Wedding photography at night, (Tips and How to)
Nighttime wedding photography tips.
Almost every wedding now, I do includes a couple night shots. There are a lot of good reasons why I do, and I’m here to say, that you if you are a budding wedding photographer, you should too.
Night photos at a wedding. They are quick, simple, impressive. Always impressive. And they can be the last thing that you do on the wedding day. It's a good way to wrap up the day, get the couple away from the crowd, leave them with a great lasting impression of you. You get a little bit a quiet time, and you can excuse yourself.
You'll need a little bit of gear. Namely an off-camera flash and a radio trigger, but today those are pretty easy to come by.
I think that every wedding photographer should be doing some night photography for their couples.
It is quick, easy, impressive and does not take a lot of know-how to pull off well.
First off, what is a night shot?
To me, a night shot, is a photo or series of photos that you take of the bride and groom, usually just them, unless friends tag along. That usually involves, setting up off-camera flash. Typically it's backlit, and that is what I find the easiest, but it can be all kinds of different lighting scenarios.
Why should you include a night shot, in your wedding photography?
There are a number of reasons, why I do this, and have done for some years. First off, it's incredibly valuable to your clients. I cannot remember a single couple who was not appreciative of including that last little night shot. For the time and energy that it takes, you are going to knock their socks off.
I'm sure at this point, a lot of couples have seen a backlit night shot in my portfolio and are probably expecting something along those lines, for their own wedding photography. So I cannot disappoint them! Fortunately for me, getting a magical shot at the tail end of the wedding is almost a guarantee. That is if you know a little bit about off-camera flash, and have the appropriate tools.
Before we get into the tools, are there any more reasons why we want to do this?
For me it is a time to get the couple alone, let them take a quick break from the dance floor, decompress and I can make my exit after this. It ends the evening on a high note, photographically speaking. At some point during the evening, or even earlier in the day I will just seek their permission, and say hey at some point tonight right at the tail end of the evening, I was thinking I would set up a couple flashes or a light outside and we can do a quick night shot, does that sound good? 100% of the time they are going to say, sure no problem.
So I give them a bit of a heads up, is it okay if we step outside for five minutes after the next couple songs? They are almost always ready take a bit of a break, and catch some of the cool night air. So I head out and scout a location, If I haven't already done so earlier in the day. As a quick bonus tip, sometimes I will Google the wedding venue that I'm at, and see if any other photographers have found interesting locations to shoot at during the evening. These photos jump off the page, because they are obviously taken at night. Even the wedding venue and night photography, or night will yield some impressive results. I'm not talking about, ripping off another photographer's shot verbatim, but they can help you find spots that perhaps you didn't know existed. If it looks quite hidden, you can even stop and ask a staff member if they know where the shot might have been taken. It's up to you then to creatively choose a lens, lighting, pose and any other things to make your picture better!
How do I find a good location for a wedding photo at night?
I'm sure there are 1 million things that will probably work and look impressive for a night shot. However, one of the things that I am always looking for are frames that I can backlight. Doorways, trees, ruins or structures, interesting foliage patterns, tunnels, the exterior of the building, a peaked roof once you start looking, it won't take long to get inspiration. Failing that, the middle of a field will work just fine. A desolate wasteland is all you need.
Once you have your perfect location, you are going to wanna light it.
So what do I use to light it?
Hopefully you know a little bit about off-camera flash, so this step won't be too difficult. You're going to want some type of flash, I love the Godox series of flashes, as they are super cheap and reliable. I have Nikon branded flashes as well, and used to use Yongnuo, which are also great. For more detail on what wireless flashes to use, and how to set them up check out my other articles.
Back to the lighting set up. Almost always, you are going to want to backlight your frame, and your couple. You can use a lighting stand, rest the flash on the ground, a stump, your camera bag or a lot of other things you can find lying around. For the most part, anything behind the flash is likely to be in complete darkness so anything will do. If it's a really enclosed space, and the light is going to bounce around this area won't be totally dark so just keep that in mind. That said it is still likely to be concealed by the couple in front of it. Most of the time I’m just using the ground these days. Set the beam wide, tilt it up slightly, and you’re in business.
