A Simple Lighting Technique for Couples Portraits

A Simple Lighting Technique for Couples Portraits

Photographing couples is quite literally one of the most enjoyable parts of my career. I love that with two people in love, you have such great capacity for shots that are unique, engaging, and artistic. Additionally, there is something wonderful to be said about the freedom and control we have with only 2 people to pose and direct.

I want to share a simple lighting technique that I have found to make an enormous difference between an “average” couples portrait, and a “dynamic” couples portrait.

This set up requires two flash units: One on camera, and one off camera. You will also need an assistant and a reflector.

1. Set your flashes to ETTL (Canon). ETTL will have the camera measure the available light in your scene and set the flashes accordingly.

2. Place your camera on Shutter Priority at 1/200s. This way your shutter speed will never exceed your flashes maximum speed.

3. Have your assistant take the secondary flash and hold it 8 feet from you, and 8 feet from your subjects. The angle of the flash will not be firing directly at your subjects. Rather, you will have your assistant fire the flash into the reflector. This will cause the light to spread and wrap around both your subjects.

4. Take the shot! As you can see from both examples below, the sidelight makes an incredible difference!

Using flash always takes practice, but this simple technique will add artistry to every couples portrait you take!

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography www.BrideInspired.com and leadership with www.RevMediaBlog.com.

Some Older Comments

  • Paul May 16, 2012 05:10 am

    Just out of interest, why a reflector, why not use a shoot through brolly just out of shot?

  • Steve Rason May 7, 2012 06:50 pm

    @ywarn: people are not criticising for the sake of it..merely constructive words to enable us to make balanced decisions regarding our own photography. I'm pretty sure there is some excellent photographers, with heaps of experience, using this site; so read, digest and go take some photos to arrive at your own conclusions.

  • Phil W May 6, 2012 04:22 am

    The first photo is definitely better.

  • MsKirpi May 5, 2012 12:48 am

    I like the first shot. The second shot looks washed out. Maybe it's all that white of her dress reflecting with the flash, but I really like the first one better. I think I would be a bit upset if presented with the second one as part of a wedding package I paid big money for. I do agree that often, off-camera flash & reflectors do make a huge difference...just not in this case!

  • LEOROY May 4, 2012 09:12 pm

    not a good Bride and Groom shot as it is more of the trees than the couple. Just a tangle of trunks and so distracting from the couple . Then the lighting really does nothing for the shot .. sorry .

  • eugen360 May 4, 2012 05:05 pm

    They both look fat in the second pic because of your setup....

  • JAMES May 4, 2012 09:55 am

    Its true that you may sell images like the second shot. There is always some brides who are willing to pay for that type of picture. Beware though that if you keep on shooting this way that you will eventually encounter that one person who is not going to like it. That one person is going to tell who knows how many people about your work and some of those people could be a possible client. If this is how you plan on keeping your clients and you are making money off of this type of work well, its your work and you have the right for it.

    For beginners I urge you to not think about the money while starting out. Worry about perfecting your work instead. Keep on researching and try to get the best knowledge you can get. Dont be satisfied with a "good enough" to make money attitude. Learn the best way of creating your art.

  • Naftoli May 4, 2012 08:48 am

    Beginners beware! do not be mislead by this article. using shutter prioraty is kinda dumb letting the camera decide for u ur dof. true off camera flash can give u great results with proper technique, this article was a bad example of off camera flash

  • Larry J Foster, CPP May 4, 2012 07:22 am

    Relying on TTL flash in any situation -especially off camera - is risky. My experiments with such has proved that the results are not consistent enough for a professional. Yes, the couple "pops" better in the second image (if you ignore the aforementioned compositional flaws); but the ratio is too high for my tastes. Hence, the problem with TTL. I would recommend using a manual flash - personally I like the Sunpak 522 - and using a quality hand-held meter, set the output of the flash (modified or unmodified) for one f-stop higher than the ambient light.

  • Dave Mitchell May 4, 2012 04:13 am

    I agree with all the "blown out" comments but really white bridal gowns are hard to manage with flash. I use 2 Nikon SB600 for all outdoor shoots and have had much luck. Beforehand test shots are definitely required and by simply placing the light sources farther or closer on an Aperture setting works well. Background too sharp? Post process in the "soft lighting" panel of Picasa; (a free online service) ; highlight the beautiful couple and fuzz out the rest to your content. Good job Christina for having the guts to post on a comment line. Just goes to show you there are more than one way to "skin the cat." Keep making those $$$$$'s in bridal and . . . if the wedding party likes the shots and sends a check. . . . keep on, keepin. on!!

