Lighting secrets exposed - James Jebson

If you’ve ever photographed a wedding, you’ll know that it’s extremely hard work and any kind of complication can make the day a whole lot harder. But for wedding photographer James Jebson, applying stylish off-camera flash techniques to his wedding portraits is essential for offering his clients the ‘wow factor’.

Alongside his wedding work, James is a commercial, lifestyle, fashion and portrait photographer with an impressive client list, and uses his diverse skill set to help him stay ahead of the competition. After assisting to build up his portfolio and photography experience, he studied for a degree in photography before entering one of the most competitive industries on the planet.

James’s wedding photography style is predominantly documentary, but to add a unique twist to his work he applies dramatic lighting effects to make his shots stand out from the crowd. He believes that when you get to a high level of wedding photography you have to offer your clients that extra something special. He says that when looking through his work with potential clients it’s these flash-lit images that always grab their attention, and for good reason – most wedding photographers wouldn’t dream of carrying a battery pack, two heads and lighting stands around with them all day. So not only does his work look amazing, it stands out because most couples have never seen any wedding image quite like it before.

Shoot One

What lights and accessories do you use?

I use the Profoto B2 250 AirTTL Location Kit because it’s small, lightweight and powerful – perfect for adding extra punch to my images without having to carry around a huge battery pack. 

I don’t carry a bag full of all the lenses I own, I only carry what I need, so there’s plenty of space for the battery pack and the lights in my kitbag. 

To keep things simple and to cut down the amount of kit I’m carrying around all day, I use the lights without any modifiers. I’ve found an approach that works for me and keep using it, although I’m constantly learning and experimenting.

Do you have an assistant?

I always work alone on wedding shoots, so I have to keep everything down to a manageable minimum. For my commercial work I use an assistant, but for weddings I prefer to keep a low profile. Having an assistant or second shooter would add yet another person to what is an intimate situation. 

As a wedding photographer you have to ask a couple to kiss and cuddle, and they may not be able to relax if there are too many people around. I spend a lot of time building a rapport with couples; from having a drink with them during consultation to the pre-wedding shoot with a glass of champagne at the end. I wouldn’t want to spoil that rapport on the day itself by having too many people present, and potentially another camera on the day.

What lighting styles do you use?

For wedding photography I shoot the majority of documentary images with natural light, but for the couple portraits I want to offer my clients something that’s really eye-catching. 

Since I don’t use light modifiers I use the environment and the couple themselves to shield and sculpt the light from my flash. One technique I use is to position a bare light behind the couple to create a backlit rim lighting effect, and use the natural light or a second flash to fill the shadows. I sometimes also allow the couple to silhouette for really dramatic results. 

Another option is lighting from the front with a single light, but using direction and height to change the overall effect. When there’s a moody sky I meter for the sky itself, and then use flash to bring the couple out. 

What are the challenges of using flash at weddings?

Even though I have a few ideas of how lighting can be set up, the process is always a matter of trial and error because location and light conditions are always different. Using flash inevitably takes longer than simply sticking to natural light, so when the meal is taking place I don’t use the time to relax. I’ll be off hunting for locations and quickly testing lighting with waiters or waitresses so I can quickly move the couple into position when they’re ready. When a couple wants these types of images they know they will take a little longer so that’s not a problem, although I work at a naturally fast pace which always helps.

What was the idea behind this shot?

In this image the groom is a professional footballer, and both he and the bride are stylishly dressed. Their wedding overall wasn’t traditional, so I wanted the photography to be highly stylised to mirror that. It was in central Manchester, so we headed out onto the street to take advantage of the urban backdrop and iconic textured red brick walls.

The shot is made up of three main elements – the location, the pose and, of course, the lighting. For the pose I wanted the groom to be strong and masculine so he was square on to the camera. Having the bride standing this way wouldn’t be flattering, so I asked her to stand at an angle which was more feminine and reinforced the overall ‘cool’ look of the two people. 

With the lighting I positioned it to flatter the bride, but had to be careful that neither person cast a shadow over the other. I underexposed the background and then brought the light in to create the spotlight effect you see here. Again, it was all part of creating a cool image of a stylish young couple. To control the lighting I generally use subject to light distance, and aperture. I tend to leave the power output alone, simply because it would slow me down, but I only work this way for wedding photography.

Shoot Two

What was the idea behind this shot?

The location of this wedding was very traditional; there was a beautiful building with amazing gardens. While walking around the garden we found this strange corner with the trees creating the strong lines. The couple weren’t sure about the shot, so I had to reassure them that it would work. Making sure the couple was comfortable was really important in this situation.

How did you light the shot?

I positioned one light behind the couple to create the strong backlighting, and another in front to lift the shadows and avoid the couple falling into silhouette. The battery pack was between me and the couple with cables visible, so I had to clone these out afterwards.

What time of day do you prefer?

Although the B2s can overpower daylight, I prefer to take these types of shots in the early evening. The exact time depends entirely on the time of year. In spring and autumn this will be after the meal, and in the summer it’s better to wait until after the first dance. Not only is it easier for me to achieve the results I’m aiming for at this time, people will have eaten and had a few drinks so they’re generally more relaxed. 

How do you keep your work fresh?

I constantly push myself creatively and aim to keep improving. I attend one or two workshops a year, and even if they’re aimed more at my commercial work they still inform my wedding photography. As a wedding photographer you cover documentary, lifestyle, portraiture and product photography, so you have to be multiskilled. I get bored easily, so if I go to a venue I’ve shot at before I always try to find new locations, unless the couple ask for specific images they’ve seen in my portfolio.

As featured in Professional Photo magazine, issue 123. 

Visit James' website to see more of his work. 

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