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4 Photography Lighting Techniques for the Wedding Party Portraits

Wedding parties, just like family formals, can be challenging to shoot, especially depending on how many people are involved, the scene where you are shooting, and the lighting conditions. Lighting, as many other parts of the wedding day, can be unpredictable on every shoot. In her third post of her Wedding Lighting Masterclass, ShootDotEdit Pro, Leeann Marie, Wedding Photographers will share her photography lighting techniques to help you shoot dynamic images quickly for the wedding party.

Leeann Marie, Wedding Photographers Headshot

One of the leading wedding photographers in Pittsburgh, Leeann Marie has created an exclusive brand that is family focused for the cosmopolitan bride. She’s a national speaker for WPPI, has been in business for 9 years, and has a background in Industrial Engineering giving her a unique perspective on photography and business. She relies heavily on systems in her business to accomplish all of her goals, and has been a ShootDotEdit happy photographer for 7 years. She lives in the city of Pittsburgh with her husband and daughter. She loves looking out her back window into the firefly-lit woods, and enjoying a night out for sushi, and drinks with friends. Learn more about Leeann on her website and Instagram account!

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Photography Lighting Techniques

Welcome to the Wedding Lighting Master Class! This is the third article in the series, which I hope will help you to learn some valuable techniques for perfectly managing and lighting the different scenarios you will be faced with on a wedding day.

A few notes about this course:

FAST IS BEST: I truly believe that “Fast Is Best”, which is (obviously) why I love ShootDotEdit. 🙂 But really, one of the key valuable principles that I bring to my brides and grooms each wedding day is an experience that is organized, hassle-free, and yet still beautifully lit and happy.

Keeping my lighting scenarios as fast as possible allows me to move between scenarios quickly, while still creating beautiful photography for my couples. I do use natural light, but I’m not afraid of flash in the least, and work with tools and an arsenal of mental notes (lots of them that are described in this course!) to help me move between situations quickly and flawlessly.

THERE ARE OPTIONS: In the photography-world, there are a million ways to light one simple scene. The methods outlined in this course are my personal preferences, and I encourage you to try them and then modify if necessary to fit your photography style and client needs.

WHERE YOU LIVE MATTERS: I work in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is an area subject to rain on summer days, snow in April, and 80 degree sunny days in November. I’m faced with varying conditions every single wedding (what photographer isn’t!?), and have to adjust all of the time.

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For each piece of this master course, I have set out to identify my most common and most challenging situations that I have faced throughout my career. Again, if you are looking to create a wedding photography experience that is efficient, but also way above and beyond what your couple’s ‘photographer friends’ can do – I think you are in the right place.

Try some of these tips. Study them. Modify them. Copy them. It’s all up to you – I hope you find all of these examples and ideas helpful on your wedding photography journey.

Now… on to the good stuff!

WEDDING PARTY PORTRAITS – SUNNY DAYS!:

In my first part of the wedding photography lighting series, I covered bridal details and preparations, and how I light them in a variety of situations. In the second part, I discussed family portraits, and how I light them both indoors and outdoors. Today, I will be talking about another huge piece of the wedding day photos – Bride + Groom and Bridal Party photos. In this article, let’s consider those beautiful, sunny days. Seems easy, right? With a few of these key principles, I think you’ll be good to go on a sunny day.

My approach to this part of the day is to keep the entire group happy and organized. I work with my brides and grooms on the selection of location, which is often based on their personal style, light, and vicinity to the venues. If I know my bride is looking for “light, airy, and whimsical”, I’ll choose a location that has great sunny light and a bright background. If I know my bride is having a wedding with more vibrant and rich colors, then I’ll often choose a portrait location that has a bit more grunge, contrast, or color. These locations are selected to fit with my client’s aesthetic for their wedding day.

In addition, I always have to be aware of the light at any given time of the day. My client can have a location that they love, but if the light isn’t going to be hitting in the right direction, then they may not get the background that they’re looking for. A lot of this comes down to experience, since in many areas around the city I know the direction of light at any given point in the day just from working there often.

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If you’re not familiar with a photo location, I’d suggest swinging by before the event around the time that portraits will take place. Look at the angle of the sun. Look at the background. Look for distracting elements. This knowledge will come in handy as you’re moving through the actual wedding day, and allow you to set realistic expectations for your clients in advance.

For equipment, I have my speedlights with me, but on bright, sunny days I am more often than not shooting with natural light. I have some go-to scenarios, and some ways that I mix things up a bit without having to move around. Let’s get into it.

BACKLIGHTING:

I’ve been photographing weddings for close to ten years, but I still use the “hand trick” to find the best light. What is this? I actually will hold out my hand and move around until I see a rim of light hitting around my fingertips. That’s how I know I have some good backlighting. If you haven’t tried this – do it! It totally works! 🙂

A few things to keep in mind when you’re looking for good backlighting: The light reflecting onto the faces also matters! Don’t just find a spot that has backlighting from the sun and then assume that the light will be great. The light bouncing onto your subject will also be important, and the biggest issues that I run into are photographers who place subjects on a grassy patch, with great backlight, but a green cast bouncing up to light the subjects faces – ew!

Some of the best light that I get is in the city, where the sun will backlight my subjects, and the reflected light from the buildings will light their faces. This is essentially like a large reflector (which I don’t use, for the sake of time).

Scenario #1

Scenario: Backlighting portraits when the sun is higher in the sky.

