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Best Camera Settings For Weddings Without Flash

Michael Ellis , Apr 16, 2009; 06:47 a.m.

Hi There,

I will have been booked to photograph two weddings in May and June and will be accompanied by a friend. I have shot three weddings with my previous camera (Panasonic FX7).

I now have a D700 with a 50mm & 85mm 1.4s and a 17-35mm 2.8 and a SB-800.

My friend has a D300 with a 18-200mm and a 35mm DX 1.8 and a SB-600.

The first wedding will be in Nottingham, England and the couple to be wed are mixed i.e. Afro- Caribbean and White. The second will be in London where both the bride and groom are Afro- Caribbean.

I'm not really a flash fan and I was wondering what are the best settings for my camera to get the best results in terms of candid photography. My friend is into all posing stuff so I can basically mill around capturing moments.

I have been made aware that due to the potential extreme contrast that the neutral picture setting is the best for post production but I was wondering if there is any other settings you could recommend apart from wacking up the ISO and shooting wide open?

Exposure compensation? Shutter? Aperture? Light source?
I'm after any advice and tips really.

I do have a website for you to look at my work, which includes the weddings, but as per the rules of this website I think you need to request the link.

Michael James Ellis
P.S. This question will also be posted on the Wedding Forum.


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Andrew Fedon , Apr 16, 2009; 07:36 a.m.

You are booked as THE wedding photographer, but you are milling around taking candid photos ? Doesn't make sense . Either way, if you are doing the wedding as THE wedding photographer you should use proper flash. I don't think the couple are going to be happy with available light photography, however good the camara is at doing that.

Ilkka Nissila , Apr 16, 2009; 07:37 a.m.

I would try to stay around f/2.8 when using the primes for pictures of individual people; if you need to go wider, you can do it but focusing accuracy becomes very critical (i.e. you need to really place the focus carefully; closest eye to the camera is a good choice, if a subject wears glasses, you may need to focus manually on the eye). If you're shooting candids and the lighting is mostly behind you you can just use matrix and aperture priority with occasional compensation. Shoot RAW and use Nikon's software; I find it gives the best image quality for high ISO work. You can start with auto WB and then fix the white balance consistency in raw conversion. I prefer the Portrait picture control setting (you can download it for Capture NX2 and the cameras from Nikon's web site); it consistent and works well for people images (and retains good skin tones even with considerable curves adjustments). If you need a bit more colour on some shots you can of course use customise it or use e.g. standard or even vivid (as long as you shoot raw, you can work on it afterwards).

I think ISO 800-1000 looks best for indoor people shots but if you need to, you can get nice results up to around ISO 3200 with the D700. If you need to shoot at really high ISO (i.e. 3200-6400), exposure accuracy becomes very important as you don't have as much playroom in post-processing so you probably need to go manual exposure and use either a separate incident meter or spot metering if you're experienced with those techniques. As long as you can stay around ISO 800, and there is light coming on the faces of people, the accuracy of matrix metering may be adequate when you shoot RAW but of course if you want the very best results or want to be able to give jpgs from the camera, then using the manual exposure approach is best. It's a trade-off between how quickly you can shoot and how reliable and accurate the exposures need to be.

When you shoot people in available light, make sure there is light falling on their eyes. This isn't so obvious - the camera will let you happily shoot into the light and this can be great for some effects, e.g. silhouettes but for most wedding images you really want the faces to be lit. Position yourself appropriately. If you can, you may want to add some reflecting surfaces on the shadow side to soften the images e.g. if you're working with window light. You can work with backlight when you have enough experience but I would not start with it when doing available light weddings. Above all, pay attention to how people's eyes look in your pictures.

Good luck, and show some pictures of the results if you can.

Michael Ellis , Apr 16, 2009; 08:20 a.m.

Andrew: Thanks for your ironic response regarding using flash. Did you read my question?
As I'm being assisted with a friend on both days it gives me the option to experiment thus my question. For the record the couple were happy with my approach when I showed them examples of my work (with the Panasonic).

Iikka: Thanks for all the advice especially the available light and metering modes. Could you clarify what you mean back backlight? Thinking of it actually I do have another question:

How do you set the camera when the sun is behind them?
If your in a position to co-ordinate people into another position should you aim to put the sun behind yourself as the phtographer?

Ilkka Nissila , Apr 16, 2009; 08:57 a.m.

By backlight I mean that the light is behind the subjects i.e. the subjects are between you and the main light.

