Bad Lighting, Great Wedding Photos

September 6, 2013

By Ryan Brenizer

There are only a few proven paths for making great photos, and one such path is driven by luck. It’s part of what makes wedding photography so hard. Yes, we want to be lucky and ready for meaningful moments (my pals at the Foundation Workshops call this “praying to the photo gods”), and we should always try to push the envelope. But you can’t reveal to a couple that you’d love to experiment with a new technique on their special day, or when a bride walks out in her wedding dress, say, “Hmmm no. What else do you have?”

When photographer Joe Rosenthal, known for his work during WWII, took the photo of the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi, in 1945, he didn’t realize he’d captured image that would become iconic until his editor looked through his roll. That frame was taken with a large-format camera in the extraordinarily dangerous Pacific theatre of WW II, armed with nothing more dangerous than sheet film. He made the nest in which luck could be born.

Though wedding photography is not (usually) a war zone, we do spend huge chunks of our shoots at the mercy of external forces—bad weather, bad timing, bad lighting, bad decisions made by vendors doing this for the first time—and we have to produce results. What follows are a few seemingly disastrous situations where I’ve managed to create my own good luck while using a few lighting tricks and techniques.


The situation at left involved a cornucopia of problems: the skies opened up at the same time guests had to walk to the reception, and the bride was worried—not so much about herself but about all of her friends and family. To take her mind off the rain, I said, “Hey, I know this isn’t ideal, but I’ll tell you what—let’s make a photo out of it that you’ll love.”

Because we weren’t expecting a downpour, the gear (and my assistant and I) had no protection. I knew I might only get a few pops before the Pocketwizard shorted out, and I did—we got maybe 45 seconds of working flash. I set up my assistant holding the Nikon SB-900 speed light and crouching hidden behind the couple. Flash from behind in a dark rainfall is a standard trick, so I upped the difficulty, using a 45mm tilt-shift to turn the rain and city lights into a bunch of wild bokeh. The out-of-focus bus on the right works to give the scene a setting.

Digital helps you work quickly in these situations, and I was able to immediately see my ideal ambient exposure and then let the flash match it. Backlight at night doesn’t have to be very strong; this was likely 1/16th power or so.


Bethesda Fountain in New York City’s Central Park is home to a thousand wedding shoots a week, so I always try to mix things up. It was the middle of the day, with bright, unflattering sunlight everywhere, and the square behind the couple was a clutter of tourists, street performers and probably four or five other wedding shoots. The interior where the couple and I were standing was totally covered and very dark. This setup usually makes for an ideal silhouette situation, but in this case it would just highlight the chaos behind them. So when I exposed for them—maybe eight stops darker than the sunny scene behind them—everything faded to white.

The most basic rule of good composition is this: Keep everything in the scene that makes the picture better and take the rest out. Generally we think of that in terms of framing, but light can also do that trick for us. In post, I added contrast and brought down the white clipping point, allowing the world to fall away and leaving them alone in newly-married bliss.


New Jersey has some of my favorite venue interiors, but a lot of event spaces have a similar outdoor setting: a parking lot, a highway—and that’s it. If you’re limited by shooting inside the venue, that parking lot is exactly where you’ll end up. So here I am using light compositionally, similar to the Central Park shot (opposite page) but in reverse; by adding light to my subject, I am taking light away from things I don’t want to see. You can see the cars in the background, but only if you really look. Again, we had less than a minute for this shot—the groomsmen were being called to line up as I took it.

To make this work quickly, I used a little Photoshop trickery: my assistant is actually standing very close to the groom with a softbox. This is what gives the light its precision and dramatic falloff. Then he left the frame, and I took one with the same composition and all the same exposure settings. Thirty seconds in Photoshop and it’s like the scene in Back to the Future, where my assistant vanishes from the image.
Usually I would light all the groomsmen like this, and maybe give both options. But I went into it thinking about this composition and highlighting the groom because we had less than a minute to do everything, so I followed with a quick ambient light exposure, eliminating the cars the old-fashioned way: perspective and framing.


The idea that a bride will look good near a north-facing window with soft light is nothing new. But the problem with the basic window shot—other than it being something anyone can and does take—is that most people don’t exert enough control. With just a couple of variables, windows can be a professional light source with dramatic falloff. We don’t need to light everything in a frame, just the interesting bits. And if we want to make our subjects look their best, a very effective way is to not light every inch of them in the same way.

The first variable is distance. Thanks to a geeky thing called the inverse square law, if your subject is close to the light source, the falloff will be dramatic. The window is maybe two inches outside the frame here. If we were two feet further inside, that stark blackness would turn into a drab carpet. Secondly, many windows are decorated with these amazing, professional-quality light-shaping tools we call curtains. Use them.

While I’m shooting from above with an 85mm lens in one hand, my other hand is manipulating the curtains so that only an inch or two of bright light is streaming in, bringing us even more drama and control. This makes for the stark shadows and enough precision to get that little Rembrandt triangle. Think of effective curtain use as a scalpel to a wide-open window’s chainsaw.


Here we had a really grungy, colorless scene without a lot going for it—except that it was reflective. I like to think of my tools not just in terms of what they’re meant to do, but for all the things they can do. We generally think of speedlights as spitting light forward, but in the right situation I think of them more as a “light grenade,” bouncing light all over the place.

In this scene, I pointed an SB-900 straight up at the couple from below, and very slightly back, and the reflective interior bounced everywhere and wrapped around them. Quick, easy and dramatic. The light also brings out the pop of color in her dress. A wide-angle lens (in this case the 24mm f/1.4) transforms parallel lines into leading perspective lines that aim right at your couple.

This trick also works well in a lot of elevators, turning them into a bright room of dramatic wrap-around light (but just make sure the doors don’t close unattended, leaving you minus one flash). I generally try to get the flash hidden behind their feet, but I wasn’t going to give up on this awesome pose, so the flash was taken out with a 15-second clone in post. RF