Lighting Secrets of Professional Photographers

How lighting techniques can make or break or your wedding pictures.

Lighting Secrets of Professional Photographers

Photo: Hoffmann Photographer


I regularly compare wedding photography to sports photography. Like a professional sports photographer, your wedding photographer has only one chance to capture small–yet critical–moments. Many of those moments throughout a day’s work move at a lightning fast pace. Both photographers rely on their experience, skill, and instincts to anticipate what might happen next and where to best position themselves to capture that perfect moment. Equally important, both sports and wedding photographers have limited ability to control light and are dependent on the quality and quantity of their equipment and lenses. In addition to talent, what sets professional photographers apart from amateur photographers is “the ability to understand light and manipulate it.” Lighting is essential for a photographer. In a studio environment, lighting is relatively easily manipulated. However, shooting on location requires the ability to quickly spot the available light and know how to best utilize it. Lighting techniques and equipment used by professional photographers are critical to producing nuanced and dynamic images consistently. 



Outdoor wedding ceremonies are typically preferred during spring and summer months. Depending on your location, outdoor weddings may be available to you nearly nine months out of the year. One of the first things to consider when choosing your ceremony site and time is “where is the sun going to be at the time?” The sun is the most powerful light at any daytime event. You can’t move it and you can’t turn it off! No matter where the sun is located or how bright it shines, your photographer must adapt quickly and use this powerful light source to advantage. The most difficult “sunlight situation” for an outdoor ceremony is when the sun is directly behind the couple. On the west coast, the sun regularly sets during the ceremony while a photographer is capturing the couple exchanging vows overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Professional photographers call this a “backlit” situation, where the main light is coming from behind your subject. The best method to counter the sun in the background is to “frontlight” the subject sufficiently to allow the photographer to achieve their desired effect. An on-camera flash (or a hot-shoe flash) is not powerful enough to counter-balance the strength of natural sunlight in the background. In these situations, remote strobe lighting is regularly used by professionals. Basically, remote lighting consists of one or more strobes (flashes) that are strategically positioned off-camera to enhance and help control lighting. The strobes fire by a remote trigger which is located on the camera and is activated when the photographer clicks the shutter. The ability to quickly evaluate and effectively implement remote light in any situation is crucial. Speed is of the essence and this is one of the many skills professional photographers posses that takes time and experience to hone. When used properly, remote lighting can take a photo that would otherwise be flat and fill it with depth and beautiful color.


Reception lighting has become complex. The venue sells uplighting for the walls and curtains and pillars; the floral designer offers pin lights and candles for the centerpieces; and the DJ offers lighting packages including custom floor lights and disco dance lights. If your reception begins before the sun has set, your reception venue is likely to have windows with sunlight streaming through. Once again, the first thing a professional will do is review the lighting that is in place or planned and evaluate how to best utilize it for your benefit. Just like when faced with an outdoor ceremony in the sun, your photographer must work with what he is given–using his equipment and knowledge to adjust accordingly. Uplights frequently add depth and color to images, but pinlights and custom DJ lighting may be a minefield for an amateur. The best solution to manage the variety of light sources is for the photographer to balance the light accordingly using his own equipment. Once again, the least effective choice is an on-camera flash. While there is a valid purpose for an on-camera flash, if used alone it will leave photos somewhat flat and lacking depth. Remote lighting equipment planned and placed by your photographer provides him with control over the environment. The result will be amazing, depth-filled and emotional images. It is important that you feel confident the professional you select has the talent, skills and equipment to do their job. Your wedding photos may be the most important photos you will take in your life. Don’t miss the opportunity to commemorate the meaningful and emotional moments you won’t have a chance to relive. Choose your photographer carefully to ensure that the images of your wedding provide you with a lifetime of enjoyment.