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Night shots at weddings

"Not only is it a chance for the photographers to truly test their creativity in non-traditional circumstances, but it is also the perfect way to end your wedding album."

Please note that in this article I will only be focusing on night shots at weddings, about how it can be beneficial to the couple and what photographers need to do to achieve the best results for their clients. We will be looking at a more diverse field of night photography, in a later article.

Although not considered a traditional list item like the ceremony or couple shoot, night shots are actually a must for any couple on their wedding day (or night...get it, because they are night shots; okay yes, that was bad, even for me). Not only is it a chance for the photographers to truly test their creativity in non-traditional circumstances, but it is also the perfect way to end your wedding album. Imagine, after the wedding, receiving the wedding photos, pouring two glasses of wine and starting the, near, impossible task of selecting the best photos for your album, and then realising: there really is no way to properly end it. Most photographers leave right after the final formalities have been completed, which is usually the throwing of the bouquet and garter, which, by default, are then the last photos you have to choose from. Although these are usually perfectly nice, is that truly the last thing you want to remember about your special day? Of course it isn't, it's your day and you want to end the album with pictures of you, one last image to remember how terrific you both looked in your wedding attire, one last image to capture a special moment that was only shared by the two of you. Night shots can give you that.

So you're probably wondering how night shots are even accomplished, won't they be too grainy to use and be an eye sore in your wedding album? The quick answer is, "no", not if your photographers know what they're doing and have the right equipment to use. Night shots are actually fairly simple to accomplish, and there are many ways to do it. These are some of the things your photographer should be aware of, before attempting this:

1. Always use a sturdy tripod: This one one is fairly obvious, you're going to be shooting with slow shutter speeds and to avoid motion blur, the camera needs to be held still; you cannot rely on loose hand for this.

2. Use manual focus: Auto focus is great, especially on expensive DSLRs, but it's still far from full proof. What's more, in the darkness, the camera will struggle to find a focus point, which can become very frustrating. The simplest method is having someone shine a light on the couple, focusing the camera manually and then removing the light; a cell phone light works perfectly, if that's all you have at your disposal.

3. Know your ISO settings: So logic dictates that if you are shooting outside in the dark that you will want to push your ISO up fairly high, and you'll be right, high ISO setting reduces the amount of time you need to expose your settings for, which in turn is the best way to capture crisp, sharp, portrait night shots. However, high ISO settings also paves the way for digital noise, which is one of the key things we're trying to avoid with these pictures. Now, to be fair, high end DSLRs can allow for much higher ISO settings before you start to see noise, but if you're just starting out, let's assume you don't, yet, own a Canon 5D Mark 4, and even semi-professional cameras, like the Canon 7D, still perform badly with high ISO settings. Therefore, it's crucial that you know you camera and ISO settings to know how high you can go, without negatively affecting the quality of your images.

4. Don't buy a Canon 7D: This has nothing to do with the article, but I just felt like mentioning it anyway.

5. Test first: Simply put, your couple does not want to waste their, precious, last few hours of their big day, waiting for you to figure out your camera settings. Use your assistant first to get your camera setup correctly and only then call your clients. This setup time can be a lengthy process and should, preferably, only happen once all the formalities have been completed, so you don't miss anything important.

6. Play with different shutter speeds: I will be delving a bit deeper into this, later in this article, but just to give you a basic principle, if you want to experiment with light streaks, then you will need to do so with very low shutter speeds or if you're trying to capture cigar smoke, you'll need the shutter speed at a higher number, in order to avoid blur.

So now, armed with the basics, let's take a look at what you'll actually need to do to capture night portraits. As I mentioned earlier, there are several ways to do it. For any kind of night portrait, you will still need to piggyback off some form of external light source and it doesn't have to be a flash. If you're doing a wedding, chances are the venue will offer several options; this could be fairy lights, lights setup for the guests, city lights in the background, even the stars on a clear night; the possibilities are endless, so take a minute, look around, and see what you have at your disposal. Every source can create a different kind of image and a different type of effect, so be creative and try different things.

Once you have identified what you will be using as a light source, the next step is deciding what effect you want to go for; this will determine whether you'll be making use of off camera flashes or simply making use of the light sources provided by your chosen location. If you do decide to make use of off camera flashes, you will be needing a camera trigger; these can be picked up for fairly cheaply, depending on the brand and model. Yongnuo triggers can be picked up for under a R1000 and get the job done fairly well.

