We’ve photographed a lot of weddings in our almost 10-year career. Some consider lighting as an important element to the design of their day, but sadly, most do not. All the decor, florals, makeup, expressions, and details will be for not if they remain hidden in shadows, or under the un-flattering beam of a ceiling pot-light (and game-over if it’s a halogen bulb). As wedding photographers, it’s our job to not only think about composing a frame, capturing the moments, and making sure everything is in focus (last point up for debate); our main task in making everything look great is finding the BEST QUALITY OF LIGHT in a space. Yes, we can manipulate lighting conditions to a certain extent, but if it’s NATURAL LIGHT that you’re after (and it really should be), you’re going to want to make some important considerations about how to best highlight everything that you want your guests (and photographers) to see. By NATURAL LIGHT we mean that soft quality of light (NOT SUNSHINE) that floats in through a big window and casts equally SOFT SHADOWS. Why SOFT LIGHT? Well, all you need for an answer is a selfie. Take one at high noon on a sunny day vs. one you take on a cloudy day. Nine times out of ten, the cloudy one works better. Why? We’ll explain a little more below.
WHAT’S GOOD LIGHT AND WHERE DO I FIND IT?
Now don’t freak out! It’s not as technical as you may think. It just takes a little tweaking on how you look at things. The best part is, you know what good lighting is, even if you’re not sure how to describe it. Think of some of your
Let’s start for a second with where GOOD LIGHT isn’t. The first place that comes to mind is pot-lights. We shake our fists to the sky for the people (probably Ikea) who brought pot-lights and halogen into event spaces. Yes, they were arguably better than the fluorescent lighting that we all remember sitting under in school, but the problem with pot lights is, well, just stand under one for second and take a selfie. You’ll start to see what we mean. They cast horrid shadows and extremely bright highlights, and though they may be great at illuminating paintings at a gallery, they make people’s faces look like a complete disaster – remember that Seinfeld episode of the two-face Jerry dated who looked completely different under different lighting conditions? That was no exaggeration. There’s a good reason that she looked best beside a big north-facing window…Think for a second about the investment made to a makeup artist. All that work will be pointless if the bride is spending most of her reception seated under a bright, top-down beam of light.
SO WHAT’S GOOD LIGHT, THEN?
GOOD LIGHT is, of course, a subjective term. We could debate the minutiae of the term with other photographers, painters, directors, etc…until the cows come home, but for the purpose of this post, we’re choosing to define GOOD LIGHT as light of a certain natural quality; be it direction, softness of shadows, temperature (degrees Kelvin), or volume. For us, we love and respect classic works of art and try to emulate the concepts when it comes to lighting, as best we can given the time constraints we’re challenged with as wedding photographers. There’s a reason that painters like Vermeer, Rembrandt, or Caravaggio, were praised for not only their technical abilities but their use of GOOD LIGHTING to HIGHLIGHT and CONCEAL parts of their works so that the subject(s) would be recognized and understood by the beholder.
We love photographing brides and grooms getting ready in the morning. These photos will recall the little nervous moments, joyful anticipation, and family and friends buzzing around. Most people opt for the easiest location, which usually ends up being a clutter-filled relative’s home or a stark hotel suite, void of the little touches that show personality.
A location plays an important role as supporting cast, setting the stage for the big day. We suggest finding a quaint Bed & Breakfast or scouring AirBnB for a beautifully decorated home or condo. Don’t worry – unless it’s an underground bunker, or middle of the night, chances are there will be useable window light, but even the best light in the world can’t do much for a cluttered room full of pink plastic bags or a pile of coats…
It’s best to assign one corner of the room as the “mess corner”. In an ideal world, banish plastic bottles, paper cups
The key with light is QUALITY over QUANTITY. Anything with north facing windows (because the sun never pours in through a window facing this way) and unique, classic decor (e.g. not generic, Marshall’s-bought art) will add a touch of personality and make the final photos look a bit more complete and sentimental.
It’s a normal tendency to turn on all the lights when you arrive at a rental suite or hotel room. Instead, see what can be achieved using the window light alone. MAKEUP should be able to be completed using a BIG WINDOW alone (hair styling may need a touch more light coming from all directions though). In fact, you’ll probably achieve a more consistent look from your makeup artist when only using one BIG WINDOW and turning off all the other lights that might end up negatively affecting the color application. This is because WINDOW light and INCANDESCENT light (lightbulb light) have very different COLOUR TEMPERATURES. We won’t overload you with the technicalities of the Kelvin scale in this post, but just know that you should not be mixing a bunch of different-colored light-sources when getting your makeup done (turn it off!). Again, your photos will look a bit more classic for it.
Tip: Don’t be afraid of dark-colored walls! In fact, when illuminated by a window, dark-colored rooms come alive and the white dress really tends to stand out for the contrast.
