Tips + Techniques

9 Tips for Sculpting Natural and Artificial Light at Weddings

August 31, 2020

By Charmi Peña

© Charmi Peña

Weddings can be overwhelming for some photographers, especially when you’re documenting big multi-day festivities for newlyweds. Choosing the best kind of light to highlight each moment of the celebration—from quieter mornings to boisterous evenings—isn’t always easy. To prepare you for those decision-making moments, these tips will guide you through using different kinds of competing artificial light at weddings, isolating memorable moments with bright lights and embracing natural light when you need to.

1. Bridal Portrait: Harsh Light and Shadows

Photographed on a Nikon D750 and 85mm lens at f/2, /1250 sec. and ISO 100. All Photos © Charmi Peña

I don’t think all portraits need to be classically soft. For this image, the bride’s jewelry felt edgy and extra, and when she stepped into the harsh morning light coming through her window, I knew I wanted to play up just how edgy it was.

I had her cover her eyes to show off my favorite part of her jewelry first. Then, instead of asking her to step to the left or right, I asked her to keep her feet planted but lean towards me or away from me, until the light and the grids from the window creating shadows lay exactly where I pictured them.

I’m always looking for oddly shaped light or harsh light I can use to highlight just what I want the viewer to pay attention to.

2. Getting Ready: Big Window Light

Photographed on a Nikon D850 and 35mm lens at f/2.5, 1/250 sec. and ISO 4500.

All weddings are chaos. Most of the weddings I photograph start just after the sun comes up and have so many moving parts that everyone is always rushing from one part of the day to the next. I make sure that in that non-stop chaos, I stop my bride and someone she loves a ton, usually her mom, so they can have a moment to breathe, to be, to love each other.

What you see here is actually a giant window. But because I really wanted people to see the bride and her mom and their hands, I used the curtains to cover the majority of the window. I asked them to stand on either side of the small area, hold hands and talk about anything they wanted.

Sometimes, even when you have a ton of light, it’s more about controlling its flow than the quantity, and this is definitely one of those times.

3. Flower Girl: Backup Flash

Photographed on a Nikon D850 and 85mm lens at f/2.2, 1/250 sec. and ISO 1600.

Something I talk about a lot is having my assistant always ready with a “just in case” flash or video light. During wedding ceremonies, I tend to stay away from flash so I don’t disrupt cinematographers filming, or irritate guests (and myself). During the processional, we almost always have to use this light, as most often we are in an extremely dark ballroom and even if we have overhead light, it’s not very flattering. 

I always want light to be strongest on an area of the frame where I want the viewer’s eye to go. On this occasion, I signaled my assistant to turn away since the bride hadn’t entered yet and focus on our little flower girl. Just as the bride entered, the anxious flower girl’s expression changed from the stress of where to go, to happiness. Then we quickly turned back and photographed the bride’s entrance.

I can’t live without a “voice-activated light stand,” or in my case, a “weird-hand-signal-activated light stand”.

4. Wedding Ceremony: Video Lights

Photographed on a Nikon D750 and 35mm lens at f/16, 1/200 sec. and ISO 1000.

The most important thing I think photographers would want to know about this image is that it was photographed at f/16. And, I suppose, that I hid video lights inside the structure within which the couple is getting married. I thought it was really important to capture every element of this setting. The chandeliers, the ceremony, but mostly, that there was a raging winter storm outside.

I pulled as far back as I could, turned up the lights on stage as strong as they would go, set my camera to f/16, and then waited for the moment. Even when you are doing environmental images, it’s vital to make sure that all the elements come together.

5. Wedding Reception and Location: Exposure Balance

Photographed on a Nikon D750 and 35mm lens at f/3.2, 1/200 sec. and ISO 500.

No one gets married in front of the New York skyline as a coincidence. But without an assist from a speed light, it can be difficult to capture well-lit backgrounds when the couple is essentially in the dark, inside a building.

Though I could have blown out the sky and photographed this with natural light, I thought that couple would really enjoy seeing the city they love, lit at sunset, behind them during their ceremony. I used a Manfrotto Super Clamp attached to a speed light with a MadMod grid to the right of the chuppah and mandap (they had a Hindu and Jewish ceremony!) to light them up. And as always, I waited for the moment to meet the environment. 

6. Wedding Party: Single-Flash Composite

Photographed on a Nikon D850 and 28mm lens at f/5, 1/200 sec. and ISO 2000.

This image is a 22-image composite: one with no one lit, 21 with people lit, and 1 last frame for the the rest of the bride’s dress. No, seriously—those feathers are important!

My assistant, with direction to make sure that the light came from above the subject and a bit to the right for some added drama, used a speed light with a MagMod grid on it and went from the left to the right, person by person, lighting them as I photographed each frame, making sure the light was just right.

I had set up a tripod inside the vestibule between the main entrance and the lobby. The doorman at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia isn’t a big fan of mine anymore, but it was worth it. 

7. Dance Floor: DJ’s Colorful Lights

Photographed on a Nikon D850 and 105mm lens at f/1.4, 1/250 sec. and ISO 1100.

I’m always looking for interesting light. At this particular reception, the DJ was testing a gobo he planned to use during the dance floor of stars. As he was using it, I noticed that in one particular spot, it showed a rainbow. I placed my bride in that spot and waited for it to come back to make sure it would work. After one test shot, I realized that the rainbow light alone wasn’t lighting the bride, nor the graphic elements you get from her outfit. To bring all the parts together, I had my assistant hold a video light at camera left and waited for the rainbow to return from camera right!

8. Couple’s Portrait: Natural Sun

Photographed with a Nikon D750 and 85mm lens at f/2, 1/400 sec. and ISO 100.

Sometimes, the best light for the moment is just what is right there in front of you. My clients and I were able to slip out of their sangeet (or party with music) for a moment right around sunset. We wandered the property looking for the right light. While I am most attracted to weird or harsh light, I will go wherever light takes me. So when we saw this beautiful softness coming through in the busy driveway of a hotel, we had to embrace it. I placed the couple between the sun and me, got myself into a strange squat and moved around until the sun was just enough behind the bride to give me detail and light. 

9. Party Night: Competing Reception Lights

Photographed on a Nikon D850 and 28mm lens at f/2.8, 1/250 sec. and ISO 1250.

Elaborate decor + happy humans = success! People will often comment how my events are well lit and that must make things easier—but no. My events are well lit…for walls, flowers, floors, intentionally added mist in the air. But people are never accounted for in these productions. And having so much competing light can sometimes be challenging.

Assistant + speed light + MagMod grid to the rescue! For this image, I wanted all that light from the production, the flowers on the back wall, the twinkle lights around the flowers and the big lights lighting the mist in the room to be highlighted. But not more than the bride and groom. I had my assistant get in the crowd, I stood on stage and we both just waited for the couple to turn in the right direction before I fired away.

Charmi Peña is a wedding photographer and Nikon ambassador based in New Jersey.