7 Tips for Better "First Dance" Wedding Shots

7 Tips for Better “First Dance” Wedding Shots


Today Ronan Palliser shares tips on how to capture the ‘first dance at a wedding.


You are most likely invited to weddings every now and then, and I’m betting that most people bring a camera with them.  Chances are, if you looked back at your photos and compared them with those that other guests took on the day, there will be many shots that are the same.  The most photographed moment of the day is often the bride and groom’s first dance, and with a little bit of know how, and if you’re lucky enough to have it, some extra lighting tools, it is possible to get a shot of the first dance that will stand out from the crowd and identify you as a capable photographer.

Tip 1: Change your shooting angle


Most people, most of the time, take photographs from the same viewing point – i.e. they hold the camera up to their eye and press the shutter.  For a different view, deliberately take the camera low down and you’ll immediately have a shot that stands out.  Wedding receptions are often held in rooms with ornate ceilings, so this can be a good way of getting that detail in the background also.

Tip 2: Move to the other side of the dance floor


99% of photographs of the first dance that guests take are captured from the same side of the dance floor.  For a unique shot, move around to the other side and include the “paparazzi” in your shot.  The resultant image will be fun, capture the excitement of the guests, and more than likely the enjoyment of the bride and groom at all this attention.

Tip 3: Post process your images


Instead of just settling for the images straight from the camera, bring them into some photo-editing software to enhance them.  This can be as simple as increasing the contrast, or you can get artistic and apply some effects such as this spot-colour effect, done in Photoshop Elements, to make the bride and groom stand out.  Photographers might think this look is cheesy, but many brides and grooms love it.  Notice also that this image uses the tips above as well – don’t be afraid to combine different ideas in one shot.

Tip 4: Slow down your shutter speed


By slowing the shutter (and keeping your camera steady, on a table or chair for instance) you’ll get shots that show movement on the dance floor.  You may also get lucky, like I did above, and find that someone else’s flash goes off in the middle of your exposure to help freeze the bride and groom.  Or you can make your own luck by following tip 5….

Tip 5: Take your flash off the camera


If you own a flash that can be taken off the camera and fired remotely, see what happens when you fire it from a different position to your camera position.  For the image above my wife was holding my Nikon SB-800 just out of the frame at camera left, and pointing it towards the bride and groom.  I triggered it using the wireless CLS system on my Nikon camera, but remote triggers from Ebay would do the trick as well.  The end result is another distinctive looking first dance shot.

Tip 6: Make use of the videographer


Often during first dances, there’ll be a videographer filming the event, and he’ll probably have a video light on top of his camera to illuminate the bride and groom.  If you underexpose your shot and wait for his light to brighten up the bride and groom you’ll get a pretty cool spot like effect.  Or you can achieve the same thing by using the off camera flash mentioned above and zoom it in as much as it will go.

Tip 7: Light the dance floor


The shot at the top of this page was lit by two off camera flashes, one either side of the band, pointing across the dance floor in an X to light the entire floor.   The wider shot above shows a similar arrangement – you can see how the two flashes (mounted on the band’s speakers) light the whole floor.  Depending on where you position yourself relative to these lights and the bride and groom, you can get some great front light, back light, side light or combinations of all of these for a professional looking shot.

-2About the Author: Ronan Palliser is an Irish photography addict, living in Dublin. He maintains a daily photoblog at http://www.ronanpalliser.ie/blog and publishes a new photograph every day, with in-depth technical details about how the shot was taken.

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Some Older Comments

  • Jonny Essex August 3, 2012 10:26 am

    Great tips!. Very useful and well thought out article.

  • Becky February 27, 2012 04:36 am

    Good article and thanks for the tips.

    The 'art' of Photography to me is similar to any form of art......it's up to an individual if they like something or not. I personally don't like selective colour but if a customer or friend asks for it and they like/love the photo at the end so be it. If I am producing photos for myself I won't use it, but for someone commissioning work from me then I will, but only if they ask.

  • Peter Holme September 16, 2011 09:04 am

    If the bride and groom want selective colour then give them the selective colour. After all they are the customers whether or not "it sets photography back ten years" which is rather a silly statement.

  • Amy April 14, 2011 07:02 am

    Love tip #7 and can't wait to try it!

    The selective color thing? I'm with matt and jm on this one -- it's such an obvious amateur treatment to create focus. Thinking outside the box should be with camera in hand, not with the raw files on your computer asking yourself, "What photoshop filters will make this look cool?"

    My two cents.

  • Alex - Suffolk Wedding Photographer November 5, 2009 08:07 pm


    Thanks for the article - some good info there for something that looks like it's a simple part of the day.
    Everyone stresses about the B&G formals, groups etc.. but you never hear them worry about the dances!

