Low Light Wedding Photography

Heres some tips for photographing a wedding with and without flash in very low and extreme low light situations normally found at weddings.

As soon as the light starts to go so many wedding photographers reach for the flash gun, this can look like a rabbit caught in the headlights as the background is lost into darkness. Flash has its place and when set up well can both capture atmosphere and or look very creative. However there are situations at a wedding like in a church where flash isn’t allowed or where the flash becomes intrusive or spoil the moment. This is where knowing how to work without flash in low light really comes into it’s own at a wedding. Sorry if this is a bit dumbed down for professionals photographers out there, I written this to cover a wide audience.
Letting light into the camera.
The amount of light that gets in the camera and onto the sensor or film is controlled by two things the Aperture and the Shutter. The sensor can also be adjusted to record more in low light.
Every lens has controllable hole inside called an aperture. The bigger this aperture the more light is let through the lens and into the camera body, the smaller it is the less light is let through. This is controlled by A or Av on your DSLR being aperture or aperture value.
The maximum or biggest aperture is marked on the lens as an ‘f’ number or “f stop”, why the letter ‘f’ I don’t know, I did look it up once but forgotten and it’s not really important its just a letter. Most kit lens have a maximum f stop of 3.5-5.6 and you’ll see this on the side of the lens. The f number is a ratio between the aperture and the length of the lens, a 50mm lens with a maximum aperture of f2 would have an aperture of 25mm, 50 ÷ 2 =25,  with a maximum aperture of f4 it would be 12.5mm, 50÷4 =12.5 this is why an aperture of f 4 is smaller and lets less light in than f2.
  • Setting your cameras lens to its maximum f stop will allow more light onto the cameras sensor and therefore lessen the need for flash
  • Buy lenses with the largest aperture possible f0.95, f1, f1,2, f1.4, f1.8 and at the very least f2.8. The much loved Canon 50mm f1 L now out of production often fetches £6000-£9000 second hand whilst the Canon 50mm f1.8 is something like £90 new.


Shutter Speed and Image stabilisation

The shutter is in front of the sensor a bit like a blind which is opened for a set amount of time. The longer it’s opened the more light gets onto the sensor or film, the shorter the time the less light it gets. Controlled by “S’ for shutter sometimes called “Tv” for time value on a DSLR. This is measured in fractions of a second normally 1/125, 1/250, 1/500 and so on. Shutter speeds vary from several minutes to 1/12000 of a second. Fast shutter speeds stop all action whilst slow shutter speeds allow more light in but any movement is seen as a blur including movement of the camera.

There is a rule in photography that 1 over the lens focal length will result in sharp hand held images. So a 50mm lens would need 1/50 of a second shutter speed, while a 200mm lens would need 1/200 of a second shutter speed. While a 24mm lens will need only 1/25 second shutter speed and a 14mm 1/15 of a second. Image stabilisation, a monopod and learning hold the camera tight into the shoulder while correct breathing can improve these times. In general photography 2 or even 3 times lens length is ideal but we are talking about low light here at a wedding reception or in a church.  I can now hand hold a 200mm with the image stabilisation turned off at around 1/50 of a second and a 50mm lens at 1/15 and get reasonable results. Its worth learning to push the camera into your left shoulder wrapping your left hand over the top and holding your breath to achieve results like this, remembering when you’re tired results are going to be rather hit and miss.

Image stabilisation and tripods can help reduce camera shake, which is fine if you have a still subject however if you have a fast moving subject you’ll need a short shutter speed to freeze the action, in motor sports 1/1000 of a second is the very minimum needed to freeze action. Panning can be used to hold something in focus if you can’t get a short shutter speed to freeze the action due to lack of light. Following the subjects movement with the lens the background has a motion blur while the subject is held almost sharp. In day light this is used creatively say with a race car this would give a sense of motion while the car would appear almost still. It’s the same with a fast moving child at a wedding reception the child would be almost sharp while the background would appear to be moving. Once you go below 1/30 of a second almost any human movement will result in blurred images even if the camera is set on a tripod. If you have to go beyond that and can not achieve enough of a shutter speed by turning up the ISO (which I’ll explain in a moment) then I find its better to under expose the image and then push it back in photoshop or lightroom in post production.

