Dramatic Wedding Photography and Engagement Sunset couple Photo Colorado Wedding Photographers
July 21, 2016

Dramatic Wedding Photography | Colorado Wedding Photographers


How to use strobes in Dramatic Wedding Photography: So you see those photos of a bride and groom against a dramatic sunset (like the one here) or a couple sitting in a wine cellar and they are lit a different color from say the dramatic blue light of the cellar shelves and you wonder how you can make a photo like that at your next wedding…

Dramatic Wedding Photography Using Strobes

I believe one key to Dramatic Wedding Photography is using off camera strobes. The problem may be that you have mostly used on camera flash and are a bit intimidated by off camera flash. You read blogs and all the talk of TTL and dynamic range and blah blah blah confuses or intimidates you. I’ve been a professional photographer for more than 16 years and it confuses me. I’m going to lay it out real simple here for you. It all comes down to you as a photographer understanding one very basic part of photography… Exposure!

I know, you say that the camera handles the exposure for you all you have to do is just push the button, right? WRONG! Every time you use your camera it is calculating exposure. It is trying to average out the exposure to 18% grey (here is a definition of 18% grey), this is half way between black and white. This is all your camera is doing. Yes you can spot meter, but that is just trying to get 18% grey in that spot.

Your camera can only expose for roughly 5 stops (your eye can see over 20 stops) so if you have a couple standing in front of a bright sunset, the camera is going to try and average them against the bright sky, and neither will be exposed correctly. Your eye can see the detail in their faces but if you expose for the sky the camera can’t, because they are more than 5 stops darker than the sky. If you expose for them you blow out the sky. So basically you have two separate exposures, one for your couple and one for the sky. Following so far?

Dramatic Wedding Photography farm sunset bride groom Colorado Wedding Photographers

So here is what you do for Dramatic Wedding Photos with a sunset as your background:

  • First switch your camera to manual, If you don’t know how to do this watch a video and learn to use it because it is the basis for all of photography and it is essential for this technique.
  • Decide which you want to expose for and light the other. Since the only thing we can strobe here is our couple, we’ll light them. Find the exposure for the sky, with digital it is easy, just shoot a couple tests until you find the right exposure. Lets say the exposure is 1/60th f8 @ ISO 400.
  • Now place a strobe at a nice angle to your subject (not straight on) and switch it to manual mode as well and adjust your power while firing test shots until your strobe is lighting the couple enough to match the sky.
  • Depending on how bright you want them to be, your exposure for the strobe should be within one stop of f8 @ ISO400. (Click here to see why shutter speed is not a factor for strobe exposure)
  • Now just race the sunset, because it is going to get steadily darker. You can use your shutter speed to adjust for the changing sky but not your aperture because that is also controlling the strobe exposure. Now do you see why we are shooting in manual mode?

Does this make sense? It is tough to get your head around at first but with a little practice you can get there. Just don’t try this out for the first time at a wedding! If you have any questions please comment and I will answer as soon as possible. If you would like me to do a blog on any specifics of exposure please comment below. If you are a bride and would like some dramatic wedding photos at sunset or any time, please click here to go to the contact page!

Dramatic Wedding Photography Bride and Groom kiss under sunset and arbor


Eric Bellamy
Wedding Photojournalist at Stark Bellamy Photography
Eric Bellamy is an award-winning photojournalist whose work has appeared on the likes of ESPNHS, the New York Times, Denver Post and more. He now focuses on editorial-style wedding photography and portraiture. He lives with his wife and children, and enjoys climbing rock and ice as well as sampling good wine and food in Northern Colorado.
Katy 14:53 August 2, 2016 Reply
Hi Erik! Thank you for explaining this in an easy-to-understand way. I've been using OCF at the last few weddings I've shot, and am happy, for the most part, with my indoor results. I tried to use it for a sunset on Sunday, but just couldn't get my couple lit properly. Fortunately, the flash lit them well enough that I could adjust their exposure in post-processing with brushes/filters, but I'd like to get some more ideas about how to get it closer to "right" SOOC. Essentially, I exposed for the sky as you described (and it looks good SOOC). I had my OCF aimed at the couple (90 degrees to my right, their left). I had the flash on manual, initially set at 1/32, but it was too dark, so I cranked it all the way up. They were still under exposed... thoughts?
    starkbellamy 14:07 August 18, 2016 Reply
    How close was the light to your couple? Remember the inverse square law, as you move the light closer to your subject the exposure will increase. If the strobe was 20 feet away and you moved it in 10 feet you will gain 1 stop. Other factors could be sync speed and zoom on the flash...