5 Tips For Lighting Wedding Receptions

How do you get great lighting out of one of the most unpredictable, whackiest lit situations at weddings? 

Learning great lighting for wedding receptions is more than just knowing how to find the light!  Because frankly, where the light is may not matter, if that's not where the party's going on.  It is also about working around lighting that's changing, working around moving from spot to spot in a hurry, and working around the good bad and ugliness that a reception area has to offer!


Lots of photographers claim that the hardest part of a wedding to figure out how to light is the reception. 

Well, we feel you. 

It can be trying sometimes, but just have patience and faith that it can be one of the most rewarding times for wedding photography.

So, how does one light a wedding reception?

Well, obviously every wedding is different, every photogrpaher has a different style and creaive flow, and every reception carries with it it's own line of crazy trouble shooting.

The best way to get around this obstacle is to practice... but we may be able to help speed things up by offering these 5 tips for lighting a wedding reception!


1. Assess first! 


This means trying to get a feel for how everything in the reception venue looks and how it will be lit and setup for that particular event.  You also must realize that the lights and the area of focus will shift throughout the reception; so be thinking about this ahead of time so that you aren't stuck with a terrible lighting situation you weren't prepared to deal with.  If at all possible, we talk to the wedding coordinator or DJ and find out what the layout and plan is for where everything will take place.  Often times, a coordinator or DJ will ask us (which makes sense since we are the ones who are always going for the most pleasing look of things). That's when we get to go for things we normally don't get to for receptions... we get to be extra creative!

2. don't be afraid to bother the guests. 

Sure I know, this sounds terrible... but I'm not a mean person, I swear! 


If you need to be in a certain spot or prefer to have continuous lighting like a Rotolight Neo, then you need to be ok with some guests not liking your approach.  We always keep others in mind when we are shooting, I mean they were specifically invited by the bride and groom (or maybe the parents, but still) and we don't want to get complaints left and right from those guests.  However, we would much rather have someone slightly annoyed for a moment by our light, than to have the bride and groom disappointed by their pictures... keep this in mind and find a way to find the balance.  That's the key!


3. know where you and the bride and groom will be


This has a lot to do with assessment, but it's more about moment to moment lighting.  Sure, you checked ahead of time and know that the cake is on a table in the south wing of the ballroom area, but you have to also plan out where you will be standing, where they will be standing, and lookout for shadows and how close you and lights are to your bride and groom. Remember, the guests are going to want to be just a few feet away from the bride and groom, so you can't shoot with an 85mm from anywhere you please!

On a side note... I am not afraid to move a cake table to better suit lighting and composition, and have done it numerous times with no complaints!

Another for instance: if it's a venue that doesn't have a "designated" dance floor, you need to be able to move your flashes or be ready to use continuous lights, because chances are, there won't be any DJ lights for you to play off of. 


4. know your lights and your camera and your action


This should go without saying, but it's surprising how often people are asking what kind of flash to get 3 days before they have their 2nd wedding!  Oh my Goodness... If you haven't been using a flash enough to know it's look and the menu and how to interact with it, it's definitely too late at that point. Seriously though, learn your camera in and out; know your different sources of light (including how to use ambient) and know what you like to shoot and where you need to be to get it.  I already knew what types of shots I like to get from first dances before I did a wedding; so when I started shooting them, I was just honing my look.  If I run into a situation that doesn't allow for any of my "go to" shots, I know how to shoot it photo-journalisticly and have my lighting ability to fall back on.


5. don't panic! 


If something changes last minute, or you were told something different from what's actually taking place(happens all the time), don't panic! Sure, you have a certain look, sure there are certain shots you like to get and you want to have impressive works of art to showcase from these moments.  But the truth is, if you know how to work within a moment, within the craziness of these events, then you can just go with the flow and make due with what you have available. i.e. They decided to move the bouquet toss and now you can't get your flash stand out there in time, or they decide to turn all of the lights on at the last second before doing the cake cutting and you had flashes or lights and cameras set a certain way.  What are you going to do about it?  Standing around panicking, or being upset and grumpy isn't going to make your job any easier on editing day (or delivery day if you were really really pouting and missed it all together).  So just calm down and rethink your situation. You already know how to get natural light shots, so work it out that way if you have to.  If you don't have a spot for a stand all of a sudden because too many people are where you are trying to shoot, perhaps you need to handhold you flash or continuous light up above your head.


In Summary,

Look Before you leap!

It's OK to be mean! 

Learn your place!

Knowledge is power! 

Don't worry, be happy!



Adam Cotton is a Wedding and Portrait Photographer based out of Pensacola, Fl.  he and his wife Brittany do destination weddings along with portraits and workshops for lighting and weddings.  Follow on Instagram/ Facebook/ or Youtube to see their daily shenanigans!