The first dance - and how to light it

Don't we all love the roar of applause as the DJ asks the new Mr & Mrs 'X' to take the dance-floor for their first dance as husband and wife? It's one of the 'must-have' shots for any wedding photographer. But how do we light it? This is a question I've been asked a few times by other photographers as well as guests asking me why I'm setting up "... those lights next to the dance-floor" Well, in an ideal world, there'll be a kick-ass light display with daylight-balanced lights to provide some sharp contrast between the couple and the background, maybe a wee bit of smoke to add some atmosphere, LED's or a mirrored finish (for a nice reflection shot) on the floor and a pot of gold in the corner marked 'a wee present for the photographer'! The reality is usually a display of bright multi-coloured spot lights which do nothing except add red, green and blue spots on the brides dress. Now, don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with taking a few creative shots with silhouettes and bursts of colour. My concern lies with the fact that a bride will usually spend a four-figure sum on a gorgeous dress which she wants great shots of - and I'm pretty sure that if she had wanted red, green and blue spots all over it, she'd have ordered it like that, wouldn't she? What I'm going to show you here is a very simple way to ensure you get well-exposed, clear, colour-spot-free shots of the first dance.
First things first - make friends with the DJ or band. Why? Partly because they control the bloody lights (!) and partly because it always amazes me how rude some wedding suppliers can be to others, merely because they're not the client. Time for a wake-up call: THESE ARE THE PEOPLE WHO WILL RECOMMEND YOU TO THEIR CLIENTS! When a bride and groom book me, they often ask for recommendations of other suppliers, and I can't be the only one. So, please, people - play nicely? Having established that neither of us are the others nemesis, I have yet to be refused when I ask for all coloured lights to be switched off for the first dance. Be nice, polite and explain its only for that one dance to allow you to deliver a killer-shot - if you do get the one in a million reply of 'No', simply smile and go find the fuse box...
Now that you have a colour-free lighting arrangement, it's time to break out your own lights. For this, I use a pair of Yongnuo 560II speedlites (relatively inexpensive, powerful, easy to use and reliable)  on Phottix Strato II wireless triggers ( ) and a pair of light stands. This gives me a fully-manual set-up, which - once in place - leave me completely free to move around and compose the shots I want. Each stand is placed at either side of the dance-floor, on the same side as the DJ/ band and raised to about 9 feet tall, with the speedlites angled slightly downwards and aimed at the centre of the dance floor.

As you see, this gives me a nice pool of light in the middle of the dance-floor with fairly even lighting. I'll adjust my ISO to let me get these settings with the speedlites running at 1/8 power for faster recycling and decent battery life - usually in the 400-640 range for most of the venues I shoot. I find that the 1/180 shutter speed helps keep the background quite dark while still letting some of the ambient light include the guests in the shot and freezing most of the movement you're likely to get (although I've gone as low as 1/40 sec in really dark venues and as high as 1/250 in brightly lit areas, these are the exceptions rather than the rule). At f4, the couple are in focus with any guests in the background being blurred nicely, while still allowing the bride and groom to identify who were there.
Okay, so all is well and good as long as the couple stay in my 'kill zone' - but what if they decide to explore other areas of the floor? Yes, everything is on full-manual, so I need to act - and FAST! Well, not really that fast - thankfully, very few couples do a full on number from West Side Story for their first dance, so you will have some notice that they're heading away (and I always make a point of asking them to stay in the centre of the floor for a wee while at least). I find that if they move closer to me, the fastest way to adjust my settings is to close my aperture a bit to f5.6 or thereabouts (remember, with flash - adjusting the shutter speed only affects the ambient exposure, while the aperture adjusts the effect of your flash, so as they move closer to my speedlites I need to reduce their effect). But what if they move closer to their guests? No problem - again, they probably won't behave like an olympic sprinter, so you have some time to make a few adjustments. Now, you could widen your aperture to f2.8, f1.8 or even f1.4 (you do have at least one fast prime lens with you if you're shooting weddings, don't you?) but I prefer to raise my ISO and keep a bit more depth of field, although sometimes it can be quicker to open the aperture a bit. With modern pro-level DSLR's, high ISO is no longer cause to break out in a sweat - so why not use it?
I know that there will be some people reading this and asking 'Why not use TTL?' - good question, and one which I have a very simple answer for: because this way works for me. For every photographer, there's an ideal system & way to work and this is mine. I know plenty of photographers who use TTL flash to great effect, just the same as I know photographers who use Aperture Priority mode and Shutter Priority and deliver great results. Fair play to them - as long as they are getting the results which their brides are happy with, who am I to question them? For me, however, I believe in controlling every variable as much as possible - it's just the way I am. Once my lights are set, I take a test shot at each area of the dance-floor, remember where I need to adjust to if I have to and that's it. No guessing, no wondering if a computer is going to mis-read the situation - if something happens, I know exactly what my response will be to get the result I want.
So, there you have it - a simple set up which lets you guarantee great shots of the first dance, doesn't cost a fortune and ensures that your shots will stand out from the dozens of snaps taken by Uncle Bob and everyone with a camera phone...


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