Photographing Low Light And Candlelit Ceremonies

I often get questions like the following from clients who want to create an intimate feel to the wedding but still get great pictures. Candlelit ceremonies look incredible, there is no doubt, but, what looks incredible to the naked eye doesn’t always translate into photographs as cameras can’t see as well as the human eye can…yet. 

In that case it’s my responsibility to make sure that you know what you can and can’t get away with photographically when planning your intimate wedding ceremony. I have seen ceremonies in wine cellars in France and hilltops in Barcelona, all weddings look different from a lighting perspective, the images used here are from my adventures as a London wedding photographer.

Camera equipment has developed at a ridiculous rate, every six months a new top end model is released. It’s big business. Developments possibly fuelled by the blogging and vlogging markets, but who knows. All you need to know is that for wedding photographers it essentially has enabled us to shoot in near darkness. You can technically shoot in total darkness, but not with a visible wavelength, so that means your ceremony would be dark and no one could see you (I am going off on a tangent, but this is cool). I’ve only ever seen total darkness shooting for special forces missions. The team sends a dog out in front of them who is carrying a device which emits infrared, the guys behind then have infrared goggles and cameras so they can see, it’s very cool. I don’t have a special forces dog, but I do like sharing cool information.

Where was I. Right. So shooting in very low light is possible, but it does have some drawbacks as far as wedding photography is concerned. If you know what they are you can either plan around them or happily accept the side effects. I’m not a fan of surprises and forewarned is forearmed.

Here is a question I received recently:

“Our wedding ceremony is in the afternoon and will be by candlelight. We both don’t like staged wedding photographs and are looking for a creative photographer that can shoot gorgeous photos in a candlelit/fairy light environment. We are very aware good photos depend on lighting etc. and are very keen to hear your take on this. Would that be something you would be able to help us with? Do you by any chance have some photos to show from other night weddings?”

There are two main considerations when working in low light.
One – The images will be grainy
Two – Candlelight only from below can cast unflattering shadows

Images for your consideration.

example of grain in photographyclose up example of grain in photography

The first image (fairy light and grain) is an example of how low light levels (only lit by the fairy lights) will result in what’s called ‘grain’ on the photographs. It’s simply unavoidable, but something you should certainly be aware of. Personally I don’t think it matters and often adds character to an image, particularly black and white photographs. The the close up highlights the grain.

candle lit wedding ceremony

The second image (low candle light) I found on Google to give an example of the potential for shadows. When light only comes from below the shadows can be unflattering.

candlelit wedding ceremony

Image three (mixed lighting), I photographed in a particularly dark barn and is a combination of fairy lights and ‘candle light’ bulbs. The bulbs fill in the shadows and provide more even lighting across the face.

My recommendation would be to have a combination of the two, candles for ambience and fairy lights to add to the ambient light.

The most practical solution would be to create a mini set up at the venue and reflect upon the results. Another consideration is the heat from the candles if they will also be your primary light source. I’ve seen the Gentlemen get quite hot in a three piece woollen suit stood next to candles!

Here are a few more examples of images with grain, I don’t see it as a negative, personally I think it adds character, charm and texture. Some images I even deliberately add grain to achieve a certain style. If however, you think it looks dreadful, then at least now you know. If you want bright images with no moodiness then you will need to either get married in the summer months or invest in a lighting solution to brighten the room. The best bet is if in doubt, hire some gear and test it out, then you can rest assured that the ceremony will look exactly how you want it to.

These two images are heavily cropped to give you an accurate side by side. The image on the left is the first dance where it was very, very dark. The image on the right is during the daylight ceremony. On the left you can see the texture looks a bit like the static on your old TV, on the right the detail is incredibly clear, you can even see the weft of the cloth on the grooms jacket.

hands close up comparison


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