Behind the shot: wedding sparkler portrait
So, you want to take a sparkler portrait!
If you’re a wedding photographer and your couple are having sparklers at their wedding, the chances are pretty high that they will ask you to create a wedding sparkler portrait for them. Even if they don’t, you might suggest it! And why not? They’re great fun and the results can be amazing. Either way, it’s our duty to turn our clients’ requests into reality and to nail it each and every time. Photos like this, though, are significantly more complex than just turning up with your camera; there’s a whole lot more to it. So, I’ve broken down the process from start to finish. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below and I’ll do my best to get back to each and every one of you.
What you will need
Doing a sparkler portrait is like making a big fancy cake, there’s a whole bunch of ingredients you’ll need to make it really work (and it’s not just gear):
- Camera with wide lens
- Sturdy tripod
- Shutter remote with a timer, ideally with a delay setting
- Speedlight or any off-camera flash
- Light stand and clamp
- Colour correction gels (CTO here)
- Speedlight triggers
- Torch (headlamp ideally – I clumsily used my iPhone)
- Backdrop with some ambient light
- An assistant (not a dealbreaker, but it really helps)
- Time (at least half an hour to avoid huge stress)
- A willing subject – in this case a very happy couple – prepared to stand still for a while
How it’s done
1. Plan beforehand
It goes without saying that to make truly stunning sparkler portraits, you will always need to plan your shot well in advance. In talking to my couple before their wedding day, the bride (hi Jaclyn!) mentioned that she would love to have a sparkler portrait. So I started thinking about the venue and about sparkler portraits and what would be needed. I scoped the venue out on google maps, on google images and visited the venue with the couple in the run-up to the wedding. I had more or less settled on the composition of the shot I wanted weeks in advance of it actually taking place, and visualising it again and again beforehand helped me to make many of the decisions I needed to on the day. So why did I choose this spot? Google maps had told me that, from above, there’s an amazing symmetry to this location. Google images told me that the conservatory in the background is completely lit at night and that, at weddings, candle lanterns are placed along the path leading to the main doors. The visit allowed me to put all the composite parts together in my head at the site and gave me an idea of where I would take the shot.
2. Prepare the shot
The day of the wedding has arrived, it’s long after sunset and there’s a momentary lull on the dancefloor (before Journey comes on, anyway). This is the best time to slip away and get things ready – you’re going to need at least 20 minutes to prepare before bringing the couple outside. You’ll need to be confident that your chosen location is reasonably free of disturbance (guests!) and that you can leave your gear in relative safety (when you go back to get the couple). Dump all your gear next to where you’re working because we’re about to start setting up the camera.
3. Set your camera up
Get your camera mounted on your tripod at a comfortable height and compose your shot as best as you can in the low light. See what things are looking like – does it match what you had in mind? Is there anything else you hadn’t considered? Will it look good if there’s a subject in the foreground? If this all looks good, it’s time to take a test shot. We’re going for a long exposure and keeping ISO low to get a noise-free image that gives us enough time to make a design in the background, so the length of the exposure is paramount. Make it too short and you won’t do the design in time, make it too long and the couple will probably get cramp! Set your camera the long exposure setting (BULB) and dial in 20 seconds on your shutter release as a starting point. Get your shutter remote (I used a wired remote that allows me to set a delay and a timer) and fire off a test shot.
These were my final settings for the shot: ISO 200, BULB 20’, f7, WB set to tungsten (we’ll talk white balance later).
4. Set your flash up
The correct exposure on the camera, up to this point, has all been about the ambient light in the background and the sparkler when it gets added in. With even the sparkler going behind the couple in this shot, that leaves almost no light falling on the front of the couple. Where you do your shot may be different, so you’ll need to always always always make sure you’re clear on what the ambient light is doing first, then add the flash in afterwards.
For this shot, I used a Nikon SB-910 mounted on a light stand at about chest height using an S-type clamp, placed camera left at about 45 degrees and just out of the shot I had framed previously. After a few test fires with my second shooter in frame, I settled on ½ power at a full zoom of 200mm. Your settings will vary, but this worked for me because there was so much ambient light that the power needed to be this high for an exposure this long. I also zoomed the light so much because I wanted to minimize spill onto the surrounding area as much as possible. If I’d had a grid stacking system or a snoot handy, I would have considered using that as well.
Again, throughout this process, I’m constantly taking test shots and making adjustments. Your situation will always be different, so make sure to use your prep time to shoot and adjust one element at a time.
Of course, to trigger the flash you’ll need a trigger of some kind to do this. I would not recommend using your pop-up flash for a photo like this, but instead to make use of a radio trigger. If you’ve got a long sync cord this will do as well, but for versatility I’ve recently been making use of the Phottix Odin 2 trigger system.
One final note: set your camera to trigger the flash in ‘rear curtain’ mode. In other words, at the end of the long exposure. It’s easy to argue that this might make no difference to the overall exposure, but I wanted to make sure I was definitely out of the frame when the flash fired!
5. Set your white balance correctly
With a backdrop like this, the ambient light source is really warm and orangey. This is because the lights in the conservatory behind are using tungsten bulbs (unless there’s LED lighting or fluorescent tubes, the lighting will almost certainly be tungsten). Tungsten lighting is warm and, when shone on a subject with no white balance correction, will make everyone look like they’ve had too much fake tan. Similarly, the candles lining the path are a roughly similar colour/temperature.
To correct for this, we can change the white balance in our camera to ‘tungsten’ (or set it manually if we want) so that the resulting exposure is a bit cooler and looks more like the human eye experiences it.
So what happens when we shine a bare speedlight onto a scene like this? This is the downfall of many – bare flash lighting is quite cool in comparison to tungsten lighting. With auto white balance, a speedlight shone on a subject with no warm ambient light will just look ‘white’ or neutral. However, we’ve already adjusted for the warm background – we’ve asked the camera to cool things down a bit – so if we pop the flash into this scene, the background will be fine but the couple will look entirely blue! Not ideal. To remedy this, we need to increase the temperature of the light coming from the speedlight. Bring in the colour correction gels:
After trial and error, I found that a cut and a half of CTO gel was necessary to match the colour of both the sparklers and the ambient lighting. Again, your results may vary – so make sure you’ve got the kit you need with you to get things right.
6. Take the shot
We’ve set up our camera to take a long exposure shot at about 20 seconds, f7, ISO 200, on a sturdy tripod and adjusted the white balance to cool the overall scene down. We’ve got our flash triggering in rear curtain, ½ power, 200mm zoom, at a 45 degree angle just out of shot, set at chest height, triggered by a radio system. With our shutter remote, we dial in the length of the exposure (20 seconds) and ideally set a delay (10 seconds) before it starts, so we’ve got time to get ready.
Once the delay timer is set off and ticking down, we light the sparkler (carefully) and make our way behind the couple out of shot and to the left… then when the exposure starts, all you’ve got to do is get in there, create your design and get out again. Of course, now that you’re set up you can really get cooking and repeat it a few times to vary your designs.
Done! Easy, right?!
When putting this post together, a handful of people asked me what actions I used in PS to put the sparkler in or whether I did anything particularly special in post. The answer is that I did barely anything. Here’s the straight-out-of-camera and what it looked like after editing:
I made a few changes to the colour grading, lowered the shadows a little and a few other minor adjustments here and there. Nothing major.
- I hope you found this guide useful! As I mentioned before, drop any questions you might have below and I’ll do my best to answer them all.
- Shooting/planning a wedding abroad? Don’t take sparklers with you, regardless of who you are! They can’t go on board any plane, checked or not. A quick google search will give you ample evidence of this.
- Be super careful with sparklers. They’re hot even when they’ve gone out. The last thing you want is to burn yourself or anyone else when doing shots like this.