When my best friend Zach told me he was getting married, the first thing I told him was “Forget about hiring a photographer, my mom and I will take care of it.” Because I shoot video for a living, I’ve made my career using continuous and natural light to illuminate my subjects, so off-camera flash had been a mystery to me for a long time.

But if I was going to shoot this wedding and get the type of dramatic shots I’d always admired on Fstoppers, it was time for me to F-step my game up and learn how to light a wedding using tools that were less cumbersome than the big kinos and fresnels I’m used to.

Zach and Becca weren’t interested in taking the time to contrive “classic” shots of the two of them with multiple off-camera flashes on their big day though. They were passionate about spending time setting up the wedding with their families, so all they asked was that I capture their friends and loved ones enjoying the celebration they had worked so hard to make beautiful together.

Bluth Wedding ReceptionStep 1: The Venue

The #bluthwedding was completely outdoors on a large piece of property in Clovis, CA so it seemed like we’d be using natural light to shoot the ceremony and kicking the strobes into high gear for the reception because bounce flash was not an option. The first place I turned to begin my education in this type of challenging lighting environment was Fstopper’s Free Wedding Tutorial: How To Light Wedding Reception Venues which addressed this situation perfectly.

Lee and Patrick go through 3 different lighting setups for receptions: Bounce Flash + Kicker, Studio Lights, and Multiple Lights. The first two require walls. I had no walls, so Multiple Lights won by default. After watching Patrick explain his multiple light setup, I could see 3 lights with 2 umbrellas was the minimum to be safe. I concluded all this before I ever saw the venue in person.

Step 2: Getting lights for the first time

I don’t own speedlights yet. Patrick mentions in the video that “when you’re just getting started, you’re probably not going to have the budget to get 3 light stands and 3 strobes and a bunch of umbrellas.” I call shenanigans, Patrick. I used BorrowLenses.com (a company that has become dear to my heart) to rent 3 Nikon SB910s, 4 Pocket Wizard Plus III’s, 3 light stands, and 2 reflector umbrellas for $231 just like Patrick sets up in his tutorial. If you’re looking to build your wedding portfolio like I was, this should be a rental cost you’re more than willing to take on yourself.

Step 3: The 4 things Fstoppers totally got right about my first outdoor reception

1)      If you don’t shoot with a high ISO, you will destroy batteries. In the video world, shooting at ISO 3200, even with my D800, produces deplorable results. Video image resolution is much lower so the digital noise is much more pronounced and much harder to get rid of. This is where my proclivity to shoot photos underneath 2500 ISO came from during the #bluthwedding. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Shoot 3200 or 6400 ISO if you have to. In order to shoot photos at f/5 2500 ISO anywhere between 1/10 and 1/80, I needed to be firing either of my two key lights with umbrellas at least at half power, and for a good part of the night I had them firing at full power. The flashes couldn’t refresh as fast as I wanted to shoot (especially with the D3S), and I killed at least 8 AAs when I could’ve raised the ISO, lowered the power and worried less.

Bluth Flash Refresh Failure

2)      You control your flash power with aperture, and ambient light with shutter speed. When you find the ISO that works, you still have variation in the distance between your subject and your key lights all night. Because you can’t control your manual flash power when they’re up on stands, Patrick explains when your subject is closer to the light source, you need to stop down. Totally true, I blew out faces close to umbrellas the whole first part of the night. More interesting to me as a rookie though, was that shutter speed doesn’t control flash output at all. The speedlights fire much faster than your shutter opens and closes, so your well lit subjects will be just as frozen at 1/10 as they are at 1/250. You can use this to your advantage by using a slow shutter speed and moving your camera slightly when you want ambient lights to blur for effect.

Bluth Motion Blur2

3)      You can set a custom white balance to control the colors. If you CTO (color temperature orange) your key lights in the umbrellas and set your WB closer to 3600-4200K, the bare bulb kicker will be blue, and I think that’s rad. If you don’t like it, at least you understand that you can control the colors individually this way.

4)      Pocket Wizard Plus III’s are awesome for first time shooters. Put one on your camera in Tx mode, and one on each speedight in Rx mode. Set them to the same channel, and assign each flash a group A through D. Now you can turn each flash on and off from the top of your camera. Don’t be weirded out that Channel 17 is the first channel that allows you to use groups.

Becca Glamour

Step 4: The others things I learned the hard way on my first shoot

  • Pocket Wizard Plus III and Flex TT5s don’t mix. Given I’d never used radio triggers before, I liked the concept of having the Plus III unit on my camera and the Flex TT5 units underneath my off-camera flashes because they have hot shoe mounts. This seemed like a vast improvement over the Plus III units dangling from the speedlight by a sync cord. What I found out is that the two systems really aren’t compatible without a firmware change, and at the end of the day you should either use all Plus III units if you want to control your groups easily like Lee and Patrick, or use a MiniTT1 and Flex TT5s if you’re planning on using TTL at all.
  • Bring Velcro. This solves the dangling Pocket Wizards problem and at least a hundred others you haven’t thought of yet.
  • Use a drone. Just do it, it’s awesome and everyone will love it.