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Wedding Photography Techniques: Part 3 (Winter Weddings)

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I have been approached by a few photographers recently asking about photographing in low light, and in particular, shooting winter weddings late in the afternoon and evening.

The common mistake many photographers make in low light conditions is shooting in Programme Mode with an on-camera flash gun.  On a lovely diffused-light summer day, a decent SLR in this mode will often give you perfectly acceptable results.  But in winter it can make the results look amateurish.

The primary reason for this is that Programme Mode essentially uses the Flash to do all the work in lighting the subject.  The result? A flat, sometimes over-illuminated, subject with a very dark background: the sort of result you might expect from wedding guests using their compact cameras.

If you are shooting indoors a good low-light shot needs to pick up the ambient light in order to give the picture more depth; and it is often important that the image picks up the richness of the surrounding colour temperature to avoid the atmosphere being killed (eg festive candlelight).

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So this calls for shooting in Manual or Aperture Priority Mode, using a very fast lens (some of the prime lenses are capable of an aperture as big as f1.2), and using a high ISO.  So as a photographer you are back to creatively “seeing the light”. But whilst it is true that the amount of light you need to shoot with this combination can often be criminally low, I do not suggest that you then necessarily disregard equipment providing artificial light sources.  In fact images without them can often look a little muddy and discoloured in very low light conditions.

Flash guns can still have a large part to play in cleaning up the light and helping to freeze movement (eg during dancing).  The important thing is to use them when you are exposing for the ambient light, so that the flash light does not dominate the scene and kill the atmosphere.  This image of a first dance was taken using a 50mm lens at f1.8 at 1/125, ISO 3200 and a blip of flash (-2 stops).  Using off-camera flash will also help to add depth and ensure that the subject is not flattened by the light.

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Video lights are also an excellent light source for wedding weddings – though these are more likely to be used for creatively directed shots rather than reportage photography.  The same principles apply with video lights:  they can help provide subject contrast and illumination, but such light needs to be balanced up with the available ambient light sources (eg tungsten wall lamps) in order to maintain atmosphere and image-depth.  The advantage of video light is that you can see the result immediately – so it is like painting with light.  The disadvantage is that you invariably need assistance!

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In summary, these are my tips for shooting winter weddings:

  1. Plan the wedding shoot – and in particular, the creative shots – more carefully than ever. Think about the light sources for each shot.
  2. Try to avoid using Programme Mode as much as possible.
  3. Use very fast lenses.
  4. Do not be afraid to use high ISO, and if necessary, deploy noise reduction software if necessary afterwards.
  5. Shoot in RAW so that there is more scope to adjust the colour temperature in post-production.
  6. Use flash and video light in conjunction with the ambient light. If possible use off-camera flash.

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All images copyright Gary Roebuck AMPA ABIPP.