photography: looking at the available light

photography – looking for, and using the available light

Let me say this out straight – I hate gazebos. I hate gazebos and fountains and I especially hate having to photograph a couple at whatever landmark/feature that a reception venue has, where every other couple from the last five years has been photographed. There, I’ve said it. I feel better now, with that weight off my shoulders.

Wedding portaits should be about capturing the romance, and capturing the relationship between the couple. I want to show how much they are in love with each other, rather than the wooden structure that the reception venue bought from Home Depot. I would much rather work with the couple and with the light that is available … and augmenting the existing light with some flash or video light if needed.

This photograph from a wedding a few years back, remains one of my favorites in my wedding gallery. The portrait session with Simone and Damien and their family and bridal party was to take place in the late afternoon. The maitre d’ of the venue suggested I use the fountain on the venue’s grounds as a backdrop for the couple.

Instead, I looked at where the light was coming from … and it was stunningly beautiful glowing light. And the best part of it was, the spray from the fountain was lit up by the glow from the late afternoon sun. This created that ethereal looking golden mist behind them.

And yes, the couple loved the sequence of photographs.

camera settings for main image: 1/250 @ f4.5 @ 640 ISO .. available light only
Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 AF-S VR II  /  Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II
Reinforcing my decision here was seeing that the sunlight would’ve fallen across everyone’s face if they had been posed in front of the fountain. The sun was coming in at a 90 degree angle to where they would’ve stood, and would’ve caused uneven patches of light on them.

Looking for, and using great light, and looking for a great backdrop to place the couple in context, is so much better than just routinely photographing them against unconnected objects in the landscape like a gazebo or fountain. Wedding photography should be about the couple. It should be about moments and romance. Indeed, we need more cowbell, less gazebo!

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18 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Remi says

    Great tips Neil. Being a photographer myself, I tend to forget about the light and try to capture the subject at the landmarks. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. 2John Mills says

    So true, and it’s incredibly easy to fall into the trap of using “gazebos”. It’s good to be reminded to look for other ways. Thanks Neil.

  3. 4Richard says

    What a great post! I’m having trouble working out exactly where the light was relative to the couple. It looks like it was nearly directly behind them. Is that correct?

  4. 6 says

    Hi neil,

    I’m an amateur photographer, and when I want inspiration and advice I always search for the masters, and with you I’m never wrong, thank you for your invaluable advice and to make as see photography from a real photographer and not a guy with a camera.

  5. 7 says

    Hey Neil……What a gorgeous photo. You make such great points about the light. I often do not kick my ISO up when outside in the sunlight. I will definitely have to experiment with that a bit more.
    Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge!


  6. 8Naieem Kaiz says

    Uh oh.. duplicate post? Looks like I have been through the same article before.. or bad memory? I have been waiting for others to ask.. but seems like its just me..!

    Anyways this is an excellent article..

  7. 10 says

    Naieem .. it is indeed an edit and re-post of an article that appeared a while back on my Latest Work blog, which was intended for potential clients. Different blog, different audience. :)

    The original article was written for potential brides, as a way of explaining my style and approach. I thought it would make a good article for photographers, if I extended it, and wrote it with photographers in mind. I’m glad it works though, even if it seems familiar.

    Neil vN

  8. 11Naieem Kaiz says

    Yup it works.. works great indeed.. and thanks a lot for your efforts.. you have made me a better photographer for sure..

  9. 12Alan B says

    Great points, Neil, as usual. I’m curious about your choice of shutter speed and ISO. Did you consciously decide to use 1/250 to freeze motion, which necessitated the ISO of 640 to get your desired exposure? Or were you already at 640 and just happened to end up with 1/250? Not that it matters. I was just wondering since that shutter speed made me think about max sync and whether you were also shooting with flash in this session. Cheers.

  10. 13 says

    Alan, my choice of shutter speed does relate to maximum flash sync speed. Since I often use flash, this is where I am usually with my shutter speed when shooting in brighter light conditions. Even though the 1D mk III has a max flash sync speed of 1/300, the closest I can get to that in Manual Exposure mode, is at 1/250

    So even while I didn’t use flash here (according to the EXIF data), I would be at that shutter speed anyway, and would ride my ISO and aperture to give me what I need.

    Neil vN

  11. 14michael says

    Hi Neil,
    I really great shot, like it a lot. (Glad to see it was shot with canon LOL )One question, was f4.5 enough to have the both in focus. If you had to blow the pic would it be enough?

  12. 15 says

    Michael .. you could even say that f4.5 is a lot of DoF when only the bride’s eyes need to be in focus. And really, in a photo like this, you just need to have the particular place your gaze is drawn to, to be in focus.

    So the decision here would rest on – what do you actually need to have in focus? I don’t think you need every part of their faces in focus, especially since this would require a much deeper DoF, changing the look of the background .. and potentially the way the background registers.

    Instead of being too specific about the DoF required in a scientific or analytic way, we can say we need just enough depth of field.

    All of which is another way of saying that in a big enlargement, no one is going to notice the groom’s ear is less sharply focused than the bride’s eyes. So yes, the image would most definitely stand up to enlargement.

    Neil vN

  13. 16Jim Walter says

    Great Picture Niel. Love your posts. With the strong rim light I would have expected shadows from the heads falling over the bodies. Yet here the light seems even across their body. How did you avoid the shadow without fill flash

  14. 17 says

    Jim .. remember, their entire body and everything else that is turned away from the sunlight, will be lit evenly by whatever light is reflecting from the sky and elsewhere. It’s open shade. So I just need to expose correctly for them. The rim light then is the sunlit areas blowing out.

    Neil vN

  15. 18 says

    Right-on Neil !
    Sometimes, couples ask me where to go to for their engagement shots. My answer is invariably “whatever place holds significance for you guys”. Obviously I can (and often will) suggest locations as well but invariably, the point I try to get across is similar to yours. It is more important to capture the couple and their interaction then the “landscape”. I can very well have an entire session in a Starbucks (just an example nothing more) with pretty good results and no one will be able to tell (nor finally care) where it was shot.
    More often than not, I treat the location as a prop, nothing more.

    However most couples WANT the gazebo in… well… the client is always right… right? :-).

    Thanks for sharing Neil.


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