Set up the light, and choose a medium to low power. This takes some trial and error, but you're all alone out here in the dark and you have some time to practice. Set up the light and imagine where the couple will be standing. Backup from them to frame your shot. I should've mentioned it earlier, but it's often a good idea to bring some sort of light or flashlight. I used to use my phone all the time, but now I have a little LED continuous light that does away better job.
Frame the shot. Your camera isn't going to be able to autofocus, most likely so switch it over to manual focus. Manually focus to the distance the couple's going to be at approximately from you. And take a test shot. This is likely going to be totally blown out. But that's okay, you just want to make sure that the flash is triggering, and have a look around the edges of your frame. Are things lighting up nicely? Do you need to change settings? Up the flash power? Up the ISO? Or change the width of the beam coming from your flash? I usually start shooting these wide-open, about a 10th power on the flash, and pretty low ISO. From there I can bump up the flash power if it's wireless. Or if it's not, just crank my ISO and see how things behave. If I left the flash at a 10th power and had to crank my ISO up to 1600. Once I have everything set up I set the camera on the ground, walk over to the flash and boost the flash power accordingly. I regularly use anything from just a kiss of light, 1/128th power, all the way to full blast.
At this point, your picture still probably looks brutal, because there's nothing blocking the flash. There are a couple things I do at this point. For a very quick view of how the picture is likely to look, I stretch out my left hand at arms length and hold up two fingers. My flash blinks red at this stage, and I cover the flash with my two fingers. If you're shooting a wide-angle lens which you likely are at this point, your two fingers sort of approximate two human bodies, our bride and groom one is even taller and shorter. Cover the light with your fingers as you looking through your camera, now take the shot. (See reference image) Sometimes the light slips a little bit between your fingers, again a likely scenario once you have the real people. Sometimes you block it all the way, I'm always amazed at how well this little trick works. I've never heard it talked about before, who knows maybe this is a davidiam original. You should be able to continue to dial in your settings in this manner.
The second thing I will sometimes do, is grab a couple wedding guests, or members of the wedding party. If there was a couple that I really struck a chord with during the day I might seek them out, for a kind wedding party member who has their significant other there as well, I'll ask if they want to be my guinea pigs, and they always say yes. The bonus to them is, they are going to get a great shot themselves out of this. Then I march them on over to my set up location, I've left my camera on the ground here assuming it's not the middle of downtown, I set them up where I want them, and take the shot. I dial in all my settings, and I know I'm going to be good to go with the bride and groom, and won't have to take too much of their time. You don't want to keep your bride and groom waiting, for eight days while you fiddle the lights.
One big struggle, that you are going to have depending on the circumstances, is focusing on the couple. You are likely going to want to use manual focus, And sort of a trial and error approach, but there are some shortcuts that you can take. I used to turn my phone on the highest brightness, and also set it so that the screen doesn't go to sleep right away. Then I would pull up a white browser window page, and get them to hold my phone sort of approximately at their chest or their head. This gives you something to focus on, that the camera can grab onto. A lot of times I find myself using live view here, and single focus. Then once I have nailed the focus, I switch the camera over to manual focus and try not to bump it. I can take a series of pictures, and they're all going to be in focus.
I don't use my phone, very much anymore. Instead, I use the LED video light, that I mentioned earlier and I just shine that on to the couple. It's either in my hand, or I set it on the ground sort of tilted up towards them. it will cast enough light onto them, so that you can see what you're doing without throwing off the exposure at all. If the light shows up in the bottom of the frame, on the grass, it is completely trivial to remove in Lightroom with the click of a mouse.
Some useful tips
Night wedding photography settings? What's best?
There are so many different options here, depending on the setup you have going. It might not quite be fully dark, so you crank that shutter speed to make it seem darker than it is. Keeping in mind, the limits of using shutter speed with off-camera flash if you're not using high-speed sync. Actual setups as well differ wildly. Sometimes I have a light 5 feet behind a couple, and I'm 30 feet away. Other times I have set up a flash 50 feet behind them, and a second flash 10 feet behind them, because I wanted to light up some architecture further back. Having a second flash is a bonus, and is definitely not needed in most circumstances. There was a time where I was using to flashes all the time, but for the most part you can get away with one.
