How to Fix Bad Lighting While You’re Photographing a Wedding

April 22, 2019

By Greg Scoblete

Photo © Justin Haugen

Justin Haugen uses daylight white balance as a kind of reference point for his shooting throughout the day as it “tells me everything I need to know about my light.”

When it comes to coping with harsh, ugly or uncooperative lighting conditions on a wedding day, photographers could do worse than remember the old Boy Scout motto: “Always be prepared.” From location scouting to packing the right lights and modifiers to keeping some compositional and post-processing tricks in their back pockets, there are plenty of ways to overcome difficult lighting. 

Playing with light to accentuate your subjects and using shadow to hide mundane scenery are two of David Stanbury’s go-to lighting techniques when dealing with tough venues. Photo © David Stanbury

Planning Makes Perfect

The first step in conquering poor lighting is preparation, says Justin Marantz of Justin & Mary, based in New Haven, Connecticut. Sometimes that entails location scouting ahead of time or simply taking mental notes of promising locations or problematic light sources when you arrive. 

Having the right gear is also critical. While all of the photographers we spoke with used different types and numbers of flashes, one thing was consistent: They frequently use grid modifiers to control light spill and CTO gels to balance their flash against warmer, tungsten light sources.

Remember Location and Emotion

England’s David Stanbury looks for images that fulfill what he calls his “Stanbury triangle” of great location, lighting and emotion. “I look for all three of them, but even if I just get two or even one, I’ll be happy.” If the light is bad, but the location or emotion is still powerful, it can “take some of the pressure off” having less-than-ideal light for an image, he adds.

Create Shadows, Not Just Light

“I like to create light, but I like to create shadows, too,” Stanbury says. Shadows don’t just enhance contrast and drama; they can also serve to hide poor lighting or ancillary distractions around your subject. “Sometimes I use shadows to lose details,” Stanbury adds.

Our eyes tend to seek out the brightest subject in an image, so if you’re dealing with distracting or unsightly background light, make your subject’s faces the brightest part of the image, Stanbury advises. Windows are perfect for this purpose, he says. He’ll often pose subjects by windows so that incoming daylight can wash over the subjects and create shadows behind them. Stanbury says shooting off-camera flash with grid modifiers is also critical here since the grids keep light focused and prevent it from spilling beyond his subjects.

Don’t put your faith in your camera’s white balance, advises Justin Marantz. Selecting your own white balance will ensure you have an easier time when it comes to post-processing images. Photo © Justin Marantz

Set Your Own White Balance

“Automatic white balance is too easy to throw off,” says Justin Haugen of Tucson, Arizona. Instead, he manually sets his white balance. During the day, Haugen is typically in daylight white balance but will switch to tungsten after sunset when he’s in the reception hall. “Shooting in daylight white balance is important since it’s a baseline, it tells me everything I need to know about my light,” he adds. “If it’s too blue, you know you’re in a heavily shaded environment, but if the images are coming out orange, you know it’s heavily tungsten.”

Selecting your own white balance, adds Marantz, also helps in post-production since it creates consistent batches of images. On the other hand, automatic white balance can be inconsistent.

Trevor Dayley wants to preserve some ambient light, so he keeps his shutter speed fairly slow and sets his flashes to low power. Photo © Trevor Dayley

Letting In vs. Locking Out Ambient Light

While ambient light—whether it’s from the DJ’s various effects, the sun or from the venue—can be problematic, Trevor Dayley of Scottsdale, Arizona, sees it as the “light the couple paid for.” Therefore, he doesn’t always want to completely eliminate it during his shoot. That means that he leaves his shutter at either 1/50th or 1/30th of a second and uses a fairly low flash power, typically 1/32 or 1/64 power for off-camera flashes and down to 1/128 power for an on-camera speedlight. His on-camera flash will be gelled with a half CTO “to give my subjects warmer skin tones without necessarily warming up the ambient light,” he says. If he’s noticing purple or blue color casts on the walls, he’ll shift his color temperature in-camera to 4500K to deliver complementary tones.

Marantz says he’ll typically underexpose ambient lighting anywhere from a third to a whole stop so that his flash will then be properly exposed to make images “pop off the page.”

If the ambient light is too problematic (we’re looking at you, DJ with the zany lights), you can eliminate it entirely by ramping up your shutter speed and relying on your flashes to provide all of the light. When photographing outdoors, particularly around noon, Haugen uses high-speed sync and pushes his shutter to 1/8000th of a second  while also keeping his camera at base ISO. This not only lets him completely block out the ambient light, it also enables him to keep his aperture wider for a shallow depth of field. 

For very bright days, Stanbury says he’ll occasionally bring out his big gun, a Broncolor Move Kit, which pumps out 1200 W/s of flash output. “It’s like hitting a drawing pin with a hammer,” he says, but its massive output allows him to shoot a couple in broad daylight and completely black out the surrounding environment. 