Timeline note: When creating your timeline, try to allow about 30 minutes
Outdoor ceremonies in the middle of the afternoon can be gorgeous, but try and ensure that “I dos” are voiced in a shady spot as the sun at certain times of day, on certain days of the year, can be very intense. If you’re going the outdoor route, we recommend trying to find some open shade in which to have your ceremony. It’s not always available, but if you can try to at least have the bride and groom in a place where they won’t be squinting, all the better.
If you’re planning an outdoor wedding in the summer (in the Northern Hemisphere), try to avoid scheduling the ceremony before 3 pm. We can’t really change the trajectory of the sun (we’ve tried and failed), so if you’re planning to have it in a non-shady spot, the bride and groom may be left with dark circles under their eyes and deep shadows under their noses. Ideally, the bride and groom will be north-facing (from their guests’ point of view) and the guests facing south. This may cause guests to squint on a sunny day, but it’s the lesser of two lighting-evils.
If you just can’t manage to get a beautiful, 22 degree (72F) cloudy day, and there’s no possible way for your ceremony to be facing the ‘right’ way and it’s high-noon, because that’s the only time that will work for your family and guests, and the sun is shining intensely and our lighting guide is going up in flames, DON’T WORRY! Just be present at the moment and feel every little bit of this because getting the best photos don’t always JUST depend on light. We would always, 100% of the time rather photograph a joyous, present couple on a sunny day, than shoot a detached, worrisome couple with the best lighting available. Like your getting-ready location, GOOD LIGHT serves only as a compliment. It is not subject.
Indoor ceremonies are much more common than outdoor ceremonies (we don’t all have the luxury of shooting exclusively in Southern California), and as such, we have some helpful info in which to share with you. Lighting is always the most important factor for us when creating great images, so when selecting your venue – whether it be a church or any other space – try to find a spot close to natural window light in which to stand. During the ceremony, we try to be as discreet as possible, avoiding flash altogether, so the available light is a pretty big factor in how your photos will end up looking. We’ve shot in some pretty dark churches with little to no window light, and though we can always find a glimmer of light to use, the photos end up looking a bit ‘flat’ and lifeless. Light sculpts, separates and defines, so when it’s available and coming in from an appropriate distance in relation to the bride and groom, there will be little to no doubt where the focus of a room should be directed.
If possible, have your guests throw rose petals, rice or confetti at you and your partner during the recessional. This always makes for the best photos!
THE DREADED POTLIGHT
We touched on this above, but it had to be repeated: If you’re only going to remember one thing from this post, please let it be this paragraph. If your reception/ceremony venue is lit by pot-lights (those intense little ceiling lights that make it look like an imminent alien abduction), we implore you to turn them off completely. Pot-lights will make the best make up artists’ work look tired, the most beautiful florals look plastique and most stunning couture look, dare we say, quite inexpensive. Pot-lights will instantly add dark circles, create a weird yellowish
If your venue uses pot-lights (ask them, or better yet, see for yourself), turn them all off and start there. Determine what time the sun is setting on the wedding day, and try to visit on a day where the sun may be at the same position relative to the horizon. A site visit at 6 pm in February will (snow aside) look much different than 6 pm in July). This may help determine how much there may be for a duration of cocktail-hour or reception – though we can’t predict the weather on the wedding day
The best lit receptions have light coming in from at least three directions. Low hanging chandeliers and/or string lights (max 3-4 feet above the tallest person), lots of candles on the tables (low lighting), and two spotlights on the head table coming in at 2 and 10 o’clock (60 degrees and 300 degrees) and at LEAST 9 or 10 feet high so that it’s not right in their eyes), oh and a white spotlight from very high up is NEVER a bad choice when it comes to the first dance. Keep in mind, with all the money you spend on beautiful decor, flowers, etc… – if it’s not lit properly, no one will see it, or worse yet, if it’s poorly lit by bad lights, it will be very visible but not in a good way.
Those who may have seen us work in the past might recall seeing us photograph some dancefloor action using on-camera flash – POW! Right in the face! At this time in the festivities we don’t mind using a delayed hard flash combined with a slow-shutter speed because we feel that it echoes the energy, abandon, and looseness that is the dancefloor. Not all hard light is bad!
We’ve written this article to serve only as a guideline to help out the type of photography we do. It’s in no way intended as a photography guideline for everyone. Some photographers may not find lighting as important, instead opting for the emotional impact, or composition alone, and disregard lighting altogether. That’s OK! We’re quite aware that there are many photographers out there with different styles and philosophies to ours and that’s part of what makes choosing a wedding photographer such a
daunting fun task (but if you ask them about pot-lights and they shrug their shoulders, run for the hills).
Joel & Justyna
A few of our favourite, best lit weddings: