Wedding Photography Reception Tips: How to Shoot Open Air Receptions!

To be a great wedding photographer – you have to be very experienced and versatile to be prepared to take on all kinds of different lighting scenarios and conditions.  Weddings in particular are such a dynamic event to photograph because each and every one is so different from each other.

For example – you can have wedding ceremonies in a church, on the beach, at a park, in the morning, in the evening, under the scorching midday sun etc…

For the reception you may find yourself in a hotel ballroom, outside under a large tent or completely outside under the stars in the open air, and you might even find yourself in one of the toughest situations you can think of – an open air nighttime wedding reception with minimal to zero lighting.

Dark, nighttime open air receptions are amongst the most challenging primarily because:

  • Cameras struggle to find focus in complete darkness
  • Lighting can look “harsh” since no ceiling to bounce flash off of

This tutorial will give you wedding photography reception tips and show you how to photograph open air receptions!

So what do you do when you are faced with a pitch black wedding reception?

Here are some helpful wedding photography tips on how to deal with this situation –

  • Off-camera flash – setting up a flash on a tripod where you can shoot towards and trigger with your on-camera flash can provide some great dynamic lighting to your images that you simply can’t achieve with only a single on-camera flash.  When using off-camera flash you can get a variety of different looks depending on your angle in relation to the off-camera flash.  You can have it directly behind your subject creating gorgeous rim lighting, you can have it at a 45 to 90 degree angle from you simply giving nice directional side lighting or you can have it visibly in the photo which isn’t only adding light to your subjects but giving a cool effect too.  Feel free to check out this post we did specifically on off-camera flash techniques.
  • Use handheld video light to help camera focus – at our most recent wedding reception, under the Zion National Park sky, it was gorgeous when looking up at the intense array of stars, but, it was literally at times too dark for our D800 or D700 to consistently find focus.  I had Nicole grab our small, portable video light and stand behind me to bounce the video light against the ground and illuminate the bride & groom a bit so my camera could accurately find focus.  In addition to helping with focusing, the video light added some golden ambient lighting which was a nice effect.
  • Find natural ambient lighting to use in backdrop – Its extremely important to always be aware of your surroundings and use them to your advantage.  What do I mean?   At the wedding I referenced above the “dance floor” was situated on a nice overlook on a canyon – it was gorgeous during the day and during twilight as well.  I initially planned on having the canyon in the backdrop, however, once nightfall came it was clear that shooting in that direction (away from the house, towards canyon) made for boring images since it was simply so pitch black in the background.  Since lighting was minimal, I decided to shoot towards the house and pathway.  By doing so I was able to add ambient lighting into my photos by having the pathway lights and room lit up inside the house as my backdrop.
  • Use higher ISOs and slower shutter speeds – In situations that are extremely dark out, it is important to use higher ISOs and slower shutter speeds to allow your camera to capture as much ambient lighting as possible, not only will this help balance with your flash exposure to not make your shots too “flashy” but it will also ensure you don’t have pitch black and bleak backgrounds.


A few photos from the wedding I referenced above to demonstrate the scene and how we used the tips above to photograph this extremely dark wedding reception!

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This first photo above shows the dark canyon backdrop, where the photo below showcases an image utilizing the natural warm ambient lighting from the house afar to enter the photograph.

Wedding Photography Reception Tips (2 of 4) Wedding Photography Tips (3 of 4)Wedding Photography Reception Tips (4 of 4)
The two photos above show how the use of adding an off camera flash can add significant depth and contrast to the images.

The main takeaway I hope each of you get from reading this wedding photography tutorial is, never under estimate the importance of being prepared for anything and everything when photographing weddings.  There will be times, as we just had, where even the best of equipment is unable to perform as it typically does – completely dark wedding receptions is certainly one of those situations.  If you do find yourself in one of these types of situations I hope that you remember these tips and they help you out so you can still create amazing photos for your bride and groom, despite sub-optimal lighting conditions.  At the end of the day, it is your responsibility to “make it happen” regardless of when and where!

Till next time – rock on…

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