  • Jim Lentz May 4, 2012 04:07 am

    I have to agree with the majority of the comments as well. The natural light was just fine, and a narrower DOF would've given a much more dreamy look to the photo. If I was to use any off camera flashes for this photo, maybe one at a 40 degree angle bounced off an umbrella to highlight them from the front (using manual mode and not TTL), and possibly one directly behind them to add a nice rim light (also using manual mode) and trigger the flashes wirelessly. That way you could darken the surroundings a bit (especially in the front framing) and kept the subjects in a nice soft pleasing light. I'm sorry, but there is nothing "soft" about the "wrap around" lighting in the second example.

  • Frank May 4, 2012 03:47 am

    mmm ... a bit 'Canon' orientated to be honest - ETTL - what does that relate to in Sony world? Who hasent done a 'bounce flash' to soften light ... personally, I think this article should have gone so much more on how to enhance the natural light ... get a f1.4 - f1.2 & play more !

  • Louise Mathe May 4, 2012 03:45 am

    I instantly didn't like the second photo I thought it was blown out on the bride and too dark in the foreground losing detail in the unique looking trees. Not a good example and I'm not a huge fan of artificial lighting anyhow.

  • YWarn May 4, 2012 03:23 am

    YIKES, you people are critical. Let;s see your best shot so we can tear it up,.....

  • Tim May 4, 2012 02:16 am

    I agree, the first image looks better, the flash coming in to the side is to hot on the second one, and the angle of the flash should be more towards a 45deg angle as to have the shadows fall behind the couple instead of seeing the shadow on the back of his coat.

  • Lara White May 3, 2012 05:53 am

    I preferred the first image as well.

  • Jojie C. May 1, 2012 08:24 pm

    I have read so much that off flash is the in thing to do. I have seen so much good use to it and samples that I myself is trying to learn how and what not.

    Thought this topic is great to bring out how, off flash shoots can make a big difference in the photo. But in this particular photo, the flash is somewhat over powering. It washed out the photo.

    I love the use of portable flashes in an environment, whenever possible. Likewise, there's nothing wrong with natural light either. I have seen with proper use of reflectors and what not, how it can be used and create results that you thought was done with an artificial light.

  • JAMES May 1, 2012 06:57 pm

    The first thing that gets my attention when looking at these images specially the second one are the branches around the couple. Everything around the couple is so sharp that your eyes would bother looking at the real subject. Then couple it with the overexposed couple. It appears that these pictures were taken during bright daylight and whoever really took them was forced to close down the aperture which made everything sharp. This shot would have been better if the photographer used an ND filter to allow wider aperture for better shallower DOF. Or one can use some high speed sync set up to also get the same result.

  • Sam Docker May 1, 2012 05:30 pm

    Can't fault the thought of this post, its a good explanation of how to setup off camera flash, just not a very good example i'm afraid. The first shot is much more natural, whereas the second has been blown out.

  • klaus May 1, 2012 07:44 am

    @ Hans -
    I agree about Darren's stuff - always gives you something. But both Peter and Elizabeth have, in the past, posted a number of interesting pieces. The problem seems to be that they are trying to churn them out, for whatever reason, and there is no one riding herd on the value of the content, the quality of the examples, or the writing. If they are trying to build reputations by being frequent contributors, this will cause the effort to blow up on them.

  • Hans Mast May 1, 2012 05:21 am

    @JAMES: Exactly! There's far too many good flash tutorials on the web to spend time trying to salvage this one. I'm surprised DPS published something of this quality. Darren Rowse's stuff is always quality, but when he starts delegating too much, this and Peter West Carey are the result.

  • JAMES May 1, 2012 05:07 am

    For a better solution and proper way of using off camera flash tutorial go to this website:


  • Marybeth May 1, 2012 12:09 am

    I think the picture is stunning and better than the 1st. I love the way the trees came out darker and the bride and groom are lit up. It's like a fairy tale picture.

  • Dewan Demmer May 1, 2012 12:01 am

    The one thing the added lighting has done is add a certain crispness to the colours and added depth. This methods described can be quite useful on the run when you dont have a lot of equipment on hand, or time to setup equipment.
    The one doenside to showing both the before and after picture is that while we are able to appreciate the difference we sometimes cannot isolate the final result and judge it on its own merits.
    Off camera lighting is not something everyone appreciates or enjoys, I do however enjoy and in fact tend to use off camera more often than on, with on camera flash acting as my fill light.
    Personally I am tending more and more towards off camera lighting since it can be so versatile.
    Here is the latest set of photos I have posted that were using off camera lighting:

  • MicheleF April 30, 2012 11:50 pm

    I'm fairly new to the photography world, and the comments that followed this article made me feel so good about how far I've come. I really didn't like the second photo, thought the flash was too obvious and too artificial looking, and I wasn't crazy about the composition either.

    To hear/see others with the same comments kind of validated how far I've come, you know?

    That being said, thank you Christine for taking the time to write the article, every article here helps me improve as a photographer - even the ones with which I disagree!

