Wedding Photography Wednesday: Ceremonies in Low Light

We’ve already shared tips for capturing creative wedding portraits and photographing wedding details, let’s continue our exploration of wedding photography with a look at challenges faced by shooting ceremonies in low light.

Photographing anything in low light can be difficult. And throw in a wedding ceremony where you get one shot to get it right. Ceremonies can be a nerve-racking thing to photograph because not only are you thinking about getting good photos of special moments, you are constantly trying to stay out of the way and not be distracting. Using flashes during a ceremony is usually a big no-no. Even if the couple don”t seem to mind, it’s very distracting and bad form.

Father and Bride at Wedding Ceremony, Shot in Black and White

Here are a few things to remember if you end up photographing an indoor wedding in difficult light.

1. Check your camera settings.

Make sure to manually change your settings to shoot in low light. The most important setting is your ISO, which tells the sensor in your camera to be more sensitive to light. The higher the number, the more sensitive to light it is. So ISO 1600 is more sensitive to light than ISO 400.

Newer cameras are better at handling higher ISOs, but they usually have an ISO where the photos will start to look grainy. For mine, it’s at ISO 1000, but new cameras might go up to ISO 1600 without looking too bad. Once you start getting noticeable grain, you can’t really fix it, so try to keep your ISO as low as you can.

Also remember to keep your shutter speed around 60 and your aperture at 2.8 or lower. These settings will allow the most light in. If the automatic settings won’t do this, switch everything to manual. You are smarter than your camera!

2. Use a monopod.

A monopod is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a stick you prop your camera on to help keep it steady. Sports photographers use them all the time to support their giant lenses. Look for them the next time you watch a football game.

There might not be any split-second action you need to capture at a wedding, but using a monopod will help steady your camera, especially if you’re using a long lens. In theory, your hand shakes around 1/60 of a second, but even then you will get some blur. A monopod will help with that, and it’s a lot easier to move around than a tripod.

Most telephoto lenses have a place to screw in a monopod, so if you want to change to a smaller lens, the monopod stays with the long lens. This makes it easier for you to move around and not be noticed.

3. Follow the light.

Most indoor ceremonies are in churches, and all churches are different. A lot have windows and lighting in the front, which means you have competing light. Sometimes if you are really unlucky, a couple will be placed just in front of the stage lights and just past the window light, leaving the bride and groom in a dark hole and backlit. When this happens make sure to meter to the couple’s faces. You can change your light meter to be a spotlight meter, or just play with your settings until you get it right.

Some churches have no windows and fluorescent lights, which can be very unflattering. The best way to deal with this is to take close-up photos with a long lens.

Once I shot a wedding in a church with no windows, then as the ceremony started, they turned off everything but the stage lights. It was black and the only light source was coming from one angle. I wasn’t prepared for it at all, but I got up to the front and stayed off to one side. Normally, I like to be farther away, but in the end, you need to get photos of something.

Close Up of Bride Smiling at Groom

4. Respect the rules.

As a former photojournalist I am usually a “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” type of person, but during a wedding ceremony, it’s better not to make a scene.

At one wedding, I had to sign a contract with the church saying I would only sit in the back and not move from my seat. It was a little intense, but the other option was to get no photos at all. The bride was so happy we got something since most photographers aren’t allowed in the sanctuary, period.

Ask questions and see if any places are off limits, including the little nooks and crannies most people don’t know about. If you work well with wedding planners, officiants and other wedding vendors, they will be more likely to recommend you to other couples. In the wedding business “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” or something like that.

Bride and Groom at Altar with Priest

Wedding ceremonies are all different, so it’s better to come prepared so you can quickly adjust to what is being thrown at you. Be confident and trust your ability to use your camera. The more you turn off the automatic settings and go manual, the better you will be when you have to adjust. Low lighting, backlighting and everything in between can all be conquered as long as you’re not afraid to change your settings.

Also take a look at our five tips for new wedding photographers.

What are some other low lighting situations you have run into?

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