What is the Ideal Time for my Outdoor Wedding Ceremony?
“We’ve Got to Go Now, the Light’s Perfect!”
Wedding photographers and videographers often find themselves in this kind of situation, as few things will get us more excited than beautiful light! Though it is our job to produce the best images possible for our couples in whatever the lighting happens to be, it goes without saying that some lighting conditions will aid in the creation of much more pleasing imagery, while less favorable conditions can be a hinderance.
What is "Bad Light"
Unfavorable light can't be labeled with an blanket statement such as, "the light at 1pm is always bad." While, yes, the light during midday will have a much greater chance of being difficult to work with, you must consider the other variables of the particular area we are shooting in, and in some cases midday light can be great! To avoid getting too technical, I will instead just describe a few situations that can interfere with the goal of creating good pictures.
1) Direct sun in front of and above the subjects, hitting their faces. This creates harsh, dark shadows and also results in squinty eyes.
2) Strong backlighting (subjects are in the shade, but the background is in full direct sun). While there is more than enough light in this situation to get a good exposure on the subjects, the much more brightly-lit background is the problem, as the camera cannot capture such a huge difference in light levels. In other words, exposing for the subjects will result in a completely blown-out background (and the bright background may also somewhat wash out the subjects). This can be addressed by adding light to the subjects (with flash), though this can be impractical and ineffective for a large scene such as a wedding ceremony. While an alternative is to pick a middle ground exposure as a compromise, in this kind of situation I'll usually lean toward getting a proper exposure on the subjects and letting the background be blown out.
Ironically, for one outdoor ceremony a few years ago, this kind of backlighting worked to our advantage. The bride was concerned that, although her venue was a beautiful old home in south Louisiana, the surrounding area was all developed, with a highway and some rather drab looking commercial and industrial buildings off in the distance of what would be the background of her ceremony photos. However, during a preliminary visit to the site during the couple's engagement portrait, I observed that because the ceremony would be taking place under a large tree and, at that time of day, fully within the shadow of the building, while at the same time the background would be fully lit by the late afternoon sun, the result would be that the undesirable background would be mostly blown out to white. So, in this particular instance, a lighting situation that would typically be described as far from ideal ended up being perfect in terms of addressing the bride's main concern.
But more often than not, a backlit situation is something to avoid if at all possible, unless it's being used intentionally for a particular effect.
3) Sun/shadow transition line passing through the scene. Similar to the above, but even more difficult to work with, when a shadow is being cast by a nearby building or other large object, and the edge of the shadow crosses directly through the ceremony area, it results part of the scene being lit with full sun and the other part being in shade. In its most difficult incarnation, this sun/shadow line passes right through the spot where the couple is standing, perhaps even crossing right through them.
4) Dappled light. While the relative shade of a large tree can offer relief from the midday sun, light filtering through the trees can create prominent bright spots being projected onto subjects. This is easily recognizable when you approach such an area, as you can see the prominent pattern of spots scattered around on the ground.
The romantic notion of a sunset ceremony is enticing to some couples, but in many cases it's actually not ideal in terms of the best light for good photographs. Because many outdoor weddings in New Orleans take place in French Quarter courtyards, the somewhat enclosed nature of these spaces can make them quite dark at sunset, and furthermore also eliminates much if not all of the aesthetic appeal of a sunset ceremony from the perspective of you and your guests, since the buildings obscure much of the view of the sunset itself.
A more open outdoor area will possibly be better suited to take advantage of a nice sunset. With the sun setting directly behind the couple, with some supplemental lighting added it can create a stunningly beautiful visual effect in the background! And if the western sky of the setting sun is facing couple, the soft and warm light at that particular moment is often absolutely perfect, though the downside is that this window of great light is very brief, rapidly diminishing as the sun dips below the horizon. And for this reason, it can be a bit risky to schedule a ceremony to begin right at sunset, as weddings often end up starting a little late, and this brief period of excellent light can be gone by then. Of course, I can still capture beautiful images even in the dark through the use of lighting equipment, the overall look of the images will be different from daytime shots. In short, if you have a strong desire for your ceremony to take place at sunset, and have a suitable outdoor location to take advantage of it, consider actually scheduling your ceremony to start 10-15 minutes before the sunset time. If all goes well in terms of starting on time, your ceremony will be ending right as the sun is setting. And if we end up starting a few minutes late, we'll still have good light to shoot with.
So That’s the Answer?
First Look and Portraits Before the Ceremony
Morning, Mid-Afternoon, or Night Weddings
If your ceremony is set for earlier or later than that last half hour before sunset, don’t sweat it! While that may be the ideal time for outdoor pictures, it certainly does not mean that spectacular images cannot be produced at other times.
In some cases it may be unavoidable that an outdoor ceremony and/or portraits take place after it gets dark. It might even be your preference if you want that particular look! Don’t fret over this, as beautifully romantic photographs can still be produced in these conditions, using a combination of the venue’s ambient lighting, candles, lanterns, and other decorative elements, as well as my own lighting equipment. That's all part of the reason why you should hire an experienced photographer who is comfortable shooting in difficult lighting conditions.