"While bounced flash is what I tend to use most, there are times when I also use direct flash. Sometimes couples are going for a club-like atmosphere at a reception."
In New England creating your own lighting is everything. Depending on how you look at it, we are either blessed with, or at the mercy of, rainy springs and falls, dark colonial era buildings, old mansions with wood paneling and wood ceilings, and turn-of-the-century hotels with sky-high ballroom ceilings. When starting out, you learn quickly that for dark receptions, manipulating artificial light is of the utmost importance. I love having fun with reception lighting and bounced flash, direct flash and ambient light, which can (and should) be mixed and matched for varying effects.
The most common type of reception lighting that I use is bounced flash. I love bouncing up at an angle, or off to the side, which creates beautiful, moody lighting. This also gives great definition to areas that would otherwise photograph flat. It’s common to bounce straight back and behind you, but I recommend first thinking about where you want your light to come from. Every time you move or change your shooting angle, you should adjust your flash head and make sure light is bouncing towards your subjects exactly the way you want it. Every time you shoot a portrait, you should be thinking of how to light your subject’s face in the most flattering way. Even if it’s a candid portrait, I make sure to do short light instead of broad light. In short lighting, the side of the face that is toward the camera is getting less light than the side facing away from the camera. This allows the shadows to sculpt the face more than the light, which adds to the moody effect but has the added bonus of making people appear thinner.
While bounced flash is what I tend to use most, there are times when I also use direct flash. Sometimes couples are going for a club-like atmosphere at a reception, (see above image) and that’s when direct flash can be useful. With direct flash, I am specifically using it for side light or back light, and I’m shooting at or close to my sync speed so that the amount of ambient light that is coming into the lens is minimal. I use it off-camera, up high and pointed down, on a light stand or held on a light stand by an assistant. Around big, dancing crowds, you just have to be careful that it does not become a hazard. If not held by an assistant, I keep lights on stands back towards the band or DJ for safety, weighted down and taped if necessary. With this approach, I use direct flash as back lighting, either for a nice rim effect, or to create a total blown-out effect. When working with an assistant, I have the assistant collapse the bottom of the stand, and hold it high above the crowd while following me around the dance floor at about 45 degrees from me. Used correctly, it can be very dramatic and useful at conveying the edgy tone of a hip reception.
If the reception you are photographing has enough tungsten to play around with, or nice candlelight, using only ambient light can be a nice option. Remember to take a moment and access the light throughout events. Taking a break from the flash is a nice way to diversify your coverage.
So, next time you’re photographing a reception, mix it up! Push yourself creatively and see how many different ways you can convey the feeling or mood of the room.