Lighting Methods for Photographing Wedding Receptions

Lighting indoor reception venues can be a challenge. Every reception location is different, and every location introduces new obstacles. Lucky, we have lighting tools at our disposal that allow us to overcome these obstacles. In this article we’ll walk through the options available to photographers to create the best light for their wedding reception photography. The four major types of lighting are: on camera flash, strobes, on camera bounce flash, and ambient light.


1. Raw On-Camera flash

This is the simplest flash lighting possible. Nearly every camera comes equip with an on-camera flash. They are incredibly efficient for pushing the most light as possible to your subject.

Diffused On-Camera

Similar to the raw on-camera flash, this method is used to soften the light to give a more appealing look. Relatively cheap devices, such as the Gary Fong Lightsphere, are used to achieve this look.


On-camera flash is fast, efficient and almost always ensures that your subject is correctly exposed. Direct flash can be used to achieve looks ranging from generic to high-fashion. On-camera flash is fantastic when you need to be up-close and agile for keeping up with your moving subjects.


Since the point of light is very close to the camera’s sensor, the lighting on your subjects can be unflattering and amateur. This close proximity of light source and sensor will also give the skin of your subjects a sheen or reflective quality. Additionally, most on-camera flashes have a small point as their light source which creates hash shadows.


2. Remote Strobes

By far the most elaborate, setting up off-camera strobes requires the photographer to have at the very least 1 set of strobes. This includes a light stand, a strobe, a transmitter, and a radio receiver. Radio transmitters and receivers are needed to trigger the flash from your camera. An example of these would be the Radio Popper JrX’s. Note that you do not need a strobe flash. Setting up speedlights, such as a Nikon SB-600, can achieve a similar effect.

Using strobes to light reception venues is the most challenging lighting method. It will take time to perfect this technique, but those who do create wonderful photographs.

One can point a strobe directly at the subjects for dramatic lighting or point them at walls to illuminate the entire venue with a clean, soft light.


Photographing indoor reception venues with strobes can give a very unique look. If done properly, a photographer can create very dramatic and emotional images, all while having the lighting appear natural. This method is considered by many to be the most professional set-up; however, it depends solely on the style of the photographer.


While using this lighting technique, you’ll need to pay close attention to the position of your strobes. There will be angles that will be unflattering or strangely lit.

This lighting method is also the most expensive. You will need to purchase several light stands, radio triggers, strobes, and probably battery packs to accomplish this set-up in its entirety.

Auto-focus can be difficult since you will not have access to your flashes’ infrared focus assistance. A darker reception venue will pose a challenge to your camera for quick focusing.


3. On-Camera Bounce Flash

The on-camera bounce technique involves pointing your on-camera speedlight up and away from your subject. The idea here is to illuminate the ceiling and have the reflected flash be the light on your subject. This lighting technique requires you to have an on-camera flash capable of pointing upwards and able to pivot at the very least 90 degrees. Typical angle is turned 135 degrees left and angled 45 degrees up.


Similar to the on-camera direct flash, this lighting technique allows the photographer to be agile with how they shoot. Unlike the direct flash, this method does not create heavy shadows or annoy guests. Instead, it creates a soft light that is reflected from the ceiling. This light appears natural and, since the light source is coming from above, creates flattering shadows. Additionally, since you will be using a speedlight, you will be able to take advantage of the focus-assist infrared light from your flash.


The drawbacks of this method should be obvious – you will be pointing your flash backwards, so you will need to be aware of guests behind you. Nobody likes being flashed in the retina.

Another drawback is that since you will be bouncing off of the ceiling, your flash will need to compensate for the lost light that did not reflect onto your subjects. This results in your flash exerting more power per flash. Keep spare batteries handy. On this note, dark venues with dark ceilings and walls can be very strenuous on your flash. You may need to bump your ISO high or use another lighting technique if this obstacle is present.

Note: bouncing your flash off oddly colored ceilings or walls may affect the color of the flash bounced back. Typically, this is handled wonderfully buy the auto-white balance, but it can pose a problem if the ceiling/walls are vibrantly colored.


4. Ambient Light

This technique involves using no light source that you create. Using the available light in the venue, this lighting method, or lack of method, is ideal for photographers looking for the most photojournalistic feel to their images. If the venue has excellent and interesting lighting, perhaps from the DJ or lighting team, this method might be another reason to use to take advantage of the ambient light.


This strategy is a very natural and photojournalistic approach to capturing images. The lack of your own light source has the potential to incite more emotion and a strong sense of candidness. Sparkler exits, using the videographer’s light during a first dance, or photographing centerpieces with candles on the table are examples of how you can creatively take advantage of external light sources.


Since you’ll be relying on the other light sources, you’ll be at the mercy of the whatever light you have available. It can be difficult to work with these sources if they are too low in light, strangely colored, moving around, etc.

You will need to up your ISO and/or shoot wide open in order to pull as much light as possible. This will lead to noisier images and/or very shallow depth of field.

Last, it may be difficult to focus your camera in dark situations. This is a huge challenge when your subjects are moving or you need to catch an important moment quickly. TIP: use your speedlight to assist you in focusing. Turn your flash to manual power and set it to as low as possible. This should result in very little light from the flash, but will greatly help you in auto-focusing subjects.