Over the past eight years of shooting weddings, I have slowly evolved in how I work. I believe that’s normal for most photographers. Most will start as “natural light” photographers. I actually began a little ahead and was using one on-camera flash, bouncing it off of the ceiling. Next, I dabbled in some off-camera flash very lightly and steadily grew my skills over the years.
I will say, that life is so much easier for me now, and I can create so much more with off-camera flash than I could when I began. I’m not sure where you are in your journey, but I’m here to help you speed up the process. In this article, I’m going to share all of my different off-camera lighting setups for weddings.
Use flash when needed
Let me start off by saying that I don’t use off-camera flash the entire day. I still use natural light when I need to and I’ll use on-camera bounce flash when that’s appropriate. These on and off-camera flashes are just tools that I use to create, just like a painter uses different brushes and paints. I can’t necessarily tell you when to use them; that’s up to you and your personal preference. My suggestion would be to keep an open mind, practice these ideas, and see what works best for you.
I start using off-camera flash pretty early in the wedding day when I’m shooting details. For most situations, I try to keep it simple and use one flash at a 45-degree angle to the subject. To keep light from going everywhere and to create a more dramatic photo, I usually use a MagGrid from MagMod.
I’ll use this setup for ring shots, a few of the dress, flowers, possibly shoes, and other details. It works really well for the ring shot because I’m usually shooting at such a high aperture that I need a lot of light. I also make sure to take some with natural light or a bounce flash just in case the couple doesn’t like the dramatic look.
Off-camera flash for portraits
The newest way I’ve been using off-camera flash, and I just love it so much, is for creating portraits. If you really want to create something cool and different for your clients, this is the way to do it. There are many ways to do this (too many to mention here), but I’ll share some of my favorite setups.
Off-camera flash setups for wedding portraits
The groom usually doesn’t get much attention on the wedding day. He is just along for the ride. I try, though, to give him the spotlight and create something fun. This setup is basically the same as the detail shot. I’ll use one single flash with a MagGrid. The big difference is I lower the ambient light so the flash is really all that is seen.
To do this, start off without the flash. Adjust the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture until the photo is pretty dark. Then, bring in the flash. Try to position the off-camera flash at a 45 degree angle, in relatively close to the subject. The further away the light is the more it will spread. I try to keep most of the focus on his face.
Another fun trick is to do this with all the groomsmen and put it together later in Photoshop. I did this recently with a group that all had super hero shirts under their suits. It created a very dramatic, fun photo. All you have to do is move your flash to one person, take a photo, and then move to the next one. Either put the camera on a tripod or try to keep it in the same position and height. Then, later, you just line them all up and use layers to hide and reveal the parts you want.
The bride and her dress
The bride is the star of the show, so you need to make sure you create lots of photos of her and the dress. I will usually spend twice as much time with the bride as I do the groom. I also use a few different lighting patterns with her to give her more variety.
I don’t do it often, but you can actually use the same lighting setup that we did for the groom, with the bride. It’s going to create a dark portrait, but one thing I do differently is I make sure there aren’t any crazy shadows on her face.
Sometimes I have the bride turn her head toward the light or I rotate the flash more to light her entire face. It’s good to try this out occasionally, but make sure you give her some other options.
In most cases, I use a much softer light with the brides, to open up shadows instead of creating something dark. I use my small flashes for some situations, but when we are outside I usually go to my larger flash, the Xplor 600. This gives me more power and I can put a softbox or octabox on it to soften the light.
My go-to bride setup is to put the sun behind the bride and then light the front of her. A lot of wedding photographers will do it this way without adding the light to the front. This can work, but you are left with a blown out background and possibly deep shadows in the eyes.
With my lighting setup, you can have the background exposed correctly and remove those nasty shadows. I still place the flash at a 45 degree angle but there are a few other things that make the photo look completely different. One, using a softbox or Octabox softens the light and allows it to illuminate most of the subject while the MagGrid kept the light pretty hard and focused.
Also, the exposure is going to be different. Turn off the flash and get a proper exposure for the background instead of it being pitch black. Then, turn the flash back on to light your subject and adjust power as needed. As far as setting the background exposure, I prefer bumping up the shutter speed versus bumping up the aperture. You can only do this, though, if your flash can do high-speed sync.
Off-camera flash setups for group photos
Another tough situation to light is the family portrait setup. If we are outside that isn’t really a problem, but if we’re indoors, the light is usually pretty bad. To keep everyone in focus, I also use a smaller aperture, which just makes matters worse.
I’ve used a few different off-camera flash setups for family portraits, and honestly, I’m not sure which I prefer. If you only have one flash, I’d put it at about a 30-degree angle.
If you have two flashes, there are two different ways to set it up. You can put both flashes, at equal power, at opposite 45 degree angles. This will cover everything, but it can make some weird shadows. The other option is to keep one light at 45 degrees and bring the other closer to the camera and lower the power. This is the basic main light and fill light setup.
The problem I’ve run into with this is that the people further away from the main light don’t get as much light. The last thing to consider is whether to bounce it or use direct flash. Bouncing is going to create a more even lighting, but it uses more power and doesn’t work if the ceilings are dark or if you’re outside. Direct flash takes less power, but the light tends to be harsher and create darker shadows.
Sometimes I will try one setup and then quickly switch to another if things aren’t working. You might find yourself doing this as well.
Off-camera flash at the wedding reception
Creating lighting for the dance is one of my favorite things to do. You really can create some amazing shots. My general setup is two off-camera flash, opposite each other, with MagGrids attached. This really creates a moody effect, but you can get some dark shadows.
With this setup, I keep a flash on top of my camera, and sometimes I’ll use it to bounce some fill light into the scene. When I’m done with the first few dances and the big groups get out there, I remove the grids so the light will cover a larger area. As far as my position, you can move around with this light setup and get some really different looks. For the most part, I try to keep one light beside me at a 45-degree.
One quick warning: make sure your lights are secure and out of the way. People will run into them and knock them over, and you don’t want broken equipment and/or injuries and a potential lawsuit.
Off-camera flash for creative wedding portraits
The last scenario that I use off-camera flash at weddings is for doing creative portraits with the couple. I really enjoy taking them away from the action once it has gotten dark to create something special. These are more of a creative, artsy portrait, and they are often my favorite shots from the wedding day.
The possibilities are pretty endless with this, so I’m just going to run through how I do it in general. The first thing I do is find an interesting background. This could be the front of the venue or some place with an interesting structure and hopefully some kind of lights. Next, I figure out where I want to place the couple. I like to have them be part of the environment, so I position them where I can do a full length shot and still capture the background.
Now we are ready to figure out the off-camera lighting setup. My go-to setup is a front light at 45 degrees with a grid and another flash behind the subject. With the backlight, I’ll either have the light aimed at the couple to give them a glow, or I’ll aim it at the background to show off the structure more. If you want to get a little funky or artsy, throw a colored gel on the backlight. After I’ve done that, I usually remove the front light and just aim the backlight at them and make a silhouette. If you know what you’re doing, you should be able to pull these shots off in less than 10 minutes and send the couple back to the party.
I know that was a lot of information and you may be overwhelmed. If you are feeling confused, reread each section and look at the diagrams. If you’re still confused, feel free to comment, and I’ll help you out.
Also, don’t feel like you have to try all of these setups at once. Remember, weddings are a once in a lifetime event, so avoid going in there if you aren’t confident in what you are doing. Practice at home and start by trying one of these setups. Practice some more and then try out other setups. Do this for one year and at the end of that year, I bet you’ll be in a whole new level, and you’ll never go back to your old way of shooting weddings.