Where it all began

My own journey to learn about light started about 15 years ago, before I started photographing weddings, but at a time when I was attending a lot of friends’ weddings, and every now and then coming away with nice photographs.  When I’d look at what made a photograph appeal to me, it would often be the light.  And often not the primary light, but the accent light added by a lamp, or a flash, or an open doorway.   I realised that light had the potential to make or break a photograph, and I wanted to understand that.  I also realised that there would be times when you’d need to create your own light, and I wanted to know how to do that.

The photograph above was taken very early on in this quest to understand light. You might not be surprised, then, that the lighting in this photo really couldn’t be simpler.  In terms of gear, it’s as minimal as it gets: one camera, one lens, one hotshoe flash, no modifier of any sort.  In terms of skill, it’s even more minimal: it was, if not quite a mistake, at least pure luck.

That element of luck, and the success of the photo as I perceived it at the time, eally accelerated my desire to learn about light, and indeed to learn about creating light.  Prompted by the delight I had at seeing this image on the back of my Nikon D700, I dived deep into the internet and books and instructional videos to learn everything there is to know about light. All I had to do was learn how the light in this photo had come about, and I was going to be a lighting god. No situation would defeat me, I would make amazing award-winning photographs each time I pressed the shutter, and my future success as a wedding photographer was assured. A fool-proof plan!

In truth, it took probably 7 years of study and practice and failure before I really felt confident in my abilities to control light as I wanted, when I wanted.

I mentioned luck as a factor in this photo, and I listed the gear involved. What I didn’t mention is that not only was the flash not mine, I didn’t even trigger it. It was a flash on top of another guest’s camera over to my right, and at the instant that Sara did a twirl in her dress, both I and that guest happened to both take a photo.  Their flash fired as my shutter opened and the result is what you see above.  I told you it was luck.

Well, actually – that’s not entirely true.

The luck had come a couple of years earlier, at the wedding of two other friends, when my camera had picked up someone else’s flash completely by accident and I had been intrigued by the result – but I hadn’t thought much more about it.  On this occasion I hadn’t brought a flash to the wedding – wanting to enjoy the day as a guest – but when time came for the first dance, and with Sara and John’s official photographer long gone, I thought that maybe the same accident from a few years earlier might work again, especially if I shot at 7 frames per second to maximise my chances.

Once Sara started twirling, I knew I had a good chance of picking up someone’s flash, since lots of people were taking photos anyway, and all of them clicked their shutter when the bride twirled.  I just needed one to do so at the same instant as me.  My luck came good.

Analysing the light

The single best way to learn how to light is to analyse the light in other photographers’ images and, essentially, guess how they are lit. I encourage every photographer to get into the habit of that, even if your guesses are way off, you’ll find over time you get closer and closer to the actual lighting used. I’ll be devoting a whole category of posts here to images where I give you the minimum detail on the lighting for you to do just that. And when analysing light in any photo, I suggest you consider the following aspects in terms of both the ambient light (if any) and the added light:

Let’s do that here.

Quantity of light

The camera exposure was ISO 6400, f/2.8, 1/160th of a second – I can’t claim any intent over that other than to say it was a dark room and I didn’t want too slow a shutter speed, but knowing what I now know, that exposure was pretty important to the photo working out.  In reality I was underexposing the ambient light, and we’ll talk in a other posts about the merits of that when dealing with low light.  But it meant that when that other flash did pop, rather than overexposing my photo, it lifted the exposure on the subjects to a good level.

In fact you can see how underexposed it is by looking at the people in the background.  They are only being lit by the ambient light, and are completely missed by the cone of light coming from the guest’s flash.  The ambient light on the dance floor was more than on those observers too.

Quality of light

In terms of the quality of the added light, that flash is bare and the light falling on Sara is hard light – you can see where it lights her and doesn’t light her quite clearly – but the harshness of that light is offset by the ambient light which fills the shadows such that nothing is pure black.  The light on John’s torso is, I believe, reflected light from Sara’s dress which bounces some of the flash light back at him.

Direction of light

The direction of the light is from camera right, so Sara is side-lit, and you can see how that highlights the folds in the dress as she twirls.  It does feel like there’s some light coming from the opposite side – back camera left – and I’m not sure if this was a videographer’s light, or the band’s lights.  It is unlikely it was another guest’s flash, and back then people didn’t take photos with their phones, so it wasn’t the little phone flash that illuminates for longer than a normal flash.

Colour of light

In terms of the colour of the light, there’s a lovely contrast caused by the two different light sources.  The room was generally lit blue, which explains the blue tint in the darker areas of the dress that aren’t picking up light from the guest’s flash.  That flash is warm relative to the blue ambient light, and the warm wooden floor is a nice contrast also that ties everything together.

Moment always wins

One last point to make after all this obsessing about light. Lest we convince ourselves that the light is the most important thing in the photo, what really makes it is the expressions, the movement of the dress, and the moment in general. And in almost every case, moment always wins.

In conclusion

So lots fell into place for this photo, and most of it stuff that was outside of my control (and even not necessarily my intent).  What’s different between then and now, though, is this: now I know how to bring more of those elements under my control, such that I’m not reverse-engineering photos like this, but can foresee what the light will look like, and just need the moment to make the image work.