Hi, friends!

Let’s talk dark receptions. Really dark. Maybe it’s a dimly lit ballroom with dark walls and high ceilings. Maybe it’s an outdoor reception lit only by candles. These types of receptions can be beautiful to the naked eye, but can be a photographer’s nightmare without the right knowledge and tools. Especially when it comes to focusing. We’ve all been in a situation where our camera is trying so hard to focus, but the lens keeps jutting in and out and can’t lock because it doesn’t have enough light to do its job. We know this feeling well, and if just thinking about this scenario makes your palms start to sweat, you’re not alone! It’s just plain challenging to focus in extremely low light. It really is. But whether we have the house lights up or little to no light, it’s still our job as professionals to get the shot, regardless of the ambient light in the room. So, today, we’re going to tackle our top tips for shooting receptions in low light so that (hopefully) you’ll feel more confident at your next wedding to get crisp images even when you’ve got nothing to work with but a black sky!

1. Back-Button Focus

We shoot back-button focus all day, but it’s especially helpful during receptions when it’s challenging to focus over and over and over again. Back-button focusing is when you use the AF-ON button on the back of your camera to focus and the button near your index finger to work the shutter, instead of pressing your index finder halfway down to focus and the other half to click the shutter. It separates two things that normally come from the same button: focus and shutter. The beauty? If you can lock focus on your subject at a certain distance with back-button focus, as long as you keep the same distance to your subject, you don’t have to re-focus again. So, if you’re in a low light situation where it’s taking your camera minutes to find focus, just lock your focus once and you can get tons and tons of shots, instead of only one shot every time your camera focuses.

2. Use the Center Focal Point

On our Canon 5D Mark III camera bodies, the strongest focal point is the one right in the center. We toggle a lot during the wedding day, but during the reception sometimes the outer focal points just aren’t strong enough to lock in a sharp focus. Only the center one can. With back-button focus, we can lock our focus using the center focal point (which, again, is the strongest anyways), then recompose our frame and fire our shutter separately to get the shot. At some recent outdoor receptions, during toasts, none of our outer focal points could lock focus except the middle one. Since we knew that in advance, though, we didn’t spend precious seconds or minutes that we didn’t have toggling around hoping to lock in. We stuck with the center focal point right from the start, and it didn’t fail us.

3. Look for Contrast 

Most of the time, our cameras can’t focus on our subject’s faces because it’s just too dark and there’s not enough contrast for the camera to pick it up. So, instead, during most receptions when there’s not enough ambient (existing) light in the room (or outdoor reception) to focus on our subject’s eye (our first preference) or their face (our second preference), we look for the spot on a man’s jacket where the white shirt meets the dark coat. Maybe it’s the lapel on the chest. Maybe it’s the shirt collar on the back of his neck. For ladies, it could be the contrast between her skin and dress straps (although the black and white contrast of the shirt and coat is best). We’ve realized over time that, even at an aperture of f/2.8, we’re still solidly in focus when we focus on the clothes. We’ve also had success focusing on a man’s tie.

And even at a very recent wedding, during the husband and wife game, Amy was shooting the groom while Jordan was shooting the bride, and he was able to get focus between the bride’s hand and the giant wooden letters she was holding. So, when she would put her hands down and wait for the DJ to ask his question, Jordan focused on her hand and the letter (bumped his aperture to f/4 to allow for the extra distance between her lap where she was resting her hand and her face) and then just recomposed and fired the shutter using back-button focus.

4. Focus on Something that Isn’t a Person

During outdoor toasts, sometimes it can be almost impossible to get parents’ reactions in focus because there’s no ambient light to illuminate their faces. Here’s a trick for that: don’t focus on the person. Sometimes objects come into focus more easily than people. At a recent wedding, Jordan couldn’t get the camera to lock focus on one of the parents during toasts. None of the tricks above were working, so he focused on the subject’s water glass (close to candle) about one foot in front of where she was sitting. At that point, he knew that his focus was locked ten feet from anywhere he was standing. She was about eleven feet away. So, to get her in focus, he just took one baby step forward, and she was in focus, because the distance between him and his subject hadn’t changed. It was still ten feet. That’s really the beauty of back-button focusing in action, because it would’ve been so distracting to pop a video light in Mom’s face while she was listening to toasts.

