If I were in charge of planning your wedding day from start to finish, the first thing I would think about is light. Having good, interesting light where you are getting married, or during your ceremony, can make the difference between magical photos and pedestrian photos. If you have a good photographer, they will find slices of good light no matter what and get you amazing photos, but they also can’t control things like the ceremony lighting, or what the reception roof is made of. That’s up to you to think about when you’re visiting venues and making decisions about the timing and locations of the day. I often wish I could accompany my clients on those early visits — and when I’m able to, I jump at the chance!
While there’s nothing that can replace your actual photographer making recommendations about your venue lighting based on their shooting style, you can go a long way on your own if you know what to look for. Here are some things to think about and assess as you’re visiting your potential venues:
Know when the sun sets on your wedding day
The best portrait light of your entire day is the hour before sunset. You need to choose what’s happening at that time of day carefully, because those will be your best photos. That last hour is called golden hour because it makes everyone look happy, healthy, glowy, and gorgeous. It also gets you those images where light floods the image from the setting sun, and creates a kind of emotional light that is hard to get otherwise. And right after sunset, during the beginning of blue hour, you get your best silhouette shots. You want to be able to make real choices about these photos, not just find yourself with a schedule that makes the decision for you, or makes you run around fast in order to get the shots.
Even when you are deciding the date of your wedding, you should be thinking about what photos are important to you, because the sun sets at different times throughout the year, which will impact what photos you can get and how easily you can get them vis-a-vis your schedule.
Now, rest assured: a good photographer can get you what you need at any time of year. But it will impact your schedule differently, according to what you have planned around sunset hour.
All of the below photos were taken in the hour before sunset. Some of them use glittery backlit sun, some use the warmth of the setting sun on faces, and some use the sunset sky. All of them use the light for part of the magic of the shot. Choose wisely where you’ll be during this hour!
You know when the sun sets on your wedding day. You are visiting venues. Make sure that, as you’re looking at ceremony sites at your venue, you know where the sun will be in that particular landscape at the time of your ceremony. If you can, choose a ceremony site that has ideal lighting NOT ONLY when you’re visiting, but at the time of year you’ll be having your ceremony.
- a ceremony site where one side of the ceremony space is in full sun, and one side is in full shade. Either one or the other is fine, but both will make it difficult for both the groom and the bride to be exposed correctly, will make editing difficult, and will make the final product less emotive or evocative and more like a snapshot.
- a completely backlit ceremony space — where the light is coming directly from behind the bride and groom toward the camera. A partially backlit ceremony (the light to the side and behind) can be ideal, but directly behind will make your images lack some clarity. It can be a nice effect, but you might not want all your images to have that effect, and you might also want some very clear images of your ceremony. Again, a good photographer will mitigate the situation by shooting from the side and in the editing process, but it’s better to have ideal conditions to start.
- full sun in someone’s eyes: even if you’re both evenly lit by full sun, often either the groom or the bride will get the sun in their eyes during the ceremony, and have to squint. This is something that cannot be mitigated by the photographer — it might be uncomfortable for the person in question, and the pictures will show the squinting. The way to avoid this is to either a. have the ceremony later in the day, b. angle the ceremony space more appropriately, or c. choose a more shady spot! All things to think about as you’re looking at venues.
- Filtered backlight: this is your ideal scenario. It will make your ceremony photos look like a portrait session. It means that the sun is blocked, but not entirely: e.g., filtered by trees that let some of the sun shine through.
- All shade: consistent, even shade creates rich colors, crisp clear photos, and easy shooting conditions. Ideally, you would be standing near the edge of that shade, but all shade is good shade for a ceremony.
- Side back light: this is where the sun is behind your ceremony space, but also to the side. Not so far to the side that it is shining directly in someone’s eyes, but enough to the side that the photographer doesn’t have to shoot directly into the sun. This is another ideal scenario, as it will light your hair from behind and give everything a glow, but your photos will still be clear and crisp, and your skin tones will be good.
Shady spot for formals
Is there a spot at your venue that is has enough shade for a large group, on flat, easily accessible terrain that is near the reception location? This is essential. Most venues have something like that, but if they don’t, consider carefully if you’re going to want the hassle of not having a great place to shoot a large group in good lighting.
Indoor portrait light and environment
When looking at a venue’s indoor shooting spots, look for large windows that do not have direct sun shining through them. Make sure there’s at least one window in your getting ready area, and that the makeup artists don’t set up in front of it. Also, the larger the window, the softer the light and the shadows will be on your face, which is nicest for portraits.
It’s best to have windows on one or two sides. Too many windows can decrease the drama and expressiveness of the indoor light.
Rainy day plan
Each venue has a different one, and there is lots to think about here, but when it comes to photography, you just want to be sure there is an indoors spot to shoot both couple portraits and large groups. A porch is fine, but you should just make sure you assess the details so you know what you’re getting into. Bottom line? As long as there’s one good indoor window or the ability to get outside under an umbrella, you’ll get some great shots to help you remember the rain…like this one:
Reception/dance lighting issues
All photographers shoot receptions differently, but I prefer to “bounce” on-camera flash. Bouncing flash means that I point the flash at a flat, hopefully neutrally colored surface nearby my subjects, and the light that bounces off that surface is what lights the scene. It creates softer, more portrait-style light than direct flash, even direct flash with a diffuser. Usually I use nearby walls or ceilings for bouncing light. I bring off-camera lighting and set it up, but I only use it for a select number of shots, because I find it limits my action shooting too much. Most of the evening I am moving around so much, and shooting down from above so much, that bounced flash is a better choice for me. But all photographers, no matter their style, will at some point during the reception need to bounce their flash off of walls or ceilings.
So…does your venue have cavernous ceilings over the dance floor that will make flash difficult to bounce? Are the walls a strong color, which will make bounced flash leave a color cast on your skin? None of these are deal breakers, and any good photographer can mitigate those factors, but you want to know what you’re getting into, and what challenges your photographer may face for the reception. That way, when you choose a photographer, you can ask them how they would handle that situation!
I hope this helps you feel confident and empowered as you go to choose venues. Go find a place that makes you feel great and gives you great pictures.