Let’s talk dark receptions. Really dark. Maybe it’s a dimly lit ballroom with dark walls and high ceilings. Maybe it’s an outdoor reception lit only by candles. These types of receptions can be beautiful to the naked eye, but can be a photographer’s nightmare without the right knowledge and tools. Especially when it comes to focusing. We’ve all been in a situation where our camera is trying so hard to focus, but the lens keeps jutting in and out and can’t lock because it doesn’t have enough light to do its job. We know this feeling well, and if just thinking about this scenario makes your palms start to sweat, you’re not alone! It’s just plain challenging to focus in extremely low light. It really is. But whether we have the house lights up or little to no light, it’s still our job as professionals to get the shot, regardless of the ambient light in the room. So, today, we’re going to tackle our top tips for shooting receptions in low light so that (hopefully) you’ll feel more confident at your next wedding to get crisp images even when you’ve got nothing to work with but a black sky!
We shoot back-button focus all day, but it’s especially helpful during receptions when it’s challenging to focus over and over and over again. Back-button focusing is when you use the AF-ON button on the back of your camera to focus and the button near your index finger to work the shutter, instead of pressing your index finder halfway down to focus and the other half to click the shutter. It separates two things that normally come from the same button: focus and shutter. The beauty? If you can lock focus on your subject at a certain distance with back-button focus, as long as you keep the same distance to your subject, you don’t have to re-focus again. So, if you’re in a low light situation where it’s taking your camera minutes to find focus, just lock your focus once and you can get tons and tons of shots, instead of only one shot every time your camera focuses.
On our Canon 5D Mark III camera bodies, the strongest focal point is the one right in the center. We toggle a lot during the wedding day, but during the reception sometimes the outer focal points just aren’t strong enough to lock in a sharp focus. Only the center one can. With back-button focus, we can lock our focus using the center focal point (which, again, is the strongest anyways), then recompose our frame and fire our shutter separately to get the shot. At some recent outdoor receptions, during toasts, none of our outer focal points could lock focus except the middle one. Since we knew that in advance, though, we didn’t spend precious seconds or minutes that we didn’t have toggling around hoping to lock in. We stuck with the center focal point right from the start, and it didn’t fail us.
Most of the time, our cameras can’t focus on our subject’s faces because it’s just too dark and there’s not enough contrast for the camera to pick it up. So, instead, during most receptions when there’s not enough ambient (existing) light in the room (or outdoor reception) to focus on our subject’s eye (our first preference) or their face (our second preference), we look for the spot on a man’s jacket where the white shirt meets the dark coat. Maybe it’s the lapel on the chest. Maybe it’s the shirt collar on the back of his neck. For ladies, it could be the contrast between her skin and dress straps (although the black and white contrast of the shirt and coat is best). We’ve realized over time that, even at an aperture of f/2.8, we’re still solidly in focus when we focus on the clothes. We’ve also had success focusing on a man’s tie.
And even at a very recent wedding, during the husband and wife game, Amy was shooting the groom while Jordan was shooting the bride, and he was able to get focus between the bride’s hand and the giant wooden letters she was holding. So, when she would put her hands down and wait for the DJ to ask his question, Jordan focused on her hand and the letter (bumped his aperture to f/4 to allow for the extra distance between her lap where she was resting her hand and her face) and then just recomposed and fired the shutter using back-button focus.
During outdoor toasts, sometimes it can be almost impossible to get parents’ reactions in focus because there’s no ambient light to illuminate their faces. Here’s a trick for that: don’t focus on the person. Sometimes objects come into focus more easily than people. At a recent wedding, Jordan couldn’t get the camera to lock focus on one of the parents during toasts. None of the tricks above were working, so he focused on the subject’s water glass (close to candle) about one foot in front of where she was sitting. At that point, he knew that his focus was locked ten feet from anywhere he was standing. She was about eleven feet away. So, to get her in focus, he just took one baby step forward, and she was in focus, because the distance between him and his subject hadn’t changed. It was still ten feet. That’s really the beauty of back-button focusing in action, because it would’ve been so distracting to pop a video light in Mom’s face while she was listening to toasts.
We shoot at a range of f/2.8 – f/5.6 at receptions depending what we’re shooting and how low the light is. If there’s plenty of ambient light and focusing is a cinch and it’s during toasts where no one’s moving, we love f/2.8. The same even goes for dancing if we’re able to focus and shoot, focus and shoot, and focus and shoot. If, however, the ambient light is lower and it’s really challenging to get focus, we like higher apertures and here’s why: we can step out into a hallway where there is ambient light (or even flash our cell phone on the other person on the dance floor), get focused from a certain distance (let’s call it three big steps), and then never touch our focus again. You heard that right! Never touch our focus again. Because if we’re shooting at an aperture of f/4 or higher and we just keep our distance of about three big steps from whatever we’re shooting, it’ll all still be in focus because the focus is locked with back-button. Are you sold yet?!
Well, friends, we hope the next time you walk into a dark reception you’ll feel confident with this checklist of tools to help you get all of your important shots in focus! Have a great week!
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