Sometimes its all about the ambient

You all know I am a big fan of lighting. There are so many things you can do with lighting, i’ll use it during the day to fill in shadows or to create more dynamic images by overpowering the sun. Sometimes i’ll use lighting in a dark reception hall to create artistic images of the wedding reception. Whatever the case I am a huge fan of what great lighting can do to separate our work and help us to stand out. But for wedding receptions many times you want to capture the beauty of the ambient light that they have setup. Brides can spend thousands of dollars on lighting at the reception. The venue may be setup with beautiful spotlights, up lights, candlelights, so many things that create a beautiful atmosphere. You want to capture all of that beautiful warm light and the overall feel of the room which flash can kill sometimes.

In these cases there are a few things which will help out:

  • Having a camera that can handle a high ISO (sometimes shooting around 1600)
  • Having a lens that can go down to f/2.8 (or below)
  • A sturdy tripod
  • When I have a room like the one below I will set my ISO around 1600 and usually shoot around f/2.8 at 1/20th of a second or lower. You might ask why I f/2.8 if you are trying to get a room shot? For me I will shoot these with a very wide lens, sometimes 24mm or even 15mm. On a full frame sensor with your subject far in the distance you will still have a pretty large range of what will be in focus. Also with my style I don’t need the entire room to be crisp, really just the first set of tables and if the rest drops off focus slightly I prefer that. If I was shooting an architectural image for a commercial purpose that might be a different story and I would need to get a sharp focus from end to end. If you have a very dramatic lighting setup like in this image there are a few things to take into consideration. With the strong difference between the spotlights and the shadow area your camera isn’t going to have the dynamic range to capture both. I will exposure more for the highlights and let the shadow areas be a little dark, if I want later I can bring back up the shadows slightly in Photoshop but having some nice shadows can really add to the dynamic feel to the image.

    Sometimes you can also just use a spotlight in the room as your main light. This can give you a really nice dramatic image that focuses solely on the item you are photographing and make it stand out against the darker background. I normally will zoom in close to the item that the spotlight is highlighting and get my exposure that way. Then manually set the exposure and shoot some images. It really is best to set your exposure on manual for these types of shots because moving your camera an inch one way or the other can throw the exposure way off. Here is just a centerpiece from that same room with only the spotlight highlighting it.

    Here you can see the difference from adding a flash to the image of the cake of just using the spotlight that was pointing down on it. The flash image does show you more of the detail of the cake which the bride will probably want to see so I will usually photograph it both ways. It’s really important to give them many views of the day and different perspectives. Investigate the scene you are photographing and see how many different ways you can shoot it! Also if you don’t have a spotlight in the room that is illuminating items bring your own. A $30 spotlight flashlight from Target or any other store can work wonders, try it out next time.

    ambient light for photographing weddings

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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 Comment

    1. I can easily understand the bride would pick the first photo of the cake.
      But IF it was my personnal choice, i would definitely choose the last one. I like dark pictures anyway 🙂

      Nice article !

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