The Wedding Photographer's Guide to Outdoor Lighting
With the right tools, outdoor wedding photography can be a nice contrast to the more formal, controlled-light look of photographs taken within the confines of a catering hall or other wedding-centric indoor location. Although the sun is an excellent daylight-balanced light source, outdoor portrait and wedding photography invariably requires supplementary gear to fill the shadows, diffuse harsh sunlight and illuminate open shaded areas.
In a perfect world, sunlight is always gently diffused, emanates from a low angle to the horizon, has a warm, golden glow and is always over your shoulder, regardless of what direction you may be facing. But reality usually dictates otherwise, and that’s where auxiliary lighting, diffusers and reflectors come into the equation. With a few extra pieces of simple equipment, you can control the harsh effects of bright sunlight and shadow that would otherwise ruin potentially great wedding portraits. And you can have some fun and create interesting and memorable images.
On-Camera TTL Flash Enhances Existing Light
In the right hands, an on-camera flash used outdoors can be theatrical or straightforward, depending on the occasion and mindset of your subject(s). It can be used to soften shadows, illuminate backlit subjects or darken the distracting background of a packed catering hall. The most basic auxiliary light source for outdoor photography, it mounts on your camera’s hot shoe. Depending on the make and model, shoe-mounted flashguns (aka Speedlites or Speedlights) become an integral part of your camera once they’re locked in place. In the case of dedicated, through-the-lens (TTL) flashguns, the flash output is determined by the degree of light required to complement pre-existing ambient light levels. You can also adjust your exposures to serve your purposes, whether you’re filling in shadows or darkening a background by increasing your shutter speed.
One great feature of dedicated TTL flashguns are flash reflectors that zoom in or out to match the picture angle of the lens you are using, usually in the range of 28mm to 105mm or longer, depending on the particular model. Most have a flip-down diffuser that spreads the light wide enough to cover the field of view of a 21mm lens, giving you good edge-to-edge illumination.
Dedicated and non-dedicated TTL flashguns are available from almost all camera manufacturers including Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony, Olympus and Panasonic. Dedicated TTL flashguns are also available from third-party manufacturers including Metz, Quantum, Nissin, Bower, Zeikos, Sunpak, Sigma and Vivitar.
TTL Flash Light Modifiers Soften the Hard-Edged Look
If you find that the harsh nature of electronic speedlights blows out the highlights of what would otherwise be lovely wedding photos, these effects can be greatly controlled through the use of a number of readily available light-modifying attachments. To diffuse and soften the light of a flash gun and create more flattering and atmospheric portraits, try any of a number of snap-on diffusers, miniature beauty dishes and soft boxes from third-party companies including Impact, Pearstone, Gary Fong, Sto-Fen, ExpoImaging, LumiQuest, Harbor Digital, Visual Echoes and Honel. Mini softboxes are particularly useful when shooting with speedlights, as they greatly soften and spread the range of light that these smaller strobes produce. OEM (original equipment manufacturer) flash modifiers are also available from Nikon, Olympus, Quantum and Sunpak.
I’ve Got the Power: Auxiliary TTL Flash Battery Packs
You’ll need to power your auxiliary lighting sources and keep them juiced through an entire wedding day. Many of the above-mentioned speed lights accept auxiliary battery packs, which greatly extend the number of flashes you can get per charge, compared to the so-so, limited output you typically get from a set of AA batteries. Recycling times are far faster when you power with rechargeable external battery packs. Such external packs are available for select speedlights from Canon, Nikon, Metz, Impact, Sony, Sunpak, Nissin, Pentax, Olympus and Quantum Instruments. It’s also worth mentioning that select models of some of these battery packs can also be configured to power your camera or camera plus flash. If the idea of dual-purpose power packs appeals to you, check out the dual-port battery pack systems available from Quantum Instruments. These power packs really take the worry out of ensuring you have ample battery power for your portable flash lighting.
Note: Never attempt to photograph a wedding using a flash powered only by AA batteries, because they simply cannot recycle your flash quickly enough to keep up with the frenetic pace of a wedding.
Tailor the Lighting with Off-Camera TTL Flash Cords and Brackets
If you wish to create more mood, more flattering light and avoid the red eye that invariably pops out of portraits lit by direct on-camera flash, moving your flash off-axis from the lens can heighten the drama—and generally create more natural-looking lighting. Move the flash off the camera by attaching an off-camera TTL flash cord, which allows you to position the flash about an arm’s length left or right of the camera. Most off-camera TTL cords have a ¼"-20 and/or 3/8" thread that enables you to mount the flash on an off-camera flash bracket or light stand. By moving your flash off to one side or the other and then combining your flash with a light modifier such as a diffuser, beauty dish or small soft box, you create a lighting effect far more pleasing than the harsh, less-than-flattering light you get from dead-on unmodified flash exposures. Remember—this is the most special day in the bride’s life. You want to create images that are as beautiful as possible and you’ve got this one opportunity to make that happen.
