Lighting is usually a wedding photographer’s best friend. But if you don’t know how to manage that beast, she can turn on you quickly.
Of course, it’s the dream to have a gorgeous, slightly overcast day with no rain in sight. Or to have the wedding reception perfectly lit, so you never have to touch those (gulp) flashes you’ve been letting collect dust.
But often, no one but professionals thinks about lighting, so you end up shooting a beach wedding at noon or an outside reception by the light of the moon. COOL.
Since there are endless lighting scenarios, there are endless ways to handle them. So let’s zoom in on one particular wedding day moment: string lights.
String lights are gorgeous all the time and any time. But if they’re not done right, they can leave you with too little light and a whole lot of stress.
So, how do you get those dreamy, romantic wedding photos with only string lights? Let’s find out.
Talk with Your Client
The first thing you’ll need to do is talk with your client.
Like I mentioned earlier, most non-professionals are oblivious to light. They just know how they want their photos to look. They don’t know how to make them look that way.
That’s one of the reasons they’re paying you all that $$.
So, now it’s your turn to grasp your couple’s expectations and educate them on how to achieve them.
Help your client understand that the later it gets, the more lighting they’ll need.
If the exit is around sunset, then natural light and a handful of string lights will be plenty to keep the wedding photos well-lit.
However, if they’re planning on having their ceremony later in the day and partying after dark, then you’re going to have to coach them on lighting.
Encourage Plenty of Lighting
Honestly, the more the better, especially when it comes to string lights.
These are not your overwhelming spotlights or dramatic uplights. If done well, you can’t overdo these beauties.
Let your couple know to hang them lower so more light will be available where it’s needed. Also, help them consider other ways of hanging lights.
Could they wrap that giant oak tree near the head table? What about the surrounding palm trees or the rose bushes in the garden?
Encourage them to get creative with all of the areas they could add extra lighting.
Seriously, there are never enough string lights!
Candles are the perfect pairing to those romantic string lights.
For your client, candles will keep that same natural ambiance. For you, they’ll provide crucial uplighting so you can avoid those heinous face shadows.
The key here is to work in clusters. I know, it’s a terrible word, but it’s a beautiful look. Work candles at varying heights into a table centerpiece.
If candles are placed strategically (and generously), they can help the string lights and provide you with all the lighting you’ll need.
Tip: if your couple is going for a raised head table, make sure they stick with shorter candles, so their faces aren’t blocked.
Add in some paper lanterns for more of that romantic energy!
I’m pretty sure string lights, candles, and paper lanterns are the trifecta of ideal ambient lighting. You will get stunning photos with this combo.
Again, the goal here is to be generous. Encourage your client to go all out with the paper lanterns, and don’t forget to hang them low for an intimate feel!
Know the Time of the Sunset
After you’ve set expectations with your clients and educated them on how you can both meet those expectations, it’s on you.
The number one thing you should know is when the sun sets and how that corresponds with the wedding timeline.
Understanding the wedding day in terms of the sunset will help you prepare for the moments that will be a little trickier to capture.
If most of the day happens in daylight, and only the cake cutting and exit occur after dark, then pay extra attention to those areas. Encourage your clients to add a bit of extra light, or bring a flash and add the light yourself.
Assess the Area
This leads us right into assessing the area.
When you arrive, make sure you scout out those places you know are trouble areas. How are the string lights looking there? Are there plenty? Are they hung low enough?
If your clients went ham on the string lights, then you’re good to go. There should be enough ambient light for you to rock it.
If, however, things are looking a bit sparse, now is your chance to prep for that challenge.
Without Extra Lighting
When required, even natural light wedding photographers need to be versed in artificial lighting. But if you want to make it work with just the string lights, there are some things you should think about.
Do NOT Underexpose
Please. Whatever you do, do not underexpose once you’re working in low-light.
Sometimes wedding photographers consistently underexpose and lighten in post as a part of their style. If this is you, avoid this when you’re working in low-light.
The issue here is you’re going to have to bump up your ISO to let in more light, and the higher your ISO, the grainier things will get in post.
So if you have your ISO high and you have to bump things up lighter in post, you’re going to get a very grainy photo, and not in a cool, romantic kind of way. In a wow, I totally botched this kind of way.
Spot Meter for Faces
Use your spot metering and measure the light for people’s faces.
The light from the string lights will hit everyone’s faces differently than the rest of their bodies and the surrounding area.
If you meter for their faces, you know the focal point of the shot is getting the appropriate amount of light without over or underexposing the rest of the photo.
Dial-In Your Manual Settings
If you’re not already comfortable in manual, get there.
Shooting a wedding with just string lights, you’ll want to rock a wide aperture, a slow shutter speed (but probably no slower than 1/200 to prevent blur), and then you’ll want to mainly work with ISO.
But remember, if you bump the ISO up too much, you’ll get a grainy photo. Watch that.
With Extra Lighting
If you decide you don’t want to trust the string lighting gods, or you know your couple will not be providing enough light, you’re going to have to get comfy with artificial lighting.
Remember that adding light can disrupt a more natural setting, and it can change the feel of a photo.
If you have a great low-light camera, and there’s a good amount of string lights, you may just want to work with what you’ve got. And if you don’t have a good low-light camera, consider renting one for the weekend.
The easiest route would be to utilize a video light.
Video light will give you a steady stream of light, making it easy for your camera to focus and keep you away from the dreaded flash.
Unfortunately, video light doesn’t provide the best lighting, so you may still be unhappy with the outcome of your photos, especially if you’re shooting from a long distance.
They can also be pretty disruptive of that gorgeous string light glow. It’s not discrete if you know what I mean.
Another option would be the on-camera flash. You could use a diffuser over the flash if you’re outside and can’t bounce the flash.
If done well, this can provide beautiful photos, but it can still be disruptive since it’s a flash in people’s faces.
You can also try the on-camera flash and shutter drag on the dance floor (if there is one) to bring some extra light and add a bit of fun to your photos.
Off-camera flash, though, is the gold standard here.
You’ll want at least one flash with a light stand and a flash trigger. Set your flashes up and direct them to an area that will be getting less light.
Adjust the power of your flash so it matches the surrounding lighting. With string lighting, you may want to really tone down your flash so you still maintain that natural vibe.
Get some string lights and practice, if you’re really concerned.
A set of string lights won’t break the bank, and they’ll allow you to test your camera out before the big day. Get comfortable with how it feels to shoot under wedding string lights.
Try to set them up in a similar environment to how your couple will have them. That way, if you do need more artificial lighting, you’ll be prepared.
Believe in Yourself
It’s just light. That’s all. You’re not afraid of some strands of wedding string lights, are you, friend? Maybe?
Well, practice and then fake it ’till you make it! I believe in you, now believe in yourself!