    Glad you cleared up the spot colouring image - I can't stand them myself, but the point of the article is to get people thinking outside of the box, so it does it's job in that regard.


  • Ronan Palliser September 28, 2009 03:47 am

    Thanks all for the comments. To respond to a few:

    eB - that balcony shot is also an attempt to show the lights, and the same lights at the same settings will nicely light tighter shots of the couple (or other dancers) on the dancefloor so be sure to give it a try.

    DevanW, Alan Nielsen - absolutely... bounced flash is a great technique for when you can't physically get the flash off camera. Photographers need to watch for colour casts from the surface they are bouncing off, and of course you ideally need a room with a low ceiling so that you don't lose too much light.

    matt and jm - I'm actually not a fan of the selective colour thing myself... that image I posted above was taken 4 years ago when I was very much experimenting with what post processing and Photoshop offered. The fact is though that some people like it, and I did acknowledge that "photographers might think this look is cheesy". I appreciate you both sound like you really do not like that particular treatment, but I would respectfully suggest your statement that "every time you hand over an image with a color accent, you are effectively trying to hold back the art of photography by ten years" is a little exaggerated. For the record, I took this shot as a guest at the wedding and was trying out a technique I had seen online. I believe all photographers should be encouraged to try new things and it's up to them to dismiss or embrace them as they see fit. Indeed I would think that's why many people visit this particular website.

    Liz O'Grady - great tips too, thanks

    jj, Web 2.0, Kelly Canova, acierman - thanks... glad you liked the tips and hope they are useful

    ayoola solomon - I'm not really familiar with Canon's lineup of lenses, but the best for this kind of photography are ones which have a wide aperture (e.g. f/2.8) throughout their range of focal lengths. These need not be Nikon or Canon - Tamron and Sigma make good value lenses. As for a flash - any you can take off the camera is a bonus, so ideally one with a PC socket and an optical slave window.

  • Ayoola Solomon September 26, 2009 02:55 am

    Hello Ronan Palliser, i'm a wedding photographer presently using a mark 2 ds canon camera. i will like to know the kind of flash and lens to be used to acheive a good quality pictures. Pls i will be very happy to see ur reply concerning this.

  • acierman September 25, 2009 06:56 am

    i love the trics ...i will need them soon ...thank you ....you saved my life hahaha

  • Alan Nielsen September 25, 2009 03:35 am

    Off camera flash is almost always a winner. If not, bounce your flash as much as possible or at least have a fong-dong or omnibounce. Also, slow down your shutter speed to try and capture more of the ambient light.

  • jm September 25, 2009 03:26 am

    To echo matt from above, please please dump selective color from your bag of "tricks". Every time you hand over an image with a color accent, you are effectively trying to hold back the art of photography by ten years. And it is perfectly acceptable to refuse a selective color request from a client simply because it degrades a professional image.

  • Kelly Canova September 25, 2009 02:30 am

    Great ideas - and helpful! Thank you.

  • Web 2.0 September 25, 2009 02:12 am

    Great tips, thanks...

  • JJ September 21, 2009 05:07 am

    Tip #7 is great! Would love to try that out some time.

  • Liz O'Grady September 21, 2009 04:46 am

    Great article! I'm a ballroom dance teacher so I deal with lots of couples learning to dance for their weddings. First dance pictures can be so lovely and romantic, so I always give them pointers geared towards enhancing the photos and keeping their dance natural looking.

    I'd suggest adding the following to the list above:

    Find out if the couple is doing anything special for their dance since that is more and more popular now, and if so, what the highlight moments in it are so you know what to watch for. If they are doing a ballroom dance and have a final pose, make sure to position yourself with the groom facing you as the song is ending. The front of the groom is where the best "dip photos" are.

    It's also good remind the couple to hold it for several seconds and especially this: it might feel like a loooong time, but keep holding! Those extra 2 seconds or so can make all the difference in nailing the shot, but it also is frequently the case that the couple's faces relax just a bit more while they hold since they are now done having to remember their performance sequence. They start to actually hear the applause and their faces show it.

    I tell couples this, but it never hurts for them to hear it again. Thanks again for the great article!

  • matt September 21, 2009 04:38 am

    for the love of god, avoid selective color....

  • Devan W September 21, 2009 04:25 am

    I have found that even using an on camera flash to bounce light off of the ceiling give a very nice effect of the bride and groom being lit yet the background staying dark to keep the focus on the two dancing. Some examples at my flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/30098570@N04/

  • eB September 20, 2009 11:56 am

    Off camera flash and shooting with the crowd of camera wielders behind the couple are favorites. Love the balcony photo, I'll set that up any time I can get a wide shot of a reception with remote lights on the floor!