When it comes down to it, receptions can prove to be the most challenging part of a wedding with the presence of so many uncontrolled variables. You are stuck in a low light scene, forced to work with the DJ’s light setup, and you have no choice but to adapt. In this article, we’re going to review 10 Wedding Reception Lighting Tips to help you overcome any possible lighting hurdles that get in the way of delivering exceptional images to your clients.

Note: This article was originally written in 2016 with improvements and additional tips added in 2021.  The content is an excerpt from our wedding photography training system.

Wedding Reception Lighting Video Tutorial

1. Assess The Situation & Place Your Lights

Walk into the scene and address where the problem areas are; you are setting yourself up for success simply by preparing for what’s to come. Most lighting situations cause photographers stress due to lack of preparation for the scene they’re shooting in.

Empty Room Detail Photos of the Wedding Reception

Place flashes in the far corners of the room, where you know you will need a bump of light or in areas that require a back light to pull subjects out from dark backgrounds. Raise them to about 6 feet to avoid having shadows cast from any of the seated guests, and zoom them all the way in to prevent any light spill.

2. Match the Color of Light

There is no point in adding in light if it isn’t the right kind. Match your on-camera flash and off-camera flash to the existing light in the room. Depending on the temperature of the ambient light (Tungsten, Daylight, etc.), dial in a Custom Color Temperature setting in-camera to balance out the light in your scene.

3. Light Modifiers for Wedding Reception Lighting

Image by Lin and Jirsa Photography (www.linandjirsa.com)
Bouquet Toss at a Wedding Reception

Since your primary additional light is most likely going to be your on-camera flash, you might want to consider using a method of diffusion so you won’t have strong highlights on your subjects. On the other hand, you’ve placed your off-camera flashes in the far corners of the room on low power as to avoid any light spill and give you light direction. You have the option of placing a grid on your off-camera flashes to create a more guided and directional light source.

4. Dial In Your Camera Settings

This step is left to preference since it will vary depending on your available ambient light and the power of your camera. In low light situations, we like to shoot at around 1/200th of a second, at anywhere from ISO 800-3200. Your aperture is dependent on which lens you are using but keep in mind you want a wider aperture to let in more light.

5. Bounce Your On-Camera-Flash Off of Ceilings and Walls

Most photographers make the assumption that they are getting the most out of their on-camera flash by bouncing it off the ceiling. In most venues where there are low white ceilings this proves true, however, you may find yourself at a venue with dark wood or painted ceilings, in which case you need to make use of your surroundings and find walls or objects to bounce your light off of. Learn more about the basics of bouncing and modifying your on-camera flash in our Lighting 101 workshop.

6. Overpowering DJ Lights

Wedding Reception First Dance Photo by Lin and Jirsa

After you have put in your song request for the night, talk to the DJ about which lights will stay constant and which will be added later on throughout the night. The point here is to avoid any surprises during grand entrances, first dance, parent dances, etc. Cover all your bases so you can focus on creativity and not worry about anything unexpected.

7. Where are you In relation to your subject?

Toasts and Speeches for Wedding Reception Lighting

Assessing the room and placing your lights is just the first step in creating your image. Figuring out where to stand to either utilize or avoid problematic lighting is a part of the trial and error process that comes with creating multi-point light setups.

8. Flash Control

Adding in on & off-camera flashes puts the control in your hands. While the DJ and the venue control their lighting setup, you hold the power of implementing additional light sources to benefit your overall product. Having a full-feature flash or flash trigger that operates as a master and controls your off-camera flashes gives you the ability to decide when it is necessary to add light to your scene.

9. Foreground Lights for Creative Effects

Creative Foreground Elements During the Wedding Reception

It gets mundane capturing the same moments over and over again at weddings, maybe sometimes even at the same venue. Creative effects, like these inexpensive string lights, make for perfect foreground bokeh to add just a bit of flare to your image. If that’s not your thing, find objects to shoot through to provide interest in your images and create more diverse compositions.

