Creative Lighting Techniques for Big Events

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Wikipedia succinctly defines wedding photography as “the photography of activities relating to weddings. It encompasses photographs of the couple before marriage as well as coverage of the wedding and reception. It is a major commercial endeavor that supports the bulk of the efforts for many photography studios or independent photographers.” Well, it’s certainly that and then some.

Although the camera was invented in 1826, it wasn’t used for weddings until the late 1860s when couples posed in their best clothes or wedding finery for a single, formal shot—a tradition we still carry on to this date. Besides the fact that a couple “pledges their troth” to each other, to put it quaintly, that’s just about all that wedding photography of that era has in common with the recording of today’s burgeoning event. Instead of the solitary document of our ancestors, today’s photographers and videographers are expected to provide “a day in the life” documentary coverage of the proceedings as well as engagement photos and events leading up to that day. The industry has evolved from static studio rendition with tungsten sources to a kinetic event with a plethora of light sources with varied color temperatures and a style closer to that of a movie production company. This sort of hyper-diversity, however, has been fertile ground for innovative techniques and creative expression.

Simplicity

There are a lot of purists, amateurs and professionals alike, who rely on available light and the high ISO imaging products that now dominate the market to provide an intimate everyman’s look to the wedding and a vérité style complete with camera movement and esoteric framing. Of course, photographers are inveterate techies and tinkerers, so engineering will inevitably creep into this bucolic scenario in the form of handheld reflectors popularized by Photoflex and Lastolite and full-on stand-alone reflector panels inspired by movie production crews such as those made by Westcott, Matthews and California Sunbounce. Once you start thinking about adding “a little more fill” from on camera, the technological cat jumps out of the bag.

Enhancement

On-camera fill is a great idea whether you’re dealing with an outdoor location where the sun is hopefully dappling the hair and shoulders of your subjects, or inside a space that’s beautifully lit with sources or skylights overhead. For videographers and HDSLR users, there is a wide variety of small powerful lights that are perfect for this purpose (as well as conventional ENG work, etc.) from every major lighting manufacturer. Nearly all of them are dimmable, have a choice of 3200K or 5500K light balance and are available in spot or flood configurations. A few, like those from Litepanels are bi-color, meaning you can vary the color temperature to match the ambient light, and at least one incorporates a flash tube for still shooters. And speaking of flash, well-lit scenes present the ideal opportunity to kick a little fill in from the camera using any number of diffusers and light-shaping tools now available, from simple domes to scoop-like diffusers and bare bulb flash tubes for omni-directional fill. 

Complexity

Besides the great luck of having a brilliant day at an outdoor wedding or a beautifully lit architectural showpiece, the harsh reality is that there are a great deal of somewhat under-lit halls and cavernous spaces. These are situations where, traditionally, you have to make your own light, assess the ambient light and go with what you’ve got. But just because it’s dim, doesn’t mean it’s nasty. Interesting chandeliers, up-lights and cove lights just need a little cajoling to do their magic. Aided by full-chip cameras, you can coax a lot of light out of the room by cranking up the ISO and dropping the shutter speed to about 1/30-second. Many lenses or camera bodies offer image stabilization to further enhance low-light images. Of course, light sensitive video cameras have always had the advantage in this regard. If the fixtures are unredeemable, you just have to bite the bullet and let the background go dark or employ other elaborate solutions that will be mentioned later.

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In any case, the classic two-light setup of an on-camera flash and an off-camera reflector light on a pole manned by an assistant has, in many cases, given way to a single light, as small as a Canon 580 EX II or Nikon SB-910 on a pole bounced into a medium-sized source like a softbox or umbrella, up close to the bride and groom. The flash is triggered from the camera via a radio slave system like those made by PocketWizard, and powered up or down by the assistant at the photographer’s request. In the aforementioned dimly lit room alternative scenario, you may have to employ something more powerful, like Profoto’s 600Ws AcuteB2 or 1200Ws 7b or the Hensel 600- or 1200Ws Porty. You can be consoled by the fact that if you have to pack that kind of power you can get quite creative in the formal shots by using a very large softbox, parabolic umbrella or Octabox to wrap some beautiful Rembrandt light around your subjects, by placing it extremely off-axis.  

A large budget allows for greater complexity in your setup. In all likelihood there will be a separate photographer with either their own distinct parallel setup or a symbiotic sharing of some of the gear. In the former setup, multiple flash units can be distributed throughout the room with radio slaves, in much the same way they are at basketball games, and triggered from the camera at the same time. Some radio systems can even handle different scenes or zones of flash units that trigger independently of the main setup, if desired. The sharing scenario between the photographer and videographer would involve boosting the ambient light level with old school tungsten fixtures—which might put a strain on the house’s electrical capacity—or with a number of low-draw, cool-running LED panels like those from Litepanels, Dedolight, Flolight or ikan. These lights can also be set up in zones if required, and regulated from a central controller via DMX.  

Creativity

With all of the options available, what separates the inspired practitioner from the technically proficient is truly creative use of the equipment, and sometimes very little of it. Unusual perspectives like shooting the bride and groom from high overhead, across rooftops, through stairwells or framed by windows, doorways or dramatic arches are consistently effective. Of course, it’s always helpful if the budget allows for cherry picker or helicopter rental, and some do.

Dramatic or historic locations like train stations or monuments make for great “end of the night” shots; the photographer has the bride and groom hold bolt-still in the darkness, while he or she records the location with the camera on a tripod, then trips the flash to freeze the couple’s action. There’s one photographer who is well known for recreating famous wedding scenes from films or stills. Classic cars are great props and can be beautifully lit from within using tiny fluorescent fixtures like Kino Flo’s Barfly.

And remember, despite the amazing evolution of equipment employed in preserving memories of the wedding day, there is one necessity upon which today’s photographers and their ancestors would undoubtedly agree—an assistant.

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While learning to see and recognize random lighting in the environment, and how to take advantage of it -some of the most creative lighting techniques for weddings and events comes from flash modifyers. B&H sells a great many different units which will seriously improve the quality of your lighting ability and the excitement of your photography. But they're hardly mentioned in this article.

I truly believe the statement that any light is good light, so long as you know how to use it. Any light you can find - sun, shade, neon, light bulb and yes flash - can be turned to your advantage.

B&H fortunately offers the far superior speed light modifying units called the Ultimate Light Box from Harbor Digital Design. This simply little system does so many different things, quickly, quietly, economically. It's like becoming an instant pro in a box. Yes all the speed light modifyers look a bit similar, and perhaps the quantity of offerings makes it hard to choose. I know that, because I've used a large percentage of them. The ULB trumps them all, both in my experience and in observing others as their creativity blossoms once a ULB is put in their hands.