  • Image stabilisation only works on still subjects.
  • Pan with moving subjects allows you to use really low shutter speeds.
  • Lean against a wall, use a mono pod or push the camera tight into your shoulder while holding your breath to get best results.
  • Stay above 1/30 second to stop human movement.

ISO and sensor quality

The sensor or chip and it’s sometimes called is the bit which captures the image which goes through the cameras software and is recorded on the memory card. The sensor has a optimum amount of light needed to capture the image, too little and it sees nothing and the image is black to much and everything is burnt out and you get nothing but white. Get it close and you end up with an image which is either a bit bright or a bit dark. You can turn the sensor up by adjusting the ISO a little like using film for day light and film for dark nights.

This is better understood by imaging the camera sensor being a little like a radio, tune it in properly and it sounds good ( correct exposures)  When you’ve a good signal (plenty of light) and its perfectly tuned in you get all the details. When you have a poor signal  (less light)  you have to turn it up and you get a noisy crackling sound (Known as noise in photography). A moderate DSLR camera has a fairly quality sensor working best between ISO values of 100 and 800, while a good camera can capture images into almost complete darkness with ISO up to 51000. This is one element of what makes a camera more expensive and when paying £5300 for a canon 1dx starts to becomes worth it to the professional as you genuinely can take wedding photos without worrying about quality in dark conditions without flash.

Generally speaking sensor quality is most important for a wedding photographer between ISO 800 – ISO 6400. Noise relative to shutter speed will be the deciding factor as to your final settings. Personally with my canon 5d mark 2, I start indoors at 800 moving up to 1600, 2000, 2500, 3200 I will rarely use ISO 4000 and 6400 and only when the situation really dictates but I know I sacrificing quality.  There is some good soft ware for reducing noise and sharping the image, I recommend lightroom 3 which has one of the best noise reduction software built in.

  • Get a camera with a good sensor for low light,
  • Turn the ISO up to at least 1600-3200
Putting it together
  • Turn up the ISO to 1600-3200
  • Open the aperture f1.4-f2.8
  • Slow the shutter speed down to 1/30-1/125 avoid shutter speeds below 1/30.
  • Control your breathing and use things to lean against.
Flash when all else fails
There comes a point where there’s just no choice but to use flash, boo hoo. Getting the balance right is the real trick, personally I think you want it to look much like it does through squinted eyes giving a slightly dark look much like you get at night.
However you set your flash up you need a bit of light in the background, so it stop it looking a rabbit caught in headlights surrounded by a pool of black. There are some simple ways to achieve this. Bouncing flash off the ceiling works as it lights the whole scene more evenly, as long as the ceiling is white and not 20 feet above you. As other wise the flash will either have changed colour as it bounced back off the ceiling or have lost all its power. If bounced flash is not possible then another way is to turn up the ISO, open the aperture and set the shutter speed much as if you weren’t using flash where it will record at least some of the background but not result in blur and then set you flash to a lower power using flash exposure compensation. This will result in images which whilst dark will look natural.
These settings normally work quiet well and gives a nice look when using flash,
  • Set the ISO to 800-1600-3200
  • Shutter speed to 1/60- 1/30
  • Aperture at f2- 2..8
  • Flash compensation to under exposed by -1 to -3 stops
Things to watch for with low light photography
  • Poor quality UV & sky light filters used to protect your lens will bounce lights odd lights all around the the image. This isn’t noticeable so much in day light but in low light suddenly you’ll start thinking you’re taking images of orbs or something.
  • Auto white balance is all over the place, if you intend to turn everything into black and white this shouldn’t matter so much but if you want to have some colour images either set white balance manually or shot RAW and adjust it afterwards in post production.
  • Auto focus is slower low light, use your centre focus point and recompose.
  • If you have to use flash then the standard setting will make it look like a brightly light room turn. Use flash compensation under exposing by 2 or 3 stops to give a darker more night time look.