Tips + Techniques

Making Color Pop with Your Lights for Vibrant Wedding Portraits

August 8, 2019

By Justin Haugen

All Photos and Diagrams © Justin Haugen

I had to break myself out of some bad habits a few years ago. In particular, I needed to address how much gear I was bringing to my destination weddings, including a 28-inch beauty dish, and the requisite light and battery pack to use in outdoor conditions. Suddenly, this approach was no longer sustainable, and it led me to shift my philosophy on what I should pack.

These days, my lighting goals include using the least amount of gear possible to get impactful results, control unwanted spill on nearby surroundings, and make my subjects immediately recognizable in a scene, often by using color to help them stand out.

Spot of Teal

I love looking at a scene and reimagining it with creative light. Our eyes interpret the tonality of a scene so much differently than our cameras do, but that’s a good thing. Even when there is still plenty of light left for us to see at dusk, we can meter for the sky and push our ambient exposure down. Environments void of light are blank canvases for photographers.

While out for a small hike with a couple on their engagement session, a large rock in the middle of the hillside made for the perfect surface to stage a silhouette portrait. After working through more conventional shots
and prompts, I walked a distance away from them to capture more of the scene around them. I love letting couples in on the creative process—showing the bride-to-be my collection of gels, I let her choose her favorite color. In one hand, I had the groom-to-be hold my speedlight, pointing it at the rock face with a MagSphere with the chosen teal creative gel in the gel holder slot. Typically, you’ll want to set your white balance at daylight to observe the true hues of the creative gel, but for this photo, I pushed the tint in Lightroom to add some more magenta to the sky while still retaining the teal hue of the gelled light.

There’s a lot going on in this scene, with the monolithic saguaro cacti littering the foreground. Shooting at a wide angle, there’s so much that can compete for the viewer’s eye, but here, I’m able to make the subjects the most immediate, eye-catching element.

A photo like this would make for a great large-size print to hang in a couple’s home. 

Camera: Nikon D850
Lens: Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G
Focal length: 14mm
Exposure: f/4.5 at 1/50 sec.
ISO: 64
Lighting: Godox V860II, MagSphere, teal gel

Within the Green

Recently, I traveled to a resort in the Dominican Republic to photograph a beachside wedding ceremony at an amazing villa. I brought everything I needed in a single case that fits in a commercial plane’s overhead storage compartment. Since this kit doesn’t consist of much less gear than I use when I’m photographing local weddings, I didn’t feel limited in my ability to create.

Using an average speedlight and a MagGrip combined with a MagSphere, I was able to give the subjects a kiss of light. People often wonder why you would combine a modifier that reduces spill with one that spreads light in all directions, but an interesting thing happens when you combine these modifiers: the grid narrows the spread of light to 40 degrees, and instead of the light hitting the outer edges of the sphere, it strikes only the front circular area. The resulting light then has a tight circular pattern with a lovely shadow transition at the outer edges where the light feathers off.

This pattern of light has become a crucial part of my lighting toolkit. Personally, I find the most important part of an environmental portrait is my subject’s face. I placed the light a few feet at camera right from the couple, hiding it behind the bush while aiming it at a 45-degree angle at their faces on a 7-foot light stand. I always aim the middle of my flash at my subjects’ eyes, as this is the brightest part of the light. I like the light to feather off by the time it reaches the torso and hips.

When we bring the ambient exposure down to darken the scene, we’re able to introduce our own light and take control of the scene. This subtlety is all I needed to add light with dimension to my subjects and draw the viewer’s eye straight to their faces. 

Camera: Nikon D750
Lens: Nikon 35mm f/1.8G FX
Focal length: 35mm
Exposure: f/2.5 at 1/640 sec.
ISO: 100 
Lighting: Godox V860II, MagGrid, MagSphere 

Background of Blue

We aren’t always afforded the luxury of a beautiful venue, and I’m constantly tasked with the objective of finding beauty in unobvious locations. We were elbow to elbow with a room full of brides, grooms and family all present for courthouse weddings at our local city hall. I had to get through the metal detector at the entrance, and they wouldn’t allow my light stand to come with me. Thankfully, I find that when I’m restricted in access to gear, I become very resourceful at making the most of what I have to work with.

There was a lot of down time waiting for the couple’s number to be called, and I wasn’t going to spend it twiddling my thumbs and waiting for moments to present themselves. I enjoy the challenge of a crowded space because it encourages me to find creative ways to make my subjects the most important part of an image, regardless of what is going on around them. 

Eager to help, the tallest family member of the couple held my speedlight up high and at camera right of the couple just slightly. I stacked two MagGrids on the speedlight along with a MagSphere. The spread of light was reduced down to 20 degrees and, paired with the sphere, it makes for quick and gradual shadow transition. A tight spotlight effect was the only way I’d manage to light the couple and no one else around them. Underexposing the scene heavily to bring the full color out of the blue sky, I pushed the exposure of the family to nearly indiscernible darkness. 

Two things affect light efficiency: the distance light has to travel and the power of the light source. Since the flash was only a few feet from the couple’s heads, I could still manage to light them effectively at roughly 1/4 power—even with a collection of modifiers over the head of the flash, eating up light efficiency, and with High Speed Sync enabled. Carrying only a small amount of gear that I could support on my HoldFast MoneyMaker harness or hold in my hands, I was able to make a memorable wedding portrait in a rather forgettable environment. 

Camera: Nikon D750
Lens: Nikon 35mm f/1.8G FX
Focal length: 35mm
Exposure: f/3.2 at 1/4000 sec.
ISO: 100 
Lighting: Godox V860II, two MagGrids, MagSphere (1/4 power)

Justin Haugen is a wedding and portrait photographer from Tucson, Arizona, who specializes in creative lighting portraits on the go. He’s a MagMod and HoldFast Ambassador, and he is completely obsessed with learning and teaching lighting.

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