Equipment + Technique:  The first thing I look for is the direction of the light. Where can I place my subjects so that the sun is hitting the back of them, and they are falling into total “flat” shade on their faces? During the part of the day when the sun is high, this will be a very specific angle, which you can find using that hand trick or by turning your clients ever so slightly. Be cautious of bright sun spots on their faces.

When working with a couple or bridal party (essentially more than one person), you may have to ask them to move in small increments just to get the light right on their faces. Be aware – you are the professional. Lots of people in the wedding party don’t understand the nuances of light, and how one small patch of sunlight on their face can ruin a photo.

Once I have found great backlight and reflecting light (truly, it’s just a matter of balancing the two!), then I can start to place my subjects in the light For this wedding, my bride also had light pink and airy details, so the bright style of editing and backlighting fit perfectly with her style.

‘Fast Is Best’ Time Estimate: 5 minutes: find the light and arrange subjects. Use the hand trick if necessary!

Lighting Diagram:

reflective light diagram

Results:

wedding party with bride

Nikon D750, 112mm, f/2.8, 1/2000 sec, ISO 320

bride and bridesmaid outdoors

Nikon D750, 130mm, f/2.8, 1/1600 sec, ISO 320

Scenario #2

Scenario: Backlighting for a very light and airy effect.

Equipment + Technique:  Sometimes I have clients who really want light and airy. For this, I will backlight them slightly different. The key to this kind of backlighting is to have back in the sun, and face in the shade. This requires a different ratio of light/shade than the previous example.

In the previous example, the light on the subject’s faces was still fairly bright. In this example, the client is placed in a flat-light shadow area where the sunlight hits their back. The difference in amounts of light is dramatic, so in-camera and editing produces a “lighter” and more blown out look to the background. This works well in green spaces, as trees can help to give you this effect. You can see in this example how the bride was facing into the tree. If I had spun her around, I would have had simple, flat, open shade for my light (discussed next!)

‘Fast Is Best’ Time Estimate: 5 minutes – shooting natural light, and client placement.

Lighting Diagram:

sun light and shade diagram

Results:

bridal portraits wedding lighting

Nikon D750, 31mm, f/2.8, 1/3200sec, ISO 500

Scenario #3

Scenario: Simple, flat, open shade lighting.

Equipment + Technique:  Perhaps the easiest, this lighting is great for large groups and on days where you simply are struggling with backlight and overhead sun. In this scenario, you will want to find an area of open shade, where the sunlight is not “dappling” through trees or any surroundings. You want even light on all of your subjects.

When I find open shade, there is also nearby sun – and, consequently, a shadow line. I like to position my subjects at the edge (or near to) this shadow line. Why? Because the sunlight on the other side of the shadow is going to bounce up and reflect natural light onto their faces. If you think back to high school geometry, the light is coming down from the sky, and then bouncing up at the same angle – which means right onto your subjects.

Another note about placing your subjects right at the edge of the shade: the edge gives you more contrast. You have move light hitting their faces than into the background. For less contrast, move them back further into the shade.

‘Fast Is Best’ Time Estimate: 2 minutes – just find a nice, clean, open shade spot that has a reflective surface! Again, pay attention to the light color that is reflecting onto your subjects from any area.

Lighting Diagram:

shooting open shade photographers

Results:

wedding party outdoor lighting

Nikon D750, ISO 1000, 24mm, f/4, 1/640 sec

Scenario 4

Scenario: Evening Sunset Portraits.

Equipment + Technique:  Perhaps you have a beautiful weather day, which ends in a great sunset?! Woo! What could be better? If you can pull your couple from the wedding reception dancing, perhaps they’d like to get a photo with the gorgeous sunset? The key to this one is timing and a simple flash setup.

I often will stalk the sunset, so that I know I’m hitting it at the perfect time. I want it to be a bit darker, so that I can use my flash with no problem and bring in lots of sunset color. The first step to this image is to get my ambient light settings for the background. I’ll make sure that my shutter speed is around 1/250 or slower to bring in the sunset. Then I’ll setup my flash, turn it on, and add it in – voila!

Think of this image as a two-step process:

  1. Get ambient light reading to shoot the sunset, make sure shutter speed works with your speedlights syncing
  2. Turn on flash and add in to taste.

‘Fast Is Best’ Time Estimate: 10 minutes – setup light, test + calibrate settings.

Lighting Diagram:

how to use off-camera flash techniques

Results:

couple portraits outdoor lighting

Mixing It Up!

Now that I have these scenarios in my mind, I know that I can switch them up easily on a wedding day, and get a lot of different looks quickly! Again, fast is best! I also think that providing some variety in your light is a good idea. Here is an example:

BACKLIGHT

wedding party bridesmaids backlight

OPEN SHADE

couple portraits wedding photography lighting

BACKLIGHT

outdoor lighting bride and groom

OPEN SHADE

couple portraits wedding lighting

BACKLIGHT

wedding photography lighting bride

…and then we just turned around and got OPEN SHADE right on the edge of the shadow.

wedding party open shade lighting

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With the knowledge of how to properly use photography lighting in any location, you can use your skills to create the images your clients will love. Advance your skills in both lighting and posing with our free Guide to Lighting and Posing for Wedding Photographers!

2 Comments

  1. Shaun

    Great post. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Heather

    Fantastic article! Great information!

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