Unplugged Photography Blog » Recent pictures by David Shirk, a wedding photographer in Birmingham Alabama

Night Photos

I was asked yesterday if I were able to take good night pictures. . .it’s something that I’ve been doing so long, that I almost forget that it is not normal to enjoy shooting in “dungeons” (dark places with black ceilings, or outdoor night receptions). I was at a photography conference a couple of years ago, and the speaker (Jose Villa) asked to see hands for anyone who enjoyed shooting wedding receptions. Mine was the ONLY hand to raise in a room full of photographers.

Night/dark shooting can get expensive and lighting a reception well often requires several thousand dollars of equipment. I have 4 canon flashes, an Alien Bees flashhead, a kazillion sets of Elinchrom skyports (radio triggers for flashes), and a bunch of light stands. Then there are the fast lenses. . .those are even more expensive. It is a pain to set up and tear things down in a hurry when you’re trying to get between locations. But it is worth it for great pictures.

I will say that I am not by any means perfect when it comes to shooting at night. Pre-visualizing a scene is really tough, and sometimes something I think will work totally bombs. Photoshop, great lenses, and practice help, but sometimes we are saved by a bit of good luck!

My ideal light set-up for a reception is double back-lit, with a flash to the left and right side of the dance floor, raised up high. Then another flash to the front/side and another one if needbe on my camera (or more often, in my hand).

For general night pictures, it’s more of a free-for-all – if it works, then great. Sometimes one backlight, sometimes two side-lights, sometimes nothing but streetlight. . .the picture above is my friend John Deaver’s video light.

I’ll explain the light set-up and my thought process in a few of the pictures below that may be helpful to figure out how they were taken.


Amazing natural light is sometimes your best friend. Night is fun because it can change a location that is boring in the day into something magic in the dark. This is the reflecting pool at the Birmingham botanical gardens.The two backlights illuminate the lanterns, cake and Alona singing Etta James!
This is at the far range of the radio triggers. Balancing flash with a little bit of twilight is ideal for a killer picture. . .if you can get the flash to fire!Full moon + video light“Dino-lite” – one of the flashes was aimed at the dinosaur skeletonBalancing the flash with ambient light is important to showcase a great venueMultiple flashes help light the entire roomNo flash at all, just a 1/4 second exposureGood example of double back-light that makes the car and bubbles stand out in the pictureSilhouettes at twilight are some of my very favorite pictures to take. We did flash a couple of those, but it worked so much better with natural light.People don’t go blind from all of our flashes!! They’re all set at very low power (usually 1/32-1/64) so that ambient light, like the string-lights, will show up in pictures.Multiple flashes are key to illuminating people at different distances from the camera. One light is hitting Lisa on the stairs and another the girls waiting to catch the bouquet.The pictures above are typical dance set-ups. Direct flash kills the detail on a dress (it will turn completely white), but side-lights will make detail stand out.The goal is to get the light perfect so that you can focus on capturing moments and emotionLighting the entire room is important for things like the garter toss or if there is a live bandNo flashes here, the ambient light worked greatRemote flash to make Bethany & Nick visible, the car is light by streetlightsBlack cars are crazy tricky, and I’m still not great at shooting them. This picture had a light directly in front of the car and another near the back end of the car to skim along the side and give it some definition.The wide beam of a flash can light up both the couple and the area around them, so the backlight lights both Jennifer & John and the leaves.Silhouettes with ambient light to show the locationBalancing multiple flashes and ambient is idealSometimes very simple pictures are quite complicated. This is shot with a telephoto from the other side of the dance floor (the alternative location was at the bottom of the stage where I’d be looking up their noses) – the remote flashes light Jeff and Carmen’s dadCross light is great for bubbles. One flash is visible (I’m actually holding it while taking a picture), and the other is behind the camera to the left.A very slow exposure at a a high aperture will give the starburst effect (like f/22) – the challenge is getting the couple to stand still for such a long time.
Shooting in the dark with a flash can make colors crazy-vibrant.Shooting through candles at a reception – lights in the foreground and background are rendered as the foreground and background as circles of light. This works with the 85 1.8 or really well with the 85 1.2.flashlight in front, flash behind them, and the ambient light from Ross BridgeBacklight is awesome for creating lines and texture. This is with a 17mm lens and a super-awesome couple who were willing to take a few more pictures after their reception!Ambient light and the rainy streets, and a 35 1.4

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