flash photography during the wedding ceremony in church

using flash during the wedding ceremony in church

Whether or not to use flash during a wedding ceremony in a church, is a tricky decision to make. You have to weigh the solemnity of the occasion, with the contractual and artistic requirements to create awesomely awesome images.

When to use flash during the church ceremony?

– when there aren’t specific church rules against using flash, and
– the light levels are too low to give correct exposure for the shutter speed, aperture and ISO combination we need.

The decision to use flash, and how to use flash, strongly depends on technology. Before high-ISO capable cameras, it was customary for medium-format film shooters to set up additional lighting. There would be at least one other off-camera flash to “double light” the scene along with the flash on the camera’s bracket.

The modern trend of a more natural look has been made possible by high-ISO capable cameras, along with fast lenses.

For me, this is the way to go .. high ISO settings and wider apertures. Ideally, I’d rather just use the available light, and not use flash at all. However, the lighting in churches is sometimes less than ideal with top-heavy incandescent lights. Then I will use flash to augment the available light …

Even with flash, I’d still use high ISO settings and wide apertures. This allows available light in and gives a far more natural look to the images. The flash helps to lift the shadow areas and lift the contrast.

My specific technique depends on using the black foamie thing. I bounce my flash against the walls of the church so that the flash is indirect, and better yet, indistinct. It’s a blip of light high up against a wall somewhere, hopefully unnoticed. The piece of black foam also helps to contain the flash so guests barely notice it. The flash then also doesn’t blitz anyone in the eyes.

My starting point usually is to get the ambient light as close as possible to the correct exposure. Then the flash is used to “clean up” the light in the photo. This relates to the recent post on having the flash ‘ride on top of’ the ambient light. The flash is just enough to lift the exposure to the correct levels. As such, the flash is usually not the dominant light source. It’s there to augment the available light.

The photo at the top is an example of this. My ambient exposure is pretty close to correct – and then I added bounce flash, partially gelled for Tungsten with a 1/2 CTS gel. Gelling the flash with either a 1/2 CTS or full CTS gel is essential to have the flash blend more naturally with the available light in the church. There is also the occasional extreme problem of mixed lighting – some incandescent light, some daylight and some light from stained glass windows.  But then I’d still use a 1/2 CTS gel as a starting point.

Back to the image at the top – I bounced my flash to my right so the light that returns, falls onto the bride and lifts the light on her face. This is customary for me here – to have the extra bit of light help lift the exposure and contrast of the bride’s face and expression.

camera settings:
1/160 @ f3.2 @ 1600 ISO; TTL flash at 0EV

With this wedding, the church was large, but had white walls and ceiling which considerably helped getting enough light from my flash. There was also some daylight coming in from the windows.


flash photography and the wedding processional

The one time I don’t mind using flash, is with the processional. (Check the recent post on photographing the wedding processional.) My technique is still consistent in that I use the flash to augment the available light – but I will make sure I have enough depth of field and a shutter speed that won’t show much subject movement. Therefore the flash might be more dominant with the processional than for the rest of the ceremony. Nearly all churches will allow flash during the processional, even if they have a strict no-flash policy for the ceremony itself.

From that same wedding:
1/125 @ f3.5 @ 1600 ISO
on-camera TTL bounce flash (gelled with 1/2 CTS)

An out-take from my 2nd photographer, showing my position and the way the flash was rotated (and had the black foamie thing on) …

… and the resulting image from my camera:

1/125 @ f3.5 @ 1600 ISO
on-camera TTL bounce flash (gelled with 1/2 CTS)

The second shooter’s image was at 1/125 @ f1.4 @ 1600 ISO … which tells you how much more depth-of-field I gained with the use of flash.

With the available light reduced by 2.7 stops in my image, the impact of the incandescent lighting was lessened.  However, I still gelled with a 1/2 CTs, resulting in an image with a neutral color palette.


what if I have nothing to bounce my flash off?

If there is nothing to bounce my flash off, then I use a plastic diffuser cup on my speedlight, and point the flash upward, or perhaps slightly tilted forward. But I still use high ISO settings and wider apertures to allow as much available light as possible .. and not have the flash dominate.

1/80 @ f2.8 @ 1600 ISO
on-camera TTL bounce flash (gelled with 1/2 CTS)

Quite often, in using flash with the black foamie thing and getting just that smidgeon of returned light from my flash … it isn’t really possible to tell how much flash is in the final image. For example, in this photo – without an accompanying image with only available light – it is near impossible to tell how much of the light on the little girl’s face is from the bounce flash, and how much is from the available light (and possibly flash) reflecting from the pages of the book. But I did use flash … and I wanted it to be imperceptible, but still enhance the existing light.

1/160 @ f2.8 @ 1600 ISO
on-camera TTL bounce flash (gelled with 1/2 CTS)

With this massively huge Greek Orthodox church, with colored walls, there’s no realistic way to bounce flash … and direct flash would just intrude. So it had to be: high ISO / wide aperture / slower shutter speed.
1/30 @ f2.8 @ 2000 ISO … handheld 24-70mm f2.8 @ 50mm

Mostly though, it is that touch of indirect light from the bounce flash (gelled), to help with exposure and quality of light, as with these two images:

Both images: 1/80 @ f2.8 @ 2000 ISO

Where high-ISO capable cameras obviously shine, is in situations where there is just no chance of bouncing flash, and the available light is very low. The existing light might be of great quality – there’s just not much of it.  With these two photos of a brother and sister, I relied on the vibration reduction / image stabilization of the 70-200mm f2.8 lens.  The latest Nikon and Canon models are outstanding in this regard.

Both images handheld at: 1/30 @ f2.8 @ 3200 ISO .. available light only

Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR II … at 200mm
(The Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS II has just as remarkable stabilization.)

And in case you are curious just how sharp an image can be when it is handheld at 1/30 @ 200mm focal length, here is the 100% crop of the image above. I am very okay with that sharpness!


ethic wedding ceremonies

Mention should be made of ethnic weddings – in other words, weddings which veer away from the more traditional tuxedo-and-white-dress weddings. Ethnic weddings tend to be more colorful and expressive. People often move around freely, and the ceremony can even seem less structured than say, a Catholic church wedding. The guests can be shutter-happy as well, and you sometimes have to be more assertive to make sure you get a good position among them. I’ve even had Christian Orthodox priests call me to the front, right up there with the bride and groom, to make sure I get the photographs. That always surprises me, since I tend to want to pull back and shoot with a longer lens and be less visible.

With interesting and colorful customs, ethnic weddings are always captivating and great fun to photograph.

1/160 @ f2.8 @ 1600 ISO
on-camera TTL bounce flash (gelled with 1/2 CTS)



As described here, my approach to using flash during wedding ceremonies is simple enough – high ISO settings and fast-ish apertures to allow as much available light in. And then, where necessary and feasible, to add a touch of flash bounced in such a way that it isn’t intrusive. The best of both worlds – getting images that look good, without you being *that* wedding photographer that stands out.

Oh yes .. wear black. Black clothing makes wedding photographers instantly invisible.


related articles


gelling your flash

Since I frequently gel my flashguns to turn the WB of my flash much warmer (usually for  Incandescent light), I use these gels that I cut up and tape to the top of my speedlight’s head. One of these sheets (which aren’t expensive), will give you a lifetime supply of these filters. For me, these gels are an invaluable part of flash photography. 

Tape the gels down on your lens hood when not in use.

other articles on wedding photography


64 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1 says

    A few paragraphs before the second photo, you wrote, “My ambient exposure is pretty close to correct – and then I added bounce flash, partially gelled for Tungsten with a 1/2 CTS gel.”

    Does “partially gelled” mean you only covered part of your flash head with the CTS gel instead of covering it fully? If so, is your WB still set to Tungsten? (Many of your past posts mention putting the 1/2 CTS or CTS to cover the entire flash head.)


  2. 2 says

    Stephen .. with “partially gelled for Tungsten”, I meant that the 1/2 CTS is rated around 3700K and will only partially correct the flash’s color balance towards Incandescent. Whereas a full CTS will correct for it by taking the flash to around 2900K.

    The flash-head is completely covered by the gel in either case.

  3. 7 says

    Hi Neil
    I struggle a little with WB when shooting under tungsten and gelling the flash. Setting the WB to tungsten doesn’t always work out well. On your course in Brighton last year (or was it 2009) you advised me to adjust my WB to xxxxK instead. It worked a treat but I have not really worked out why. Can you explain that please?

  4. 9Paul Hodgson says

    Hi Neil, great article. Question…2.7 stops below ambient, wow! Are you compensating + FEC on the flash? And if so by how much if you can recall?

  5. 10 says

    Paul .. this is the beauty of flash photography – in this case, TTL flash. I don’t have to compensate for purposely under-exposing the ambient light. Keeping the TTL flash to 0 FEC will give me correct exposure.

    Remember, the flash will give me correct exposure.
    Now it is up to my choice of aperture, ISO and shutter speed to control how much the ambient light registers. But my overall exposure should be correct (or close to correct) when I use TTL flash, since TTL flash will follow my changes of aperture and ISO.

  6. 11Alfredo says

    I have a lot of trouble when trying to bounce to the right when shooting in portrait orientation. I don’t want to use a bracket. Do you have any hand holding techniques that you can share with us for this specific situation?

  7. 12 says

    Alfredo .. using a flash bracket would be ideal. The alternative is to get used to holding the camera with your right hand under the camera. Quite awkward. Those are your options.

  8. 13Arthur says

    I am wondering how the depth of field seems deep when the f/stop is 3.5-2.8? Seems like more like 5.6.
    What am I missing?
    Thanks for all of the great info.

  9. 14 says

    Artur .. my comment there about DoF, was in relation to f3.5 offering a lot more depth of field than the f1.4 aperture that my 2nd shooter was using.

    Two things to keep in mind about assessing the DoF in my image at f3.5
    – I shot with my zoom set to a wider angle. So DoF will appear greater,
    – you are looking at a 900px size image. The DoF will appear greater with the smaller image size.

  10. 15 says

    Wear black… yep… I’ve even ditched my shoes in a corner on the odd occasion. Helps with particularly squeaky church floors.
    Alas I’m too fat to be a ninja… :-)


  11. 16Guillermo says

    Neil, your tips are great. I love your blog and recently became a black fomie thing convert. Im still trying to predict how my flash will bounce, but I have captured great pictures with this technique.

    One question: ¿how do you hold your gels to your flash?

    Thanks and greetings from Chile

  12. 18 says

    Hi again Neil. Thanks for the reply. Just tried this technique at home and terrific results. Interestingly, ttl on flash gun and manual on camera with settings showing -2stops flash at zero comp and the result was as you describe. Change the flash comp to add +1 stop of light, here’s me thinking I’ll get more flash power but what happened? I got a virtually dark frame, almost as if the flash hadn’t fired. The lcd on the flash then informs me that my underexposure is now at -3 stops.

  13. 19 says

    Paul .. that doesn’t quite make sense, so I wonder if your batteries might be on their way out, and not recycling your speedlight properly? There’s definitely another factor at work here.

  14. 21Kim-Sung says

    Hi Neil, amazing that you can use ISO 2000 and 3000 for wedding photography. I’ve always been afraid to go pass ISO 1600 on my Canon 5d mkII. Do you have any issues with noise at these high ISOs? Is there a way to remove the noise in Photoshop? Thanks.

  15. 22 says

    Kim-Sung .. you have to consider the final use of the image. Quite often digital noise that looks very noticeable at 100% on your computer screen, doesn’t print that way at a smaller size.

    I use Neat Image for the rare occasions that I do need to add noise-reduction. The latest versions of Lightroom and ACR (in Bridge), have excellent noise reduction built in too.

  16. 23carlo vivenzio says

    Hi Neil, couple of questions.

    You said “what if I had nothing to bounce off? Then I use a plastic diffuser cup on my speedlight, and point the flash upward, or perhaps slightly tilted forward.”

