Lighting a Wedding Couple Outdoors

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A skilled wedding photographer knows how to create images that the bride and groom will treasure for years to come. And much of that knowledge concerns lighting. The more comfortable you are with creating or modifying light, the better your results will turn out.

This lesson looks at a few lighting and posing techniques that can make all the difference for your clients.

Topics Covered:

  • Shooting in Program Mode with the Built-in Flash Enabled
  • Exposing for the Background
  • Adding a Soft Box Fill for Greater Contrast
  • Interacting with and Directing the Wedding Couple
  • Coming in Tighter for Intimate Portraits
  • Comparisons

Shooting in Auto Mode with the Built-in Flash Enabled

For this lesson, we decided to photograph a wedding couple in a field near where they held their wedding ceremony.

To start, we decided to take a “before” shot to show how most people would go about capturing some snapshots of a wedding couple. Here, we used a digital SLR set to Auto with the built-in flash activated. [Figures 1 & 2]

As you can see, the camera did a fairly good job at exposing for the background and illuminating the bride and groom, but the overall effect of the flash makes for a slightly washed out result.

Disabling the Flash and Switching to Manual Exposure Mode

Next, we decided to disable the flash to capture more natural-looking light and switch to the Manual Exposure mode so that we could control the exposure levels.

In the result, you can see that the couple is fairly well exposed, but that the background is still somewhat washed out. Also notice how the groom’s head casts a shadow across the bride’s face and that there is a noticeable highlight from the sun on her forehead. As a photographer, you need to observe how the sunlight is affecting your subjects, particularly on their faces.

When shooting full-length portraits, it’s usually best to use a telephoto lens to minimize optical distortion. Using a lens like this, however, requires that you be positioned pretty far away from your subjects. In this case, the photographer stood about 50 feet away from the bride and groom.

In the result shot, you can see how the telephoto lens has improved the overall shot. Notice how the proportions of both the bride and groom look much more natural than they did in the previous shots and that now, you’re not looking down on the grass in the foreground? The perspective is much tighter, and we no longer see the sky, but the backdrop of out-of-focus trees allows us to focus our attention solely on the bride and groom. The overall exposure, however, still seemed a bit washed out to us, and so next we decided to try a darker exposure.

In the result, we really liked the light levels on the background and thought that if we could just throw some additional light onto the bride and groom that the lighting would be ideal. And that’s exactly what we decided to do.

Adding a Soft Box Fill for Greater Contrast

Next, we set up a 5-foot OctoDome, mounted a 650-watt StarFlash strobe to it, and placed it on a sturdy LiteStand. We positioned the light so that it faced the shadow side of the bride and groom and then ran the power cord and extension cable to the nearby barn that had an electrical outlet.

After turning on the strobe, we set power to about halfway. We then attached the new Photoflex FlashFire Wireless Transmitter to the hot shoe of the camera and attached the Receiver to the strobe head.

Once everything was synced up, we told the bride and groom to loosen up their pose and asked them to interact with each other, rather than look into the camera. We took a series of shots and this one ended up being a favorite.

At this point, the lighting was just where we wanted it. The light levels on the bride and groom were just right as they “popped” forward from the relatively darker background. Notice also how the OctoDome has provided a soft, even light that adds more dimension to their features than the built-in flash did previously.


Here’s a look at how far we’ve developed the shot. As you can see, the lighting and lens choice have made a huge difference in the results.

Interacting with and Directing the Wedding Couple

One of the more popular trends in wedding photography today is to capture moments that seem spontaneous, but that are actually directed. One of our contributing instructors, Steve Kurtz, who shoots a lot of weddings, calls it “faux journalism.”

Once you have your camera and lens settings dialed in optimally, as well as your lighting configuration, you and the wedding couple can then start to have fun. Encourage your subjects to interact with each other, kiss, dance, etc., and then your job is just to capture the moments. The results are typically much more engaging than the stiff, traditionally posed approach.

Here are a few outtakes of some intimate interactions with the bride and groom.

As you can see from the results, the lighting scheme and camera settings remain constant even though the poses vary widely.

Coming in Tighter for Intimate Portraits

Once you sense that you’ve got a good amount of full-length shots, move in a little closer for some tighter shots. Nothing else needs to change. Keep the soft box and the couple where they are, maintain the same camera settings, and continue to coach and interact with the bride and groom. Here are some outtakes of our final tighter shots.

As mentioned earlier, wedding photography can be quite challenging, as there are many variables to deal with. But it is also one of the most rewarding types of photography you can do, especially if done well. Being able to create beautiful portraits of the wedding couple that will be appreciated for generations is truly an honor.

Written and photographed by James Helms

Basic Lighting,

Outdoor Portraits,


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