How to Take Your Wedding Photography to the Next Level Using Light as a Storytelling Device

As photographers, how many of us communicate that we’re storytellers? It’s on our websites, it’s in our Instagram bios and posts — it’s everywhere. Call me a liar but I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about. [shugging emoji]

Here’s the thing, though: What a ton of us are really doing, especially in the beginning of our careers, is photographing, not storytelling. Not necessarily capturing moments in a tangible way.

We’re photographing the grand events, but we’re not fully capturing those moments and our clients are just kind of revisiting those moments, not fully reliving them.

No matter how good a photo looks, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t tell a story.

We can get the most beautiful portraits in the world but if it doesn’t actually elicit an emotional response and take them back to the day (all the personalities, intimacies, and the story of the couple) did we really succeed in telling a story with our work?

Looping in these lighting strategies and techniques I’m about to tell you about will help you take your work to the next level. (sparkle emoji)

Lighting is the tool that conveys mood most clearly. It’s a cinematic way of speaking to your audience when you can’t verbally tell them what’s going on in the frame. A deeper understanding of how light translates a story helps viewers understand and enjoy your work on a deeper, often subconscious level.

People will see how well you tell a story and try to envision how you’ll tell theirs. You want to approach this with a thorough understanding of light and how to use it in your work. Without light, we don’t have an image. Without good light, we have a mediocre image at best.

So, how do we utilize light to tell the best story for our clients?

I’ve got a few tips for you lined up, so let’s dig in.

First, think of yourself as a director, not as a photographer.

To get the best images for your clients, you NEED to be directing your couples into the best lighting scenarios throughout the day. This will absolutely benefit your work whether you prefer to be a fly on the wall or super hands-on.

For some of you, I understand this might be a little uncomfortable at first. Here’s the thing about directing your weddings, though: You are not influencing the day too much by actively directing your couples into the best lighting scenarios throughout the day. So please don’t think that.

You’re honestly helping them make sure that they’ll have those moments available to relive forever. You’re helping them get the best possible result from trusting you with documenting such an important day of their lives. Asking them to step in a specific direction or adjust themselves a little bit to get into a better lighting scenario isn’t taking away from their day. Chances are, your clients will be thankful for it!

Of course, avoid asking them to perform actions that might not feel natural to them, but stand firm in the knowledge that your work will be so much higher level when you actively take on a directing role in your weddings – specifically when you’re making use of the lighting scenarios you have in an intentional way.

You can utilize shadows and highlights in your images to accomplish some things that’ll truly take your work to the next level. Using light strategically in your images can help you with all of these things:

  • Create more dimension in our images
  • Hide distracting elements in our images
  • Direct viewers to our intended subject
  • Finally – and most importantly – tell better stories

Let’s talk about exactly how to do this.

What is Chiaroscuro? Applying concepts from film and art history to your photography

Chiaroscuro is use of light and dark to create three-dimensional volume on a flat surface.

During the Renaissance, artists started making use of the contrast between deep shadows and warm highlights to intensify the artistic effect of their paintings. The combo of high-contrast with a single, focused light source has a hugely dramatic effect on the image and the use of light focuses your attention on the intended scene or subject.

Here’s an example of three different Renaissance artists who utilized this technique in their own way – as you can see, they’re very different in terms of how they pull off this technique:

A note for my fellow art history nerds:

  1. Caravaggio – pioneered the technique, dramatic style leading to more drama and story
  2. Rembrandt – softer approach with a more calm, reflective mood
  3. Rubens – somewhere between the two! Balance of drama and reflection

The same techniques apply to photography and they’ll help you master the art of conveying anticipation, emotion – feeling in general – in your work. At the end of this day, utilizing these techniques helps make the story more impactful for our couples so that they are indeed reliving those moments, not just revisiting them.

What if my photography style isn’t necessarily moody and extra dramatic?

That’s 1000% okay! You can definitely apply these strategies no matter what your individual style of photography looks like. Referencing the Renaissance artists above, notice the differences in the look and feel of each style. Here’s an example of how each one of these styles translates to wedding photography:

For more drama, use only one light source.

This is such a great way to mix up some of your photography work. You can get this done with windows, harsh light, off-camera flash, or bounce flash – so many great ways to do this. The human eye is naturally drawn to the brightest part of the photo, so focus on making the important subjects shine brighter. (dancer emoji or something similar)

Some specific examples of how you can use lighting for strategic storytelling during your weddings:

Tailor your lighting to the emotional impact of the scene.

For example, soft lighting is best for “soft” moments and conveys feelings of being emotional, happy, and in love. For intimate moments, harsh or dramatic lighting doesn’t always make sense. No matter what your photography style is, certain soft moments during a wedding almost demand a softer, romantic lighting scenario.

Use light to convey a certain point of view.

Your intentional use of light during all the moments of the wedding day – from the portraits to the ring shots, to getting ready, to the party – will definitively boost the quality of your work. The lighting in your work can subconsciously affect the stories as people are seeing them.

With just your use of light in an image, you can communicate the intimacy of a smaller ceremony or the joy and awe of the guests as the bride appears in the doorway. Throughout the wedding, take advantage of any opportunities that come up to present the day from different points of view.

Color is a tool for eliciting emotion. Use it!

I know that most of you guys know all about this, but I’m not done talking about this until I’ve mentioned color. Most colors carry a subconscious emotional connotation. So, warm tones help us feel connected, intimate, and nostalgic while blue tones make us feel cool, serene, and detached.

It’s pretty common to think of churches as a burden when it comes to photography lighting, and color, but most churches are pretty warm-toned and have stunning pockets of light that you can play around with (stained glass, for example.)

Use a glow/halo effect to communicate importance.

Pay attention to when moments pop up that allow you to utilize this effect because it’s so powerful if you can pull it off right. Whether or not the viewer actually sees the subject’s face, they know that this is an important moment and they’re pulled further into the story you’re telling. When you have two people with the glow/halo effect, it creates a feeling of “in a world of their own” and has a super romantic effect.

Use movement to ramp up the emotional energy of the scene.

I need to take a second here to talk about using movement in your work. When you use a slow shutter speed intentionally, you’re really creating a living, breathing moment in your image vs a static image.

By cranking up your aperture (and making sure you’re super familiar with the capabilities of your camera) you can create some stunning images. Using movement in your photos is one of the best ways that you can effectively amp up the energy and emotional power of your images – almost like your audience is right there in the moment.

Wrapping up – final thoughts on using lighting as a storytelling device + an invitation to my lighting course

Obviously, I haven’t actually run out of things to say about using lighting in your work (I could probably talk about this for decades to be honest – because it can elevate your work by THAT much!)

If you actively struggle with lighting in your wedding photography work, I’d love for you to check out my master level course, Light Source: A Wedding Photographer’s How-To on Mastering Light. This post is just a little taste of what you’ll get inside.

In the course, I walk you through how to take stunning images in any lighting scenario with ease. You’ll learn about every different lighting scenario you could imagine, all about flash, how to bring more life and story into your work, and so SO much more. I even have a whole module walking you through common lighting scenarios during each part of the weddings you shoot.

If you’re ready to conquer using lighting intentionally in your wedding photography business consistently, this course is for sure the one that’ll help you with a fast-track to getting there.

Hope you’ve learned a thing or two about how to use lighting during your weddings and don’t forget to leave me a comment below if you’ve got any burning questions for me!

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Instead of the usual spiel, let me give you the real scoop on what I do and why it might just be what you're looking for in your wedding photographer.

My approach? It’s all about capturing the raw, unfiltered joy and those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments. I believe in photography that tells a story - your story - with all its unique quirks, laughter, and, of course, love.

I’m talking about the tearful smiles, the spontaneous dances, and the silent glances that speak volumes. My style is a blend of candid documentary and artistic flair, ensuring each photo feels as real and vibrant as the moment it captures. I don't just take pictures; you don't just want your picture taken, you want your memories preserved.

Welcome to the party! I’m Katherine Marchand.

meanwhile, on the dance floor...

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