Taking wedding pictures that stand out from the pack

I think it goes without saying that a professional photographer produces unique and creative images at a wedding that the ordinary guest can’t hope to duplicate. I’m saying it anyway because more and more I see people doing their best to do my job.

At a typical wedding there are 2,347 cameras. Everyone has a camera and everyone is taking snapshots.   Then, all the snapshots go on Facebook for the world to see … right next to the shots that I have uploaded for my client. Also, the client sometimes uploads a ton of pictures from the CD I provide and they all mingle together in the giant Facebook stew of photography.

It’s easy to tell which pictures are mine.   There aren’t many guests at a wedding using off-camera strobes for the formals or bouncing flash. However, there may be plenty of guests with decent, high-end camera’s taking snapshots. Many times these snapshots are good. So, what can  I do to distinguish  myself from these people?

Professional picture or Uncle Bob?
Professional picture or Uncle Bob?

Let’s leave the discussion about bounce flash, f1.8 primes and “artistic vision”  for another time and talk about what I do to make sure that my “snapshots” don’t look like anyone else’s. I’m talking about quick shots, not artistic, creative lighting genius. I’m walking around and see a couple dancing and take a quick shot. Here’s how I guarantee that my snapshot looks different than everyone else’s.

(Let me point out that to the trained eye it’s often obvious because I’m bouncing my flash, but that’s not always so obvious to everyone else. I want my pictures to be obvious.)

Before the reception I set up a speedlight on a tripod. It’s wired with a radio remote and set to manual (usually about 1/8 to 1/4 power but it varies on the hall and ceiling height). I have a speedlight on my camera and the camera is wired to a radio trigger. I take a quick test shot or two to verify the exposure setting and I’m ready to go.

Now, whenever I take a snapshot I get much more backlight. Everyone else is taking pictures in a cave while I am taking pictures in a bright room. My pictures immediately stand out by this difference alone. Of course, I try to use all my talent to produce images that stand out for many other reasons, but now I am starting from a place that is already unique compared to every other picture taken at the reception. From there I can move into using the light in more creative ways.

I don’t do it all the time. If I move away from the dance floor I simply unplug my transmitter so the second flash doesn’t fire. Sometimes, near the end of the night I will turn the flash off on purpose so that my pictures go darker.   This lends a sense of “time” to the pictures later when they are put in the album. (When you are shooting three hours of party pics it’s nice to be able to break them up a little into “early/late” categories.)

Definitely taken by a pro and now the viewer is in the action.
Definitely taken by a pro and now the viewer is in the action.

It’s a judgment call. There’s no doubt that you might be sacrificing some ambiance when you throw that second strobe into the mix, and there are times when  I don’t want to make that trade off. However, I find that the second light opens up more new creative possibilities than it prevents and I often find myself looking for new ways to use it during long receptions. The most obvious effect of using the second light is that it puts the viewer into the action more. A packed dance-floor looks like a packed dance-floor when you light it up. Otherwise, it’s just two people in a dark room.

I think that it can sometimes be too easy to devote all your energy to the “creative” pictures we take at weddings and not think about ways to enhance the “mundane.” But it’s often the “mundane” that get the most attention from the clients (you just never know what people will single out).

Wedding photography on this page was shot at Palma Ceia Country Club in Tampa, Florida.

This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. This seems like a great idea. (Though I don’t have more than one speedlite, or pocket wizards… yet,).

    Just to clarify, you leave the light sitting by itself near the dance floor for the entire night?

    When I get some more equipment I will definitely try this technique. Thanks for the tip.

  2. Sometimes I move it around a bit based on the events of the evening. I also will typically take the Bride and Groom out for a few pictures during the reception and I’ll take the second light with me for that.

  3. Well, nothing changes much among pros. In the middle 1960s we used much the same technique, but with cumbersome strobes and huge batteries, enough to power a small village. Two huge Metz flash guns connected to a Leica, via cables. Working out exposure was a pig. Still, the results were worth the effort – a well-lit room. A sense of depth. Warmth. However, as a newspaper photographer, not suitable for all jobs. Fall-back was the big Metz and bounce – off the forehead, if necessary, for a portrait.

    Booray, that’s a nice shot at the wedding. I don’t go along with the idea of being creative with brides, that’s the groom’s job. However, it is incumbent upon the photographer to ask what she likes – how does she see herself? – and then do the job accordingly. After all, it’s her day. The photographer’s job is to record. For posterity. If the bride is pig-ugly – capture it. Warts and all.

    I refuse weddings now. Prefer war zones. Good luck.

  4. Well your picture is crisp and nice but no vibe at all…no mood just looks like two poeple dancing during the day in village hall to me…id f off yer flash and yer lights get a static 50mm lense @ 1.4 and take loads of shots

  5. Thankx booray, i really find your post helpful. i use nikon d80 with 18-70mm lens. im planning to get a fast lens say 50mm f1.8. i shoot mainly events, wedding especially. i use just my sb 800 speedlite alone bounced on the ceiling, and its great. the only problem i have with this technique is when the ceiling is very high and is painted a dull color like black that absorbs all the lightning. will using the extra speedlite as found in your post take care of this problem. thx in advance.

  6. Well, if you are shooting in a room with black ceiling and black walls you are in a world of hurt. In a case where there is nothing to bounce off you just have to make do with the on-camera strobe unless the ceiling is very high, in which case you can run your off-camera strobe up high and point it down at the floor (with or without umbrella). It’s a judgement call I would make the day of the event. Using a second strobe in this way is just another tool, not always necessary.

  7. How do you figure out which groups to take pictures of? I manage to pull of the artistic shots, but identifying the key groups can be a struggle when all of the guests are from out of town. Lighting seems to be only half the equation.

  8. Lighting is actually about 1/8 of the equation! 🙂

    I consult with my clients beforehand on important people that they want photographed. I also tell them not to be shy about grabbing me and saying, “Booray, go take a picture of them!”

  9. How do you know you need 1/8 or 1/4 power on the secondary flash ?. I assume you can change the power remotely ?. Why not just no TTL on it ?.

  10. Experience mostly. In a dark room at ISO 800 and flash at 1/8 power you will be in the 2.8-7.0 range with your f-stop…. usually. So, I start at 1/8 power and take a test shot, then adjust as needed.

    I’m not sure about the TTL question. I don’t use TTL for the off-camera flash. The power must be changed at the unit but once you have the right power you rarely have to change it at all.

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