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GETTING LUCKY WITH
DIRECTIONAL LIGHT AT WEDDINGS

Wedding photographer Huy Nguyen saw an opportunity and he took it.

He was photographing an outdoor ceremony as late afternoon sun bathed the wedding party in golden light. The bride faced the groom with the sun’s rays at an angle to her face, her veil brilliantly illuminated as the groom began to raise it. With an assistant shooting the bride head-on, Nguyen positioned himself to her side and stayed there the entire time, capturing the dramatic contrast between light and dark.

Photograph by Huy Nguyen, Texas of bride and silhouetted people

Photo by Huy Nguyen

“I kept shooting throughout the whole process just to make sure I got a moment that made sense with the light,” he says. “I stayed with the silhouette because I didn’t feel like I needed to show all the faces for a few frames. I let the sunlight do the talking. The lighting was very extreme and gave me something distinctive.”

Indeed, quick thinking and a constant awareness of light—helped along by anticipation, some serendipity and a little luck—can result in direct, dramatic illumination that helps capture the full beauty and drama of the wedding day’s once-in-a-lifetime moments. Three of our award winners have weighed in with their tips, techniques and recollections for “getting lucky” with directional light.

SUNLIGHT, AWARENESS AND LUCK

Despite the stunning results of his award-winning photo, Nguyen says that he doesn’t particularly seek out directional or spotlighting situations outdoors, but keeps to his usual photojournalistic approach. That means observing the way people do things, following where the action is and “using whatever light is given.” He notes that part of his formula for success is recognizing the scene and the possibilities that come from it, and then using his resources and skills to make it all come together.

“I don’t dictate,” he says, “but when I find something really distinctive, I want to jump on it and make it as compelling as I can. I’m always trying to make the best of the situation that’s given to me. If cool lighting happens to be nearby and I don’t recognize it, then I don’t think I’m doing a good job.”

Of course the sun is the ultimate directional light source, and a harsh one at that. Yet those characteristics can be assets rather than liabilities if you approach them with the right combination of creativity and skill. Despite the conventional wisdom that indirect light and fills make the best photos, wedding photographer Joe Milton notes that directional, harsh light can be put to good use. “It’s useful if you’re looking for a good shadow type of a shot for dramatic lighting, or backlighting,” he states. “As a photographer, you need to be able to see all of those different ways of how to use light. If I see an opportunity or graphical element at that moment, I’ll try to use it.”

Outdoor shots can also benefit from spotlighting effect provided by non-solar sources, such as the moment that WPJA award winner Christobal Perez captured of a bride in the last seconds before the ceremony. In that case, the distinctive illumination came from his Elinchrom Ranger and small Chimera soft box, set up for a more formal portrait session that never happened.

“The image was an accident which later turned into a blessing…a beautiful mistake,” Perez says. “She was kind of primping before she was going in. My Elinchrom happened to be there, sitting on a light stand. It was dumb luck the way everything fell into place... I don't know why, but the photography gods were on my side that day.”

AMAZING WINDOW LIGHT

Indoors, our experts love window light, which can create beautiful directional and spotlighting effects. “In fact, it’s one of the best lights you can have because there’s so much you can do with it. It just falls all over the place and is beautiful on almost anyone,” Perez notes. “When it’s harsh and directional, you can really play with those shadows and it doesn’t have to be a negative thing if you just open your mind a little bit.”

Photograph by Joseph Milton, Oregon of bride reflecting while sitting alone

Photo by Joseph Milton

Milton’s award-winning shot captured a dramatic but totally unplanned window lighting effect that looks almost like it was aided by an artificial spotlight. The venue was a dark hall with a large bank of windows some distance from the bride. “She leaned over to adjust her shoe and the light was just right,” he recalls. “It made for some very nice, dramatic shots that I was able to leverage for that wedding. It was pure luck.”

Hotel rooms are also great for directional lighting situations since they usually have windows only on one side. Recalls Milton, “There was a shot where the bride was having her veil put on. It was a close-up, a profile, and there was a very strong light falloff where she was facing the window. The soft light from the window wasn’t direct sunlight, but was reflected off another building, so the quality of the light was fantastic – a soft box kind of a situation.”

“You’re not enhancing the light,” he adds. “You’re using the light that is there so that the pictures reflect the pure light that was actually at the wedding, and [as a result] they look more true to life.”

LIGHT FROM A DJ OR VIDEOGRAPHER

Incidental lighting that has nothing to do with your gig bag can be put to dramatic use if you recognize the opportunity. Milton loves using common DJ spotlights for a severely backlit, silhouetting effect, with no use of fill flash, and Perez often works in the same way. “The DJ spotlight may come on for a half second. Maybe if I leave my shutter open for a little bit longer I can make that image of the spotlight hitting them,” he says. “There’s so much you can do with what’s around you if you kick back and appreciate it.”

Even the light from a videographer, often considered an annoyance, provides a little added “oomph” when documenting a key scene, and it’s as “real” as anything else since it’s happening at the event. “It’s a great, soft yellow light, which is wonderful when someone is cutting a cake,” Perez notes. He advises that instead of getting upset at the videographer when that light goes on, take advantage of the opportunity to capture something different. “It shows your creativity, that you’re flexible and that you can work every environment,” he says. “It’s about appreciating what’s happening throughout the day as opposed to controlling it. Our job is to tell the story, and if the DJ’s light stand is outrageous or if the DJ is just outrageous, you want to capture it.”

MAKING YOUR OWN LUCK

Getting lucky with directional light is actually the payoff that comes from having experience. The more you shoot and find yourself in these unusual light situations, the better the instincts you’re going to develop. You’ll immediately recognize the light sources, the shadows, the quality of the light, and in the back of your mind you’ll be thinking “how can I incorporate that into these pictures?”

“There is a bit of luck involved, but it’s luck combined with instinct and experience to know what you’re looking for as you’re shooting,” Milton states.

“We anticipate moments instead of just reacting to them,” adds Perez, noting that those are the things he used to do all the time when he worked for a newspaper. “I’m always trying to anticipate where the subjects are going to go before they get there, and put myself into a position to make that image of that light hitting them in a particular way. It’s a matter of being able to read the clients. I think that’s just a photojournalism skill.”

Nguyen sums it up when he says “I put myself in positions to be lucky.”

EMBRACING THE UNEXPECTED

Getting lucky is also about embracing and appreciating each unplanned moment, as well as doing all of those things you’re supposed to do as wedding photojournalists, as opposed to dictating.

“You have to record the event accurately, true-to-life, and non-directed, but at the same time make images that are interesting to look at,” Milton notes. “Our clients are looking for shots that go above and beyond straightforward snapshots or portraits. They appreciate the fact that I look for things a bit more unusual from a lighting perspective; they like that sort of artistic, but real, look to their wedding. And anyone, even if they didn’t go to the wedding, could appreciate it and say ‘oh, that’s an interesting shot.’ It was real and it was captured…and that’s where the magic happens.”

“The pictures you want to make are the pictures that people don’t expect to see,” Perez says. “Use the light to express your style and what you’re bringing to the wedding.”

“Don’t be afraid if the light is weird; don’t be afraid if it’s not optimum,” adds Nguyen. “Don’t make it all Rembrandt, all the time. If you see extreme lighting, jump into it, make some mistakes and hopefully you’ll get a winner in there somewhere.”

—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association