Wedding Photography Lighting – Find the level that’s right for you

I was talking with a friend of my wife’s yesterday and she asked, “Can you help me pick out a new camera?   I want to take better pictures of my kids.”

I get this sort of question all the time and it’s a tough one to answer. Most people don’t understand that good photography comes in levels (like Donkey Kong). Sure, it starts with a decent DSLR but then it moves up through many different levels of skill. The real question you have to ask yourself when you want to take better pictures is:   How much time am I willing to dedicate towards learning to take good photographs? Then I can help you choose your equipment.

The same question applies to wedding photography. Search the web and you will find prices from $500 – $5000 for a wedding photographer. How can that be? Well, it’s all about the levels and like Donkey Kong there are several different ladders you can choose to climb if you want to reach the big gorilla. So, with that in mind, let’s talk about the “Flash” ladder.   (I’m a wedding photographer in Tampa, FL)

Take a tour of wedding photography websites in your area and you might notice a trend:   Many of the sights feature outdoor weddings. In fact, judging by the websites, you might think that everybody gets married outdoors! They don’t. In fact, most don’t. The reason there are so many outdoor weddings featured on these websites is because they require little or no flash to shoot. Shooting a portrait of the bride outside is much easier than shooting in a church.

So, you want to be a “flash” photographer. Here’s the levels you will work through. (Where you stop is up to you.)

Level 1

Built in flash. This is the pure amateur level using the built in flash that comes on the camera. I always tell people, “If you are going to use the built-in flash, don’t even bother with a DSLR. Just buy a tiny point and shoot that will fit in your pocket.” The DSLR is a waste of money without a dedicated flash (except for outdoor work, etc).

Level 2

The dedicated flash. The person at this level has moved up to a dedicated flash (Speedlight) and thinks the world is their oyster. Look! I have a big flash on my camera! Their pictures are better and seldom have red-eye. Because the flash is more powerful, their pictures look better than the point-and-shoot people so they think they might just be qualified to shoot a wedding. They are wrong.

Level 3

The flash diffuser. After playing around with their Speedlight for a while, this person has decided that they want more coverage from their flash so they buy a flash diffuser. There  many to choose from  (Omni-Bounce, Lightsphere, etc). Now when they shoot a wedding they get a broad-based light that bounces everywhere. This is great because there are hardly any shadows at all. It’s also bad because there are hardly any shadows at all. (BTW, there are certainly times when a diffuser is the right tool for the job. Just not all the time)

Level 4

The bounce flash. This photographer has begun to notice that all of his diffused pictures look a little flat because there is no contrast between light and dark areas. So, he takes off the diffuser and starts to learn how to bounce his flash. This level is a big step up from the one below it. It’s easy to slap on the diffuser and fire away but  it takes a little more work to find a good surface to bounce off of and position yourself so that you can use it (plus adjust your flash power to get the desired effect). However, once you learn to bounce your flash it becomes addictive (like crystal meth  or “Baywatch”) and you suddenly find that you are incapable of using a diffuser (and forget ever pointing the flash straight ahead). Bounce flash photographers are frequently seen with a big bounce card attached to their flash although they would prefer to bounce off some big surface.

This is a quick shot of the singer at a wedding.  Flash was bounced over my left shoulder.  There are no windows in this church
This is a quick shot of the singer at a wedding. Flash was bounced over my left shoulder.

Level 5

Off-camera lighting. This is the final level and the one that requires the most time and money. Now you need a second flash, radio-remote triggers, tripods and the skill to use it all. This photographer will use off-camera flash for the formals and possibly at the reception (a second flash at a reception will give you lots of options for use as a main, fill or kicker).

I used on-camera flash bounced off the ceiling for this shot with a bounce card to thow some light forward.  I had a second light behind and to the left of the couple and I used it as a kicker.
I used on-camera flash bounced off the ceiling for this shot with a bounce card to throw some light forward. I had a second light behind and to the left of the couple and I used it as a kicker.

So, if you are going to be a wedding photographer who uses flash, you need to decide what level you want to attain. I started at the bottom and worked my way up rung-by-rung… each time convinced that I would stop at the next level. The good news is: the higher the level, the more you can charge.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. I have seen this working with different photographers. Just did not put it all together. I am at level 3.8

  2. Once you make the full leap to level 4 you won’t ever use a diffuser again. 🙂

  3. I use a lot flashes but I often stop at level 4, level 5 is a little bit time consuming for my style (or I think so but perhaps is not) and sometimes there is not enough room to place flashes.
    I really like your picture.

  4. Thanks for the compliment!

    You would be surprised at how little time in takes to use off-camera lighting. At receptions, having a second light makes my job much easier because I get the same consistent light on the dance floor no matter where I am. Since I am frequently holding the camera above my head or squatting down, the second light makes all my shots consistent as opposed to the on-camera flash which is changing position constantly.

    Typically, I will just set up a tripod with a second flash and take a couple of quick shots to get the exposure. Then i can shoot all night on the dance floor with the same settings in the camera.

  5. Wow! this is very respectful information.. I am shooting my second wedding this saturday and would really love to learn how to use the bounce flash! Do you have any suggestions on where and how I could learn more about using bounce flash?

  6. Amber,
    There are many websites that discuss bounce flash but the best way to learn is to just practice. A lot.
    The thing to remember is that most modern cameras have TTL (through the lens) metering. Many people think this means that the camera meters the scene and sets the flash for the correct light but in fact it means that the camera is metering the scene during the exposure and turns off the flash when it has enough light. So, if you are bouncing the flash off a wall, the camera will automatically adjust the light to compensate (there are exceptions, of course, depending on distance, etc.).
    If you are shooting in an auto mode (AV, TV) then simply turn your flash and point it at a wall. Get someone to help you (or usa a tripod and remote) and try every angle you can think of. Then look at the results and find out what you like.
    Once you have gotten comfortable with that, move to shooting in Manual mode. Set your camera based on the ambient light and let the flash light the subject.
    Stay tuned, I’ll write a post on bounce flash soon…

  7. Hi! I was wondering if you had any recommendations for off camera lighting setups and also your opinion on flash brackets. The article was extremely helpful!

  8. Namrata,

    I don’t own a bracket because I don’t need one. I an always bouncing my flash so a bracket is unnecessary.

    If you want to start using off-camera flash then I would suggest starting with one strobe on a stand. Simply placing that strobe 45 degrees to your left or right will have a dramatic effect on your portraits. You will need radio remotes (I use Cybersyncs) and a stand. Not too expensive and the difference will be huge!

  9. Well, there’s really no levels when it comes to Professional Photography, there’s only using the right tool for the right job. There are times that no flash is needed, all the way up to dozens of lights or flashes and everything in between. If you use fill flash just because you always do, how creative will your photos be? I believe a Professional Photographer knows what tools to use and when to use them.

    Would that be Level 6? 🙂


  10. I’d say that’s a good analogy. 🙂

    I didn’t mean to insinuate that each level leaves the other behind. Just that each level brings one more tool to the bag, so to speak.

    Using the right tools also includes using keywords in your name and comment post to help with your Google ranking… 🙂

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