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Shooting Low-Light Receptions with Film by Johnny Martyr

Shooting Low-Light Wedding Receptions on Film by Johnny Martyr on Shoot It With Film
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Written by Johnny Martyr

Say what you will about wedding photography, but few other gigs will allow you to party with beautiful people without having to know a single dance move.

My wife and I are freelance wedding photographers. She shoots digital and I shoot on b&w 35mm film. I use vintage, all manual cameras and lenses, and I don’t use flash.

This is a very challenging workflow I’ve set up for myself but it’s quite rewarding and fun. In particular, my favorite part of a wedding to photograph is the reception.

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The Magic of Shooting Film at Wedding Receptions

What I like about the reception is that I no longer have to run around from location to location, constantly selecting different films and different lenses, and, best of all, the bridal party and guests are familiar with me by then. They are usually well buzzed on alcohol or happiness and allow me to shoot candids without interruption or reservation.

I generally like wedding reception photos more than any other images of the day. They display a genuine joy and excitement that is rare in portraits of any genre. The backgrounds are mostly dark, instead of light as with outdoor portraits, which emphasizes the people in the images and flips convention around.

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I enjoy the out of focus elements at wider apertures. And I enjoy big, pronounced film grain of 3200 ISO 35mm films and high acutance developers. One can certainly reduce grain by shooting medium format, using flash, or using a developer that tidies up the grain, but I enjoy the textures and de-emphasis of irrelevant details in a scene. Grainy b&w makes out of focus highlights sparkle with energy.

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Tips for Shooting Receptions on Film without Flash

I wanted to share some of my methods and techniques for achieving great wedding reception portraits in this style.

Shooting Low-Light Wedding Receptions on Film by Johnny Martyr on Shoot It With Film

Film Choices When Working with Low-Light

My method starts with Kodak TMAX P3200 (find on Amazon) or Ilford Delta 3200 (find on Amazon). For years I just used Delta since P3200 was unavailable, but now that P3200 is back, I can choose which film might be best for a particular situation.

Kodak TMAX P3200 is a bit more tonal and perhaps not quite as sharp as Delta. I use it when I expect light to be more contrasty. It’s tonality helps gather better context around people since greys don’t disappear as fast.

I choose Delta if I’m expecting flatter lighting where I need to help the highlights pop out of the shadows as much as possible. Both films, I process in Kodak HC110b, scan, and boost low levels and/or contrast a bit in Photoshop.

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Using a Low-Light Lens

Next, a good, low-light lens is critical. A common 35mm or 50mm lens is needed for shooting candid portraits in dim light. Any wider than 35mm, and barrel or perspective distortion is a concern. Any longer than 50mm, and you’ll need to increase shutter speed to prevent hand held camera shake, reducing your ability to stop down.

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You’ll also want an aperture wider than f2 to let as much light as possible into your lens. I prefer a 35/1.4 or 50/1.5. Wider than that, and it’s difficult to nail focus and the DoF is often too shallow for portraits.

As high a resolving lens as possible is also recommended for use with these high speed films. A softer lens will just turn that big, beautiful grain to mush.

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My Personal Lens Preferences

While I adore my 1949 Leitz 50/1.5 Summarit (find at KEH Camera), at full aperture, it’s quite soft wide open. I tend to only use it with higher speed film when I know I can stop to f2 or so. Something like the Voigtlander 50mm 1.5 Nokton (find at KEH Camera) is a better choice in my opinion. A Summilux is fantastic but really only if it’s a newer aspherical model.

For Nikon, I use either my 35/1.4 AIS, 50/1.4 SC or 50/1.8 AIS. 35mm lenses are fantastic because you can catch a whole scene while having a fast lens and added DoF compared to a 50. Shooting at 1/30th is fun for adding some motion blur to dance scenes.

But I also like to isolate a single person, for which 50 is perfect. I haven’t much liked the Nikkor 50/1.4 AIS at full aperture. It’s as sharp as the earlier SC version with more microcontrast, so it appears even sharper. But it just lacks much character to me. The 50/1.8 is a nice compromise between speed and the resolution of an f2 lens, so I often go with it.

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Choosing A Camera Body for Low-Light Portraits

But what about the body? A good body can make all the difference in terms of your ability to control what you’re doing and seeing. These Leica lenses on an LTM body with its tiny finder or these Nikon lenses on an F3 with it’s atrocious meter display would not end well.

I use and recommend a Nikon F2sb, Nikon FM2n, and Leica M6 TTL .85. What these bodies have in common are bright, split screens and bright, at-a-glance light meter displays that all measure up to 6400 ISO.

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Metering

To some degree, the meter doesn’t matter. I find that the vast majority of reception halls can be photographed at 6400 ISO, 1/60th or 1/125th of a second and anywhere from 1.4 to 2.8. (And if they can’t, I have the lights adjusted accordingly.)

It wouldn’t be impossible to take some measurements around the dance floor and then just rack your aperture and shutter as necessary without metering and get decent results.

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When the light is super even, I will set the shutter speed to 1/60 and aperture to 1.4 and just shoot without changing anything. If the light’s a stop or two brighter, the latitude of the film will allow me to burn the highlights. Personally, I like some confirmation while shooting though, even if I only meter a few times. And so a good, accurate, easy-to-read meter is important to me because I don’t want to have to slow down or get distracted by my gear.

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The Viewfinder and Focusing

More critically perhaps, is the viewfinder. Focusing in 6400 lighting conditions is the most challenging part of my equation. I’d say that focus is the number one problem with my reception photos. Maybe you’re sitting back, looking at these and thinking the same thing! The majority of the images that I throw out are either the wrong moment or I completely missed the focus. A bright viewfinder and accurate focus mechanism will not correct every focusing error, but it’s a necessary start.

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Getting the Shot

In terms of actually getting shots, I immerse myself in the throng of guests on the dance floor. I keep an eye on people who are having an awesome time AND are hovering in an area where they have some light on them.

I really love it when DJ’s bring flashing lights. While they make exposure tricky, they can create engaging spotlight effects that come and go in different places, on different people, which really varies things up.

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It sounds dumb but you really have to be careful not to back up into people or bump into them while they’re dancing or walking. It makes you look unprofessional, and it’ll ruin your shots by startling you when you’re concentrating. So I do not keep my eye glued to the viewfinder. It’s also good for people to see your face and vice versa, to maintain that social connection. I never tell anyone to look at me and smile, they just do it on their own. And that doesn’t come without work.

Shooting Low-Light Wedding Receptions on Film by Johnny Martyr on Shoot It With Film

I expose for middle tones, if there are any, and faces with a half stop to stop over exposure.

When shooting with a rangefinder, I find it necessary to constantly pre-focus. I stand about five feet away from people and set my lens to that. Then just make slight corrections one way or the other as they or I move.

If one does not do this, rangefinder focusing can be confusing and you might think you’re focused, but, really, you’re on the other side of the scale. Just basic optical limits of using a rangefinder. But the pre-focus technique helps get shots that much faster.

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Capturing the Moment

I look for the height of an emotion; a mouth open at its widest point, a glass lifted to its highest point, etc. Sometimes I rapid fire and get several versions of a moment, but this can result in camera shake too, so I usually try to wait, finger on the trigger, and nail things in one shot.

I ALWAYS shoot for the moment first, focus second and exposure last. Composition is something that kinda just falls into place while I’m doing those main three things. The moment and people involved often dictate composition, and I like to give people plenty of headroom to convey lightness of spirit.

The moment is something that you cannot fix in editing. The moment has to be perfect. It’s the reason you’re shooting in the first place.

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Embracing the Chaos

My style is to aim for technical accuracy but not to forget to enjoy the chaos. If I take a shot and miss the focus or exposure, or get a little camera shake or motion blur in the image, sometimes this works. These little imperfections express the manual mechanical nature of what I’m doing and culminate with the moment depicted to express excitement and thrill and speed.

Some may call this a cop-out for not getting things right in-camera. But I really do mean it, I enjoy and appreciate imperfect, non-automated photography for what it is, and what it is not. And these imperfections are where the humanity is most clearly exhibited and experienced.

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Well, I think that’s about all I’ve got! I hope you’ve enjoyed my photos and are perhaps inspired to go shoot a fun wedding reception with some high speed film and a slick, low-light rig. Trust me, you’ll have a blast!

Thanks for reading, happy shooting!

Shooting Low-Light Wedding Receptions on Film by Johnny Martyr on Shoot It With Film

Thank you so much, Johnny! You can find more of Johnny’s work on his website, blog, Flickr, and LinkedIn.

Leave any questions you have about shooting low-light receptions on film below in the comments, and if you liked this post, be sure to click the share buttons below!

Check out more tutorials for how to shoot film here!

Shoot Low-Light Wedding Receptions on Film
Shoot Low-Light Wedding Receptions on Film
Posted on 3 Comments

3 thoughts on “Shooting Low-Light Receptions with Film by Johnny Martyr

  1. I really enjoyed this article.
    It has a great balance of the technical aspects and the photographer’s thoughts about subject and process.
    Not to mention the fantastic images.

    Thank you very much for this.

    I need to load some high speed bw film into my…. Would a Nikon D4/50 1.8 be a good choice for this, you think?

    1. That should have been F4, not D4, of course.

    2. Hey Martin, thanks for your kind feedback!

      The F4 is too automated for my tastes. I like a body that is optimized for full manual use. As noted in my article, I feel that doing things manually, even if it results in slight imperfections in the images, is an expression of my reaction to the moment that I welcome. I feel that the combination of this, the use of film and home processing/scanning it lend a hand-crafted, organic feel to my work.

      That being said, that’s just me. At the end of the day, any rig that you personally feel most comfortable with and are inspired by is going to be what gets you your best images. The main things, as you’ve noted are to have that fast 50 and fast film like Kodak TMAX P3200 or Ilford Delta 3200. As to if your eye gels with the F4’s finder, screen and controls is totally up to you!

      Do you shoot weddings currently or is it something you’re looking to get into? I’d love to see your work!

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