How to take incredible night portraits at a wedding!
This post is hopping out of my commitment to being a photographer without secrets. I keep getting asked on Instagram about a single technique and thought I should just address it in a longer form. I also have the benefit of explaining it with visual aids, my fav.
Photographing at night is just another way to separate yourself from the chaos of the wedding world as a photographer. Importantly though, it also provides a new technical challenge that is never the same twice. Challenging myself enables me to stay present in each wedding and really try super hard to make my best work every dang day. There are going to be a handful of considerations that apply to every time you shoot at night. I'm just going to list those out here for ease but I highly suggest going out and photographing at night (maybe with added strobe lights) a lot before you try to pull these off. Practice makes perfect.
Leave your questions in the comments section!
How to photograph the stars.
1. Know the manual settings of your camera. (ISO, shutter speed, f-stops).
Without a solid understanding these you won't be consistent enough to warrant dragging a couple away from their reception and out into the middle of nowhere. They will be excited to see the end product so you can't
2. Determine your preferred exposure for the stars. I use f2.8, 30 seconds, ISO 1600 a lot as a starting point.
Using this exposure allows you to get stars visible in a relatively dark situation. Meaning that without the light pollution from the moon or lights that may be present you should see a full sky of clouds and an entirely shadowed ground.
3. Light your subject.
This is intentionally vague. You have a lot of options for your preferred lighting equipment to chose from and you should use what makes the most sense for you. Using a speed light seems to work best for me. Currently, I'm using the Profoto a1. We set it on manual with really low power to account for the crazy wide-open fstop required for the stars.
4. Pose your couple so they can stay still.
Using an exposure in the 15-30 second range means that there is a lot of time for things to go wrong with a blurry couple. I usually pose them so they are able to stabilize on the other person. Depending on the frequency of blinking or swaying you may need to composite a few images to get both people entirely sharp. Using a strobe freezes a single moment so standing still is less important.
5. Shoot a plate shot of both the subject and the stars.
Covering your bases is important since this photo is going to be so important to the couple. They will remember the process of making it and will be eager to see the end result. Taking a few extra images helps to guarantee that you can deliver an epic final image. I usually shoot a few extra images of the couple (with no concern for the stars) to guarantee they are both sharp in a single pose and then shoot several exposures for the stars only (with no regard for the couples brightness or using a light). They are posted below the first picture above. In the case of the image above I did not need these plate images but you just never know.
6. Shoot specific poses.
Choosing the perfect pose from the beginning allows you to be faster with the couple so they can get back to their party. It also enables you to composite quicker and with more success later. I often shoot multiple poses, but you will have to go through the process of shooting plate shots for each pose so I am very selective with posing.
7. Get set-up and prepared before you grab the couple.
Always remember you are pulling a couple away from the best party ever to stand on a hilltop in the dark. Take care of them and let them go as quickly as possible. Make sure you get what you need but also be quick. Modern couples are super receptive to cool photo ideas and truly appreciate the work we do as photographers, it's rad, but don't take it for granted.
8. Use Photoshop or Lightroom (or your prefered software) to tweak exposures and balance light colors.
Notice the amount of yellow in the ambient light on the ground in the plate images above? Notice how blue the sky is? Using a longer shutter means you are giving up some control of your light color (if ambient light is present). In a darker situation you can add a blue gel to the speed light to balance with the night sky, but if you can't Photoshop is your next best bet. As always - work smarter, not just harder.
9. Experiment with new techniques and situations.
Check out the images below for a range of lighting scenarios that you should try out. There are notes about camera specifics below each.
This image required the tiniest pop of light but what you see is basically straight out of camera. Again, the moon can do a lot.
Ambient light was really strong in this image forcing a faster shutter speed than usual. It kept the sky a little more moody.
I have started using the same techniques in any situation that may have less than ideal light. Adding a sense of uniformity between the subject and background and keeping your sunset from blowing out are the end result. Important note: the Tetons make every picture better!
Never underestimate the brightness of the moon. This isn't a sunset - it's a moonrise. No light was added to this shot.
This image was about the moon so we found the exposure for it first, then added a strobe to brighten this lovely bride and separate her from the background.
Sometimes you don't get a sunset or stars. Applying the same technique to make this moody post-rain night shot in the Big Horn Mountains is proof that you have to be ready for anything.