    In this case, shooting upward with essentially a bare bulb flash are you simply expecting the flash to bounce of surrounding guests, pews, etc to get some fill since the walls and ceilings would be too far / unusable for bounce? Or is it more of a light feathering effect you are getting because it’s not full direct flash?

    Also one area I’ve struggled is picking a focus point during the processional. Ideally I want to focus on the eyes of the person walking down the aisle but the auto focus points are less sensitive on the outside. In a previous post you mentioned you usually use the center cross type focus point. Do you just focus on the most contrasty area you can hit with the center point and fire away?


  17. 24 says

    When I use a diffuser cup and have my flash in a tilted-forward bounce position, it isn’t necessarily to bounce my flash around the place … but rather to force light fall-off in the foreground.

    If my flash was pointing straight forward, then the ground right in front of me would be brightly lit. Instead then, I tilt my flash up (or, if you want, tilted forward from the upright position), so that the ground in front of me receives about the same amount of light as my subjects.

    So it really is about feathering the light. I hope this makes sense.

    Regarding focusing methods and modes for the processional, I mostly just use the central AF sensor and AF Single focusing mode. Any slight focusing error is usually not that visible at f2.8 or smaller.

  18. 25 says

    “handheld at 1/30 @ 200mm focal length”, this is still surprisingly sharp. The theory says usually for a sharp impage the shutter stop should be inverse of your focal length, ie 1/200 in this case.
    I do get some less then optimally sharp images at 200mm 1/60, i always thought i should have higher shutter speed, looks like i need to be more stable myself :-).

  19. 28 says

    I use the CTS gels on my Quantum flashes as well. I also sometimes use the Canon speedlights. So it’s just easier to cut gels from the same source for all my flashguns, and streamline my post-processing this way.

  20. 30Jack Crouch says

    Hi Neil,

    Non-flash question if I may. When photographing the processional, do you set the camera to ‘single’ or ‘continuous’ AF?


  21. 31 says

    I mostly use the more centrally grouped AF sensors, and usually the central AF sensor. And I mostly use Single mode.

    But sometimes I do use 3D tracking and AF-C (Servo), if there is enough light for the camera to not have to rely on the flash’s AF assist.

    The page on Nikon focusing modes will explain this in more detail.

  22. 32Kris Hunt says

    In pictures 2 and 3 that show the same scene with flash and without, was it your flash alone that lit up the whole room like that, including up in the balcony? No change in ISO or aperture? What was the flash pointed at?

  23. 34 says


    Quick question. When you use the black foamie thing with gel, I’m presuming you put your gel on first, and then slide the foamie thing over the flash and gel combination?

    I just spent the cash on a 70-200 f2.8 without IS… and now I’m slightly wishing I had spent the extra cash on IS. But given, I can always upgrade, no? How often is it necessitated for you to use IS?
    It does help though that the Canon 7D has some great control over noise.. (Not as good as the 1 series I’m sure… but still.)



  24. 35 says

    Jonathan, indeed, I stick the gel on first.

    Re image stabilization … this is essential for wedding photography since we work in such low light most of the time.

  25. 37Sam Bahri says

    regarding when you say that if there is no wall or Ceiling to bounce off.then the plastic thing..i read in many places that some photographers do this in a wrong way by using this stofen when they use flash outdoor because (the stofen is like a bare bulb flash that scatter light all around and bounce from walls and ceiling and fill is own shadows)..am i right in this?..so when you describe to use when there is no walls its like using it outdoors.. something is missing here tha i dont understand..please correct me .i wish to understand the theory..thanks

  26. 38 says

    If there is nothing to bounce your flash off, then there’s nothing to bounce your flash off.

    In using a plastic cup / Stofen in the scenario you describe, it is often not quite an on / off … nothing / something .. kind of situation. Even if there isn’t anything much to bounce off, there might still be enough that comes back from various parts of the building’s interior, to subtly affect the way the flash is diffused through the plastic cup. In other words, there is often a tiny amount of light that does return. Not enough to give proper exposure, but enough to help lift the contrast. But the light from the plastic diffuser is the main source of light.

