The first dance has to be one of my highlights of any wedding day, it gives me a chance to rig some lighting up to add a bit of creativity and mood.

Something Barry White would be proud of…:-)

The first dance is the time when the Bride and Groom find themselves alone on the floor in a moment of calm (sometimes) and are actually able to lose themselves to each other and enjoy the moment whispering sweet nothings or just having a good old look into each others eyes because they can!

There are some things that just have to be on the first dance, for me it’s lighting.  To create a feeling of intimacy and solitude.  The thought of lighting the floor up so it nearly burns everyone’s retinas out fills me with dread.  Mood killer!

Having low lighting brings with it a set of challenges for me as ‘the’ photographer who needs to produce results in a room ordinarily too dark for most cameras to focus & still be able to freeze movement and keep the subtleties of mood that low light brings.

If you’ve seen friends or family photographs of the first dance you’ll probably see images that are full of noise (grain, just not artistic grain…), coloured splodges or no details.  Also people’s hands, feet or bodies are blurred because there simply wasn’t enough light to allow a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the motion.  Phone cameras are amazing and convenient, just not perfect.

I’ve used my own method of lighting for a few years now and it works for me & I can create the results I’m after.

Kings Lynn-The Minster & Guildhall Wedding

For me this is perfect, a moment of solitude.

The Method

I place two speed light units on brackets with a radio receiver (Yongnuo YN622n) on each.  Another speed light on the camera with the radio transmitter (another Yongnuo YN622n), and on occasions an LED hot light which I hand hold for a tight pool of warm light.

With light outputs, apertures and shutter speeds set before the dance, pretty much the only thing I feel I need to adjust during the dance is my position in relation to the lights and the Bride and Groom.

Kings Lynn-The Minster & Guildhall Wedding

The first dance in all it’s glory!

getting a nice rim light around the couple is a shot I like to capture.  This gives a lovely silhouette around them both and just enough light to wrap around the front of their face to see the expression.

Another look would be to capture either the bride or the grooms face and have plenty of flare brought into the shot to add a bit of depth.

The backlights give me that separation and depth I need.  Without them the image could look a bit flat. nicely exposed, just flat.

Lynford Hall-Thetford-Norfolk_The First Dance

Backlit just right for me.

Timing is critical, there is only one true first dance & they aren’t repeatable, of course you could get away with a couple, but it isn’t something I would try to manufacture, so whatever method I choose needs to be right at the time & have pretty much everything there straight out of camera.

A track is on average 3 minutes long, so you don’t have time to mess about changing effects or settings, the results could be disastrous, or I might not have any results to show if the light wasn’t strong enough…

If I wasn’t so concerned about keeping the mood as it was intended then I wouldn’t go to all this trouble, I could just fill the whole room with masses of white light and capture plenty of soul-less images (IMHO).

Dance floors are dark for a reason, not because the DJ is being tight with their light;-)

it’s just not enough on its own & I can’t control their light.

The First Dance-Wedding at Pentney Abbey, Norfolk-Neil Burton Photography

Wedding at Pentney Abbey, Norfolk-Neil Burton Photography


Godwick Great Barn-The First Dance-Neil Burton



The Kit:

Over the years I’ve used various different receivers and transmitters to fire the speed lights remotely. It changes often, some of it works for me, some of it doesn’t

Phottix Stratos-2’s, Nikon SU800 and recently the Yongnuo YN-622 Transmitter/receiver units.  I haven’t had any glaring issues with the YN622n’s other than the instructions being written in Chinglish and having to decipher them first before I know what they’re trying to tell me.

The Nikon SU800 is ok but relies on either line of sight or hard surfaces to bounce the infra-red beam to the receiver.  For me it was a bit hit and miss.

I don’t get too hung up on settings, usually I’ll have my ISO on 400-600, aperture at f.4 and shutter at around 1/160th sec, couple that with the light I bring in and it’ll freeze the movement of all but the most vigorous dancers!

The output will vary & whats looks right, is right.  The shots in this post are what I aim for & I get a good response from clients with them so I stick with it.

The Phottix Stratos-2’s were ok to a point but a pain if I decided I wanted to change settings as they are dumb triggers and manual only, so would have to go to each unit to change settings…try doing that for a 3 minute dance…

The Lowel GL-1 has its place & is well used.  It’s a contentious bit of kit with many professional photographers, for a good number of reasons, mainly its build and price.  Fortunately I had a factory reconditioned unit so made a saving, which over the years have made my money back on.  The build is ok, it’t not something I throw about too often but it has had its fair share of knocks & touch wood is still good.  Is it worth what they charge full price…mmm.  It has value for me and is a useful tool, but maybe not worth the RRP of £450 +.

Would I but another if it broke? No.

The hot light is a pain handing holding it while I have a camera in one hand and am crouching down moving in sync (sort of) with the bride and groom, so I often grab a helper, whether it be a bridesmaid, usher or any other able hand.  Sometimes younger guests can be good for this job as they will give their right arm to avoid throwing their own shapes on the dance floor & relish a ‘job’ that keeps them busy, just choose wisely on your young helper & make sure you get a good feeling when you brief them.  Choose one who’s been popping Haribo and Cola all day and the results aren’t going to be pretty.

These methods aren’t going to work for everyone, but they work for me.  Everything evolves.  Even me.

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