The Wedding Photographer's Notebook: Background Flash Units

Want to banish the coal-miner’s-helmet-light look?

While a flash on your camera is the easiest, most compact way to insure getting sharp, properly exposed, photographs when shooting moving subjects in dark rooms (sounds like a wedding!), it is also true that the quality of the lighting this type of setup creates leaves much to be desired.

Looking very much like the illumination provided by a coal miner’s helmet light, the blast from a camera-mounted flash does nothing to make your subjects look three-dimensional and, to add insult to injury (because light intensity falls off rapidly at greater distances) it often results in photographs with very dark backgrounds.

A test you can't do if you're shooting in a shoebox...
One way to conquer the dark backgrounds created by an on-camera flash is to use additional flash units to light up the background in the church or reception hall. And, because they aren’t aimed at the primary subject but at the background instead, many pros (myself included) call them room lights. But, so no neophyte reader confuses the term “room lights” with the non-photographic incandescent lights activated by a wall switch, I will use the term "background flash units" in this column.

I faced a dilemma in trying to illustrate this point because there’s no time to shoot comparison photos with background flash units on and off during an actual wedding ceremony. I find it hard to rationalize doing less than the best I can for a bride and groom just because I want to write a column about it!

But, as luck (and this column) would have it, I conduct a workshop on wedding photography at the Maine Photographic Workshops each summer. During a demonstration of aisle photography in a church, as part of the workshop, I was presented with the opportunity of doing aisle photos with the background flash units both on and off. Now, while the female model, wearing a borrowed wedding dress, is not really a bride, the male model, in a tuxedo just as borrowed, is certainly not old enough to be the “bride’s” father, and the church isn't filled with captivated guests, none of these obvious deviations from the norm prevented me from showing you the very clear difference in the lighting between pictures A and B.

The nuts and bolts of my setup…
For my demonstration I used Kodak Portra roll film (the ISO 160, NC flavor) and two AC-powered, 1000 watt-second Dynalite flash units. But in reality, because the church was small and had a white rear wall, each light was throttled down to less than 250 watt-seconds. This means you could just as easily have used two less powerful battery-powered flash units in their stead. With faster film (or an upward adjustment of your digital camera's ISO setting) you’d need even less flash power for your background illuminating lights.

Furthermore, while I used two battery-powered lights to illuminate my subjects on the aisle (the second one attached to a pole held by my assistant), even if you had used only your camera-mounted flash, the room light flash units (which light only the background) would create results that look quite similar to mine--the area at the rear of the church would be well lit.

Don't give away your advantage…
One thing extra flash units lighting the background will always do is elevate the look of your photographs from those shot by the poor huddled masses using point-and-shoot cameras (film or digital) and their pop-up, pipsqueak flashes.

Sadly, if you use bulletproof, inexpensive, light-actuated slave triggers on your extra flash units, every other guest equipped with a point-and-shoot camera will be taking advantage of your special lighting. This means your photographs will no longer be unique or technically superior. Even worse, if your extra flash units are battery powered, the gaggle of point-and-shooters will drain your batteries until the extra flash units you took the trouble to set up are too pooped to pop! Worse still, your extra flash units, set off by the guest camera flashes, will be recycling when you need them most!

Horror of horrors, this means Aunt Tillie's photos will be unique and technically superior while those you shot will be relegated to the same class as those taken by the single-flash-on-camera gaggle. The answer to this dilemma is to use a radio slave system, but that's a story unto itself (which you can read by clicking on the "Related Articles" link at right).


Frontal flash vs. frontal flash plus background lighting: Which shot looks better? Some may like the stark look of photo #1 because the subjects seem to be lit by a spotlight, but that has more to do with the luck of the draw because the rear wall of this particular church is appliance white.

Don't be tricked by that rear white wall! If the aisle was longer or the rear wall of the church was covered in dark wood paneling, the faux bride and her dad would appear to be two-dimensional forms frozen against a black background. In photo #2, with my background flash units firing, the rear of the church (which, in a real world situation, includes the guests looking on) is open and bright.