Category Archives: technique

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. If you’re not a professional photographer, why would you have any real interest in the latest developments in camera technology? Well, you wouldn’t.

In that case it’s my responsibility to make sure that you know what you can and cant get away with photographically when planning your intimate wedding ceremony. I have experience as a London wedding photographer and, in fact, all over the UK.

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.

hands close up comparison


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How to shoot in difficult lighting – improve your wedding photography

How to take better wedding photography portraits and shoot in difficult lighting conditions!

Are you just starting out on your wedding photography journey? Or looking to push on to the next level and improve your wedding portrait photography?

Hopefully you will take away some useful information from this post and be able to implement the tips and information to take better pictures.

Picture a beautiful scene.

Now imagine it’s overcast.

Or worse…raining.

Your couple are ready, time is ticking and then your light just disappears on you. FFS.

It happens. Everything could be perfect, but if the sun suddenly disappears you can be left stranded. A team of expectant people around you or if you are at a wedding, the couple stood waiting wondering why you aren’t shooting.

It’s happened to me before plenty of times and is the main reason why I strongly suggest you add this trick to your repertoire before you become unstuck.

It’s a go to method for taking beautiful naturally lit wedding portraits that can be replicated in near enough any location.

A big bonus for this trick is that it can be used if it starts raining and you have nowhere to shoot indoors.

Weddings are incredibly difficult to photograph well. You need as many tools in your kit (not literal kit) as possible to get you out of any possibly difficult situations.

I don’t mean to compare it to shooting snow leopards in Tibet for 6 months. I mean more like it will test every facet of your photography knowledge and ability. Documentary, fine art…standing still. It all gets tested.

Trees are your best friends

Every time I visit a new location, I will look for trees just in case I have to implement this trick.

Let’s get into it.

What do you need for a good portrait?

Flattering light.
Decent background.
Shelter if windy.
Shelter if rainy
Happy couple.

Here’s how we are going to get all these things.

Who’s your best friend? Yes, trees, correct.

Trees give you shade from harsh sun. Placing your subject in the shade of a tree will create even light across the whole face. This is flattering for any person as there are no harsh shadows and therefore no weird shapes to contend with.

This is your first win. Second win, it creates a difference in light between the subject and the background.


Exposing for the skin of the couple will result in the background being overexposed, which will either eliminate any clutter in the background, or, overexpose it to the point of it being pure white to give you a clean canvas to work with.


Back lighting

Tip – make sure that the light is coming from behind the subject. This is called backlighting. Reason for this is you might otherwise end up with dappled light coming through the leaves and landing on the face making weird shapes. You might want that sometimes, but for this example, we want even lighting. The type of light that Jose Villa and Elizabeth Messina always seem to shoot in. Backlighting has the added benefit of seperating your subject from the background, creating a similar effect to a hair light/halo effect.

Here’s an example of how this can work in the real world.

deliberate overexposure difficult lighting

In this picture on the left I have exposed for the background, which you can see has rendered the area under the tree near enough black.

Take photographs of your hand

I always take a photograph of my hand to get an idea of accurate exposure for skin tones. If my hand is exposed properly, then their faces will be too.

Placing my hand in the shaded area and increasing exposure now gives me accurate exposure for skin tones and renders the background much, much brighter.

This difference in light is what you should be looking for. A shaded area with a brighter area behind it.

What your eye sees and what the camera sees are often very different. Where you might not see a great deal of contrast, the camera will, so play around in different lighting conditions to get to grips with it.

In this image taken moments later, the full effect is revealed.

overexposed portrait photography

The couple are perfectly, evenly lit and the background is bright and clean allowing them to stand out.

When I took this, it was raining

Not only was it overcast and a crappy grey sky with no contrast, but it was also raining.

When I first started this would have been a nightmare. Training myself to see light using this method means I can create a great picture with just a tree.

Extreme depth of field

The second part of this trick is to shoot at an aperture between f/1.4 – f/2.8. An aperture any smaller than this and the background will start to be rendered in focus due to a deeper depth of field.