    Then, I’d still prefer to use a plastic diffuser cup then, since it raises the level of the flash-head by another inch or two. Enough to help avoid red-eye from the flash.

    In using a plastic diffuser here, there is an amount of light loss. Your flash does have to work harder … and perhaps for not much benefit. But quite often in these circumstance, there isn’t much time or opportunity to test.

  27. 39Jaroslav says

    Hi Neil,
    I have a question not belong to this post. I want to ask you I have a small problem with RAW images. When I am checking pictures in camera LCD they are bright and histogram is just touching right edge that there are no overexposed parts. But when I open image in computer the image is dark. Its completly different as I saw it in camera. I have to bright the image a put exposure up to get the same image as I saw in camera. And after brightening image noise will appear. Do you know why is image in computer darker as image in camera. Hopefully you will be able to help with this…

  28. 41FabioMC says

    Hi Neil,
    really great website you got here, very helpful. :)

    I’m having a little problem with the D7000 exposure compensation, as in it also affects flash compensation (FEC). If i dial -2 exposure compensation i also get -2 flash exposure compensation.
    My workaround is simply to dial +2 FEC on flash but i was wondering it there was a way to just dial the exposure compensation on camera and make it so that i does not change the flash compensation. Thanks,
    Fabio from Italy

    P.S. Hope to have made myself clear, english isn’t my first language :)

  29. 42 says

    That’s how Nikon’s exposure compensation (EC) and flash exposure (FEC) works – they are cumulative.

    You can dial the FEC on the camera body as well though. It’s the button to the left of the prism.

  30. 43 says

    Hi Neil,

    Thanks for the very informative reading. Just starting out, but I have photographed 1 Greek wedding so far, and you are absolutely right, there’s no where to bounce you flash off. All the walls are covered with icons. Have an other one this weekend.

    thanks again, picked up a few good tips.


  31. 44Sam Bahri says

    hi Neil
    u said …(My starting point usually is to get the ambient light as close as possible to the correct exposure. Then the flash is used to “clean up” the light in the photo. This relates to the recent post on having the flash ‘ride on top of’ the ambient light. The flash is just enough to lift the exposure to the correct levels. As such, the flash is usually not the dominant light source. It’s there to augment the available light.)..so what i understand from this is :_
    1- your available light in the church is your main light…do u measure it from the general ambient in the church or from the subject you photograph?.
    2- the flash is the fill light to lift the contrast and shadows..do u fire your flash with or without flash exposure compensation?….thanks

  32. 45 says

    Re question 1: It’s a little but of both. I have to have my exposure close to correct, but so that that ambient is a little under-exposed … but at settings which count in my favour:
    for example:
    a high enough shutter speed to help minimize camera shake (eg: 1/125)
    an aperture which still has some ‘bite’ to it, and not too shallow a DoF (eg: f3.5)
    an ISO which is not incredibly high (eg: 1600 ISO)

    So somewhere around there, with a test shot, I’ll see that my ambient is under.
    Then I add TTL flash.

    Re question 2: Usually at zero compensation as a start, since the flash here isn’t mere fill-flash .. but is playing a considered part in getting to my correct exposure.

    For me, fill-flash is where the ambient is pretty much correct already, and the flash just helps with contrast and lifting shadow detail.

  33. 46Trina Cheney says

    Hi Neil,

    Do you gel your flash only when the ambient light is your main/dominant light source and you want the flash to match the ambient?

    When ever I gel my flash and the the flash overpower the ambient light, my skin tones usually have an orange tint and I switch my camera back to auto WB.

  34. 48Trina Cheney says

    Thanks Neil for the fast response. I always shoot in Raw but I am thinking that when my flash is more dominant than my ambient light it cause the skin tones to look orange from the gel. When I an shooting like this I do change my WB to tungsten.

  35. 49john wong says


    with high iso 1600, f2.8, and 1/80, wouldn’t we be picking up an awful lot of color cast?
    if i used a high iso to get the background ambient, and needed wide apertures for DOF, i find myself having to increase my shutter just to reduce the color cast.

