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Feature Image by: James Simmons

Wedding Photography Lighting Tips with James Simmons

James Simmons is known for his strong use of storytelling and has become one of Australia’s most in-demand wedding photographers. Here, he shares tips for creating better lighting at weddings, from high-speed flash on the dancefloor to soft natural light sources for painterly portraits.

Set Up Your Off-Camera Flash as a Backlight

First, find an exposure level for the environment you’re shooting in without using your flash. Remember that the darker your exposure, the more dramatic the backlight will look. I find one to two stops of underexposure works well when photographing most wedding receptions. Position your off-camera flash behind your subjects, roughly five metres away, and point it towards their top halves. Take a test shot and increase or decrease your flash power as needed in manual mode until you get the look you desire.

Bride and groom on a bridge in a foggy area taken by James Simmons
Image taken by James Simmons on the EOS R5 and EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens.
ISO 800 | F/4 | 1/200s

Be Aware of Aperture and Shutter Speed Combination

Keep in mind that the environment and ambient lighting (inside or outside) will dictate how bright or dark you can expose the scene and still have a practical shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. Your goal is to find a balance between the ambient light and the power of the flash and adjust your settings to match. When fine tuning your exposure, your aperture can be used to control all of the light sources, and then you can then use your shutter speed to help balance the ambient light as it doesn’t have the same impact on the flash. These actions can have side effects if your flash power is too powerful from the beginning, causing you to slow the shutter speed down too much to find a nice balance with the ambient light, which can result in mushy, fringed or ghosted images (unwanted shutter drag).

Keep an Eye on Your Camera Settings as Well as Your Flash Settings

If the scene is bright and you have to close down your camera settings to underexpose the scene, your flash will need to work harder (i.e. use a higher power) to deliver the brightness you need, which will drain your battery and increase recycle time. This is particularly evident when using a flash during sunlight hours or bouncing off high roofs. Most speed lights won’t be powerful enough to match sunlight, but they can be used to fill shadows or accent a shot.

Bride and groom dancing taken by James Simmons
Image taken by James Simmons on the EOS R5 and EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens.
ISO 1600 | F/4 | 1/125s

Use Slow Shutter Speeds to Create Light Trails

Find an exposure for the environment that’s two stops underexposed. A slow shutter speed of half a second is a good place to start and will create a decent amount of light trail. If you’re moving a lot, then a quarter or an eighth of a second will achieve a similar effect. If you want to get super crazy with your light trails, set your shutter speed to one second or longer.

Long exposure image of bride and groom dancing taken by James Simmons
Image taken by James Simmons on the EOS 5D Mark IV and EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens.
ISO 3200 | F/16 | 1/6s | 16mm

Pro tip: If the DJ has lots of lights going, or if there is a strong video/constant light on the dancefloor, position yourself directly opposite it so you can use it as a backlight and ensure your subjects’ faces aren’t blown out.

Use a Diffuser to Soften Your Flash

In very dark scenes, where a lower power setting for your flash is needed, you can use diffusing materials over the flash to dull it down further or use a source of constant light to balance the scene.

Control Your Lights to Avoid Light Spread

Using narrow beams of light and light modifiers, such as honeycombs or snoots, can help reduce the spread of light around a room. Too much light spill can kill the ambiance and bounce around, highlighting undesired areas, which can be distracting in your images.

Ray of light on couple taken by James Simmons
Image taken by James Simmons on the EOS R5 and RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens
ISO 800 | F/2 | 1/6400s

Use Low Key Lighting to Create Mood and Drama

Low key lighting is characterised by a dark, moody and dramatic look. This sort of lighting style is reminiscent of Baroque paintings, which are defined by their use of Chiaroscuro (strong contrasts between light and dark). Study some Caravaggio and Rembrandt paintings to see examples of this.

Bride and groom peeking out the window taken by James Simmons
Image taken by James Simmons on the EOS 5D Mark III and EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM.
ISO 800 | F/4 | 1/250s

To achieve this look, look for a smaller light source (soft or hard), such as a small window or constant light. You can also turn a large window into a small light source by drawing the curtains and leaving a small gap. Compliment your small light source by maintaining a dark or shadowed background – this will result in a moody, high-contrast look. Exposing for the highlights in these situations will amplify the dramatic look by deepening the shadows.

Experiment with Short, Broad and Rim Lighting

Short lighting and broad lighting can be used to add depth to your portraits. You can achieve these looks by having your light source directed on a 45-degree angle to the subject. Shoot from the shadowed side to slim down the face for short lighting and shoot from the opposite side of the face for broad lighting. Rim lighting provides a sort of halo effect and can be achieved when the light source is placed behind the subject or to 90-degrees of the subject, and you move the subject in-between the camera and the light source.

Couple holding hands taken by James Simmons
Image taken by James Simmons on the EOS 5D Mark IV and EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens.
ISO 1600 | F/1.2 | 1/125s

Use High Key Lighting to Create a Soft and Dreamy Look

High key lighting is a balanced, low-contrast lighting setup characterised by a light, airy, soft and dreamy look. This style of lighting was developed for Hollywood films and sitcoms and typically results in soft and flattering skin tones. To achieve this look, use a larger light source and place it further away from the subject. A sky light or open shade is often good for this if you don’t have access to lights.

Image of bride holding a bouquet twirling in her dress taken by James Simmons
Image taken by James Simmons on the EOS 5D Mark IV and RF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens.
ISO 400 | F/4 | 1/500s

Explore more photography tips and tutorials here.
See more of James’ work on Instagram here.