Ah, golden hour… You sweet, fickle, sliver of time. If you’re even remotely interested in photography, chances are you’re well acquainted with “golden hour” – the hour or so of soft, warm, low-hanging light just after sunrise or just before sunset. By shooting when the sun is low, you can avoid the harsh overhead shadows of the midday sun, use the more directional sunlight as a stunning backlight, and take advantage of the warmer, softer tones of sunset or sunrise.
Which is great when you have total control over the timing of a shoot. But unfortunately for us wedding photographers, there aren’t many places where you can fit a full 8-hour wedding day into that magical golden hour (although anyone who wants to give that a try is welcome to fly me to Iceland to shoot a midnight wedding in the summer!). Not to mention cramped bridal suites with gross overhead lighting, tough wedding schedules that force awkwardly-timed portraits, and crazy dark receptions that need some extra sparkle.
So with the scene set, I’ll briefly walk you through a typical wedding day for me and how I use off-camera flashes to create dramatic, beautiful light regardless of the situation. I’m a big believer in simplicity and speed, so with the exception of the reception, nearly all my setups use only one light – often handheld by an assistant for maximum speed and mobility. I use and love the Godox brand of flashes and strobes (mostly the V860II and AD200), pretty much any wireless flash system will do the trick – bonus points if they support high speed sync!
Let’s start where the day starts for most wedding photographers: Getting ready photos in the wedding suite. The first thing to note here is that I almost always prefer to work with existing light rather than try to overpower it. It simplifies my lighting needs, and adds to the existing scene and mood rather than creating a whole different one. So with that in mind, it’s best to start with the best light available. To do so, I’ll open the windows, turn off the lights, and try to position the bride facing a nearby window to flood her face with soft, flattering light.
Not an option? Then I’ll put a flash on the camera and bounce it off a wall to create a similar effect.
Nothing groundbreaking, but certainly a good place to start! From here I’ll throw a flash behind and a bit to the side of the bride to help give her a bit of a rim/sidelight. I generally try to avoid placing the flash directly behind her, as the “hair on fire” is a bit brash for my taste. To help keep the focus on our subject, I’ll put a grid on the flash to control light spill.
Window light camera left + V860II camera right
Window light camera right + V860II w/42” umbrella camera left
That little pop of backlight helps the subject stand out from the background, and can bring out a lot of texture and color – particularly helpful for clients with darker hair or clothes.
And while we’re at it, might as well snap a couple quick portraits. Indoor portraits can be a whole load of fun when you add in a flash.
Window light camera right + V860II w/42” umbrella camera left
I most often use window light as my main light, and flash as the rim/sidelight, but every so often it’s nice to mix things up for a different look:
Window light backlight + V860II on camera bounce flash
Moving on from the getting ready photos, the first look and ceremony are often no-flash affairs (even in this “photograph everything” age, it’s good to keep in mind that a wedding is still a wedding and not a photoshoot) and it’s time for some early afternoon portraits. And if you’ve shot any number of weddings, odds are you know the type of portraits I’m talking about… The ones where, despite your insistence, the couple has to have photos taken at this one specific spot with no shade at 2 pm; every photographer’s nightmare.
For starters, we can still shape natural light – even when the sun is high and harsh. I try to use it as a backlight.
Things are looking a bit rough in this first photo, using only that 2:PM sun:
But when I put a reflector camera left, we can start to add soft, flattering, directional light to the couple, and reign in that blown out background.
But when I use only the translucent panel of the reflector and put that right over their heads, we get nice, soft, even tones throughout:
Of course, the name of the game here is quick and mobile, so holding a big white disc overhead is fine for these tighter shots, but it’s difficult to make work in wider shots without some serious grip equipment or hiring Shaq as an assistant. So on to the strobes…
Once again, I’ll use the harsh sun as a backlight when possible, and then use a strobe as my main light. During these super bright times of day, a regular flash isn’t bright enough to get the job done, so I’ll use either an AD200 or AD600 for a bit more power. Wireless high speed sync allows my to shoot at fast shutter speeds with wide open apertures.
Something to note is that as I get tighter with my framing, I try to use bigger modifiers. You might not notice the harsh flash if you’re just trying to point the couple out in a wider frame, but getting tighter brings more detail in the face, which raises the need for softer lighting.
Golden hour can often be a given – nice natural light, minimal messy shadows, so why bother with flash? But sometimes that doesn’t pan out. Sometimes that California marine layer rolls in and an epic waterfront sunset becomes a pile of gray mush.
So naturally, the answer is always add a little more flash:
But here in sunny SoCal, we often do get that glamorous sunset, and it can be fun to pop a little extra light in there as well.
And before we move on to reception lighting, just a quick reminder not to get too much tunnel vision when it comes to working with flash. When natural light is good, it’s good. Roll with it – it’s ok to put the flash away!
So that brings us to the final big kahuna: The reception. Given an all-white or neutral venue, it’s easy to just bounce an on camera flash and call it a day. And that will do a pretty good job of lighting things nicely and giving good, clean images.
But in my opinion, a simple bounce rarely captures the feel of a crazy, dark, dramatic reception. Not to mention that you’re out of luck if the walls or ceilings are dark or if it’s outside. So off-camera it is then.
Combining an on-camera bounce flash and a couple of camera flashes backlighting the reception hall can help bring back a bit of the evening time mood:
For an even more dramatic image, I’ll simply take away my on-camera bounce and only run the two rim lights. Adding grids to the flashes help darken the background and keep the light only on the dance floor.
If I want to add in a bit more definition to the images, but still keep the darkened room, I’ll add another light or two to help illuminate the faces of guests.
V860II (x4) w/MagGrids and MagGel CTOs camera front left, front right, behind left, and behind right.
And there it is. An entire wedding day with flashes in tow, making sure that I’m able to come away with the shot no matter what sort of ambient light happens to be around. Off camera lighting, like pretty much everything else in life, is something that is best understood through doing. The more you practice, the more you integrate it into your normal workflow, the more natural it becomes. It’s a powerful tool that’s not bad to have in your pocket when you’re going up against the current (and impressive) batch of portrait-mode-toting phones. It keeps you from having to explain to a client “sorry, we can really only shoot portraits during this small sliver of time!”, and it makes those huge, intimidating ballroom receptions a little less intimidating.
Mike Villa is a wedding and commercial photographer based in Southern California. He loves his wife, puppy, and Jesus, and lives off a strict diet of whisky and doughnuts. More importantly, he’s totally obsessed with light, and loves working a photojournalistic approach while supplementing my own off-camera lighting. It’s a combination that allows for natural, genuine moments in vibrant, rockstar lighting.