Flash Technique in Wedding Photography
I was originally going to call this post ‘Flash v Natural Light’ (as in artificial v natural) but when I reflected on the subject more closely, I decided that the two qualities of light were not in opposition to each other. Unless a difference is intended, with skill, the two light sources can be blended imperceptibly. Unless we are going for a deliberately stylised look, or something particularly dramatic, clients generally want their wedding pictures to look as natural as possible. So the aim when using flash is too make its use as unnoticeable as possible in the final pictures.
Flash is generally used in photography when there is not enough ambient light available to enable a correct exposure. Digital cameras these days are being made with increasingly sensitive sensors which have made it possible to shoot with increasingly diminished available light. However, even if they could shoot in complete darkness, there would still be a need for flash in various scenarios. But first, a quick guide to how flash works.
The technology involved in a pro flash gun is kind of mind boggling. First, a pulse of light, or pre-flash, is emitted from the gun when the camera’s shutter release is fired. This hits the subject and is reflected back to be picked up by a sensor on the front of the flash gun. Then the gun and camera in tandem use this pre-flash info to figure out exactly how much light needs to be emitted to make a correct exposure. Then the primary flash is fired. This all happens so fast that the eye only registers a single flash going off. Well, it is all happening at the speed of light!
One basic rule of thumb when using flash is to avoid flash fired directly at the subject. This produces a very flat light on the face that is unflattering, can produce red-eye and also can cause flash shadows if the subject is standing close to a wall. I cringe when I see flash shadows in professional wedding photography: it is so amateurish and easy to avoid. To avoid direct flash I either take the flash off the camera altogether or direct the flash gun head to bounce the flash off a wall or ceiling, preferably the former. Or, if direct flash is unavoidable (for example if we are outdoors), using a light modifier on the flash gun is the way to go.
In the photo at the top of the page, the flash was off camera to create a soft light by bouncing the light from the inside of a silver umbrella. Tom and Katy’s wedding was in November and by the end of the ceremony it was getting dark, but they still wanted to get some portrait shots outside. So it was necessary for me to use an assistant to hold an umbrella to use as a reflecting light source for the flash. The umbrella creates a much broader and therefore softer band of light than firing straight from the flash gun which is why it is ubiquitous in portrait photography. When shooting at dusk, the camera’s metering system will still try to expose the shot as if it’s at noon, so it’s necessary to underexpose to capture the ambient light as it looked on the day. And dropping the exposure slightly further still can help add more drama to the picture, which is what I did here. This was a shot that needed planning at a recce to know exactly what camera settings where needed in advance. Similarly the shot of Lee and Caroline under the Hotel Du Vin’s wine glass chandelier was shot using an umbrella out of frame to the right, so that they wouldn’t be in complete darkness against the landing window and to give some additional directional light. The colour in this image was also slightly de-saturated in post production to give more of a gothic look that was in keeping with this couple’s tastes.
While these are examples of off-camera flash, for the majority of the time flash is on-camera. Indoors, to avoid direct flash on the subject, the light is bounced from a surface, usually a wall. Bouncing flash off the ceiling directly over the subject is something I try to avoid, particularly when photographing the bride as it can produce shadows under the eyes or “racoon eye” as it’s known. So usually I will be aiming to bounce the flash from high up a wall to my left or right so the light comes in at an angle and produces modelling on the face that looks natural and is more attractive. If this isn’t working, I’ll look to bounce the light off a wall behind me. The black and white shot of Christina and her son was shot using flash bounced from the wall to my right, and is an example of how bounced flash can be used in a picture imperceptibly. Similarly, in the black and white of Adam making his rock star wedding breakfast entrance with his son, the light was bounced high off the wall to my right. I used a slowish shutter speed as well to make sure that ambient light in the adjoining room behind him was picked up otherwise all the guests there would have been in darkness.
The shot of Adam and Sam in the Blenheim room of the Churchill Hotel has light bounced from high off the wall to my left. This was a shot that could have been done without flash but it would have meant that everything outside the bay windows would have been overexposed and blown out. So I used flash to get a more balanced exposure and to ensure we could see a little of what was outside the windows. Bouncing light off walls in colour photographs does though bring up the issue of colour casts, as what if the wall you’re bouncing off is brightly coloured? It will mean light coming back onto the subject will be similarly red or green or whatever the colour is. This would have been an issue in film days but with digital it is a simple matter of adjusting the white balance in post-production. It’s an example of how the use of digital has facilitated a more candid, photojournalistic approach to wedding photography.
Flash is also necessary at the first dance where the lighting is dim and typically disco lights are used. As in the aforementioned shot of Adam, in order to pick up the ambient light a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second or less is used and the flash then freezes the action. Sometimes I am bouncing the flash but sometimes direct flash is all I can go with, even though it isn’t the ideal. This is however a moment to use the combination of flash and slowish shutter speeds to employ techniques of panning and zooming with the camera to interesting effect. It’s a little bit hit and miss, but can produce impressive shots with a difference.
Flash used outdoors is necessary as fill light, but offers far less opportunity for being bounced off nearby surfaces. In the shot of Kathryn getting out of the car, direct flash was all that was possible, but necessary to counter the strong directional sunlight from behind her that otherwise would have put her in shadow. The difference between bright backgrounds and darker or shaded foregrounds is what necessitates flash outside as a fill light. The exposure is made for the background and then if the flash for the main subjects is over or under what is required, I use the compensation dial on the back of the flash head to dial in the right amount. The shot of Tom and Kathryn near York Minster is an example. In the shot of Susan and Andy, I needed fill flash to brighten them against the sky so both could be well exposed. In this case, I was able to get the flash off camera by using an extension cable with the flash held in one hand and camera in the other. The use of flash here also gave the couple attractive catch lights in their eyes.
Despite this being a longer blog post than usual it still has only scratched the surface of the use of flash in wedding photography. For anyone wanting a more detailed view, I’d highly recommend Neil van Niekerk’s book “On-Camera Flash: Techniques for Digital Wedding and Portrait Photography.”
15th May 2018