10. Direct Flash for the Dance Floor

Image by Lin and Jirsa Photography (www.linandjirsa.com)
Image by Lin and Jirsa Photography (www.linandjirsa.com)

Don’t all cringe at once! Direct flash has a place in this list of tips because it can be your savior in times of need. When the dance floor is slowly dwindling down and you find yourself left with three people to photograph, slow down your shutter and use a direct flash to freeze them in motion while sending the background into a blurred frenzy.

Wedding receptions can be filled with challenges, but it is solely up to you to plan in advance to arrive at the shot you want. Understanding what lights you need and where they need to be placed will lay the foundation for the rest of your night, so make good use of these 10 tips before your next shoot!

If you are interested in learning more on tips for photographing and lighting at weddings, see our Wedding Photography Training System in SLR Lounge Premium.

Bonus 1 – Lighting Techniques For Miscellaneous Reception Portraits

When photographing wedding receptions, even the downtime should be spent capturing candids and grip-and-grin portraits. The focus should be on VIPs, such as the bride and groom’s parents, other family members, or close friends. One of the best ways to do this is by following either the bride or groom (or the parents) around the room and capturing images as they interact with reception guests.

The lighting for these images should be clean and simple because you’ll be on the move for the most part. In this scenario, we recommend bounce lighting if possible (a neutral-color ceiling is needed, or something else to bounce light off).

Whenever possible, you can also use diffused OCF by shooting through an umbrella or softbox. This usually requires a little more planning and a stationary post (as opposed to walking around). Place the light source on one side of the group (see diagram) and direct it toward the person farthest from the light source to feather the light more evenly.

TIP: If you’re capturing groups sitting around a table, ask half of the table’s occupants (ideally the younger, more mobile guests) to stand and walk around the backside of the other seated guests, in essence creating a second row in the group photo. If there’s a large centerpiece in the way, you can either ask the coordinator’s assistant to move the centerpiece, or you can find an angle to shoot around it.

Bonus 2 – Constant Light: Flower Petal Toss

Wedding Dance Floor – Petal Toss

There are several ways for a bride and groom to exit their wedding reception and many of them are creative and grand. One such exit involves a flower petal toss, and we will demonstrate how to cover this type of exit using a constant light. Please understand that other light sources (flashes, strobes, etc.) may be used.
When lighting the couple, light into the bride’s side so that between the bride and groom, the bride’s face is better lit for a more flattering look. The light should be zoomed or gridded to spotlight the couple as opposed to filling the scene with light.

TIP: If the dance floor lights are overpowering the scene with gnarly colors, ask the DJ to adjust them, even if only for the exit.

Be sure to shoot continuously through the entire petal toss, capturing multiple images with minimal movement. Chances are you may need to create a composite during post-production to get the best expressions, unobstructed by flower petals. If you only capture one or two images, you may have to reshoot or deliver a less-than-stellar image. That said, if using a flash to capture this, adjust your settings to keep the flash power and the recycle time low so that you don’t miss a shot.

Bonus 3 – Open Dancing Goals and Must-Haves

It’s time for the real partying to begin! During open dancing, your best bet is to get close and in the action. A 24-70mm zoom lens should serve you well in these situations so that you’re able to capture images at a variety of focal lengths from a fairly close-up position; otherwise, a wide-angle prime lens should also work well. Regardless, we want to emphasize again to shed the shyness and get on the dance floor. Doing so will help you meet one of the biggest goals of photographing open dancing, which is making the party look fun and full of people.

Adding motion and highlights will add even more “party” to each picture, but don’t overdo any particular effect, whether it be a dance floor twist effect, bounce flash, or other. You generally want just enough of each type to create a couple spreads in an album.

Lastly, be sure you don’t waste time taking 50 photos of a person that the bride and groom may or may not know, even if the “stranger” is attractive and fun to photograph. Capturing a few photos like this of different guests is fine, but you don’t want to invest too much time and effort here. Instead, know who the VIPs are and capture plenty of images of them having fun.out on the dance floor

Bonus 4 – More Tips on Wedding Reception Lighting

For more info on wedding reception lighting, see the webinar below: