August 15, 2012

wedding photography: using high ISO and flash to retain ambience at the reception

Chatting with other photographers at the recent WPS convention in Chapel Hill, NC, I was again struck by how there are so many different ways of approaching lighting. In this case, lighting at the wedding reception. The one photographer I was chatting to, set up multiple speedlights around the reception room, and then controls which are fired, from his on-camera Master speedlight.  Very impressive.

In recent years, the wedding reception venues where I’ve shot on the East Coast of the USA, have moved away from being the dark-hole large rooms, by adding up-lighting, and making the places generally more vibrant and colorful. Coupled with the astonishing high-ISO capability of the last two generations of cameras, I really haven’t felt the need to set up additional lighting to lift the general light levels, like I would have in the past, as described in this article:
wedding photography: TTL flash with off-camera manual flash

Here is a recent wedding at the same venue as the above link … where I was able to effectively light the entire place with just one on-camera speed light.
bounce flash photography & the inverse square law

By using a higher ISO, and carefully bouncing my flash, I could get away with a much simpler set-up of a single on-camera speedlight.

Here’s an example of a recent wedding, where the reception was in a glass-house style conservatory. By shooting against the DJ’s lights, I was able to NOT have a dark background, but something colorful instead.

camera settings & photo gear (or equivalents) used during this photo shoot

1/60 @ f3.2 @ 2500 ISO
on-camera TTL bounce flash, gelled with 1/2 CTS gel

Nikon D4  (B&H); Nikon 24-70mm f2.8G ED AF-S  (B&H)
Nikon SB-910 Speedlight (B&H);  Nikon SD-9 battery pack (B&H)

This is a simple technique that I constantly use when photographing the wedding reception – I look for brighter areas in the background, and *I* move around so that I can place my subjects against that. The colors and shapes in the background helps place my subjects in context of the wedding … as opposed to a dark background that they blend into.

It means I do move around and look at my backgrounds specifically.

Now, about the area where I bounced my flash … a glass house with white structures. For the two photos above, I was bouncing my flash off the entire area that you see there in the center of the image …

… looking towards this direction.

At first it doesn’t seem realistic to get enough light from a single on-camera speedlight there just by bouncing it behind me … but with a high enough ISO, it is quite feasible, and actually looks very good. Then it becomes a matter of finding the right aperture and shutter speed (along with that high ISO), to allow enough ambient light in to give context and a sense of mood.


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{ 32 comments. } Add a Comment

1 MP Singh August 15, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Thanks for this article.What would be your White balance for this scenario now that you are using half cut CTO.


2 marcos tambelini August 15, 2012 at 4:39 pm

muito linda a foto coloca do casamento nesse mesmo lugar . uma pergunta desculpe , a 24x70mm que o sr usa serve pra dx ?.


3 Neil vN August 15, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Dude. I spend a lot of time writing these articles. The least you can do is meet me halfway on this and use Google Translate before you post. Don’t make *me* work even harder here.


4 Phil August 15, 2012 at 6:54 pm

I suspect that Neil set his camera’s white balance to approximately 3700K using the 1/2 CTS, not CTO.


5 Vi-Chi August 15, 2012 at 7:00 pm

I like how shooting this way keeps things simple!


6 Stephen August 15, 2012 at 8:00 pm

I don’t think my D700 pictures could look that good at ISO 2500. The D3/D4 models really do outstanding work at high ISOs.


7 Alan August 15, 2012 at 11:47 pm

I just discovered this site a few days ago and have been trying to absorb all the information. Your website is by far the best website on lighting technique! Thank you for writing and sharing your knowledge.

Quick question, when taking pictures at the reception, do you set the camera on manual and auto ISO? Or do you manually set the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO?


8 Neil vN August 16, 2012 at 12:04 am

Manual everything on the camera, and in this case, TTL flash.

Using Auto ISO would mean that ambient light exposure isn’t exactly how I decided it to be. I prefer my ambient light exposure to be fixed / determined … and then I can add flash to the mix.


9 Ryano Tandayu August 16, 2012 at 6:08 am

Hi Neil, I have bought and read your two books. I have followed this website for a year.

