I often get asked by photographers whether I prefer to use flash or high ISOs in low light situations during a wedding. In general, the answer is high ISO settings. When it's possible, I would almost always prefer to achieve an image without flash. Not only are there situations in which flash is distracting and inappropriate (such as during a ceremony), but there are other considerations that I feel are drawbacks to relying on flash. On-camera flash can have the effect of flattening an image, and off-camera flash just isn't very mobile. So I'm not afraid to increase my ISO at times to avoid needing to use flash. When shooting weddings, I generally try to reserve shooting flash just for the reception portion of the day. But when I find myself in low-light situations at other times throughout a wedding day I typically utilize high ISOs in order to get the shot.

So the next question is, if you're shooting at high ISOs, how do you avoid grain and get the highest quality image possible? I have two tips to offer.

1 -- Invest in a high-end camera
No one likes to be told to spend more money, but there is a REAL difference between more expensive digital SLRs and their less expensive counterparts in the way they perform at high ISOs. The high end cameras that are on the market these days perform with very little grain at high ISOs, so you can shoot with confidence in low light situations without flash. I use a Canon 5D Mark III and I have no problem shooting at 1600 ISO or even higher.

2 -- Correctly expose or slightly over-expose
Even if you are unable to upgrade your camera body at this time, my second tip can be helpful for you! Most of the excess grain in photos is the result of photographers under-exposing images in camera and then trying to fix them in their post-production by increasing the exposure in Photoshop or Lightroom. If you try to correct an under-exposed image shot at a high ISO in editing software, you're going to get a muddy image with low color-quality and lots of grain. That's why it's so important to get it right in camera and correctly expose at high ISOs! If you have to err on one side, over-expose instead of under-exposing. So instead of letting fear of grain lead you to shooting an image at 800 ISO that really requires 1600 ISO, bump your ISO up to 1600, open your aperture and make sure you max out your camera settings to get the shot correctly exposed. If you do this, you won't have to increase your exposure in post-production, and the grain in the image will be minimized.

By way of example, here are a few of my favorite images shot at high ISOs. The above image was shot after sunset. The sun had just set and there was still some light left in the sky, but I had to max out my camera settings in order to avoid using flash: ISO 3200, f1.2, 1/80 sec. There is some grain in the image, but to me it is an acceptable amount. I had to over-expose according to my in-camera meter in order to get the girls correctly exposed because of the candles and the sky. If I had simply trusted my in-camera meter, I would have under-exposed this shot badly, and the necessary post-production would have made the image extremely grainy.

My camera settings for the image below were ISO 1600, f1.6, 1/60 sec. Again, I had to over-expose according to my in-camera meter (probably by at least a full stop, if not more) because of the brightness of the bonfire and twinkle lights. I wanted to make sure to get the bride and groom correctly exposed, so I didn't worry about over-exposing the fire. Again, there is some grain, but it is still a very usable image.
This next image was shot at ISO 1600, f1.2, 1/400 sec. Very little grain!
And what about portraits? Portraits are often printed and enlarged, so you generally want to shoot portraits at the lowest ISO possible. But in this situation, I needed to use a higher aperture in order to get the large bridal party in focus, and because of the shade of the grove of trees, I was forced to use a higher ISO. Again, I needed to make sure to over-expose according to my in-camera meter to get the subjects correctly exposed. My settings for this shot were: ISO 800, f5.0, 1/100 sec. Even at a higher ISO the image is definitely acceptably clear:
If you found this post helpful, and are interested in learning more, click here to opt-in for my free video series -- 6 Hacks to Eliminate Boring Low-Light Photos and Get You Creating Reception Images you LOVE! In it I share my best 6 tips for shooting with flash. If you are intimidated by flash and wanting to conquer it once and for all, this is a great place to start!
learn flash for wedding receptions
Equipment used for above images: Canon 5D Mark III // Canon 50mm 1.2 lens // Canon 24mm 1.4 lens
Why I prefer shooting at a higher ISO rather than using flash and how to do so in a way that minimized grain and creates beautiful low-light photos!
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