5. Step Into a Hallway Where There’s Ambient Light 

We shoot at a range of f/2.8 – f/5.6 at receptions depending what we’re shooting and how low the light is. If there’s plenty of ambient light and focusing is a cinch and it’s during toasts where no one’s moving, we love f/2.8. The same even goes for dancing if we’re able to focus and shoot, focus and shoot, and focus and shoot. If, however, the ambient light is lower and it’s really challenging to get focus, we like higher apertures and here’s why: we can step out into a hallway where there is ambient light (or even flash our cell phone on the other person on the dance floor), get focused from a certain distance (let’s call it three big steps), and then never touch our focus again. You heard that right! Never touch our focus again. Because if we’re shooting at an aperture of f/4 or higher and we just keep our distance of about three big steps from whatever we’re shooting, it’ll all still be in focus because the focus is locked with back-button. Are you sold yet?!

Well, friends, we hope the next time you walk into a dark reception you’ll feel confident with this checklist of tools to help you get all of your important shots in focus! Have a great week!

Westin Kierland Wedding_0037

We’re so proud of our shooting and editing course students all across the world! They’re shooting better, editing faster and serving their clients better than ever before!

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54 comments
filed in: Education, Featured

    Teresa Caro

    Thank you for these great tips. I have never used the back button focus but will be trying it tonight. Thanks

    Amy & Jordan

    Oh, Teresa, it's a game changer!! So excited for you!!

    Cinnamon Wolfe

    BBF for the win!!

    Amy & Jordan

    Haha! For sure!

    Yaaay BBF. Learnt it a couple years ago, never going back.

    Amy & Jordan

    Amen, sista!! :)

    Savanna Lee

    This was SO helpful! Especially #3 and #4, thank you lovely people!! <3

    Amy & Jordan

    Oh, yay! We're so happy to help! :)

    joe

    Great info. Thanks for sharing

    Amy & Jordan

    Thanks so much, Joe!!

    Mary Lynne

    Thanks so much for the great tips on back button focus. It's so generous of you.

    You sold me on switching to back button. I am also shooting with a 5d markiii. In the situations you described, such as focusing on the glass, what focus mode do you use? Do you use spot focus, or a group of points? Two years of shooting with this camera And all I ever use is a single point, but I'm wondering if that would work in situations such as those you described.

    Amy & Jordan

    Hi Mary! You bet! We always use a single focus point. We'd never considered using a group of points before, but who knows! It might work really well! If you have success with it, please comment here so that everyone else will know, too! We might even try it and then update this post in the future. Great suggestion, friend!

    Aaron M Grubb

    Good advice. I found myself doing some of these before I read the article, so I'm glad we're on the same page :)

    Amy & Jordan

    Nice, man! You have good instincts!

    Morgan Glassco

    Need more Lazers!!! But for real, love shooting with the Yongnuo triggers for the lazer assist beams they put out in placed of the lousy AF assist light on the camera body.

    Amy & Jordan

    We've never shot with them before but maybe we should look into that!

    Caitlin Gerres

    I've been meaning to learn back button focus, and you definitely just sold me! Time to get on that! Thanks for the great tips!!!

    Amy & Jordan

    You bet, friend! See you in June!

    Deb Scally

    When you mention the "10 foot" guideline above, what aperture are you using? With a shallower aperture, doesn't that distance decrease?

    cassie

    Great low light tips. I love back button focus, but still need tips for using it every now and then! Beautiful pictures! Love your site!

    Holly

    Wow! I am beyond happy that I read this! This has helped me out so much! Thank you!!

    Donna Good

    Your photo tips are spot on! Thanks for sharing!

    Ebony

    Thank you!
    So well written, and answered alot of questions I had!
    Finally the only article to really explain WHY to use this technique. Very simple but very smart x

    Bethany

    Back button focus. Life saver. Game changer. Mind blown! Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    I love the post! Thank you for all of your knowledge and wonderful tips! My question is what is the best time of day to shoot? And what's the best editing software?

    jackie

    i've never used the back focus either. but i'm still scared i'll mess it up! this makes it sound so easy, but as a photographer who has stuck to her particular niche (headshots...cause who can mess that up by focusing on an eye and recomposing!), i'm scared to death to try wedding photography! really great tips from you two, thank you for sharing detailed tips and *really* helping!!

    Amy & Jordan

    Hi Jackie! We've totally been there! You got this!

    Jackie Goldston

    i've never used the back focus either. but i'm still scared i'll mess it up! this makes it sound so easy, but as a photographer who has stuck to her particular niche (headshots...cause who can mess that up by focusing on an eye and recomposing!), i'm scared to death to try wedding photography! really great tips from you two, thank you for sharing detailed tips and *really* helping!!

    Amy & Jordan

    You can do it, Jackie!

    Carlos D Smith

    These tips are great and I can appreciate the common wording you use to get the point across to the novice not all that high end my camera is made by the gods talk. Thanks again for this and all other tips you two provide.

    Amy & Jordan

    Thanks so much, Carlos!!