Shoot at an aperture that you know you can nail focus with. Shooting at f/1.4 is a high risk move if you’ve no idea what you’re doing. If the focus is off by a few inches, the extremely shallow depth of field will render the image out of focus. Remember this can’t be saved in Photoshop. Out of focus=bin.

I use a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 lens – it’s a beast, but the sharpest lens I’ve ever owned. I’ll write a review on it one day. For me it’s the best 50mm lens on the market, Sigma are producing amazing lenses, for very reasonable money. I used to use the plastic Canon 50mm f/1.8, then upgraded to the 1.4 but then realised that was crap and went all in on the Sigma.

The extremely shallow depth of field will render the background out of focus. If you’re lucky enough to have a background of trees as well, then the light coming through the leaves will be rendered as lovely, soft out of focus orbs. Beaut!

Not just for the rain

This is a perfect technique to use when it’s blazingly sunny as well. If it’s face meltingly hot, people don’t want to be in direct sunlight. Grooms in suits sweat, make up runs, paige boys cry.

Make sure you have factor 50 sun cream on, and put your couple in the shade.

This works for me at weddings because the groom is often wearing a woollen three piece suit. He is going to be blisteringly hot and possibly anxious to wrap things up. It’s difficult for people to have their head in the game if they’re too hot and can’t even.

Go out and practice, let me know how you get on.

Captain camera.

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Mastering composition to improve your wedding photography

Before we get started, keep in mind, these are the exact techniques I have practiced in my attempts to become one of the best wedding photographers in London. Practice, practice, practice. I wrote this as much to reflect on what I had been considering and to cement my own learning as to share and educate, hopefully you find some value in it. Master these and you can produce amazing wedding photography. Let’s get started:


1. 1.
the nature of something’s ingredients or constituents; the way in which a whole or mixture is made up.

Composition is something of a beast. There are many rules and considerations when framing an image. The size of the canvas, the subject matter, the colours. The list is endless. Each individual element can have an impact on the image and it’s rhythm, and sometimes, the intention is to deliberately break the rules for artistic or conceptual reasons.

The intention of this article is to introduce and for you to experiment with a few more composition tools that should hopefully lead to mastery.

Consider the language you speak, you can only read this article because you know the language. When you speak, you do not consciously reach for words one by one, they come to you naturally. With enough practice these tools and techniques should hopefully enable you to do the equivalent with your image making.

When you raise the camera to your eye, you do not actively think of a technique, your subconscious recognises the scenario playing out in front of you and you naturally employ those techniques. This however, cannot be achieved without practice, discipline and honesty. Sometimes your images are crap, but to learn you must understand why.

You will never improve if you don’t critique your own work. Be brutally honest and pull your images apart.

So here we go, the rules of composition.

Play with these rules, insert them into your workflow and see how it affects your wedding photographs. Enjoy making work and enjoy the journey, we are all students of wedding photography and should always strive to learn more and develop our practice no matter how difficult it may be.

You will probably notice that there are areas of overlap throughout this. That’s a good thing. Composition is intertwined, interlinked. separating each individual element is troublesome, but it emphasises why practice is incredibly important. The more you practice and actively critique composition, the more the rules will begin to merge and you will see how some compliment each other more than others to make more sophisticated compositions.

Rule of thirds

You’ve no doubt heard it before, but what the hell is it and why would you use it?

The rule of thirds is a grid that breaks your image up into thirds.

It looks like this:

rule of thirds grid

Premise of the grid:

1) by placing the key part of the image either along either one of the two vertical or horizontal lines will make the image more aesthetically pleasing.

rule of thirds gridrule of thirds grid

2) by placing the key part of the image inside one of the blocks it will become more aesthetically pleasing.

rule of thirds grid rule

3) by placing the key part of the image at a point where the lines intersect it will become more aesthetically pleasing.

rule of thirds grid

Does it work?

The short answer is no. You cannot simply place an object along a line or on a point and expect it to be good. There are other factors that must be considered.

The rule of thirds attempts to take the incredibly complex subject of composition and break it down into more basic principles, which only serves to introduce you to the subject. Beyond that, we have to look at composition in more depth and explore the rule of thirds relationships with other rules in order to make sense of it.

Do not hate the rule of thirds. It serves a purpose.

An analogy of this could be the complex world of cooking. One rule might be that salt and sweet go together. But when you know that rule, you then go on to learn that it can be broken.

You then learn that there’s also sour, savoury and umami. You then go on to learn abut how steaming, frying, baking, roasting, sautéing etc. all affect taste and flavour.

Hopefully you see where I’m going with this.

Rules are one part of a whole. One rule will only work when applied in the correct context. The rule of thirds is one of the first rules you encounter, but the topic is so complex it will take years to master.

Rule of thirds and balance

The rule of thirds is an incredibly simple way to introduce the basic principles of composition.

It attempts to encompass a few key points such as balance, direction and rhythm. One of the most integral is introducing balance.

In placing the focal point in one of the thirds of the image, you create a difference in ratio. 2:1 negative to positive or positive to negative space. This creates a balance between positive and negative space.

rule of thirds photography example

This can help to move the eye left to right or right to left from the negative space to the focal point. It can also do the opposite, move the eye from the focal point into the negative space.

2:1 Ratios to balance the composition

rule of thirds compositionrule of thirds composition

If the subject is placed within a single block of the grid, then the ratio is 8:1 negative to positive space. This can create a feeling of isolation, loneliness and oppression.

rule of thirds photography example

But it is not so easy, you can’t simply place an object in one of the segments and expect your composition to be amazing.

Take this for example, if we recompose the Mona Lisa, it’s not quite as good…

mona lisa recomposed

The other common application of the rule of thirds is to place the object of interest on the point where the third lines intersect.

rule of thirds power point

Why would you do that?

The idea is that the lines naturally create a point of tension where they meet. That is the idea anyway. As we delve into this a bit more, hopefully it will become apparent that in order for a technique to work, multiple other factors have to also be in place.

Rule of space or Lead room

This describes a scenario in which the subject is looking into the negative space, it can be used to create a sense of movement as the subject has space to move into. It can also be used to add a sense of optimism – look out towards the future. Tension or a sense of unease can also be created as the subjects gaze can lead the viewers eye out of the frame. Notice the 2:1 ratio is still present.

rule of space example

rule of space

lead room example

Placing the negative space in front of the subject can also create a sense of movement and narrative. The subject will inevitably move into that space and reach a destination.

rule of thirds and space

Aspective view
Aspective view or Orthogonal view is the rendering of a three dimensional object in two dimensions or in linear perspective.

Orthogonal; of or involving right angles; at right angles.

This is relevant to you, the photographer, because it allows you to depict objects so that they are easily identifiable to the viewer. invisible rectangles and squares dictates how the subject is viewed. Allow me to explain. A gap in a persons legs as they walk which creates an angle that clearly communicates that this person is in motion. You are taking a three dimensional object (the person) and using angles to create a clear distinction between body parts which makes the persons shape immediately obvious and therefore immediately identifiable as not only a person, but also a person in motion.

Lets inspect this guy:

aspective view

The clear shape created by his legs is immediately recognisable as a person, but also a person in motion. It adds another layer of information as the plane on which the triangle sits implies the direction he is walking in also. He is two dimensional, but he has been rendered in such a fashion that makes him and his purpose immediately obvious.

Rule of odds

In the words of De La Soul, three is the magic number.

The rule of odds suggests that on a subconscious level, as human animals we find three objects to be harmonious. Squares and regular cuboids suggest stability, whereas a triangle is a dynamic shape as it emphasises directional movement diagonally rather than linearly which in turn creates a sense of movement.

Diagonal movement encourages the eye to move across the entirety of the image, left and right as well as up and down.
The rule of odds would dictate that any odd number of objects would create harmony and balance, however this is subjective and is also informed by other elements of composition. Basically this is one rule to consider and is only one tool in the composition box, to be used in conjunction within others to create dynamic compositions.

In this example the light areas either side help to frame the centre.

rule of odds

Robert Frank: Three key elements of the composition creates a triangle and establishes a relationship between the objects.

robert frank rule of three

robert frank composition

Placing three images together can also create harmony by framing the centre image. This is called a triptych (trip-tick)

rule of three tiptych


This is a picture of two Swans. So two things can work in harmony if other ingredients are in place to facilitate it – remember, these are rules, not laws. In this case, notice how the water compliments the shape of the birds and creates a harmony. Much in the same way as the yin and yang symbol does.

rule of three


Beatboxing. Yes, beatboxing. It’s a brilliant analogy for explaining how coincidences work. The basic beat is laid down, buh tu cah tu buh tu cah. Then new instruments and sounds are added, but your brain keeps the underlying beat going. That’s how coincidences can work. The lines start, form the majority of a shape and then your brain continues following that imaginary line to create the harmony and finish the shape. This creates structure and rhythm across an image without the need for rigid, visible lines.

coincidences in composition

The foreground

Is the scenery amazing and you just cant take a good picture of it? It seems awkward, unbalanced, something’s just not right. Examine the foreground and see if the objects nearer the camera upset the balance of your image. Understanding how it can add depth to your images can transform a photograph from good to great.

The foreground can lead the eye from the front to the back of the image, balance near and far objects by rendering them similar sizes and can also add much needed context. The foreground can also be used to create a frame within a frame, a much loved technique of Steven Spielberg.

Depth and scale are incredibly important in composition, particularly in landscape photography. An effective use of the foreground can make the image feel like it starts at your feet and draws you into the landscape, taking you on a journey with it. It immerses the viewer in the image. The foreground is like an extended hand, it will hold yours and walk you through the rest of the picture.

Foreground is not always confined to the bottom of the picture, but can form a complete or partial frame of the subject. Doorways, arches, windows. All good foreground frames. A personal favourite is finding the bough of a tree that creates a pleasing arch. The best part of utilising the foreground is that you can use it to hide anything unsightly. Sometimes the light is amazing and the setting ninety percent perfect, there’s just an ugly bastard part of a building in the background.

I have in the past taken a branch and pulled it down (not off, I’m not a monster) and then arched it to hide something hideous in the background. Its simple but effective. If you place an object right in front of the lens then no amount of depth of field will render it sharp so you have to embrace how its shape will move the eye across the picture.

foreground composition technique example


A composition tool for a scene that has prominent lines, the aim is to align two or more of these lines with the edge of the frame to emphasise the geometry. As the edge of the frame is a rigid geometric structure, how the photographer chooses to embrace it can have a major effect on the rhythm of the structure contained within it. Shape and form can be emphasised in composition when a structure is aligned with both the horizontal and vertical borders of the image frame. The corners also play a part in this composition technique, they can contribute to the directional flow of the photograph. Angular momentum can be emphasised and can move the eye in a particular direction across the image.

alignment dynamic composition


Not often considered a tool of composition, but it plays an important role in more complex pieces. Contrast can be utilised in both colour and black and white photography. The difference between light and dark aids the sense of structure, formality and directional flow. Specifically within architecture the dynamic lines are an important feature to emphasise due to the direction and movement along their length and height.

