lighting the wedding formals (part 1)

lighting and photographing the wedding formals

With this, the first in a loose series on lighting and photographing the family formals at weddings, I would like to show that with a simple approach it is possible to get clean results that work every time.

In lighting the formals, I don’t try to get all Rembrandt, but prefer a fairly flat way of lighting everyone.  I keep the lighting static for all the images, whether I am photographing one person or twenty.  With time usually being a real constraint during the wedding day, there simply isn’t the opportunity to play around too much with the lighting .. and I find a simple predictable way of lighting works best.

Before we get to the actual gear I use, let’s start off with exposure metering for flash.

Because I work with off-camera lighting, and everyone is static in relation to the lights, it is much much simpler to work with manual flash.  With TTL flash there is the chance (or risk, if you will), of exposure varying from image to image.  This will slow your post-production workflow down as you now have to correct exposure for individual images.  In the end it is just simpler to work with manual flash in this instance.

You can work with a flash meter, however, I use the histogram with as much accuracy by metering for the brightest relevant tone – the white dress.  Since the lighting setup is straight-forward and the lighting pattern quite even, metering for the flash exposure is pretty simple as well.

The flash exposure is chosen for a specific aperture and ISO – we need enough depth-of-field, and f5.6 is good for a small group of people in line with each other.   For our ISO setting, we need as low as possible to get the best results – the best color reproduction and contrast, and as little amount of digital noise as we can tolerate .. and on modern D-SLRs an ISO of 400 gives very good results indeed, and can even be considered a low ISO setting.

But these settings also need to be chosen in relation to our available light .. and for the image above, here is the available light only shot:

With this image you can see how much light there was in the background .. and also that there was a slight amount of available light coming from a window somewhere.  So we’ll choose a shutter speed where enough of the background registers, but the amount of light falling on our bride from the window doesn’t cause an uneven lighting pattern on her.

For the image at the top, the final choice of settings were 1/100th @ f5.6 @ 400 ISO.

Normally I would consider 1/100th of a second shutter speed to be fairly low when working with available light.  However, the risk of camera shake is nearly eliminated here because the flash completely dominates as the light source.  This allows me to comfortably work without a tripod.


gelling your flash for Tungsten / Incandescent light

Since the lighting in churches are predominantly Tungsten, I usually gel my flash either with a full CTS or a 1/2 CTS as in the example above.  This helps bring my flash’s white balance to match the existing light, and not give a discordant color cast. 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.  If you use flash indoors where Tungsten lighting dominates, then these filters are an invaluable part of flash photography.

The Full CTS will bring your flash WB down to around 2900K, more or less neutralizing the look of the Tungsten light.  The 1/2 CTS will bring your flash WB to around 3800K, which will leave your backgrounds still with a touch of the warmth of Tungsten lighting.


The equipment:

For the portrait above, and for small groups of up to 8 or 9 people, I most often just use one flashgun with a 60″ umbrella.  This large light source gives me even enough coverage for a small group.  When just using the one light (and 60″ umbrella), I keep the light off-center from my position, but not by much since I want even coverage for everyone in the group.  With larger groups I use two of these set-ups, evenly spaced.

You will also notice that lighting with regard to short lighting / broad lighting, isn’t a specific concern here.

I prefer using the Quantum flashguns here, since they are workhorses with which I’ve never experienced over-heating.  I can just keep on shooting without a thought to my flashguns.  You can certainly achieve similar results with a speedlight, but you might have to fire at a slower more steady rate.   Since a speedlight would most likely work at (or close to) full power here, there is a chance of over-heating the speedlight.  And you would also have to fire slower to make sure that the flash recycles properly between shots.

The radio transmitter is the industry standard Pocket Wizard – in this case the Plus II.  As mentioned earlier, I don’t need TTL metering here, and actually don’t want it.  I need the simplicity and predictability of manual flash.

A close-up of the Quantum flash and battery pack, as shown in a previous thread.

And to end off this section, here’s an example of a group as photographed using two of the Q-flashes, each with a 60″ umbrella.

