How to photograph the first dance at a wedding
When you’re hired as a wedding photographer, couples are expecting you to be able to deliver quality photos for the entire event. After all, if they wanted average looking photographs, they would have asked their friends or family to take the photos for them. No matter what your clients have paid, they are expecting to see results. Many times, the ones who pay the least are the ones who expect the most. The first dance is one of those moments the couple will be excited to see. It’s also one of the hardest shots to take because the lighting is often dimmed down, whilst also battling all the multi coloured lights that come from the dj’s lighting system. In my opinion, capturing stunning images of the first dance can really set you apart from your competitors and make great advertising photos.
So how can you capture stunning images that will ‘wow’ your clients?
First, you need to consider the background behind your couple. When you approach the dance floor to capture the moment, the temptation is to stand in front of the guests who are crowded at the edge of the dance floor. What’s the problem with this? The problem will be your background. If you stand in front of the guests, all you’ll see behind the couple is the DJ and his fluorescent coloured lights. This makes for poor quality and emotionless background. There is no story to it at all. Instead, cross to the other side of the dance floor so that the guests themselves will be the background and, potentially, the venue lighting will be there also. This is often nicer then the DJ’s colored lights. Approaching the dance floor this way brings the bride and groom’s family and friends into the image giving it more romance and emotion. Also, you could also ask the DJ to switch his coloured lights off until the first dance is over as this can potentially ruin your photos.
Second, it’s important to balance your flash with the ambience of the room. If you are using a crop sensor camera then you will struggle to get good images because the auto focus is not as good in low light and they can’t handle the ISO. We will discuss autofocus a little bit more below but for now it’s enough to say that you need a good full frame camera. I use the 6D Mark II with a 50mm 1.8 lens along with the canon 600ex rt ii flash. If the room has a white ceiling or wall, then use an on-camera flash and bounce your lighting. However, do not use full power. Boost your ISO right up to say 5000. Combining high ISO with a wide aperture will bring in more natural light, thus keeping the ambience, and increase your flash recycle time. If you have a good camera you shouldn’t be afraid of high ISO. Finally, don’t forget to use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action, I try to use 200–250, sometimes higher. The following images are shot at around 5000 ISO.
No White ceiling or wall?
At times you may not have a white ceiling or wall to work with. In this situation you will need some sort of off camera flash with a medium size diffuser. Remember to shoot wide open with a high ISO to keep the ambience and increase flash recycle time. This should sufficiently light up the couple and their guests while keeping the image looking natural. Using manual triggers allows you more control over the overall exposure, however TTL can work fine too. You can of course get a little creative and incorporate some starburst shots too!
Focusing in dark venues
One other problem you may encounter is focusing problems. You may have problems with your auto focus when the venue is dimly lit. There are a few ways around this. Sometimes the auto focus assist beam on an on-camera flash can help. However, this also has limitations. The next option is to set up an off-camera strobe which has a modelling light on. This acts as a spotlight on the couple and often has a nice look to it. This will light your subjects up sufficiently for your auto focus. Another option is to use a constant light such as an LED or a mono-light. These are relatively cheap on Amazon. Both LED’s and mono-lights are also dimmable allowing you to balance your ambience well.
None of these techniques are set in stone and its worth experimenting with these options in order to find the method which suits you and your photography style best. As a wedding photographer who also does photo booths, I’ve had the opportunity to watch dozens of other photographers take photos on the dance floor. Some used bad techniques and others are great. I’ve certainly benefitted from observing others and asking questions. If you put the effort into photographing the first dance, then you will get amazing results which will stun your clients and make great portfolio images. To get more tips on how to photograph the first dance, check out my video on youtube here.