Photography / Tips and Solutions

Lighting Systems for Wedding Photography

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Shoe and Bracket-Mounted Flashguns

After cameras and lenses, the third slice of your wedding gear triad is your choice of lighting gear. The most basic system revolves around a dedicated TTL (through the lens) flashgun mounted on your camera’s hot shoe (or preferably on an adjustable flash bracket).  Also called “Speedlights” or “Speedlites,” depending upon manufacturer, dedicated TTL flashguns can be invaluable when working under the low or quick-changing lighting conditions common to the places in which people throw weddings. They are equally adept at opening the shadows when shooting outdoor portraits and/or backlit candid photographs.

Though not designed for photographing large group portraits, TTL flashguns are quite versatile when used in tandem with slaved multiples via wireless TTL communication, which depending on the system can be built in or externally connected. By mounting wirelessly slaved secondary flashguns onto light stands or other clamp-friendly perches, it’s possible to create elaborate lighting scenarios that can be set up and broken down fairly quickly.

TTL flashguns hit their stride when used for grabbing candids while mingling with the guests as they dance, dine and mingle. TTL-enabled flashguns, especially flashguns with longer-range zoom heads, are quite adept at illuminating more distant vignettes that can be captured with longer telephoto lenses.

To maximize the lighting potential of TTL flashguns, most feature zoom heads that tilt, swivel and automatically match the field of view of the lens you’re using. There are also a number of OEM and third party light-shaping tools—diffusers, mini soft boxes and snap-on bounce flash devices—that can be attached quickly and easily to the flashgun to further tweak the light to fit your needs.

Note: Be advised that if you plan on building a lighting system around TTL flashguns, make sure you purchase an external battery pack for each flashgun in your intended system because a set of AAs simply cannot keep up with the rapid-fire demands of wedding photography.

A step beyond the dedicated TTL flashguns made by Nikon, Canon, Sony, Pentax and other camera and third-party manufacturers are the more powerful—and versatile—battery-powered  portable flash systems available from Quantum Instruments, Norman and Metz.

Designed to be mounted alongside your camera via flash bracket or onto a light stand, these beefier flashguns not only output far more light than OEM shoe-mounted flashguns, they can also be used with a wider assortment of light-shaping tools. Their power-to-weight ratio also makes them easy to maneuver when used on a boompole for wider field fill flash or backlighting in larger, crowded areas. If you’ve ever been to a wedding you’ve seen these portable packs in action.

For optimal accuracy, most of these high output portable flashguns can also be configured for dedicated TTL use with most popular DSLRs (pro and compact) when integrated with dedicated TTL modules or flash cables.

Most, if not all, of these battery-powered flashguns can also be powered via 120-240V AC when shooting within reach of wall outlets, using the battery’s charger or an AC adapter, which depending on the make and model, is included or available as an option. Some portable battery flash systems also allow you to double or triple the battery’s power output by attaching additional power modules to the base power pack.

By bouncing the collective output of three or four of these beefier portables into mid-size umbrellas or softboxes, you can easily photograph medium- to large-sized group formal portraits or light a mid-sized room.

Note: Some, but not all, of the above-mentioned portable lighting systems feature modeling lights. Depending on the make and model, they will be either a conventional modeling lamp or rapid-fire micro-bursts of flash that allow you to preview the look of the flash output.  

AC and Battery-Powered Studio Flash

When shopping for wedding-friendly studio lighting systems, size and weight are key considerations. You want lighter-weight packs and heads that can be packed tightly and neatly together, and they should be easy to set up and break down. And equally important, you want a system with a reliable track record.

Studio flash systems come in two flavors: packs & heads or monopacks, which contain the power supply and flash head in a one-piece housing. As for which route is the better route, it’s purely a matter of taste and workflow preferences. Depending on the make and model, most power packs allow you to plug in anywhere from two to six separate heads, each of which can be powered and controlled as a group or individually, symmetrically or asymmetrically.