What I wanted to achieve with this article, is show the simplicity of it all – the equipment is set up in a straight-forward way, and used in a straight-forward manner – and giving pleasant results that will please clients .. with a minimum of post-production work.


related articles


video tutorials – wedding photography

If you like learning by seeing best, then these video tutorials will help you with understanding photography techniques and concepts. While not quite hands-on, this is as close as we can get to personal instruction. Check out these and other video tutorials and online photography workshops.

59 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1tim wong says

    neil, Thx for sharing this but i have one question. when you’re using two umbrellas to lighting a large group. will the umbrella on each side create the double nose shadow? what is your setting of this and what is the best way to handle this?

  2. 2 says

    Tim .. I haven’t yet seen that kind of double shadow, and I suspect this is because I use the two large umbrellas fairly close to each other .. about 8 or 9 feet away from me on either side. And with the two umbrellas both being 60″ .. there is considerable overlap in coverage, and the light is quite diffuse in how it is bounced into the umbrella. With that, the light becomes very evenly spread, even with there being two lights.

    You can see the effect already with the single light in the top image – there just isn’t a sharply defined shadow.

    Neil vN

  3. 3Jesse says

    Neil, love your site and really appreciate all the great info on it! I have a question, how do you go about setting your flash power when doing these group formals? You said you look at the histogram and I know how to use the histogram but what I mean is, do you set your flash at a specific value (say 1/4), have the group come in, take a shot, and then adjust? Or do you get it set up perfectly before hand? I ask this because I don’t currently have the luxury of an assistant to stand in for me so that I can set up my lighting before I call in the bridal party. Any help would be greatly appreciated! Thanks.

  4. 4 says

    Jesse .. I set the flashguns to just under full power (2/3 stops under full power) which allows the flashguns to recycle fairly quickly and give me more consistent exposure from image to image, even when I shoot a little too fast and not time my shots more regularly.

    So with me setting the flashguns to 1/2+ power (ie, 2/3rds stops under full power), every time I start with the formal portraits in the church or at the venue, I have become accustomed to approximate settings when I set the flashgun (with 60″ umbrella) at a certain distance from where I will pose the groups.

    And with experience, I know I will get around f5.6 @ 400 ISO for that working distance.

    So that is where I start, and I would do a quick test shot of the bride’s dress and see how my histogram shape falls .. and then do a slight adjustment to my camera settings, or even pull up the power on the flashgun(s) a touch.

    This really is something you can set up and test beforehand elsewhere and get used to it – since with manual flash, you will get the same exposure every time when you have a specific distance, and your flash set to a specific power. That’s the beauty of manual flash – that kind of predictability.

    Neil vN

  5. 6 says

    Mac .. exactly! It looks good; people can recognize themselves; and I work fast and efficiently. And THAT is highly appreciated by everyone – that the formals sessions is quick and painless. Not having to fuss with the lighting is very much part of that.

    Neil vN

  6. 7Andreas Schroeder says

    Hello Neil,

    I can see that you are using the umbrella as a kind of reflector and not as a shoot-through system, although it’s being said, that “shoot through” creates softer light. Is it due to the fact that you were going to shoot a group of people?

  7. 8 says

    Andreas, the ‘bounce’ umbrellas are a little bit more efficient than the shoot-through umbrellas when working in areas where the light that is reflected from the shoot-through umbrella doesn’t add to the final amount of light. So in a smaller room / studio with white walls, the shoot-through umbrella would work like a charm .. but here in a church I want it more contained.

    Then there is another huge benefit in NOT using a shoot-through umbrella. With a shoot-through umbrella, when I stand back further I run the risk of getting lens flare. But with the umbrella with the black backing material, that kind of spill light is minimised and I have much less chance of getting lens flare. This becomes especially important while shooting faster and not concentrating on shielding my lens properly, (even while using the lens hood).

    Neil vN

  8. 10 says

    Brett .. CTS has less red than CTO, and I found it easier to get a nice skin tone when using 1/2 CTS or CTS gels than if I were using the CTO equivalent. But then, this is more of an anecdotal observation on my side than something that I spent a lot of time on doing comparisons.

    Neil vN

  9. 11briandaly says

    Hi Neil,

    I too am interested in your 2-light setup. Are both brollies on the same side, or one either side of camera? Would love to see a shot of the 2-light setup.


