Shooting wedding or party photos in a dark location? Here’s how.

The other day, while I was shooting a wedding, one of the guests approached me during the party and asked quite openly what was wrong with his camera settings. He had a consumer DSLR with a good external flash, yet his shots would turn out “just bad”. He was really desperate.

I had a quick look at his photos, and yep, they really looked bad. They were perfectly sharp, oh yes, but the bride and groom seemed to dance in front of a dark wall where in reality there were all the other guests admiring their dance.

Here is one example from my own wedding in 2003:

Canon DIGITAL IXUS v, 1/60 sec., f/2.8

Well, this problem happens quite often at weddings (and parties), especially when you are shooting in dark locations, e.g. inside the church during the day, or outside in the evening or at night. The problem occurs with both point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras.

The camera assumes that you want to have a sharp image in the first place and picks an exposure time of 1/60 or faster, also to meet the flash synchronization speed. The background will not be illuminated by the flash (and even if it was illuminated, it would look bad with its harshly cast shadows unless you bounce the flash off the ceiling), but the background is also not exposed long enough to allow the sensor to capture any of the details in the dark. So the background stays dark while the front is “correctly” exposed, or slightly over exposed.

So you need to find a setting that “naturally” illuminates the back long enough (i.e. long exposure time) while still having the convenience of the flash that “freezes” the action and illuminates the front.

Here’s how to do this.

1. Set your camera to M (manual) mode

2. Set your camera to ISO 800, 1/20 sec., f/5.6

3. Do some test shots, and adjust f-stop, ISO and/or exposure time as required

This will override the automatic settings.

And while you’re at it, do yourself a favour and get a STO-FEN Omni Bounce for that extra soft light.

The result will be pictures that may be slightly blurred if there is some motion going on during the (longish) exposure. This will add the feeling of ongoing action. The main subject of the photo will still be rather sharp, though, as the flash fires, while the background will be visible and add to the mood (instead of being just a big black hole). If you have a zoom lens, you can try to zoom during the exposure.

Typically, these images will be better than the photos created by the automatic programs of the camera.

Here are three examples:

Canon EOS 1Ds mark III, EF 24-70/2.8L, ISO 500, 1/40 sec., f/5.6
Mark Zanzig

Canon EOS 1D mark II N, EF 70-200/2.8L, ISO 800, 1/20 sec., f/2.8
Mark Zanzig

Canon EOS 1Ds mark II, EF 24-70/2.8L, ISO 800, 1/20 sec., f/5.0
Mark Zanzig

4 Responses to “Shooting wedding or party photos in a dark location? Here’s how.”

  1. Great short tutorial on how to get good wedding photos. Everyone wants beautiful shots at there wedding, but not everyone knows how to get them.

  2. I’ve had people come up to me also. A few seconds to turn their camera off auto and on to manual and hey presto “Wow…that’s amazing”. I get a warm feeing knowing for ther rest of the evening they will get nice photos to keep!

  3. Marie says:

    What about in addition to the dark setting, the bride and groom are standing in front of a glowing aquarium wall? The flash either glares or turns the water murky.

  4. Mark Zanzig says:

    Yeah, good question. First, I’d find a location where the b&g block the flash reflection. Then you’d need to balance the flash against the glowing aquarium. If you have little time, use a stand-in (e.g. your assistant) to find the right settings, and then shoot with the couple once you are OK. Ah, and then shoot in RAW so you can fine-tune the image at post production time. :-)