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October 30, 2014

Lets Get Technical: Using Strobes on the Dance Floor


I see a lot of photographers posting on social media and around the web asking how to light a wedding reception dance floor. This is something that we at Stark Bellamy Photography do on a regular basis. We honed these skills lighting dingy high school gyms and run-and-gun portraits in our newspaper days.

engagement daylight flash off camera

First of all let me apologize to the couples out there looking for a wedding themed blog, I am a lighting geek and some times I like to write about this stuff and help out my fellow photographers. Though this may give you an idea of where we come from and how we shoot your wedding, particularly the reception.

Disclaimer: To all the photo geeks out there who are going to bring up dynamic range or challenge the exposures I’m using, these are just approximations. Every camera, flash and venue is different. This is just an exercise to get people in the ballpark. You have to practice and figure out what works best, then be ready to throw that out in second when conditions change. I am also leaving high speed sync out of the equation, I am looking for more power than HSS allows for.

Lighting with off camera strobes (OCS or OCF) or any strobe, comes down to one simple rule: Aperture controls strobe exposure, ambient exposure is controlled by shutter speed and aperture. That’s it! Once you fully understand this principle lighting a portrait or action on the dance floor will not be so intimidating.

So what does that mean? As long as you aren’t shooting over your camera’s sync speed (depending on the camera it’s usually between 125th and 250th) the shutter speed will not effect the flash exposure. That pulse of light is moving at, well, the speed of light. 1/160th of a second is not going to effect it. Your aperture does though, it controls how much of the light passes through your lens.

bride dance floor reception flash

Here is a real world problem; the DJ is using way to many lights and you don’t want the bride’s dress to be a sickly color of greenish/bluish. We know from shooting in so many dark ballrooms, gyms, cabins and tents that the ambient exposure, green lights and all, is going to be around 1/60th @ f2.8 ISO 1600 or so. So using slaved (Nikon or Canon it doesn’t matter) strobes set to around 1/4th to 1/8th power, our exposure for the dance floor is 160th @f5.6 ISO 200. See what happened there? We are underexposing the ambient drastically. That means that the puke green light is no longer an issue. The only light the camera is seeing is what the strobes are pumping out.

Where do we position the lights you ask? That depends on the room and the look we are going for. Sometimes we back light, or side light. Or, we may use OCF to fill the shadows if we’re not looking for contrasty or dramatic look.  If we want a nice even look, we’ll bounce the lights off the ceiling. Of course to bounce you’ll need more power and preferably a white ceiling or better yet a tent.

Here is a little exercise: Take a model out on a sunny day but find a shadow under a tree or in an alley. Its gotta be a good shadow, with no blue sky  or bright objects behind the subject. Establish your exposure for the ambient light with no flash. Now set up a slaved strobe at full power. Now set your exposure to the flash exposure and make sure you are using your fastest possible sync speed (remember how shutter speed doesn’t effect flash exposure?). Does the photo look like it was shot at night? Is the only light coming from the strobe? There you have it!

If you are a photographer please feel free to leave a comment or a question in the comment section below. I will do my best to answer any technical questions. If you are a bride please feel free to comment as well or reach out to us here, we’d love to hear about your wedding and reception.

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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.
sheri j 14:32 October 30, 2014 Reply
this is great, I am always up for trying a challenge and getting better at what I do. Lately I have been using a lower power on the flashes and a higher ISO on my camera for receptions when I use speed lights.