  10. 12 says

    Brian, I’ll add a specific article later with the two-light set-up and some examples … but it really is simple. I have two lights on either side of me, about 8 – 9 feet away from me, each with a 60″ umbrella. I usually keep them to the same power setting since I want even lighting from left to right across an entire group of people.

    As I said, the intention is not to get dramatic or interesting lighting, but rather to get lighting which is easy to use and takes no risks in needing post-production editing. Other photographers might do, and probably do different things with lighting the formals, but I find this is the easiest way.

    Neil vN

  11. 14 says

    Sarah … aside from the lighting, why not use an on-camera speedlight (or wireless TTL transmitter), that will give you an infra-red beam to help your camera focus in the dark?

    Neil vN

  12. 15 says

    Awesome stuff as always, Neil!

    Pardon my ignorance in these things, but what is the reason for shooting the group formals in the church in this case?
    Would this simply be because there was no suitable place outdoors at the location?

    Andrew Westran

  13. 16 says

    Andrew .. it is often by request from couples, and I guess it is a regional thing. Not quite a “USA thing”, but regional within the USA.

    There definitely was other locations outside, and I will post some images later on my other blog taken during that session.

    Neil vN

  14. 17michael says

    Hi Neil, you said in your above article that 5.6 Fstop is good enough for a small group inline with each other.what would you use if they were not in line and say 4 or 5 or total of say 8 but not next to each other.

  15. 18 says

    For that, I’d be around f8 .. but if you needed to make sure and shoot with more confidence in exact numbers, then use a DoF calculator which would take into account lens choice and distance and sensor size. There are a number of variables that come into play which makes advice about a specific aperture less useful.

    Neil vN

  16. 19 says

    thanks for the concept, and nice shots.
    Is the umbrella in front of you or behind you and are you using a 70-200 2.8
    thanks for all your teachings .
    I am waiting for you to come to San Diego!


  17. 20 says

    John, I was using the 24-70mm f2.8 .. and I was moving around, to and fro .. but mostly I had the umbrellas behind me to some extent.

    But that’s the beauty of using manual flash off-camera – your distance to the subject has no effect on the flash exposure.

    Neil vN

  18. 21Mark S says

    Great Article,,,,
    For some reason, this article made a lot more sense.
    When you use 1 umbrella, is it also just 8ft to your left or right?
    When you metered the scene, were you -2 stops before the flash?

  19. 22 says

    Mark .. when I use a single umbrella, then I keep it closer to me, as you could see in that image with the setup. The lightstand is about 2 or 3 feet away from me. This way I get even light from left to right.

    As for how far the ambient exposure was under .. you’d have to distinguish here between the ambient light on the bride (my subject) or the ambient light in the background. However, in in this instance I didn’t specifically meter for the background – the test shot showed that I had enough light in the background for my tasted, and that is where I kept the settings.

    But 2 stops under would be a good place to start.

    Neil vN

  20. 23Paul Keith Dickinson says

    Dear Neil
    Great tutorial subject,I have been looking for a tutorial that covers this subject for month.Now I am really looking foreward to the rest of it.Here in the UK we can get some really dark and damp days were it is essential to shoot indoors.Neil I have the book and it is brilliant,is there any chance of a DVD in the future….Many thanks Paul

  21. 24Allana Taranto says

    I’ve been making an effort this season to light my group formals, and I’m also shooting with a longer lens (when the groups as are small enough and the space is long enough for me to get away with it). The uniform lighting and the focal length perspective change are, I suspect, the reason for an increase in my print sales to Moms.

    Great post. Worth it to set up the strobes!

  22. 26 says


    Would you please explain how you maintained such even illumination from front to back in this group photo? I struggle properly illuminating the back row without over-illuminating the people in the front row. Thank you in advance for your advice.

    Best regards,


  23. 27 says

    Matt, the key here is to keep the lights far back enough so that the light-to-subject distance for your foreground and the light-to-subject distance background isn’t a huge difference.

    This way the light fall-off to the background will be much less.

    Think about the relative distances, and how they change when you move your lights further back .. or closer to your subjects.

    Neil vN

  24. 28 says

    I notice that you often work at ISO 400 and sometime even will above that. Using a higher ISO gives me a faster shutter and more power/faster recycle or my flashes. Shooting with a Nikon D90 and a set of SB600s, I’m always fighting the fringes of ISO and flash power.

