An example of off-camera flash photography.

Lighting options for event photography

Bradley Event photography

One of the main difficulties faced by event photographers is the inevitable lack of available light in many venues. In those cases, photographers only have three options:

  1. Use on-camera bounce flash;
  2. Use an off-camera lighting solution; or
  3. Rely on the ambient light and shoot at very high ISOs.

On-camera bounce flash

On-camera bounce flash is my preferred lighting solution if the ceilings are a light colour and not too high.

The idea with on-camera bounce flash is that you point the flash at a surface that the light can bounce off, such as a wall or a ceiling. The reflected light then becomes your light source, which is directional and a lot more attractive than direct flash.

While it would be nice to be able to choose the direction from which the light is reflected, in practice the only viable reflecting surface is usually the ceiling.

Example of event photography lighting with bounce flash.

A typical event photograph. I lit the speaker with an on-camera flash bounced off the ceiling.

Point the flash straight up to the ceiling or at a point on the ceiling between the photographer and the subject. You can even aim it at a point on the ceiling slightly behind the camera. Each position will give a different result. For example, if you aim the flash at a point on the ceiling between you and your subject then the subject will likely receive a small amount of direct light from the flash. This will result in a harder, brassier-looking light but it may also provide stronger catch-lights in the subject’s eyes. If you point the flash straight up then the light will probably be a bit softer but there may be deeper shadows under the subject’s eyes. These are the sorts of factors that determine your individual approach to using bounce flash. There is no one right or wrong approach.

On-camera bounce flash used to light a speaker

I lit the speaker at this event very effectively with simple on-camera bounce flash.

Off-camera lighting

Off-camera lighting is sometimes necessary if the subject is impossible to light otherwise. I use this technique in rooms that are huge, that have dark or coloured walls, or that have ceilings that are too high to bounce light from. The results can be well worth the effort but there are drawbacks. You’ll probably need an assistant to manage, hold, and move lights for you. You’ll also need additional equipment such as triggers and modifiers for your lights or flashes.

My go-to off-camera lighting setup is a flash and shoot-through umbrella mounted to a monopod which is held by an assistant. At a pinch, I can even hold the monopod myself with one hand while I take the photos with the other, although I don’t recommend it!

Example of off-camera flash

I photographed this guest arriving at an event by using an off-camera flash and a white shoot-through umbrella that an assistant held to camera-left.

An example of off-camera flash photography.

I shot this image with an off-camera flash and shoot-through umbrella mounted on a monopod. I held the monopod with my left hand and took the photograph with my right hand. Awkward, but possible.

If I use this technique at an event in which I need to move around among a lot of people then I usually swap the shoot-through umbrella for a softbox designed for use with small flashes. It’s easier and less risky to manoeuvre a 24-inch softbox in such an environment than an umbrella.

Depending on the circumstances, I might also use off-camera bounce flash. This technique requires mounting a flash on a light stand and positioning it to bounce light from a wall or ceiling. This can be a very quick, simple, and effective lighting solution if you know that you won’t need to change the position of the light. I have used this technique to quickly light groups of people by placing an off-camera flash on each side of the camera and bouncing them from a ceiling. It creates even and very usable light over the group of people, and it’s fast and easy to set up.

Ambient light

If all else fails then you may have to dial up your ISO and rely on the available light.

The first problem with this approach is that the images will degrade significantly with high ISO settings. The degree of degradation will vary from camera to camera, and even though the results can be improved with skillful post-processing it’s still far from ideal.

The second problem is that you have to work with the existing light colour and direction, which are oftentimes awful. I recall one instance, photographing a large event at a venue in Brisbane, when I had no lighting options at all — it was high-ISO photography or nothing. It wasn’t until I was reviewing the images later that I saw that the venue lighting created a green halo effect behind one of the speakers — something that I couldn’t see in the viewfinder but was very clear in the resulting images. It took a lot of work with software later to neutralise that green halo effect. Even if I could have seen it while taking the photos, there would have been nothing I could have done about it at the time.

High ISO photo example

I took this photo during an event using only available light. The ISO setting was 12,800.

Even though it’s not ideal, high-ISO photography is unavoidable in many situations. For example, if you want to photograph wider, contextual shots of an audience or the indoor environment, then you almost always need to rely on the ambient light. Or if you’re photographing in situations where the use of flash is not allowed or would be too distracting, then high-ISO shots are your only option. So it’s well worth the effort of getting to know how your camera responds at those high ISOs. You won’t be able to avoid them completely if you shoot in these sorts of situations.

An event photograph

High-ISO ambient light photography is required in photographs like this that show wider views.