    I do gel the lights sometimes to either balance the light with the ambient or to create an artistic look to the shot. Lately I have been using just a little bit of on camera fill since the new pocketwizards have a hot shoe also so I can
    have one light on camera turned way down and 2-3 other main lights on the dance floor. Thanks for the comment!


  5. This is a great time in a wedding to get creative and experimental. I like to put two speedlights on stands on the corners of the far side of the dancefloor to backlight the couple and give fabulous rim lighting. These shots are always popular with the couple and are great to finish off any wedding album. Best to trigger the flashes using wireless and because of the low light it is often necessary to focus manually.

  6. Hi Mark,

    When you said “opposite corner” means diagonally opposite right ?. When shooting with manual power like 285HV and Alien Been aren’t you worried if the images will have blown up highlights?. Do you usually check with lightmeter around the dance floor or room ?.



  7. Hi John,

    Yes, I do mean diagonal opposite thanks for clearing that up. When shooting in any situation it is best to check with the lightmeter around the room. Depending in the height/color of the ceiling, ambient light, etc.. it will be different for every venue and always will need to be fine tuned a bit.

    Thanks for the questions.

  8. Great article Mark! Did you have a speedlight on your camera at all and did you use it in addition for these two shots? I would like to set up lighting like this for my next wedding, but it makes me nervous to not have one of my speedlights on my camera in case I venture to far from my lighting.

    Many thanks for your time and expertise!

  9. Hi Kelley,
    Thanks for your comment. No speedlight on the camera at all just a pocketwizard trigger on the hotshoe to fire off the 2 off camera flashes. You can put on a speedlight on top of the pocketwizard mount if you wanted to (and even have it on for a little fill coming from the camera) or I usually do have a 2nd camera around my other shoulder at all times and with that will have a speedlight on camera that I can use to bounce light on the ceiling or wherever else might make for a good quick light.

    – Mark


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