    Janie Phipps

    Thank you so much for all your tips! I have read a lot of tips and NO ONE explains it like y'all do!! When I Read your articles....I get it! Thanks again!!

    Amy & Jordan

    We're so glad it's been helpful to you!! Hugs!!

    Sara Lidke

    do you have a tutorial on BBF?

    Amy & Jordan

    Hi Sara! We don't have a tutorial on BBF, but we do cover it in our Shooting & Editing Course! :)

    Diane Welter

    I love BBF! Truly a game-changer for me. This was a great post on the "why!"

    Amy & Jordan

    We appreciate that, Diane! :)

    Ckeane.ck@gmail.com

    Enjoying your posts. Thank you! I use back button focus but my camera seems to have a problem currently. Sometimes my camera will not fire unless my finger continues to push the focus. My question is if I back button focus on a subject and reposition but have to keep the focus pushed is it following the original subject or is it refocusing on the repositioned spot?
    Thanks!

    Caitlan Karl

    This is so helpful! Thanks, guys!

    Amy & Jordan

    We appreciate it, Caitlan! :)

    Julianna

    About tip 5...the last part...are you saying that once you lock focus can let go of the back focus button, shoot, shoot and shoot...and until you press the back focus button again, you are locked into whatever focus you last left off on?

    (5. Step Into a Hallway Where There’s Ambient Light

    We shoot at a range of f/2.8 – f/5.6 at receptions depending what we’re shooting and how low the light is. If there’s plenty of ambient light and focusing is a cinch and it’s during toasts where no one’s moving, we love f/2.8. The same even goes for dancing if we’re able to focus and shoot, focus and shoot, and focus and shoot. If, however, the ambient light is lower and it’s really challenging to get focus, we like higher apertures and here’s why: we can step out into a hallway where there is ambient light (or even flash our cell phone on the other person on the dance floor), get focused from a certain distance (let’s call it three big steps), and then never touch our focus again. You heard that right! Never touch our focus again. Because if we’re shooting at an aperture of f/4 or higher and we just keep our distance of about three big steps from whatever we’re shooting, it’ll all still be in focus because the focus is locked with back-button. Are you sold yet?!)

    Amy & Jordan

    Yes! That's right! You just have to make sure you're maintaining the exact same distance from the subject :)

    Julianna

    About tip 5...the last part...are you saying that once you lock focus can let go of the back focus button, shoot, shoot and shoot...and until you press the back focus button again, you are locked into whatever focus you last left off on?

    […] How to get better focus in dark wedding receptions […]

    Christy Vincent

    I'm still slightly confused on your explanation/uses of BBF. You are supposed to 1. Lock focus then 2. Take as many shots on that same focus point as long as you keep the same distance to the subject, right? But then you talk about taking 3 big steps towards your subject from the hallway. Doesn't that change the distance to your subject?

    Amy & Jordan

    Hi Christy! When you lock in the focal plane, you're locking in the distance to the subject. So, if your client moves three steps toward you, and you move three steps back (at approximately the same distance) since your distance to the subject hasn't changed, your shot will likely still be in focus. Just keep in mind that this will work better when you're using shorter focal lengths (like 24mm or 35mm) and will be MUCH harder when you're shooting at longer focal lengths (like 85mm or higher) because the depth of field is much narrower the longer the focal length; and, therefore, gives you less room before a subject falls out of focus. Just remember that if you lock focus on a subject three feet away on the dance floor, then go to another area of the dance floor and photograph someone dancing who's three feet away also, both shots should be in focus even though you haven't refocused. It's all about the distance to your subject. Hope that helps!

    Melissa

    I am so happy I've found you both, and love the tips you share. Great reminders and ideas to try out here. I have a few weddings this summer that will be outdoor and low light so this was perfect timing.

    Amy & Jordan

    Hi, Melissa! We're so happy to hear these tips were helpful to you!! Good luck with your weddings this summer! Hugs!! :)

    Addison Myrick

    This was so helpful. I have two 5D m3's and I get frustrated at wedding receptions when my camera stops focusing. Your words took me back to college/remembering distance and the importance of fstops and aperture...mathematically.

    Appreciate you!

    Addison

    Amy & Jordan

    We're so glad this was helpful, Addison!

    Katherine

    Great tip! I found myself in that situation for a wedding this past weekend, and I haven't shot many events so it was a challenge to get great shots in the dark. I did manage some—and luckily for the wedding itself and early part of the reception there was really lovely light. I am going to practice this technique in the dark!

    Amy & Jordan

    We're so glad this was helpful, Katherine! :)

    Meriam

    You both are so amazing! I love, love hearing what you have to say. I have definitely learned alot for you. Thanks!