Nailing the Candid Nighttime Reception Shot with Off-Camera Flash

When someone mentions Off-Camera Flash, most people will think nighttime portraits, and while they’re not wrong, portraits are one small part of the responsibilities we have as wedding photographers. As photographers, we can easily focus so hard on getting the best portrait out there, and miss so much of the beauty that happens without any posing, direction, or backlit golden hour sunlight. The image above may look like a portrait of these two, but it tells a lot more of a story. The couple was inside dancing when someone yelled out that fireworks were going off outside. Turns out the home team had won their game at the baseball stadium right up the road and was celebrating at the same time this bride and groom were. This picture is completely candid and was taken without the couple even knowing I was there.


Step 1: Prepare

So how did I get so lucky on this shot and switch from shooting the dance floor to shooting outside with 30 seconds of notice? Short answer - by missing a shot like this a lot of times before this one. Long answer? One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given about business:


“Success happens when preparation meets opportunity”


This wasn’t one picture I took in the dark on short notice. I’ve taken well over 3,400,000 images in my career as a photographer, and most of them really aren’t great. Actually, if we’re being honest… More than most of them. An overwhelming majority of them are terrible, BUT taking terrible images and learning from them is the only way we’ll ever create any good ones.

Step 2: Use an Assistant

Using off-camera lighting to catch the moment is a lot more about planning ahead than anything else. This image was taken with a flash off to the left of the camera being held by my assistant. When you first start using flash in your storytelling, one of the best things you can do is have an assistant holding your flash. It allows you to be versatile and not stuck in a single zone. Your assistant’s responsibilities are simple:

1- Pay attention to the light.
2- Follow somebody’s nose with the light.


Step 3: Start Wide

Using off-camera lighting to hit moments gets a lot easier over time. One of the biggest mistakes I made early on was thinking that I had to use a grid for everything. I would have these gorgeous moments, with the groom’s chest wonderfully lit and his face… completely in shadow. When you’re looking to document something that you’re not in control of, you need your light to be flexible.. Start with bigger light sources like the MagSphere or MagBounce until you get the hang of it, then move to the MagGrid or the MagBeam.


Step 4: Communicate With Your Couple.

Before you set up three flashes in an intimate indoor wedding ceremony, you need to make sure everyone is on the same page. Keeping the people you’re photographing in the loop on what you intend to do with light and how you intend to do it is crucial to success.


"Your clients need your communication."


If my lights are ever set up to shoot in a certain zone, if I have an assistant holding lights, or if I ever am in a spot where I’m forced to use flash for a ceremony, the first people I bring into my plan are my couple. List out some pros and cons, and tell them what difference it will make. Your clients value your professional opinion! Share it with them!

Step 5: Choose Your Moment.

With the fact that our cameras and lights have never been this good in the history of time, it’s easy to forget that there are still limitations. When using off-camera lighting, one of the biggest mistakes we can make is shooting off too many frames, and having a flash misfire or overheat by the time the moment comes along. Be patient, and time your shot.

Step 6: Practice.

I’ve photographed over 250 first dances. The combination of joyful expression, composition, and the fact that this bride is so happy and standing perfectly in my cross-lit flashes has happened a grand total of…. Once. Nothing, you learn online will replace practice. Use off-camera lighting every chance you get, and eventually, you’ll get lucky once. Practice more often, and you just might notice yourself getting lucky a lot more frequently.


(Editors Note: Dave Shay is a wedding photographer and MagMod Ambassador located in North Carolina. We heart him and his amazing talent behind the lens.)

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