Low Light Wedding Photography is a Challenge but can be Mastered
One of the biggest challenges for wedding photography is getting great photos of the ceremony. Churches tend to be very poorly lit and more often than not flash photography is not allowed. Where I live in Sussex many of the churches date from Saxon times, with small windows and rudimentary lighting. It is not uncommon to shoot at 3200 or 6400 iso in these situations and even then be right on the edge of your comfort zone for hand holding and aperture. We are very lucky that many today’s cameras are capable of shooting in conditions that would have been impossible a few years ago. Even so good technique and equipment selection can still reap benefits either by letting us hand hold at slower shutter speeds, use a lower iso rating, or use a faster shutter speed. In this article I’m mainly going to be dealing with hand holding techniques and lens selection, rather than camera choice. There will always be a new low light champion on the block but the techniques I’m going to talk about here will still improve your low light photography whether you own a entry level DSLR or a £5000 pro workhorse.
One of the keys to successful wedding photography is being able to improvise in tricky situations and KEEP ON SHOOTING. Weddings are almost never shot in ideal conditions. Successful wedding photography depends on sound technique, clear thinking, flexibility and improvisation. Without these skills all the equipment in the world won’t help. If you can, always visit venues before the wedding day get an idea of what challenges await you and make an action plan.
1 Holding your camera.
It goes with out saying that not holding you camera steady will result in blurry photos – the dreaded ‘camera shake’. In good light fast shutter speeds will cover up sloppy technique. However when you move indoors you have to be a lot more careful about how you hold your camera and press the shutter. The first thing to remember is that it is your left hand that supports and steadies the camera. You do this correctly by holding the camera under the lens with your thumb furthest away from you, and your elbow tucked in against your chest. Your right hand is there only to use the controls and release the shutter it should not take any weight from the camera. To release the shutter DO NOT jab at the shutter button with your finger tip. Instead place the small joint in your finger above the button, breathe out or hold your breath, and squeeze to fire off a shot. This should minimise any user generated camera shake, and minimise any in camera vibration. By practising this technique you should be able to hand hold one to two speeds slower than if you were holding the camera incorrectly. Not a huge amount but enough to get a shot you couldn’t before. It will also make ALL your hand held photos sharper.
2 Look for support.
If you find the light failing and you are worried that you simply don’t have a hand holdable shutter speed, leaning against something solid like a wall or pillar will steady you and your camera. If you don’t have anything to lean on remember to plant your feet with your heels 18″ to 2 feet apart. Standing with your feet too close together will make you wobble again limiting your ability to keep the camera steady. Remember to not lean forward or to the side to go lower. Instead crouch down with your right knee on the ground and your left knee supporting your left elbow, again if you can find something to lean on, do it.
3 Look for moments when your subjects are still.
You may be a master at hand holding but bear in mind that your subjects move as well. As a rule of thumb I try not to go below 1/125 of second (1/250th is ideal) if I’m photographing subjects who are walking or gesturing. Luckily most wedding processions are quite slow. But if you find yourself unable to shoot at these speeds because you’ve run out of iso or you need more depth of field, look for moments when your subjects are still. This is one of the big draw backs of vibration control lenses. They can give you sharp shots at ridiculously slow shutter speeds but if your subjects are moving they’ll still be blurred. I have done countless weddings where shooting at F4 (the widest setting on standard VR zooms) just wasn’t enough and F2 or even wider was necessary to get a usable shutter speed.
4 Lens selection – Primes vs. Zooms.
Personally, I carry a mixture of zooms and prime lenses in my camera bag and there are certainly situations where both are invaluable. For low light primes have a number of advantages. The most obvious one is maximum aperture. A standard 50mm f1.4 lens can be had for a few hundred pounds yet it will let in 8 times more light than an F4 VR lens and or 4 times more light than an f2.8 lens. This makes easier to focus in low light means you can shoot artsy wide open shots at iso 800 where you might be stuck on 6400 with a zoom. This can make a huge difference in image quality or at the very least let you cut back on editing time (shots taken at more conservative iso’s are much easier to edit and have better dynamic range). The major disadvantage with primes is that they don’t err… zoom. I shot a lot of weddings where the venue have insisted I stay in the same place for the whole ceremony. If this has happened to you, and if it hasn’t it will do, you’ll know that primes are not what you want on the front of your camera. Again in an ideal world I personally would always plump for a prime, I just like working that way. Wedding photography is about being prepared for every contingency. a mixture of primes and zooms means you have a bit of back up at your favoured focal lengths, you have the option of working with very wide apertures or the flexibility to zoom in and out from a fixed spot.
5 Planning can avert disaster.
When I arrive at a venue I have a fixed routine to help me prepare. I use a hand held meter to take light readings throughout the church. Usually the light is brightest at the altar and fades as you go towards the back of the church. Often the bride and groom can be backlit by the large window that most churches have behind the altar, and one of my first jobs is to work out how much to compensate my exposure to ensure the bride and groom are correctly exposed during the ceremony. On top of that I try to identify any darker areas where shooting is very difficult and shoot a few details to get my eye in. Within a couple of minutes I hope to have a decent mental picture of how the light falls through the church. Very rarely the church might be so dim that I might have to consider using flash for at least part of the ceremony. If flash is normally banned I use this time to chat with the vicar and explain the situation. Usually you can negotiate some limited flash use, if I can’t I keep a tripod and monopod in the back of the car, as I have said before wedding photography demands you have a back up plan. Generally I would describe myself as an available light photographer and someone who doesn’t use tripods, but I think it is important no to be dogmatic. At the end of the day I do what I have to do to get usable shots, even if they are not in my usual style. As a professional I try to make sure I can shoot in a wide range of conditions, confidently and competently, but it is important to pre-empt any problems you might have so you don’t put yourself in the position where conditions mean you are unable to shoot.
Also make sure you know in which order the service will be in. The order of service can vary depending, whether it is a religious or civil ceremony, the religious denomination, and the preference of the couple. Make sure you know what’s going to happen and in what order, wedding photography is not just about being good with a camera.
For any wedding photographer, low light shooting places particular demands on your technique. But with preparation and practice, there is nothing that can’t be mastered by a keen photographer. Some simple techniques, and careful preparation can make sure you get some great creative images with your wedding photography. Good Luck!