How to Take Stunning Indoor Wedding Photos
As wedding photographers, we love photographing outdoor ceremonies and taking family photos at sunset or documenting events in the most unique venues in town. However, in Canada, especially in the winter, we don't always have the luxury of choosing our lighting conditions and often we have to shoot in dark wedding venues when using one or more on or off camera flash is crucial. As such, one of the most common question new wedding photographers have is how to take perfect indoor photos.
Here is how to take perfect indoor photographs:
1. Expose for the Ambient
The first step in creating beautiful shots indoors on the wedding day is to adjust the exposure to capture the ambient light of the event space. I like to expose one stop under the ambient light so that my flash becomes the main light and the subject is the brightest part of the frame. As such, I set my ISO, shutter speed and aperture so that I preserve the ambient light for which the couple often spends a lot of money and capture the atmosphere of the venue. Generally, the up lighting is a blue or purple in colour and that complements the human skin tones. I always make sure the shutter speed is under this speed synk so that my flashes don't have to go in hyper sync mode (hss) which drains the batteries very fast. Also, I try to keep my shutter above 1/60s so I can avoid motion blur during the dances.
2. Set Your Flash to Second Curtain Sync (or Rear Curtain Sync)
In order to capture most of the ambient light and freeze motion even at the slower shutter speeds we use second curtain sync. That will allow you to shoot at shutter speeds as low as 1/60 of a second and even drag the shutter at 1/15th of a second for more artistic effects. Dragging the shutter is an art in itself and I strongly suggest that you practice it at home before trying it during an event. Also, please do yourself a favour and unless you are mastering the technique, do not try dragging the shutter during key moments of the day. If you were to miss key shots, your clients will not be impressed. On the other hand, the party after dinner is a perfect opportunity to try and improve any new lighting techniques.
3. Add Flash to Taste
I generally use between one and three speed lights (two of them off camera flash) when I shoot indoors and in this article we will be talking only about the main light (or about the on camera flash). When I started my career as a wedding photographer I used E-TTL until I got burnt real bad during one wedding when, during the grand entrance of the bride and groom there was a strong light coming from outside so my flash didn't trigger because it calculated there was no need for more light in the scene. That is, in fact, turn my subjects into silhouettes and fortunately, my second shooter was photographing using his flash in manual mode, which saved my bacon at the time. After that life-changing experience, I only shot flash in manual mode, except for situations where things happen so fast that I didn't have a chance to take a test shot to adjust the flash power.
4. Gel Your Flashes
Generally, I set the white balance to tungsten / incandescent / 3200 K when I shoot indoors to capture the warm colour of the chandeliers and light fixtures. Many photographers skip this step because they either don't know any better or they are too lazy to gel their flashes. However, don't do that as the bride's dress and the human skin tones will look muddy.
5. How to Set The Flash Power Properly
During a workshop held by Zach Arias, one of the students asked this question. "Where do I start with my flash power?" Zach's answer was "start somewhere." I find that for me, a good starting point is 1/32. The rule of thumb is to use the inverse of the ISO when you set the aperture at F2 or F2 .8. Remember, the shutter speed controls the ambient exposure, not the flash. In other words, if the exposure is 1/200s, F2 and ISO 1600, the flash power should be 1/16th (ISO 1600 - 1/16 power, ISO 3200, 1/32 power, and so on). While it is not perfect, that rule gives you a good starting point in a pinch.
6. Bounce the Flash in the Direction of the Subject's Gaze
I like to call this rule "follow the nose". What it basically does, it tells you to bounce the flash in the direction where your subject is turning. If your subject is looking camera left, then you should bounce the flash 45° to the left and 45° up. That transforms the ceiling into a soft box that creates a beautiful light on the subject. The rule also ensures that you shoot from the short side of the face using narrow lighting or short lighting.
If you're photographing large groups, bounce the flash slightly behind you. That will create a soft light, so important in photography.
7. Practice, Practice and then Practice Some More
I attended a seminar with one of the top wedding photographers in the world and she was mentioning that she was terrified by the flash. For one thing, the idea of blending two exposures is difficult to comprehend for the beginners. When I finally understood that concept, I had an epiphany. That is why most newbies avoid flash and call themselves natural light photographers; while I absolutely love natural light, unfortunately, most of my receptions happen indoors and very often the ambient light is insufficient or it lacks direction and quality.
Often, couples want a romantic atmosphere during the reception and especially during their first dance. That makes it very difficult for the cameras to focus because of the low contrast in the scene. There are a few tricks I will share in another article.
Mastering flash photography is a lifelong journey and once you become good enough, the rewards are immeasurable. Nowadays there are plenty of free training materials online and it is easier than ever to master this beautiful craft.
Recommended Resources / Readings
The Strobist blog by David Hobby is the place where many professional photographers start their flash journey and I highly recommend that you visit it and read the hundreds of lessons on that blog. If nothing makes sense and you don't understand a word at the beginning, don't worry. It will all come together after you start reading and practicing on a regular basis. The beauty of this blog is that it starts from scratch and gives you examples and exercises so you can practice and improve your skills. Best of luck in your journey as a strobist!