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Equipment for Low Light Wedding Photography
Dealing with low light is one of the biggest issues for wedding photographers. Most weddings occur in dimly lit churches, but even outdoor weddings often have receptions in the evenings in poorly lit settings. To make things even more difficult, as a wedding photographer you are often shooting from the hip, in rushed situations, and without the opportunity to set up sophisticated lighting equipment like light stands with soft boxes or umbrellas. This articles discusses the different equipment options for low light wedding photography, along with pros and cons for each option.
Option 1:  Use a flash.
Using a flash is the traditional, time tested way of dealing with low light. For most wedding photographers a good flash is pretty much a necessity. Even if you mostly rely on other techniques for low light shooting, it's always a good idea to have a flash as backup.
Pros for using a flash:
  1. Flashes work even in extremely low light. Most flashes these days have infrared auto-focus assist beams that allow the camera to focus when it normally wouldn't be able to.
  2. If you are shooting in yellow incandescent light then adding pure white light from a flash can really improve the color balance of your photographs.
  3. You don't have to worry about depth of field or how fast your subjects are moving, a strong enough flash will always be able to provide enough light should you choose to use it.
Cons for using a flash
  1. Usually at a wedding your limited to using an on camera flash as oppose to a flash on a light stand. This means the flash comes from the same direction as your shooting which makes for very boring flat lighting of subjects. To lessen this effect you can bounce the flash of the ceiling, or use a flash arm that mounts the flash a little off to the side of your camera. Sometimes you can bounce the flash of the corner of a room and get more interesting lighting. These techniques help but even so heavy use of flash rarely looks really good.
  2. If the flash is to strong it will provide a harsh light that is not pleasing. Often its best to use other equipment that is also good in low light (like a fast lens or image stabilization) and then when its really dark just use a light fill flash. One setup I like a lot is a prime lens set to F 2.0, and  a shutter speed of 150th of a second, along with a fill flash that adds additional light as needed.
  3. Disturbance; flashes are often not welcomed or even allowed during the actual wedding ceremony. Often if your using a flash you will have to limit the number of shots you take to avoid disturbing your customers wedding. Flashes might also blow your cover if your trying to get a natural candid shot, unless of course you can capture the moment perfectly with just one shot!
Equipment Recommendation:
I use the Canon Speedlite 580ex, on a Canon camera, which works well for me, and is probably the one of the best solution for Canon shooters. I have also used the Speedlite 550ex which is really almost just as good. I can't comment on flashes offered by other manufactures as I have not tried them, or even researched them.
Option 2: Use a very fast lens.
There are lenses that open up as wide as F 1.0, although usually you won't want to shoot quite that wide. Generally only prime lenses open up this wide, having to use a prime lens is both a good and a bad thing.
Pros for using a fast prime lens:
  1. Cost: You can buy very high quality prime lens that opens up to F1.4 for as little as $300.
  2. Quality: High quality, fast prime lenses are generally very sharp even wide open. Furthermore prime lenses have better internal shading of the inner lens elements that gives photographs a richness that is difficult or impossible to achieve with zoom lenses. I have also noticed that many high quality primes are more resistant to flare.
  3. Background blur. Using a really fast lens is going to allow you to get your subject in focus with the background really blurred out, something that's very usefully at a wedding where often the subject is a well dressed bride and the background is cluttered or just not outstanding.
Cons for using a fast prime lens:
  1. You have no  zoom, so you have to walk and back and forth to crop your shot correctly. There will be shots you miss because you can't zoom in or out.
  2. To shallow a depth of field. I prefer not to shoot below F 2.0 unless I am really going for extreme background blur, but if the light is really low sometimes I am forced to open the lens all the way up to F 1.4. At F1.4 many shots just don't work, for example if you are shooting a couple, and the bride is standing back a bit then she will be out of focus. Even at F 2.0 and F2.8 many group shots don't work well. If your really skilled you can create great artistic photographs by having certain subjects out of focus but wedding photography has a practical aspect that can't be ignored. For this reason if your relying on a fast lens as a solution to low light then its advisable to also have a flash as backup.
  3. Focusing is more tricky, with a very shallow depth of field. If your shooting wide open you can't really rely on the camera to choose the auto focus point, because it won't focus on the right spot. When I am shooting wide open I use something called the focus and frame method, which gives me plenty of control over my focus points.
Equipment Recommendation:
My favorite prime lens is the Canon 50mm F1.4. It has great color, and focuses quickly and accurately. For people who don't shoot Canon there are equivalents by other manufactures that are almost as good. The Canon 50mm F1.4 retails for about $300 US dollars.
Option 3: Use a camera with a low light sensor.
There are a few digital cameras on the market that are exceptional in low light, they are expensive, but if you can afford them they will give you a real edge.
Pros for using a low light camera:
    a.) You can shoot in lower light at a higher shutter speed and/or with more depth of field and still get a clean image.
Cons for using a low light camera:
  1. Cost; these kinds of cameras are currently expensive. If your going to spend money on equipment then you might be better putting it it to lenses that won't devalue as fast as camera bodies do. The camera bodies get better every year so don't be suckered into thinking your buying a long term investment.
  2. Sometimes, having the ability to shoot without a flash means you do so even when its not ideal. For example in really poor incandescent light a low light camera might be able to produce a noise free shot but the colors in the photograph are still going to be bad. Somebody shooting with a camera that requires a flash might end up getting a better shot just because they where forced to use the flash.
Equipment Recommendation These days most of the DSLR's are pretty good in low light but there are a few cameras that have significantly better low light sensors. The best low light cameras today are: Canon 5d Mark 2, Nikon D3, Nikon D700, and Canon 1 D Mark 3.
Option 4: Use an image stabilized lens.
Yes image stabilization really works, its not just for people with shaky hands :-)
Pros for image stabilization
    a.) You can shoot in low light with more depth of field and less flash. b.) Its often more practical than just using a very fast prime lens because your not trying to shoot with a very shallow depth of field.
Cons for image stabilization
  1. Expensive! Good quality image stabilized lenses are generally at least $1000.
  2. Does not help for fast moving subjects.
  3. Does not add any value if your already using a tripod.
  4. They don't really sell any image stabilized prime lenses. So your going to have to shoot with a zoom. Many people prefer having a zoom anyway but I miss the higher quality optics, and option you have to really blur out the backgrounds, that you get on a fast prime.
Option 5: Use a tripod
Use a tripod with a wire release so that you can shoot without any camera shake. Generally tripods are only good for formal portraits, or non human subjects (like the wedding cake), but you can, and I have, used tripods to shoot candids.
Pros for using a tripod:
  1. You can shoot with a very slow shutter speed.
  2. Not expensive, a tripod is probability the least expensive option for low light photography.
  3. You can create motion blur effects where you show motion by having a sharp background but slight to moderate motion blur on your subjects.
Cons for using a tripod:
  1. Does not work for fast moving subjects (unless you want to go for the motion blur effect)
  2. Its more difficult to frame the shot you want.
  3. It takes time to setup.
  4. The tripod is cumbersome to carry around and can easily get in the way.