  • Rich Copley April 30, 2012 11:25 pm

    I do think the flash makes the couple "pop" more, but if that's good is obviously a matter of taste. Highlights become an issue and, as Craig points out, shadows.

    Christina is right, using off-camera-flash requires practice because it is a technique fraught with hazards, but it can yield great rewards. It also seems in these shots that locking in the shutter speed probably flew the aperture higher bringing more background into focus - don't know that for sure. That's another thing to watch out for using daytime flash, particularly if your gear does not have high-speed flash sync capability: you may well lose that background softening quality in the lower f-stops.

  • Ali April 30, 2012 03:58 pm

    Maybe you need to replace your example shots
    because the first one is actually better. I guess the problem with the second one is losing the shaded foreground ambient light because of increasing the shutter speed

  • Craig April 30, 2012 03:26 pm

    Where is the reflector placed, you are asking. The first clue is in the article, 8 feet away from the photographer and 8 feet away from the subject. Secondly it's always good to lean how to understand light. Look at the highlights and shadows on couple. The brides arm and shoulder have more highlights, and the grooms arm is casting a shadow. That suggests the direction of light to the left of frame.

  • Chris Frailey April 30, 2012 03:12 pm

    I'm with everyone else. I don't think this technique works well at all for this shot. A pull back shot or a lighting diagram would of been helpful too for this post.

  • Mei Teng April 30, 2012 10:18 am

    I agree with Hans. I like the first image better. Lighting seemed softer and more natural looking.

  • Max Almonte April 30, 2012 09:10 am

    Great article but not sure about the pictures used. There is to much DOF in this shot, no sense of story and too much distraction since, everything is in focus. The second flash is very unflattering since is creating hot spots on her side. I would prefer the shot without the bounced reflected light. The least you could have done different was at least kill the ambient light and fill with the reflector, that would have made a much stronger image IMO.

  • Joyce Shelton April 30, 2012 07:32 am

    Where is the reflector placed?

  • Greg Waddell April 30, 2012 01:40 am

    I think if an ambient light reading had been taken first so as to really darken the background and then set the flash to properly light the couple, the the technique would have been far more effective.

  • Nikonian April 30, 2012 12:15 am

    I would have used a different camera position for better composition; maybe set the flash on a stand, possably two flashes on stands: I would also not use eTTL or TTL on camera and flashes as there is no control over the lighting power and natural lighting as seen by the blow-outs in the background. I would have used Manual on the camera and two flashes and used wireless triggers. I would have also used a faster lens to blurr out the ugly background. Just my thoughts and thanks for the post.

  • AJ Nok April 29, 2012 11:43 pm

    A big difference, yes, but not for the better.
    I cannot conclude that the second picture is an improvement, on the contrary. Too much light on the couple and their clothes.
    I wonder why Christina Dickson did not notice this.

  • Pete Bosch April 29, 2012 09:49 pm

    I'm wondering if it's an effect of the flash or simply too much contrast that causes the blown highlights in the wedding dress. Weddings present that special challenge - before I shot my first wedding, a friend cautioned me to mind the dynamic range when the "Big white dress" is in the picture. It seems a little more blown in the second image, which is, itself, darker - so I tend to think it might be a result of the flash placement, in this case.

  • Max April 29, 2012 05:23 pm

    You don't need to put your camera in shutter priority. The camera will never let you exceed the max sync speed even in manual mode. Doing so will only make you lose the most important creative choice when taking portraits: a shallow depth of field. A very bad piece of advice especially for beginners.

  • Archie April 29, 2012 04:12 pm

    So where's the reflector?

  • reggie April 29, 2012 03:24 pm

    There are too many distractions in this photo and the additional lighting didn't help at all. Perhaps it's better to look for a different spot without any branches growing out of their heads and limit the depth of field. As for the additional light, it has to be turned way down or don't use one at all for this situation.

  • Elizabeth April 29, 2012 03:12 pm

    I also don't like to "see" the flash in the shot. I do like your article though. Thanks!


  • Rachel April 29, 2012 02:12 pm

    Not so sure I like it better, I am a lover of natural light, fill flash should be enough- depends on the customer and your artistic view, if you love it enough to put your name on it then so be it. Good for you very creative, I like more simple techniques.

  • Brent Schmidt April 29, 2012 12:36 pm

    You sorta washed her out... not the best use of off-camera flash I've seen.

  • Mario April 29, 2012 07:33 am

    Using off-camera flash outdoors is very often mandatory. But personally, I prefer a more balanced and unobtrusive use. In the 2nd picture above, the flash is way to obvious and becomes almost disturbing.
    And to leave the aperture setting up to the camera might as well not be a good idea as the growing branches from the couples heads "nicely" demonstrate.

  • Hans Mast April 29, 2012 07:09 am

    It certainly makes a difference. But the question I have is whether it's a good difference. I'm not so sure.