Use two lenses. Have a second lens at the ready. I think I almost always start with a wide angle, my trusty 28 mm. That gets me started, but I will also bring a second or third lens if I have the time. I stay put, my lighting situation stays put, you will have to refocus of course but apart from that, you can get two looks from one spot. As I write this, I realize I bring to lenses because I'm a prime shooter, I didn't even consider that lots of people are going be using zoom lenses, so if that's the case shoot one wide and she will narrow.
Changeup their posture. You're going to want to pose the bride and groom, looking at each other initially. This makes a beautiful silhouette shot, and is sort of my go-to for this sort of thing. If they're facing you, or the camera they are going to be in complete shadow, and it's not really a usable image. You will see real fast, what I mean when you try it. I get them to face each other, and then very up their distance. It depends how much they're covering the light in behind, sometimes you want them completely covering it, sometimes you want a little sliver poking out, making a bit of a lens flare, other times you want quite a bit of the light showing. You'll be amazed at how dramatically the scene changes, by them moving just a single inch. What I have found for the silhouettes is that you want them very close, for heads almost touching but not quite. As soon as they touch you lose the silhouette and it's like they have two heads joined together, like Siamese twins or something. It's not the look that I'm after anyway. So I will tell them as close as you can but knows what he for heads touching. This can surprisingly, be quite an ask if your couple has had a few too many to drink, then just work with what you have.
Boost up your ISO, to drop recycling times. If you boost up your ISO, and drop your flash power you will have better recycling times so that you can rattle off more frames. It can be super frustrating, waiting on a flash to recycle. A funny moment is happening, you cracked an awesome joke and your couple have thrown their heads back with glee, and your camera won't take the picture because it is waiting on the flash to recycle. This is a total bummer. Of course, we always want to show our best images, keep ISO and grain down, but this is a scenario where you don't want your flash working too hard. If the flash is maxed out, try just boosting up that film speed a little bit.
Get a few poses. Try to work it, with different poses. Them close but no cigar. Kissing. Sort of a lien over dip, which oftentimes you have to move the groom backward a step, so that when he dips her your couple is still centered, and blocking the flash. A lift up shot, can also look super impressive.
Rain is your friend. Probably one of the fewest scenarios, where rain is truly your friend on the wedding day. Get an umbrella, and a couple backlit in the rain, and magic is sure to happen. My ideal wedding day would always have, just a touch of rain at 10 o'clock at night for this occasion. Just be mindful, that the umbrella you choose is really going to show up. Clear, white, black can all look really great. So can a pattern, as long as it works with the couple because it is going to be prominent. Being backlit it is going to light up like a Christmas tree. That said you can always try to darken it in post-production.
Reflections are also your friend. If it's been raining all day, and it's finally stopped just at the wrong time don't forget to look for puddles. In a night shot like this, a still puddle might as well be a mirror. And can make for some super striking images. You can also have fun with some Photoshop trickery because your couple is likely to be surrounded by a lot of darkness, it can be easier to Photoshop some interesting things into the frame.
You have a lot of room to have some fun during editing. Since there is so much darkness in these photos, and you have for the most part controlled the light almost completely, you can have a lot of fun. This is a good time to use your gels creatively to color the light, or you can also go nuts during the editing phase. Try having some fun and experimenting with different white balances, or split tones.
I don't often show the back of my camera, to the bride and groom on the big day. However, after the night shot is often one exception. I feel almost as if I owed to them, as I have dragged them out sometimes in unfavorable conditions, taking them away from the party to get this shot. One great thing is, they love to see that shot and will heap praise on you. It helps that night shots look amazing, coming straight out of camera even before any editing is done.
I find that this is a great idea as well, because you're almost done with the evening and this leaves a super favorable impression on your couple. Hopefully, they were already impressed with how you handled yourself during the day, but seeing that last night shot is going to get them super pumped. They are going to tell you while I can't wait to see these photos! so it makes you a little bit of a hero, right before you ride off into the night time.
Which is exactly what I do, at this point you still have their attention and can give them a heads up that you're going to be wrapping up. If there is anything more they want to be photographed, you can tell them to give you heads up but that you're winding it down. After being so successful, and showing them this last image, you will have their blessing to go. Rejoice, a job well done.