wedding photography: positioning your flash for the formals

wedding photography: positioning the lighting for the groups & formals

In setting up the lighting for wedding formals in the church, the question often crops up – where do you place the lights. How far from your subjects do you place the lights.

The photograph above shows how and where I place the flash with the umbrella – about 3 pews in, just behind me or to my left (or right). This is approximate though. Two pews in would be fine. Of course, if you’re shooting the wedding formals elsewhere in a different location, just use the same idea.

The closer you bring the light, the more you risk having the light come from too steep an angle, and giving you shadowed eyes.

In positioning my light here, I can be slightly forward of my light – no chance of lens flare – and I have proper perspective for full-length photos. You really do not want to shoot full-length portraits with a wide angle lens. Step back, rather than zoom in!

Placing the light relatively further back like shown here, does bring the light in at a fairly low angle – but it gives open, clean lighting. This is how it looks:

camera settings:
1/100 @ f/5.6 @ 400 ISO

Here I used two speedlights with the single 45″ shoot-through umbrella, to give a wide swathe of light. Both speedlights were gelled with 1/2 Straw CTS – 20×24″ gels (vendor) to help compensate for the Incandescent lighting. I used the RPS Light Bar RS-3102 (vendor)  to mount the speedlights together, as described in this article: mounting multiple flashes / speedlites. Another alternative is the Triple Flash/Umbrella Mount (vendor).

The light is spread quite even – even enough for a small group.

The lighting really is meant to be straight-forward. No cross-lighting. No weird shadows. In a large group, no one is half-hidden in someone else’s shadow. The light is meant to be quite flat. You risk few problems this way.


photo gear used (or equivalents)


gelling your flash

To have the cold (blue-ish) color from your speedlight better match the warm tones from the Incandescent light, makes it easier to get good colors and white balance in your final images.


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.

22 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1mike says

    I assume you are using the 70-200?? Also how many people will you shoot with just ONE light?? How large does the group have to be before you add a second light?? ty, Mike

  2. 2 says

    I would photograph a group staggered in two rows with this setup, but then I’d push the power of the flashes to maximum, and also raise my ISO to get the necessary depth of field.

    I shot the photograph of the couple with the 24-70mm, but racked towards the 70mm setting.

  3. 3 says

    Thank you for posting this. Yes, I’ve had shadow problems when putting lights on the side, even when having two lights (one left, one right).
    My question is, what if the client wants a large group shot (say 20-ish people). Will the 3-pew distance be enough? If you use at least 50mm to get the group shot, will the light stand be in the way?

  4. 4 says

    For larger groups, I might move the flash back a bit … but then I bump the ISO to give me more depth of field.

    However, I do my homework, and if there are really huge groups – like such as in this article: lighting large groups – then I bring more powerful lighting.

  5. 5 says

    Yes, my question also. I don’t shoot many weddings anymore, but used to set up two umbrellas for more even lighting for groups. Loved using one Starfish for couples and smaller groups, often placed closer to the front of the aisle so more of the church would be in the background instead of just the altar.

  6. 6 says

    Hello Neil. Quick question: in the last photo, didn’t you feel the need to bump your ISO higher to add more ambient light to your background (plus flash would participate less via TTL)? Was it a subject-backround separation choice?

  7. 7 says

    Yup, I could’ve done that. But I didn’t want to risk too much mixed lighting, even if I did gel my flash. But you’re right, a higher ISO would’ve brought in more of the ambient light. This would’ve made the background brighter.

  8. 10 says

    Colleen, in a scenario like this, where your subjects remain in a fixed position (in relation to your light), it makes absolutely the most sense to shoot in Manual with your flashes. TTL is handy when the distance changes.

    Here’s more: TTL vs Manual flash

    Neil vN

  9. 11Neville Stringer says

    Neil – I would love to hear how you deal with flat marble or wood walls at the back of the sanctuary & the reflection/specular highlights you get in that situation. Thanks.

  10. 13David Hall says

    Neil, in this particular image, you are using a shoot through. Would that be prefered over a 60″ bounce umbrella you’ve referenced in past posts?

  11. 15 says

    oh that’s exactly how I do but I’m too lazy for an umbrella. I just zoom the flash out all the way & at 1/8 of the power at pretty much the same settings on the camera.

  12. 16mike says

    Can you share the set up for the two flash units with one umbrella?? two flex tt5s??? what bracket did you use?? thanks

  13. 20 says

    It should be full-frame, however, I do straighten the formal photos as part of my regular post-processing workflow. So there might be slight cropping because of that.

  14. 21Syed K says

    Hi Neil,

    I am really enjoying your writings. I am to take photos at a family wedding later this month and I plan on using the one umbrella approach you have. My question is – did you set the flash heads at any particular zoom level, or did they zoom based on your lens zoom? Would it make sense to put both flash heads at 35mm for a broader spread of light? And you used four flashes in this case?


  15. 22 says

    I zoom the flash-heads so that they don’t spread the light wider than the edge of the umbrella.
    Keeping it to 35mm (or 28mm) is a good setting for this.

    “Here I used two speedlights with the single 45? shoot-through umbrella, …”

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