    How do you determine how high is too high for you ISO? If you are shooting with a D3/D700, you’re getting about a stop better ISO performance that my D90. I know I can shoot at ISO 400 and get constantly clear shots but I really concerned about pushing beyond that because I can’t be sure (from the LCD) while shooting that I have a clear enough shot or at least one that can be effectively managed with NR software.

  25. 29 says

    Dan, you’re going to need stronger flashguns, or more flashguns if you’re keeping to the SB-600 speedlights. There is no other way around it if you are already pushing the limits of what your camera is capable of.

    I try to keep to 400 – 640 ISO with the Nikon D3 when I shoot the family formals .. but in lower light, when photographing the romantic portraits of the couple, I often push it to 1600 ISO with the D3. But that is because I would then rely on available light or video light or extreme bounce flash.

    But that’s not something you could rely on for formal gruop photos .. and for that, you are going to have to invest in more or bigger speedlights. Rather that than rely on a software fix for high-ISO noise for important photos.

    Neil vN

  26. 30Sarah says

    < < Sarah … aside from the lighting, why not use an on-camera speedlight (or wireless TTL transmitter), that will give you an infra-red beam to help your camera focus in the dark?>>

    I feel like an idiot. The flash (580ex2) was on camera (40d), and there was no infra-red beam. Could I have disabled it?

    I’ve been waiting for my local bookstore to have your book in stock. Off to go order from amazon instead…

  27. 31 says

    Sarah, the most likely reason why you didn’t get the infra-red AF-assist light, is because you were in servo / continuous focus mode on your camera.

    Neil vN

  28. 32 says

    Very nice information, Neil! Thanks for sharing!

    Can you explain what you do for white balance, especially when using the gels?
    Are you using Tungsten or K settings?

    With regards to your histogram metering, are you just using the highlight levels as your guide?

  29. 34Dwayne Zimmerman says

    Do you have a page on shooting groups like this with the T2 in churches or schools with florescent lighting?

  30. 36Lydia says

    “Because I work with 0ff-camera lighting, and everyone is static in relation to the lights, it is much much simpler to work with manual flash. With TTL flash there is the chance (or risk, if you will), of exposure varying from image to image. This will slow your post-production workflow down as you now have to correct exposure for individual images. In the end it is just simpler to work with manual flash in this instance.”

    Neil, elsewhere you state that you prefer TTL flash, and I realize that it is for situations when you need to run around – but what concerns me, is your reference to “exposure varying from image to image” in the case of TTL. Is that what you experience with your non-static photographs – a lot of variation in exposure?

  31. 37 says

    Lydia, exposure with manual flash will be consistent from shot to shot, since there are no variables if your subject is static.

    But I do prefer TTL flash for many situations, especially where either myself (with flash on camera), or my subject moves.

    Since TTL flash is an automatic metering mode, there will be variation between exposures as you change your composition. It’s the nature of TTL flash.

    Neil vN

  32. 38Lydia says

    “So with me setting the flashguns to 1/2+ power (ie, 2/3rds stops under full power), every time I start with the formal portraits in the church or at the venue, I have become accustomed to approximate settings when I set the flashgun (with 60? umbrella) at a certain distance from where I will pose the groups.

    And with experience, I know I will get around f5.6 @ 400 ISO for that working distance.”

    1 Neil, flashguns are not a possiblity for me at this stage – I need to get by with 2 speedlights and 2 umbrellas – could you please indicate what the power setting would be for speedlights, and more or less where one would start with the aperture, ISO and shutter speed for the family group, and then the bride alone.

    2 Does one get battery packs for speedlights, something longer lasting and more powerful than 4 rechargeables and the 5th piggyback battery clicked onto the speedlight?

    Many thanks

  33. 39 says

    Lydia, about how you should meter for the light, and where to start with settings, I can’t do more than give you the material in this article. At some point you simply have to USE the equipment and try it out and figure these things out for yourself for your own gear.

    I would highly recommend battery packs since they will give you more consistent exposures from image to image, since your flashguns / speedlights will recycle faster.

