How to Nail the Shot at Low-Light Receptions (Part 1)

If you’re a primarily natural light photographer like me, you probably loooooooove the the majority of the wedding day. Most of the day will be shot outdoors in beautiful, even natural light. On the best of days, you get to shoot during golden hour with that gorgeous glowing sunset streaming through the frame. And then… there’s the reception, often held in dim banquet halls lit only by candles or dim orange overhead lights. No matter how charming and beautiful the venue looks when you walk into the room, it can pose a challenge to the photographer! Between this post and tomorrow’s post, here are five tips for nailing the shot every, no matter how little light you have to work with.

*I will preface these tips by saying that a full frame camera makes a HUGE difference. I can’t emphasize this enough! When I first started shooting weddings, I was using my Canon Rebel t3i and it performed horribly in low light. Now I shoot with a Canon 6D, and the difference is HUGE! If you’re looking to upgrade to a full frame and can’t quite afford a Mark iii, get yourself a 6D. You won’t regret it, I promise!

*Also, as you can tell, I’m a Canon shooter! These same tips will apply to Nikon shooters, but obviously the specific gear I reference will be different for you.

So! On to our tips for nailing the shot at low light receptions, ceremonies, or wherever you may find yourself… I even used these tips during B&G portraits once because the entire day was WAY behind schedule, and the results were amazing!

1. Shoot wide open.

You probably all know that the lower your aperture number, the more light your allow into your shot. The intimidating part can be that if you’ve tried to shoot a portrait at f/1.4, you know how challenging it can be to nail the focus since your depth of field is just so tiny. The difference is, at a reception or ceremony, you’re likely standing much farther away from your subject than you would be while taking a portrait. This means that even if you shoot at f/1.4, your depth of field has increased in so you have a lot more wiggle room than you would if you were standing five feet away!

This may also mean that you need in invest in some prime lenses that have the capability to shoot at a wide open aperture. As a general rule, prime lenses can achieve much wider apertures than zoom lenses and usually have a much kinder price tag. And remember, if you need to zoom and you’re using a prime lens, you can always move your feet!

Here’s one more little tidbit… If you’re just starting out and wondered why the professional photographers always seem to have that big white lens on their camera (that’s what I wondered!), it’s because that baby is a zoom lens with the capability to stop down all the way to f/2.8. Most other (affordable) zoom lenses will only stop down to f/4.0 or f/5.6, which is fine when you’re shooting outside, but they don’t perform well in low light and don’t give you that creamy bokeh we all love. If you’re struggling to perform in low light situations and that big white 70-200mm 2.8L is out of your price range and, pop on whatever lens you have that can achieve the widest aperture and start shooting! You can always move yourself closer to the action and/or crop later to get the shot you want.

2. Back Button Focus.

This. Is. A. Lifesaver. When I did my mentoring with Kari last year, she took my camera from me and changed my AF settings to back-button focus… and my life was forever changed. If you’ve never used back-button focus, check your camera’s manual to see if it has that function and switch it over! Basically, it means that you have to press two buttons to take a shot; one button does your autofocusing, and the shutter button snaps the image. When you’re in low-light situations and are having trouble locking focus because there’s not enough light, back-button focus is your best friend. Why? Because you only have to lock focus ONCE, and then as long as you and your subject are both stationary, you can fire off shot after shot without your camera trying to refocus! You can even move side to side, and as long as the distance between you and your subject remains constant, they will stay in focus.

While we’re talking about focus, let me share one more tip about using AF in low light. We’ve all been there… the moment is happening and is going to be over in a matter of seconds and our camera just won’t lock on focus! It’s a paralyzing moment to be sure. Here’s how to dramatically reduce the number of times it happens to you! Focus on a point of contrast, where something dark meets something light. This could be the point on the groom’s jacket where it meets his white shirt, or where the bride’s deep lipstick meets her cheek. It could be where the bride’s white dress ends and the dark wall behind her begins. The closer the point is to your subject’s faces, the better, but find something in that general area with a lot of contrast and your camera will recognize the difference in tone and be able to focus.

I hope these two tips have been helpful! Tomorrow I’ll be sharing three more tips that will help you conquer those low-light situations and come out with beautiful, bright, sharp images every time.

3. Crank your ISO, not your shutter speed.

4. Use a Custom White Balance.

5. Off-Camera Flash.

View part 2 of this series by clicking here!

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