Battery-Powered Studio Flash Systems for Small Groups
Although you may think you have it covered with a couple of speedlights, you may not. Depending upon the lighting conditions, you may need to augment the light that is present (or absent) with enough from an artificial source to light a small group, and not just the bride and groom. This might require more light, with more of a spread than you can get from your speedlight, whether it’s off camera or on. Because invariably, there will be the required shots of the groom and groomsmen, the bride and bridesmaids, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and best friends. More powerful and far more flexible than shoe-mounted speedlights are the beefier battery-powered flash systems made by Quantum and Lumedyne, which are ideal for shooting group portraits. For photographing larger groups or situations requiring larger volumes of light, portable battery-powered flash systems featuring 1000- to 2000-plus watt/seconds of light are available from Broncolor, ProFoto, Hensel and Lumedyne, each of which offers an extensive range of umbrellas, light boxes and other light-modeling tools that allow you to achieve studio-quality lighting regardless of where and when you are shooting.
The light-modifying tools (umbrellas, reflectors, softboxes, etc.) designed for these larger, battery-powered lighting systems are often one and the same as their AC-powered studio counterparts. They’re also larger than your speedlight’s accessories, which makes them more efficient in terms of lighting larger areas or groups of individuals, not to mention offering greater levels of lighting control.
Wireless Trigger Systems
One of the benefits of shooting wirelessly is that cables are elminated, and when it comes to weddings and similar crowded venues, the fewer cables you have sprawled across the floors, the better. Wireless radio transmitters and transceiver systems are available from PocketWizard, Quantum Instruments and others, as well as dedicated OEM systems from Canon and Nikon. Depending on the make and model, many wireless trigger systems can be operated on multiple channels, making it easy for many photographers to work in close proximity without interfering with one another. Many systems, such as PocketWizard’s MiniTT1 transmitter and FlexTT5 transceiver, enable you to change flash-exposure levels in one or more groups of dedicated Canon or Nikon speedlights from the camera-mounted transmitter unit. Unlike IR systems, radio-slaved systems do not have to be in line of sight to work properly, which in wedding environments is a huge advantage.
Low-Tech Wonders: Reflectors and Diffusers
The challenge of shooting outdoors using available light is learning how to control it. It’s rare to shoot under outdoor lighting conditions that don’t require varying degrees of fill, softening or diffusion. Sometimes, merely adding light is not the best option. To fill these needs are a number of scrims, reflectors and diffusing devices designed to optimize the lighting parameters of whatever ambient lighting conditions you might encounter.
“With a few extra pieces of simple equipment, you can control the harsh effects of bright sunlight and shadow that would otherwise ruin a potentially great wedding portrait”
To address this need, B&H stocks a large assortment of folding reflectors for bounce lighting. These reflectors, which are extremely lightweight and fold up to about a third of their full size for easy packing and traveling, are most always double sided and available in choices of gold/silver, gold/white, silver/white and gold/silver/white. Silver and white will render brilliant, clean highlights, and gold will give your subjects a healthy, warm glow—extremely flattering for portraits. Some reflectors even include black panels for dampening unwanted reflected light.
For shooting in bright, contrasty lighting situations, you can try using any number of translucent diffusers, which soften ambient contrast to levels that are more agreeable for capturing the spectrum of subtle nuances of white satin, black tuxedos, smoother skin tones and wider, happier-looking, squint-free eyes. By floating a large diffuser between the bride, the bridal party and the sun, it’s possible to shoot portraits that aren’t blown out, with detail in the highlights, shadows and everything in between, not to mention smiling, wide-eyed facial expressions—regardless of how harsh the sunlight may be.
These diffusers can also be used to soften the blast of bare-tube electronic flashguns when used for fill-flash purposes.
Essential Accessories Include Extension Cords, Gaffer Tape and Cable Ties
Regardless of whether you plan on shooting indoors or outdoors, if you are planning to use AC-powered lighting of any sort, you are inevitably going to need a set of heavy-duty electrical extension cords. Available in a number of lengths (1’, 2’, 3’, 6’, 8’, 10’, 12’, 25’, 50‘ and 100’), colors (black or orange) and outlets (single or triple), it’s highly recommendable to have at least 50’ of extension cable for each of your power packs and other AC-dependent devices. You never know how far from the electrical outlet you will have to set up for portraits.
As long as you’re making the investment, purchase extension cables that are water resistant and heavy gauge, in order to withstand repeated winding, unwinding, crimping, pedestrian traffic and the sort of wear and tear one would expect on anything that gets dragged across concrete and other abrasive surfaces.
Lastly, to keep things in place and to wrangle unruly cables, no location photographer’s arsenal is complete without gaffer tape and a selection of cable ties, the latter of which are available in one-shot and reusable flavors. Gaffer tape is great for taping cords and cables down so passersby won’t trip, and ties in different colors will keep your cables and cords tangle free, organized and easily identified.
How does your wedding lighting and light-modifying kit compare to the list we've provided above? You can share your experiences, ideas and suggestions in the Comments section below.