Wedding receptions are some of the hardest things in wedding photography because you never know what kind of lighting situation you are going to walk into. So you basically have to be ready for anything. Usually receptions are at night or in a hall with dim lighting. With so much action going on between dancing, laughing and eating, you won't be able to photograph a dim room without a flash.
Here are a few tips photographers use to spruce up reception photos in dark conditions to make them a little more artistic and interesting.
1. Get a nice flash.
Most cameras these days come with a little pop-up flash. Don't use that. It's range is not very far and it also points all of the light directly at the subjects in front of you. This can lead to red-eye as well as highlighting every piece of dust in the air. By using a bright direct flash in a dim room, you are either blowing out the subject, making them too bright, or making the subject look exposed right but the background too dark, so you lose all of the detail and information in the background that tells the story.
When you have a nice flash, you put on the hot shoe that has manual controls, which allow you to even out the light so everything looks good. Most cameras have a larger flash that's made for the camera, meaning it will talk to the camera to decide how bright the flash should be, but remember you are smarter than your camera and flash.
So as long as you have a flash that can be manually changed from 1/1 intensity to 1/16 or even 1/32, it will work for you. An expensive flash ($400 or more) does a great job, but if it's not in the budget quite yet, it's not a big deal.
2. Get a diffuser and bounce the light upwards.
By getting a diffuser for your on camera flash, you are taking the light and spreading it out evenly, making it appear softer as it lights your subjects.
A diffuser usually comes with a nice flash, but if it doesn't, there's a cheap trick that will give you the same results. Buy a rubbing alcohol bottle, make sure it's white, not clear. Put the rubbing alcohol in another container then cut the top part off the bottle. Place some tape around the ragged edges and slide it on your flash, after it's dry of course. Now you have a diffuser!
By facing your flash toward the ceiling you are also concentrating the light elsewhere. If there is a white ceiling or top of a tent, the light will hit it and bounce back down in a more dispersed and diffused way. Both of these tricks will help balance the lighting in your photos.
3. Use the "slow" or "rear" flash feature on your camera.
This function is common on most cameras these days. You can find it under your flash settings. Basically the "slow" setting means the shutter speed is low, or under 1/60, but the flash still shoots quickly. This means when you have a dark room, or subjects with colorful lights in the background, you can have the flash shoot once, capturing the action in front of you but the shutter stays open a little longer to also capture the light in the background.
The "slow" function will pick what it thinks the shutter speed will be, and you pick the f-stop. If you don't like how the effect looks, try it manual, but select a slower shutter speed.
To make this feature work you need to practice and be very close to your subjects.
4. Don't be afraid to be part of the action.
The best reception photos are usually taken right in the middle of the dance floor. Weddings are such a strange mix of people. It's not very often a grandma will do the funky chicken, or whatever, with the twenty-something best man. By the time the reception rolls around, the bride and groom are ready for a break of having their photo taken. Now is the time to capture all the family and friends.
If you see something, don't be afraid to jump in there and take a photo. Even if you have to lay on the floor to get the best angle, capture the energy and action of the night.
Every reception is different, but usually people just want to hang out and have a good time. As long as you can capture that with your photos, you are doing it right. By perfecting your lighting technique, you can ensure the action is captured in an interesting and artistic way, which will make the couple happy. Most couples wants to show they can throw a good party.