One thing that I don’t understand, how you could shoot wedding with manual everything on the camera and using on camera bounce flash.

How come you don’t miss a moment if you have to adjust the flash head and manual exposure for every pic that you are going to take?

Could you please enlighten me. Thankyou verymuch.


10 chaim meiersdorf August 16, 2012 at 12:00 pm

I have an sb700 that is not strong enough to light up an entire hall on bounce, no matter what ISO. The other day I borrowed an sb900. On full power, which what it takes to light up the hall, the flash overheats constantly. How do overcome this problem?


11 Trev August 16, 2012 at 7:56 pm


A lot of people, including Neil and myself, merely go into the SB900 menu and turn off both the audible and the sensor indicator on overheating:

Caveat: Turning off warning indicators does not mean the flash will not overheat, it will merely prevent it from turning itself off after a ridiculously short period, you need to keep an eye on the flash thermometer indicator to see if its risen up high. But generally you won’t be multiple blasting for a long period of time. Still, Neil has fried the freznels on flash heads a few times. :)

Now, there are a couple of things you can do to also help.

1] Batteries. If you use a high capacity normal batteries [non-rechargeable] that will cause overheating. But also if using rechargeable, feel the battery when charging, since if it feels hot and it get hot discharging. Most of us use Sanyo Eneloops rechargeable helps.

2] Having an external battery pack like the Nikon SD-9 battery pack will help dissipate the heat.


12 Mandy August 16, 2012 at 11:50 pm

I just found your site and I’ve been pouring through these articles trying to figure out what I’m doing wrong… I would really appreciate a response, as I don’t know who else to ask!

Lately I’ve found that almost all my indoor flash (wedding reception) images are soft. Too soft to use. I don’t have a ton of equipment yet, so I rely pretty heavily on my 24-105L IS f/4. Because it’s an f/4, I wind up cranking up my ISO. (shooting w/ 5D mark I, so I *do* get noticeable grain). My settings generally look the same, I guess, probably at f/4, ISO 1000, and a shutter speed between 80 and 125, shooting with the flash in ETTL (580EX II). I know the image stablizer won’t help to freeze motion, but I thought that the flash combined with my shutter speed would. Instead, images with any motion are blurred and soft. Even some of the shots without motion are really soft. I typically bounce the flash up with a card because I feel like I need to get as much out of it as I can with my f/4 lens, but sometimes I throw the light up and to the side, too..

Do you think this would be a problem with camera shake?… that my equipment just isn’t right for the low light conditions?… should I bounce the flash differently and/or change up my camera settings/ISO?

The last reception I shot was in a hall with window light, but I still had the same issue. Could it have been the ambient light interfering in that case?

Any thoughts at all would be greatly appreciated, as I’m starting to despair.


13 Neil vN August 17, 2012 at 12:03 am

Mandy … it really depends on a few things.

Most importantly, the balance between flash & ambient, and specifically how much your ambient light is under-exposed. If there is a lot of subject movement, and your ambient light levels is close to the flash exposure, then you have a higher chance of blur.

Subject moment and camera blur appears differently in the photograph. Can you distinguish which is plaguing you?

We’d need to see examples to really figure this one out. Feel free to post in the Tangents forum where you can upload images.

Also .. it could be that your camera and lens needs calibration and that it is a focusing error?


14 Mandy August 17, 2012 at 11:12 am

Wow, thank you for the quick response! I will try to change up my settings so that the flash is compensating more – that might be part of it. I have a wedding tomorrow, so I’ll just have to focus on trying several different approaches to see if I can nail down the issue. I will go back through the images and check out the forum.

Thank you!!


15 InvitesWeddings August 24, 2012 at 3:13 am

I borrowed an sb900. On full power, which what it takes to light up the hall, the flash overheats constantly. How do overcome this problem?


16 Neil vN August 24, 2012 at 6:05 am
17 Trev August 24, 2012 at 7:22 pm


Read above Post # 11

You cannot stop it warning and shutting down under just normal circumstances I am afraid, but you can turn it off.

Read the ‘Caveat’ I put in that post though. :) Read the last link, this ‘could’ happen, up to you. But I have my now turned off for quite a while and I let it just go, with no trouble so far.



