The Way We Tackle Reception Lighting | Our Gear and What We've Learned

I’m going to start this post off with this statement: we are not reception lighting gurus by any means. And to be quite honest, I admit that when it came the time to dive into using artificial light, it was daunting. And difficult. And foreign. It was hard to figure out just what to buy and how to use it once we bought it. 

Today we write this blog having some experience with it, and we want to share what we feel works for us right now.  For those of you asking, I hope this helps you in some way shape or form! This blog post is the result of some photographers requesting how to simply begin their reception-lighting journey.

We’ll try to make this as simple as possible. We’ll start off sharing our gear, how to use your external flash, how we use it and then finish sharing some tips and tricks that we’ve learned help us during reception lighting. We hope it can benefit those of you who are just jumping into the art of reception lighting! Being a natural light photographer myself, I prefer to use that whenever possible. If you’re looking for an advanced reception lighting blog post, there are probably other blogs out there more fitting for you! And if so, I’d love to hear your advice and what you’ve found works well for YOU!

Our Reception Lighting Gear

We are Nikon shooters, so we have:

2 Nikon SB700's

OCF Stand


Vivitar Flash

2 transmitters- Phottix Strato II

1 receiver- Phottix Strato II

How to Use Your External Flash in One Paragraph

So this black thing that connects to the top of your camera….it’s called an external flash! The soft box set up is called “off camera flash”, because it’s...well, off your camera! ;-) We are very simple when it comes to our settings. We do adjust them manually on our external flash. Basically, for Nikon (us), we get to adjust the power of our flash. Obviously, the higher the power, the brighter and more light the flash is giving off—this is 1/1. If you cut this in half, it’s ½, giving it half of that brightness or flash. Continue cutting them in half all the way down to 1/8 or 1/16. This is typically where we find ourselves shooting at wedding receptions. These two powers are softer and give off less light, but in coordination with my camera settings, they’re usually right where WE like it. Yes, you will also adjust your camera settings manually, as well.

In this image below, our settings were: ISO 1,000 SS 1/60 f/3.2; Our on camera flash was set to manual with 1/16 power, and our OCF was flashing in the background for fill light. 

How We Use It

We have a very simple setup. Before the sun sets or we lose our natural lighting inside, we make sure our off-camera flash setup is ready. Jordan will usually find a spot near the DJ’s equipment to set it up, because that means it’ll blend in well and be near the dance floor. We aim for our OCF set up to add fill light to our dance floor. It may not reach the cake table later in the evening, but we rely on our on-camera flashes for that. If the OCF happens to be firing in the background, it can add fill light, and that’s even better. So basically, we have 3 flashes—one on each of our cameras, making two external flashes and one off-camera flash.

This picture below is not ideal, but you can see where the placement of our soft box is most likely.

Jordan puts the batteries in our flashes and transmitters before the wedding, and we put them on our cameras under our external flashes before we enter the reception. We take test shots of one another and keep in mind the distance we are from one another. We try to keep this throughout the night.

Wireless transmitters are awesome. They allow you to add a secondary light source to your reception lighting, which adds so much to your reception photos. The transmitters we use are actually quite affordable. The make and model is called the Phottix Strato II and usually come in a set with one transmitter (this one goes on your camera) and receiver (this one goes on your light stand). 

Below is the flash and transmitter that go on our cameras. The little transmitter attaches to the hotshot on top of our camera and the flash itself attaches to the new hotshoe that is on top of the transmitter. The transmitters have different channels of them but Jordan and I always use the same channel (channel A). The receiver is attached to our softbox on our nightstand. There is a hotshoe on top of the receiver where we attach our cheap external flash, pointed towards the inside of the softbox, of course. We get the flashes synced up and begin to fire! 

Tips & Tricks

1.     Change your batteries EVERY wedding. NEVER keep batteries in your flashes or transmitters. Flashes tend to be energy hogs and the batteries can leak acid inside of your flash and corrode the electronics it comes into contact with, possibly ruining your flash. No one wants that! And you want to make sure you have as much juice as possible before you start shooting at the beginning of the reception.

2.     Be aware of the distance you are from your subject. When shooting with a flash, if you adjust your flash but take one step forward, you’ve completely changed your settings. It makes sense right? Your subject will be brighter when you get closer. This is different than natural lighting. So keep in mind the distance you are from them when you initially select your settings so that you can aim to keep this distance when you photograph throughout the night.

3.     Flash freezes movement. When you want ambient lighting, like this image below with its string lights in the background, then you want to have a slower shutter speed—1/60, 1/80, 1/100. Don’t fret about this slow shutter speed, because flash freezes movement!

4.     Be aware of your OCF in the background of your pictures. Try to shoot at an angle to your OCF to avoid capturing the brightness of it in your frame. It's always a totally bummer when you capture a great shot but it's ruined by a bright light smack in the middle of it!

5.     If there are string lights, decide to place your subjects in front of them so you have a pretty, glowy background.

6.     Bounce your on-camera flash off a ceiling if it’s fairly low and white. If it’s a higher ceiling, you might want a higher flash power to make sure it reaches and bounces off sufficiently—maybe ¼ or ½.

7.     Use a smaller aperture for introductions or unpredictable situations. Use f/3.5 or 4.0 when the bridal party is announced or during a surprise father/daughter dance. It increases your chances of capturing a rather unpredictable moment.

8.     Sometimes carrying only the soft box over to the cake table makes for dynamic and gorgeous shots of the cake—without your external flash. You can turn your external flash off and still use the OCF to add a soft punch of light...especially when you need just a touch more light and don't want to use your harsh external flash on your camera.

9.     Sometimes it’s hard for your camera to focus in dim lighting. There’s a greater chance your camera will focus the first time when it’s focus target point is dead center. I keep my toggle usually right in the middle of my screen to ensure this.

10. Consider using a telephoto lens (85mm, 105mm macro, or 70-200mm) to capture candids of the toasts, parents' expressions, and the moments you may not want to interrupt the moment by stepping in too close.  

These are just a few things we've learned along the way, and again, this is what we found works for us with our reception lighting.  Diving into using flash can be daunting, because it's so foreign, so take baby steps. Start with an external flash and add the OCF once you feel ready. Feel free to ask any questions if something wasn't as clear as it should be!! We love helping you all!

Happy Thursday!