Next step is deciding where to place your off camera flash; I find that for the best results, this should never be more than 15 feet away from the couple. Depending on the effect you are going for, it can either be placed by their side or directly behind them. If placed behind the couple, make sure that they do not completely block the flash, for it still needs a direct line to communicate with the trigger. Multiple flashes, and even soft boxes, can be added to this setup, again, depending on what your desired result is.

Basic portrait shots

I basically explained this one already, in the previous paragraph, which goes to show how simple it actually is; a simple setup for a gorgeous end result. At our last wedding we used three flashes to take this photo, one behind the camera, one in front of them, with a soft box, and one on the camera with a trigger. Taking this picture literally only took us a few seconds, which will become the case as you grow more comfortable with these kind of shots. The purpose of this setup is to not only focus on the couple but also light up everything around them, without creating any kind of silhouette. The camera trigger will set off all the flashes simultaneously, the one at the back lighting up the surrounds from behind and the one at the front doing it from the opposite side, and also lighting up the couple. The only tricky part is choosing the right exposure, but to get this right, make your assistant stand in the couple's place, experiment with different exposures, get it right and then call your couple.

Silhouette shots

Shooting silhouettes at night really isn't all that different than shooting silhouettes during the day (okay fine, late afternoon); it's the same basic principle, all the light needs to come from behind with nothing lighting the couple from the front. If you were shooting this during the late afternoon, golden hour is nearing its climax, the sunset is a gorgeous pink colour, you set your couple up in front of it and push your shutter speed up high; the desired result would be the sunset captured as it is, with the couple only captured as a dark silhouette. With night shots, we want to do exactly the same; how do we do that? Simply remove all front light sources, the only flash with now be setup, off camera, behind the couple and will be the only one getting triggered. This will light up the background, but with no light shining directly on the couple they will only appear as dark silhouettes.

Light streaks

This is where we start getting creative, the idea of light streaks at weddings is to draw patterns around the couple, using some form of light source (most popularly sparklers). Although this one is a bit more tricky, it becomes fairly simple once you've got the hang of it. So first the basic setup; it's crucial for these kind of photos that your couple stands almost inhumanly still, any movement on their part will be picked up as double exposure and, likely, ruin the photo. Next setup your shutter speed, this kind of picture requires a very low number; the photographer will have to hold the shutter in for the duration that the painter enters and leaves the frame, baring in mind that your couple has to stand still this entire time so keep the number realistic; I find that five seconds works best. Once the painter has left the frame, you can release the shutter, hold your breath, wait for the flash and then breathe. If you are unclear what I mean by painter, this is the person (or persons) who will be using the light source to draw patterns in the dark. In complete contrast to the couple, this person cannot stand still for even a split second, if he does the photo will capture him and it will be ruined. The painter has to move at a all around even pace, with the sparkler in hand, making even motions: whatever the sparkler does, will be captured in the photograph. The painter will always start and end out of frame, working on the count of the photographer. The desired end result of all this will be the couple in complete focus, golden streaks around them and no sign that the painter was ever in the frame to begin with.

Moving objects

This one isn't all that different from the previous point, but instead of using a painter and sparklers this time, it will now be the couple moving; some form of solid light will be required to capture the movements. There are several ways to do this, the simplest is having the groom stand completely still and having only the bride move; I find that having her twirl is the way to go here. The photographer will, again, hold the shutter speed in for an X amount of seconds and then release. Important: the bride cannot stand still until the flash goes off, or the effect will be ruined.

An alternative is having the couple dance, exactly the same principle: photographer holds in the shutter speed for a few seconds, releases, the couple cannot stand still until the flash goes off. This can be really fun, but might take several tries before getting it right, so make sure you are only attempting it with couples who are truly game.

Cigar photos

Unlike the other methods we have discussed, this one actually requires a higher shutter speed, the reasoning being that you want the cigar smoke in focus. The setup is the same as with basic portrait shots and this is fairly easy to accomplish once you have managed that. This one is simply another case of knowing your camera setting and getting it right before you call the client.

With the tips I have provided above, I hope I was able to give you a better understanding of how to accomplish night photography at weddings and that it's actually quite simple, once you have figured out the basics.

Remember to take the time to know your camera, its setting and capabilities and once you truly are armed with that knowledge, then the world will be your oyster. Most importantly though: be creative and use your imagination, because with night photography - there will always be something you haven't tried before.

- Markus Gericke

Photo credits: Natasha Louw, Nelani van Zyl, Abigail Faddel and Ruan Labuschagne

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