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Indoor Ambient Lighting

Today's post is an ex
cerpt from the book Flash and Ambient Lighting for Digital Wedding Photography, by Mark Chen. It is available from Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

More often than not, a nice photo opportunity presents itself in an indoor environment—only to be spoiled when the photographer shi
nes a bright flash on it. The shot looks nothing like what was there because the burst of flash altered the reality of that brief moment. Using bounce flash (rather than direct flash) can drastically reduce these disappointments—but not entirely.

Sometimes, the best strategy is simply turning off the flash. Image 8-1 is an excellent example of this technique. When the bride and her bridesmaids were busy straightening out the gown, the light was mesmerizing. I quickly switched off the flash and made sure my shutter speed was not dangerously low. In this case, the reading was 1/60 second with an aperture of f/3.2
at ISO 500. Making these shots is very liberating—there’s no waiting for the flash to recharge, so you can just shoot away!

IMAGE 8-1. Ambient light only.

For the sake of comparison, look at image 8-2. This was shot in the same surroundings but with bounce flash. It’s not bad, but it’s not nearly as aesthetically pleasing as image 8-1.

IMAGE 8-2. Ambient light with the addition of bounce flash.

Some might argue that image 8-1 has an “incorrect” white balance. I oppose this notion of a “correct” white balance. I do not believe that the white balance should be viewed as an absolute setting. In my opinion, it’s a matter of personal taste.

In the case of image 8-1, preserving the yellow hue from the incandescent lights gave the shot a mysterious look, which I like. (Of course, I cannot dismiss those who think otherwise; for them, I have a remedy: a Camera Raw adjustment technique, which is outlined in the next chapter.)

Eighty percent of churches forbid the use of flash during the ceremony. In my career, I have also encountered churches that either limit the photographer to three shots or forbid professional photography altogether. The churches that forbid flash often ask the photographer to stay far away, so flash would not work too well anyway. In these cases, using the ambient lighting becomes essential.

IMAGE 8-3. At many churches, flash is not permitted during the ceremony.

Image 8-3 was shot in a rather bright church, where the shutter speed was maintained at 1/125 second. Don’t get cocky now and hand-hold the camera, though! Making a shot like this will require a telephoto lens, which means slight camera movements will be accentuated. A tripod is necessary for an image like this. On top of that, if the lighting is predominately incandescent, it is not a bad idea to set the white balance as such.

Since the shutter is slow, why not do some tracking as the subjects move? Tracking involves setting the shutter slow, say, between 1/30 and 1/4 second, then panning along with the subject’s movement while you are shooting. Image 8-4 is a successful case. Tracking with your camera on a tripod requires the smoothest of tripod heads; any tripod head that produces jerking motions will not do. After shelving three tripod heads, I finally discovered Manfrotto’s Hydrostatic Ball Head. The Teflon-coated heads and hydraulic locking mechanism give a deep “gray area” between lock and release, so panning can be done with adequate and smooth resistance. A common mistake is to start the panning motion after the shutter is pressed. Instead, start panning then shoot consecutive shots (consider shooting in “rapid” mode).

  • Watch your shutter speed. Some of us may brag about how we can hold the camera steady at 1/15 second—but remember that brides move!
  • To boost the shutter speed to a comfortable level, first use a larger aperture.
  • When a large aperture will not suffice, increase the ISO setting—but don’t go beyond the bare necessity. High ISO settings are becoming more usable on state-of-the-art camera models, but they are still quality busters.
  • For this technique, shooting RAW is not just the default, it is an absolute must.
  • Tripods are essential for altar shots with telephoto lenses. To avoid motion blur from subject movement, keep the shutter speed above 1/30 second.
  • Smooth tripod heads are essential for tracking.


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