If you have the sun as the main light and it is behind the subjects and if there is no diffusion (i.e. clouds), it may not work out well without fill. If there is some cloud coverage then you can work with it and perhaps give some light to the shadows and especially the eyes using a reflector (that someone can hold for you) and shoot either in frontal, side, or backlight. I live at rather high latitudes so the sun is typically shining from a lower angle and there is more atmosphere between the sun and the subjects, so it results in a softer light. In the UK I guess the sun will be higher up but there is a good chance for clouds, yes? If there is no cloud coverage then the light is very high contrast and I would advise against doing a lot of shots against the light since the shadows will be dark and people will not look their best. You can do a few silhouettes for dramatic effect by underexposing the main subjects but don't shoot a lot like this; people will want to see their faces and they want their eyes to appear alive, i.e. with a catchlight. Frontal light shots (i.e. you are between the sun and the subjects) may work out decently but again there will be some shadows if the sun is not diffused by clouds, these may work as graphic elements.

Generally I think the available light approach works best if you have partial cloud coverage outdoors or even overcast; indoors, window light is very useful for portraits and candids and create very flattering and beautiful results. Direct sunlight with no clouds/haze, household tungsten, fluorescent lights, and candles are not easy to work with. Direct sun, tungsten bulbs and candles are "point light sources" which create high contrast light, with deep shadows. Long fluorescent tubes create a reasonably even spatial pattern but the colour can be quite bad. I don't want to make this sound too pessimistic ;-) I think it's possible to do a full wedding coverage with available light only with very beautiful results, but the conditions have to be favourable to you. ;-) If the outdoor part is in direct sun on a clear sky, and the indoor part is with tungsten and fluorescent mix, with dark walls in the interior, then things may not be so good without creating your own light with flash.

If you intend to do a lot of weddings, you probably need to learn how to create flattering light using 2-3 flash units (with soft boxes or umbrellas) just in case the light and location aren't in favour of the available light approach. There are many books on the subject.

Elliot Bernstein , Apr 16, 2009; 09:15 a.m.

Michael, Andrew's answer is the right answer. Not only should you use proper flash where appropriate/required, you need to use it properly. Flash pictures, when shot properly look like they were shot with natural light rather than artificial light.

The bride and groom deserve and expect beautiful, colorful pictures. Experiment all you want when you are shooting for yourself. You should NEVER experiment at a customer's expense, ESPECIALLY a wedding.

"How do you set the camera when the sun is behind them?" You cannot get good color without flash in this circumstance.

A couple of reminders... At f2.8, depth of field is very narrow. Above ISO 1600, dynamic range and color range drop quite a bit.

Ton Mestrom , Apr 16, 2009; 10:03 a.m.

Michael, what you're asking is plain basic stuff. If you need to ask such question really, stay away from it. It's the only possible advice anyone should give you and by doing so you'll do both couples and yourself a big favour. And while you probably won't perceive it as such my advice is actually well intended.

Paul B. , Apr 16, 2009; 10:11 a.m.

I have to agree 100% with Elliot : you cannot get good BALANCED colors (exposure) without flash (with sun behind the subject) , and above ISO 1600 dynamic range and color range drop (for D700). At least at the exteriour, I presume that you are aloud to use flash. Take advantage of the super intelligent i-TTL BL wich make your backlight pictures to look natural, both the subject and background beeing evenly lighted.

D3 + SB900 TTL-BL fill flash

Hans Janssen , Apr 16, 2009; 10:48 a.m.

When you ask a question like this, the best setting is off.

Michael Ellis , Apr 16, 2009; 11:01 a.m.

Iikka: Once again thank you for the tips and clarification regarding backlight. I sort of knew a bit but its always good to hear another viewpoint. It's all about the planning. With regards to the flash advice I have bought 'Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography' by Kirk Tuck which I have found quite useful and informative.I will use your advice to compliment Jeff Ascough's 2007 article (http://photo.net/photographer-interviews/jeff-ascough/) which gives me a lot of insight.

Elliot: Please be aware that I photographed three weddings without flash before and the bride and groom were happy and I used these portfolios to attract the bookings of my future weddings. However, this question was posed because of my upgrading to the D700 and though I do get a lot of practice through commisioned/voluntary work I figured I could get a little more advice (thanks Iikka) from this community. Thanks for the reminders.

Tom: This is a forum is it not? Like, you ask questions and people answer them? So I may be asking basic stuff but I'm asking a question on a forum......geddit??

Paul: Thanks for the advice and the picture.


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