Dayley warms up an otherwise hum-drum blue sky by using CTB gels and boosting his camera’s white balance to 10,000K. This preserves natural skin tones but warms up the sky. Photos © Trevor Dayley

The Sky’s Not the Limit

One of the biggest outdoor challenges is making a dramatic image when the sky isn’t cooperating, Dayley says. When it’s a gray or dreary day, he’ll bump up the color temperature in camera to 10,000K and use either a half or full CTB gel on his flash. The effect is to warm up the sky and clouds and inject a bit more drama into the image. 

Neidhart will frequently place subjects near windows to create both light and
shadow by her subject.  Photo © Grace And Blush

Take control

Sometimes “photographers think they’re at the mercy of the scene,” Haugen says, when instead they should think about how they can control it. Occasionally that means asking venues to shut off certain lights if they’re really problematic. Dayley says that simply telling DJs where you’ll photograph moments like the opening dance will often prompt them to shut off distracting lights or effects. Also, don’t be afraid to ask ushers and bridesmaids for help holding flashes, Stanbury notes. “We sometimes have to use our ‘voice-activated light stands’ to get the light where it needs to be,” he says.

When she has a chance to offer advice, Jasmin Neidhart always suggests festooning a location with candles. They’re a great source of ambient light—and besides, who doesn’t like candles?
Photo © Grace And Blush

Natural Light KNOW-HOW

Photographer and self-described minimalist Jasmin Neidhart of Germany’s Grace and Blush says she loves shooting available light for the freedom it gives her during the wedding day, and for the fact that she can elicit more naturalistic images. “The light I have to work with is an authentic part of the story of that day,” she says.

Her first objective whenever she enters a venue is to “seek out the good light.” That means identifying environmental light sources such as candles, hanging luminaries and especially windows or doorways. 

Neidhart has a number of tools and tricks she uses when dealing with challenging light, particularly indoors. First, she shoots the wedding day with fast prime lenses (in her case, Sigma’s Art series). “Don’t be afraid of f/1.4,” she says. Aside from letting in more light, shooting fast lenses wide open blurs out backgrounds, which is both aesthetically pleasing and useful in obscuring problematic light sources or unattractive details.

Working with available light often forces Neidhart to get close to her subjects to ensure there’s enough environmental light to properly expose her subjects. Photo © Grace And Blush

Her next option is to bump up the ISO on her camera. “I know I can push that to ISO 1000 or even higher without a problem,” she says. She’ll also slow her shutter speeds to soak up more ambient light. When a couple isn’t moving, she’ll often shoot at 1/70th of a second or even slower. 

If there’s a moment in the ceremony, like the speeches, where Neidhart can’t direct her subjects toward a window or better lighting, and the ambient lighting is fairly low, she likes to get physically closer to her subjects and position herself with a light source over her shoulder. “I don’t shy away from technical imperfections,” she adds. “Your style grows from those imperfections. I want an approach that’s as natural as possible.”

Fix It In Post

While getting it right in camera is what most pro photographers strive for, there’s no shame in leaning on the digital darkroom to tweak images that aren’t quite right. Here are a few post-processing techniques you can use to correct images with problematic lighting.

Find the clippings. A good first step is to identify which pixels and image details are unrecoverable, lost to either under or overexposure. Using your program’s histogram and a clipping mask will show you which areas of your image, if any, are effectively unsalvageable.

Combat color casts. Color casts are a common issue in images with spotty or problematic lighting. If you’re noticing unwanted colors in your images, there are a number of different software fixes. First, you can use the eyedropper tool found in programs like Lightroom or Camera RAW and identify something that’s white (or very close to white) in your image. Clicking the eyedropper on it will color-balance the rest of the image against that white reference point. (Bringing along a gray card and photographing it under the various lighting conditions you encounter during your shoot can vastly improve the effectiveness of this technique since you’ll always have a reference point to balance against.)

You can also color-correct images in Photoshop using color curves. By adding a Curve Adjustment layer, you’ll be able to shift colors in the red, green and blue channels until you’ve achieved a more color-balanced image. (Adobe has a deeper primer on this tool here:

Bump exposure to the face. Boosting the exposure value on the face, even slightly, while bringing down the exposure on background details will help draw the viewer’s eye away from poor light or distractions.

When Haugen has an image he wants to tweak in Lightroom, he’ll typically pull down the exposure by .20 and the highlights by .50. Then, he’ll drag a radial filter around the subject and erase away corrections around the head and face. “If you have a high enough feather so the transition feathers off very softly, you can do a lot to draw attention to your subject almost subliminally.” 

When all else fails, black and white is alright. “When everything goes wrong, or if the light is bad, you do have the freedom to switch to black and white,” Neidhart says. Beyond its pleasing aesthetic quality, processing an image in monochrome can also hide ugly color casts or funky white balance that would otherwise be visible in a full-color image.

Related: A Complete Guide to Color-Effects in Portrait Photography

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