When composing an image of a building the composition becomes pleasing to the eye because it will compare the angle and length. Horizontal lines, for instance, have a more tranquil effect than diagonal lines as they lead the eye in a single direction laterally from left to right. Zig-zags can be exciting, but also disruptive to the flow of an image as it breaks up the natural line that the eye will take. Bold lines can express strength whereas thin, curving lines, suggest delicacy.

contrast in composition

advanced composition

contrast in advanced composition


“Surface decorations based on rhythmic linear patterns”

Basically swirly patterns that make an image interesting by moving the eye across it. Stems from Arabic patterns, so literally Arab-esque. Adopted as a term in western art during the 1500’s. Imagine how a bird may swoop, climb and dive, it moves from left to right or right to left in a rhythmic fashion, with pauses, changes of direction and elevation, but ultimately moving across the landscape – they take you on a journey with them. That’s what arabesque composition should do for your photographs, move the eye across the image in a rhythmical pattern.

Van Gogh’s Starry Night is a beautiful application of this technique. The clouds allow the eye to gently drift across the image on that same breeze.

Arabesque composition


Symmetry is fundamentally linked to beauty because of it’s relationship with unity and regularity. Distinct elements within the image are both related to each other and to the whole. The parts of the whole are essentially interchangeable, this creates harmony as each section can be interchanged.

symmetrical composition

symmetry composition


Imagine a set of scales. You place a weight on one side, it lifts the other side up and it becomes unbalanced. You place an object of equal weight on the opposite side, it becomes balanced. That is the fundamental thought process behind the counterpart – when you insert an object, you need another to balance it.

Now imagine a tablecloth on a table. If you pull it in one direction forcefully, the tablecloth comes off, you would need to pull it equally from the opposite direction. Now you have two people pulling equally in opposite directions, and the cloth is stable. An image can pull from all corners. In order to create harmony across the image we need to strategically place elements to make sure that the image pulls equally in all directions.

Take this image from William Eggleston. With all of the elements in place the image pulls equally in all directions.
Remove one of these elements and the image is no longer anchored, the composition is skewed in favour of one side of the picture. You could then say if you were analysing this piece, that the frames in the respective corners act as counterpoints to the cables on the ceiling.

counterpart composition example

Dynamic composition

Fancy term for using a more complex grid to compose your images. The rule of thirds is a linear grid, it goes up and down, left and right. The intention of dynamic composition is to enable the eye to move both across and up and down the image simultaneously. This creates a rhythm across the image as your eye does not reach the edge of the frame at a ninety degree angle, which would potentially cause the flow of your gaze to stop. Like dropping a ball, it goes in only one direction and will stop in that place. Bounce it at an angle and it moves both up and diagonally at the same time. To calculate how to best use dynamic composition, we need to use what is called an Armature. This is based upon mathematical ratios, if you recoil at the sight of the word ‘maths’ do not fret, you can create the most basic version of it with a ruler, a pencil and a simple connecting of corners and lines. It doesn’t matter the shape of the canvas, draw diagonals in the same fashion as the image below. The diagonal from the bottom left to the top right is called the baroque diagonal. From bottom right to top left is called the sinister diagonal.

The latest version of Photoshop has different crop grids to overlay onto your images so you can try it out with your own pictures.

baroque and sinister diagonal

In this image we have some megalols

The relationship between the lady laughing in the foreground and the background creates a channel in which the diminishing size moves the eye to the right. The croquet stick in the background lines up nicely with the Armature, as does the angle of the models body in the foreground, each element creating a sense of movement from left to right.

dynamic composition

Composition with a concept

Composition is not only used to create visually interesting pictures, it can also be used to emphasise a concept, or hide a subliminal message.

10 Pillars of Knowledge: The School of Athens.

The School of Athens by Raphael represents human knowledge. Human knowledge is composed of 10 pillars (parts) that include all the fields that establish our cultural and scientific heritage. Here the image has been composed to deliberately place significant historical figures in positions that represent their philosophical, mathematical and historical views.

composition with a concept

To make this image doubly interesting, the composition was as inspiration in Alt-J’s video ‘Tessellate’. Many modern creators and creatives reach back into the archives of art history to recycle old ideas. Next time you’re looking at a painting, why not challenge yourself to think of how you would make it into a wedding portrait?

art inspired music videoAll of these are merely tools, ideas for you to play with. Go forth and conquer. Create something that makes you happy.

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