18 Corinne August 25, 2012 at 6:33 am

Great article, Neil – thanks. I use a combination of setting speedlights set up around the room controlled from the camera (and a video light) combined with high iso (on a D800). This works very well as we invariably cannot bounce flash here in the far north of Scotland, where venues are painted in interesting colours such as burgundy red, vivid mustard yellow, navy blue and/or a combination of all of these…. and often with an orange-stained wooden floor. Venue lighting is usually shut off so it is as dark as a 1980s school disco ;-). An article on removing such terrifying colour casts would nice :-))


19 Neil vN August 30, 2012 at 4:38 am
20 Annemieke van Baal August 31, 2012 at 5:13 am

Thanks to you and your Tangent blog and your books I have been reading two times I was able to make pictures in a dark situation, with most black walls. Just on camera ttl flash with black foamie thing. See 25-8


21 Chris August 31, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Neil, I was just wanting to know if you set up stands and use flash and reflector in different positions around subject. Putting flash in front of reflector and bouncing light that way. Was also wondering from a previous post I saw from you how do you position your soft box in outdoor use to archive the short and broad lighting look. I have tried but can’t seem to get the needed effect that I want. If you could give me a rough guide line that would be appreciated. Thanks.


22 Neil vN September 5, 2012 at 4:42 am

In this case, I didn’t use additional lights.

Re: broad and short lighting.


23 Alexis Hadjisoteriou September 10, 2012 at 11:33 am

I live and work in Cyprus so a lot of receptions are open-air (outdoors) with nowhere to reflect/bounce – what do you recommend I use a speedlight modifier?

Great website btw – love reading your posts/tips



24 Steve Z October 25, 2012 at 3:13 pm

I was lucky enough to shoot a wedding reception with NO FLASH what so ever. I wasn’t being paid, so it was a perfect time to experiment with the hi ISO of the D800. I set the ISO limit to 2500 and shot with the fastest glass I had – 50mm, f/1.8, 1/60 sec.

I metered off the bride’s dress and took it from there. For the most part I was extremely happy with the results. Some were out of focus, but I was expecting that because sometimes I couldn’t even see what I was focusing on. The bride and groom loved the photos and I loved the ambience and colors they portrayed.

Sure, the originals may be a bit noisey, but those are 24 x 16, and who get prints that large? The 4×6 and 5×7 images look crystal clear.

Here’s the link:


25 Danielle January 8, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Since you used such a high ISO, how did your photos manage to not show any noise?


26 Neil vN January 20, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Well, the biggest reason you can’t see any noise here, is that a 16 megapixel image was scaled down to an image size appropriate for the web. That usually hides most indication that there is noise.

Then, I also expose correctly. I don’t often have to push the exposure up in post-processing the RAW file. That helps considerably.

And then … I used the Nikon D4 here. Modern DLSRs have incredible high-ISO performance.


27 Jason March 7, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Neil, I really appreciate all the information on your blog, I’ve learned so much! I was curious, in the examples above did you have a diffuser of any kind on the on-camera flash?


28 Neil vN March 7, 2013 at 1:09 pm

No diffuser, just the black foamie thing.


29 Murray Clarke April 1, 2013 at 7:25 pm

In response to comment number 12 – take your camera off aperture priority perhaps?!? Great articles btw Neil, very informative :)


30 John Fenton September 20, 2013 at 5:15 am

Now it all makes sense. Thanks Neil.


31 Luke March 10, 2015 at 2:22 pm

Great post! Just a little confused on how you said you bounced off that green “wall” on those first two images. How is that possible when the wall was behind the couple dancing in front of your lens? You can see the stairs right behind them leading up to the wall.



32 Neil vN March 10, 2015 at 5:35 pm

I corrected my text now – I see that it was ambiguous. Sorry for the confusion.

The green wall you see in the 2nd photograph is the direction I was shooting towards. It is behind the couple in the two photographs shown at the top.

I was bouncing my flash into the large observatory behind me, as shown in the first “pull-back” shot of the entire venue. What I meant with “wall” there is that people assume you have to bounce flash off a specific area like a wall, and there I wanted to show there isn’t a wall as such – just the entire venue behind me.


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