  36. 51Paul Fletcher says

    I normally fix WB issues in post but would like to have a better workflow and may start to gel my flash but I am kind of a novice in that, so, when you gel for tungsten – do you set your WB to tungsten as well?

    Thanks very much,

    Paul Fletcher

  37. 52 says

    You set your WB to whatever your dominant light source is. I usually keep to the preset WB settings, with the Kelvin setting to 3700 / 3850 K. Since I shoot in RAW, it’s an easy adjust from there to fine-tune it.

  38. 53 says

    I’m shooting a wedding in a pretty dark church next Friday at 4.30 PM, I think shooting close to ambient light exposure with a touch of flash will be the way to go. An extremely useful article – many thanks.

  39. 54 says

    I have been following your lighting methods for quite a while now and absolutely love the idea of directional bounced light. The main problem I have is during the procession when people are walking and the flash just doesn’t recycle fast enough to take few photos in the row. Any recommendations on how to handle it? Should I bring the exposure closer to ambient to the flash works less hard?
    thank you!

  40. 56 says

    Hi Neil, this was such an awesome and informative article. I am shooting my first church wedding this Friday and had a few questions. My past weddings were outside and very casual. During the procession and recession what lens do you usually shoot with on those shots. I will have two cameras on me, but no how fast it can happen. I plan on using my flash for those shots, bouncing the light. I was trying to decide b/t my 24 to 70mm or 70 to 300mm? What would you recommend?

    Also when you are getting those processional shots do you sit in a pew at the end towards the front or walk down with them shooting. Thank you so so much for your time!!

  41. 57 says

    Hi there Kelley … the 70-300mm zoom will be too slow with its f/4.5 to f/5.6 maximum aperture. You’re going to need a faster telephoto zoom lens. That means f/2.8 max aperture. And hopefully your 24-70mm lens is also an f/2.8 zoom.

    I don’t walk with the bride and groom during the processional.

    I am up in the front, if the officiant allows it, and if the space allows it. Otherwise, I’ll wait in a pew about 1/3rd way down from the front and wait for everyone to pass me.

  42. 58 says

    Neil, when you have nothing to bounce you use the Stofen. But doesn’t it make more sense to use a flash diffuser wich makes the flash light a little softer? Just a big bounce card or something like that? Because there is nothing to bounce your flash it makes not much sense to use a Stofen but it does make sense to try soften the light, right? The reasons why you use the Stofen (as you described here above)I do understand, but wouldn’t a big bounce card have the same advantages and then add the advantage of softer light too?

  43. 60SH. MOHSIN JAWAID says

    Strange to see that your pictures do not suffer from the “noise” despite using high ISO settings.Is that because you use high-end camera or is there any other reason{s}? I face that difficulty when taking pictures above 400 ISO with D3OO.Will you explain please ?

  44. 61Carolyn Albert says

    I was just wondering, my daughter has a wedding coming up and the church doesn’t have white walls or ceilings so what kind of lighting could be used to get the right shots? Thanks for your time.

  45. 62 says

    Scroll up to the section that reads:

    “Where high-ISO cameras obviously shine, is in situations where there is just no chance of bouncing flash, and the available light is very low. The existing light might be of great quality – there’s just not much of it. With these two photos of a brother and sister, I relied on the vibration reduction / image stabilization of the 70-200mm f2.8 lens. The latest Nikon and Canon models are outstanding in this regard.”

  46. 63Michael says

    Hello. I tried this today at a wedding with the black foamy thing. No matter what power I put the flash at I was getting almost no added light, the church was large with very high ceilings, it was a Canon 600ex flash. I tried bouncing off the wall and ceiling. I ended up shooting without flash with a Canon 6d at ISO 3200. All of the procession photos were blurry no matter what shutter speed I used, I was tracking people with the center point and AI servo. I must be missing something, if I hand held a 70-200 at 1/30 like you did above I would end up with a very blurry photo indeed. Any guidance?

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