One of the plus sides of using power packs and separate heads includes having the ability to control all of the power settings for each head from a central location, regardless of how far apart the heads may be. The down side of this arrangement is that because all the heads are tethered to the pack by cables that are usually limited in length to about 12’, there’s a limit to how far you can spread the lights apart without resorting to extension cables. Another liability of relying on a single pack to power multiple heads is that if the pack goes, you’d better have a spare pack waiting in the wings.

Note: When using extension cables for electronic flash heads, be advised that you lose about ¼-stop of light from each connection point.

Work-proven studio lighting systems—including packs & heads and monopacks—are available from various companies including Profoto, Dynalite, SP Studio Systems, Elinchrom, Impact, Interfit, and Speedotron.

The plus sides of shooting with monopacks is that if you blow a pack, you’ve only lost one head out of many, and because they’re not running on a central power supply they can be spread across a wider area without the need to crisscross a reception hall with extension cables. The added flash power enabled by these larger lighting systems also means you can use larger umbrellas and softboxes, which enables you to light both small and large groups with softer, more evenly spread swaths of light.

Note: When purchasing a new studio lighting system, or upgrading from a smaller, lighter system, consider purchasing heavier-duty light stands and boom arms that can handle the added weight of the larger heads, umbrellas and softboxes, especially when extended toward their respective limits.

When researching studio lighting systems, one should also consider some of the battery-powered studio systems available from Lumidyne, Hensel, Profoto, Impact, Comet and Elinchrom. Depending on the make and model, most of these heavy-duty workhorses can bang out several hundred full-power exposures per charge and can be powered by AC when shooting within reach of electrical power outlets. Most of these battery powered studio systems also make full use of many of the light-shaping accessories used by their AC-powered counterparts, which reduces the costs of fitting them out for real-world usage. 

Tungsten and Fluorescent Lighting Systems

Though you may not want to use them for portraits (they’re too hot!), tungsten lighting systems, which are available from companies including Lowel, Westcott and Photoflex, can be very handy for lighting backgrounds when shooting in large, open facilities. Just make sure you secure the stands with sandbags and tape any cables safely and securely in place in order to avoid potential accidents. When handling hot lamps, it’s also advisable to allow for cooling-down time to enable easier handling and lessen the likelihood of cracking lamps while dashing from one location to another.

If, however, you prefer the advantages of photographing with continuous light rather than electronic flash, you have the option of shooting with fluorescent lamps, which offer the convenience of being daylight balanced and cool to the touch, compared to tungsten lights.

Available in a number of configurations that include beauty dishes, softboxes and standard reflector/umbrella combinations, daylight balanced fluorescent lamps can also be easily configured with electronic flash systems or daylight for backlight and fill support, using your camera’s shutter speed to lighten or darken the ambient levels of the background.

One of the few downsides of fluorescent lighting is that, depending on the system, they tend to output lower light levels than tungsten and electronic flash. On the positive side, fluorescent lamps are relatively inexpensive compared to electronic flash, they’re lightweight and easy to transport without requiring you to build cool-down time into your already tight work schedule.

If you have any ideas or suggestions, we’d like to hear from you. What sort of lighting gear has worked for you when you’ve photographed weddings? Please share your experiences or comments in the Comments section below. We’re interested in what you have to say.


We would love to hear from you!  For any questions regarding wedding gear, technical issues or to share your experiences, B&H advisors are on hand via email at askbh@bhphoto.com, live chat, or phone us at 877-818-2225 or 212-465-0196.

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I've used a few portable flash systems on-location for my weddings, and I finally settled on the Profoto Acuteb2 LiFE system. For my needs it's the ultimate setup. Portable (I fly interstate and overseas with it), powerful and lightweight. I run it off the mains with the additional 2A charger to keep the battery charged and run a photobooth setup at my wedding receptions (with the modelling light on). 600ws is plenty of power when using efficient small modifiers, my personal preference being the Mola 22" white beautydish which gives me plenty of power, spread and I can grid it down for a variety of effects. 

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