    Neil vN

  34. 40Claude says

    Hi Neil,

    your articles are fantastics. I improved my photographs a lot by reading, trying, and making mines many of your explanations.

    For some articles (like this one), I think that a little drawing of the flashs/ subject/photographer disposition would really be a plus.

    Thanks again for all that you share. I will buy your book as soon as available in french.

    P.S: excuse me for my approximative english

  35. 42 says

    Jim … I haven’t had the opportunity yet to try out the Trios. It is highly unlikely that I will buy one, since I already have enough speedlights and T5 / T2 Q-flashes.

    Neil vN

  36. 43Paul Keith Dickinson says

    Dear Neil
    Do you or any members of the forum know were you can purchase Rosco Cingel 3441 and 3442 in the United Kingdom Thanks Paul

  37. 44David J says

    As always you are the master when it comes to lighting and exposure. My question is with the large group formals, where in the group is your point of focus? Often when I shoot a large group with a TTL flash such as the Canon 580, I have to double check to make sure that the image is not blurred. Also the image isn’t sharp. is this happening because of my point of focus or the F/stop i am using
    Thank You

  38. 46David J says

    The lens I usually use is the canon 17-40. What would of been the best lens to use for a shot with a large group?

  39. 47 says

    There are a number of variables here. What is the crop factor of your camera? (This affects DoF). What focusing mode do you use? So there are a few things which could be a problem .. and then there is always the possibility of faulty equipment.

    Neil vN

  40. 48 says

    Hi Neil..

    Appreciate you putting yourself out there for comments and for passing on the knowledge.. but one thing I’d like to ask is if you would consider straighting your photos. Many of the examples posted are off. All of these on this page are tilted. Maybe a pet peeve of mine, but it’s one of the first things that I noticed..


  41. 49 says

    Hi there Brad … it’s a tendency that I have to check against continually. But the D3 is heavy, and it tends to sag in my grip after a day with it. ; )

    Neil vN

  42. 50Harry Settle says

    Neil, just bought your book, “On-Camera Flash”, and have been experimenting with the black foamie thing. Excellent.

    My question here is something that most lighting experts forget to tell us. . . what is your flash to subject distance in your single and double, static, setup?

  43. 51 says

    Harry, when I am set up in the church, I usually have the lights in the 3rd pew row. So that’d make it about 5 – 6 meters. (approx 16-20 feet) Somewhere around there.

    Neil vN

  44. 52Dwayne Zimmerman says

    I find myself working in places with florescent lighting a lot. It’s difficult to get good color tones. With the formals I can use studio lights and turn off the florescent lights. But during the ceremony I am using my D700 with the SB-900. Any suggestions as to how to get good WB using this equipment? This last week I used the Stoffen diffuser, pointed it at the ceiling but still got horrible color. My wife was able to salvage the images with Lt. II and CS3. Any suggestions?

  45. 54Alfredo Medina says

    Hi Neil,
    in the picture where you see the umbrella in the third pew row:
    -How many umbrellas as this you placed in the church?
    -As it appears that the light of the umbrella comes the bride and groom from behind, you use ON-CAMERA FLASH directly in front of the couple?

    Best regards,

  46. 55 says

    In the image at the top (and for the other family formals during this shoot), I only used the one 60″ umbrella and Q-flash.

    No on-camera flash. None needed or wanted.

    Neil vN

  47. 56Jim Scarpaci says

    Neil your site is a treasure trove. I love the articles. I have a question about the bridal formal at the top of this post. What do you do when you encounter a church that has a marble wall or highly reflective surface behind the altar? How do you avoid the reflective glare from your umbrellas? Thanks again for sharing.


  48. 57Trina Cheney says

    Hi Neil,

    My question is what settings or changes would you make at an aperture of F8 in the scenerio above. I was getting confused on whether to change the flash output or the ISO or all 4 settings (shutter speed, iso, flash output, aperture). And thanks again for sharing your knowledge.

  49. 58Neil Gracie says

    Hi – I am excited by all this helpful info – just writing this comment to checout that I’m on the forum and it’s working ok! I am just realising that I need a sekonic flash meter. I can see that after using it for a while it may not take too long to set up exposures corectly , and of course once they’re set up you casn do a whole batch of sghots withy that one correct exposure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *