ARTICLE

Five lessons photojournalists can learn from a wedding photographer

Canon Ambassador Fabio Mirulla shares his innovative Speedlite techniques and reveals how they can help enhance your reportage.
A black-and-white image of a man in a dinner jacket eating a spoonful of cake, with the shadows on the wall behind him revealing more of the scene, making it clear that someone else is holding the spoon.

Canon Ambassador and wedding-reportage photographer Fabio Mirulla deploys flash extensively in his work and believes it could be beneficial in documentary photography too. "Flash completes a good photographic kit," he explains. "I use two Canon Speedlite 600EX-RTs, but I'm upgrading to the Canon Speedlite EL-1, which looks perfect for my work." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT (now succeeded by the Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT) and Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT (now succeeded by the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT (Ver.2)) at 1/125 sec, f/2 and ISO3200. © Fabio Mirulla

There is a common conception that flash and photojournalism cannot get along. After all, flash can be obtrusive, and the preparation required for softer, off-camera flash setups can be problematic for photojournalists reacting to rapidly unfolding events. Moreover, many feel there is no room for subjectivity in news reporting, and using flash creatively risks disturbing the authenticity of a scene.

Not everyone agrees with this, however. "We are always told flash and reportage do not mix," says Italian Canon Ambassador Fabio Mirulla, whose wedding photography captures matrimony in a natural, photojournalistic manner. "But we often face situations where having a good Speedlite in your kitbag can solve very difficult moments or help you produce something creative without interfering with what is happening in front of you."

Here, Fabio lists five wedding-reportage flash techniques that he believes can also apply to photojournalism and documentary photography.
A black-and-white image of a woman in a dress isolated in front of pitch-black darkness, with nine arms reaching into the frame.

It isn't always possible to predict where an off-camera flash will be needed in advance or to set up portable light stands in the heat of the moment. But on-camera flash can be utilised to clean a frame too. For this image, Fabio used a camera-mounted Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT to isolate his subject and the hands surrounding her, exposing only them and leaving the background black. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens and Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT at 1/200 sec, f/2.2 and ISO4000. © Fabio Mirulla

A woman wearing South Asian clothing in the middle of a crowd of women who are reaching for her and smearing yellow paint on her face.

Fabio recently switched to a Canon EOS R5 and Canon EOS R6. "Canon cameras have a colorimetry like no other," he says. "They are practical to use and enable me to work at high ISOs without major noise. By combining the camera with the right professional lenses, I achieve higher focusing speeds, image cleanliness and sharpness." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens, Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT and Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT at 1/200 sec, f/2 and ISO3200. © Fabio Mirulla

1. Clean a chaotic scene

In busy situations with lots of people, a photojournalist can use flash to draw attention to a single, important subject, highlighting what is important without entirely removing context.

"Very often, numerous elements dominate and disturb a scene, making it difficult to accentuate a single subject," Fabio begins. "Using a flash enables me to 'clean' an image, giving importance only to what interests me. This is a good technique at any big event, especially when you have a crowd of people but only one subject, for example at a concert, a theatre or a conference."

By firing a flash directly at a single subject within a crowd, usually a bride or groom, Fabio isolates the subject from surrounding chaos. In situations of vibrant colour, he applies a coloured gel which contrasts with the dominant ambient tones, furthering the isolation. He prefers to position a single Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT remotely, roughly perpendicular to his subject, using a narrow zoom, around 70mm, to channel light accurately. "This allows for a three-dimensional effect, avoiding flattening the subject by using frontal flash," he says.

"The flash power must be enough to illuminate the subject and cancel out other external light," he adds. "I use manual flash, as TTL flash metering could be misled by other light sources."
Locating the ideal flash placement for a wedding dance floor in advance is virtually impossible, and directing his subjects towards a Speedlite would be counter to Fabio's principle of capturing unforced imagery. For this reason, he usually works with an assistant who moves wherever required, flash in hand.

For photojournalists working solo, some situations might allow you to quickly place a portable light stand with a Speedlite to the side of your subject. When that's not an option, a similar cleaning effect can be created using flash on-camera, although firing frontally risks flattening the image.

"This is the simplest technique for creating images where the subject is isolated from their environment," explains Fabio. "The flash stays on-camera, aimed right at the subject. A frontal light strikes the subject strongly and directly, exposing only them.

"Generally, in these situations, I use the flash automatically for power and zooming. On-camera, the Speedlite and my shooting point are equidistant from my subject, meaning TTL metering can perfectly calibrate the power for my exposure."

When required, Fabio dials in extra stops of flash power to overcome any ambient light and leave the background underexposed. "Obviously, a dark background helps a lot," he admits.
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A young bride and groom in the back of a blue VW campervan, being driven along a country road at sunset.

This image was shot from a moving car window. "The flash is inside the van, pointed at the white roof, which acted as a reflective panel diffuser," Fabio explains. "The power was low, to avoid disturbing the driver." He used a 1/50 sec exposure to create blur and a sense of movement around the vehicle, flash freezing everything within. A slower shutter, he says, would have blurred excessively while unbalancing his exposure. "I wanted the wider scene underexposed, prioritising highlights before the surroundings and headlights." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT and Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT at 1/50 sec, f/4 and ISO640. © Fabio Mirulla

2. Expose confined spaces

Fabio deploys flash in confined spaces to highlight precise parts of a frame within a wider, and often deliberately underexposed, context. Not every photojournalist is constantly in the thick of the action, and creative techniques such as this can help add interest to everyday commissioned imagery such as portraits for interviews and other features.

"For photojournalism, you could use this technique when you have a small space and need to concentrate on only that – for example, photographing a subject in a phone box at night," says Fabio. "You could also use this wherever you have two different situations, such as rooms, in your view and you want to highlight only one."

Using flash in tight spaces concentrates a huge amount of light in a very small area, so Fabio employs a diffuser, even when the flash power is low, to soften the light and avoid blowing out highlights. "In small spaces, you don't need high flash power," he explains. "I prefer a flash zoom around 35mm to ensure a wide, even lighting.

"I use Live View to get an idea of the exposure of my background and ambient lighting," Fabio says. "I also shoot three or four test shots beforehand, to ensure I have the perfect exposure."
A black-and-white image of a bride on a staircase looking up in surprise. Shadows on the wall beside her show a group of women attempting to catch a thrown bouquet.

"I use a clean space like a painter – I want to fill the space," Fabio says. "For this image, the flash was positioned off-camera, behind a group of women intent on catching the bouquet. The flash power was set at 1/2 and zoomed to about 24mm. I needed a lot of light over a large surface." Taken on a Canon EOS 6D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 6D Mark II) with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens, Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT and Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT at 1/100 sec, f/1.8 and ISO3200. © Fabio Mirulla

3. Incorporate additional shadows

As well as their numerous creative applications, shadows can be useful for bringing out-of-shot elements into frame. In situations with audiences out of view, such as press conferences or interviews, this technique can enable you to tell a deeper story than a single image might otherwise allow.
During weddings, Fabio positions a remotely triggered Speedlite behind a person or group located just out of shot, with a large white or plain surface in the background of the image. "The technical purpose of this is simple: to create shadows on the wall. To avoid having my own shadow on the scene, I shoot from behind the flash," he says. He triggers his Speedlite at high power, 1/2 or more, and at a wide zoom such as 24mm, ensuring wide, even flash coverage to maximise strong shadows across the entirety of the background surface.

When creating shadows of subjects already in shot, usually for aesthetic or compositional purposes, Fabio will power down to around 1/64. "I use the flash here only to create a shadow, not to expose a subject, as often in these situations I have good light."

This technique is extremely accessible to photojournalists, Fabio believes, even those working solo or with no time to prepare. While the flash must strike subjects from an angle relative to the camera to create visible shadows, the Speedlite needn't be positioned far away at all. Fabio often holds a Speedlite underneath his camera body to cast upward shadows, or out to his left or right to cast them flat. The flash doesn't have to be located off-camera either. "Sometimes I just bounce off a wall or a ceiling like a reflector panel," he explains.

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A man firing champagne into the air towards a bride, with the liquid illuminated by flash, beside giant red neon letters spelling out LOVE.

When shooting at night, Fabio often employs a cross-lighting flash setup, placing a Speedlite both behind and in front of his subjects. This particular image was taken this way and also involved Fabio's preferred evening lens. "I work with two cameras, but after the cutting of the cake and for the party, I use only one with the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM attached. It allows me to stay inside the action," he explains. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens and two Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT at 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO5000. © Fabio Mirulla

4. Use cross-lighting against a night sky

Photojournalists and documentarians often cover events at night. When working against a dark sky, separating subjects from the background and creating a sense of depth can be difficult. Fabio often encounters this problem at weddings. To overcome it he uses a cross-lighting flash setup. "In these cases I place a flash behind my subjects and another in front to make them readable," he says. "If the couple decides to splash the champagne, the effect is certainly impactful." While this technique does require more of a setup than photojournalists might typically employ, keeping it in mind for when the opportunity arises could make for some truly unique shots.

For this technique Fabio controls each flash using a separate group, as each serves a different purpose. "The frontal flash is the primary light source; the back is just to outline the bride and groom against the darkness," he explains. "The flash groups are usually at different distances from the subject, meaning I need different power settings."

The frontal flash needs enough power to expose the subjects – overcoming any unpredictable lighting factors such as fireworks – but not so much as to blow out highlights or create harsh shadows. "The power is always around 1/32," says Fabio. "The back flash must be zoomed very wide, 24mm to cover the entire background. And not too much power, just enough to fill the frame. With only a little light, you can outline elements like water droplets."
The lower half of a woman in a white dress, walking outside at night with bare feet. A low shutter speed has created orange light trails.

"I believe documentary style is about capturing the real essence of the story that is in front of us," says Fabio. "I shoot with little intervention or interference on my side. I just let the events flow in a natural way. I am not a 100% 'reportage' photographer, though – I shoot using my creative vision, and my ideas sometimes lead me to use different approaches and techniques. I love to experiment." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens and Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT at 1/2 sec, f/3.2 and ISO100. © Fabio Mirulla

5. Slow your shutter for a sense of energy and movement

"If I want to amplify the movement of the wedding party, I combine slow shutter speeds and a voluntary movement of the camera to create trails of light with still subjects," says Fabio.

The flash can be used on or off-camera to achieve this technique, but in the quickly changing situations it suits best, on-camera provides the highest degree of flexibility and freedom of movement. Fabio shoots handheld, slowing his shutter to around or below 1/10 sec.

"I choose a rather long exposure," he explains. "The flash shot freezes the subject and then, with a large movement of the camera, I look for the light sources on the scene to create trails.

"You can use this in any chaotic situation where you need to amplify movement to tell the story, for example during a riot," he continues. "If you use this technique, you emphasise strong feelings and energy. This technique enables you to render a chaotic moment in a three-dimensional way, like a movie."

Yazar Peter Wolinski


Fabio Mirulla's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Fabio Mirulla's kitbag containing Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.

Cameras

Canon EOS R6

Offering groundbreaking speed, stability and technology that can take your creativity to new heights, the EOS R6 will enable you to capture split-second moments with incredible image quality.

Canon EOS R

With a full-frame 30.3MP sensor, ISO performance and Dual Pixel CMOS AF, the Canon EOS R offers the ultimate shooting experience to take your storytelling further.

Lenses

Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM

Offering a superior optical performance thanks to its advance lens design and the use of ground-breaking Canon optics, the RF 85mm F1.2L USM is the ultimate portrait lens for next generation imaging.

Accessories

Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT

The successor to the Speedlite Fabio works with is engineered for fast frame-rate shooting, and performs in the most demanding situations. "My Speedlites have great battery life for sustained shooting at full power and must be tough, since they're often subject to impacts, especially on dance floors," says Fabio.

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