When planning a backyard wedding, don’t forget about the lighting
Given all the important details and considerations when planning a wedding, it is easy to overlook something like lighting in terms of the ceremony location and reception. Avoid uneven or insufficient lighting that will make your wedding photographer cry inside with a bit of planning!
In this article, I’m going to discuss sun positioning, natural light and when to bring in flash and professional lighting.
Things to Consider
Since your wedding location is likely not often used for ceremonies, you will have to do some research to plan for the optimal ceremony time and avoid uneven lighting. First answer these questions:
- What is your preferred background/location?
- What time of day will work best with your schedule?
- What angle is the sun coming from?
- Will the location/time create any uneven lighting situations?
- If so, is there an alternative location or time?
Where’s the Sun?
When planning for the time, day and location of an outdoor wedding ceremony, I suggest plotting the sun for the location with https://www.suncalc.org. The website makes it possible to track the sun’s path around the globe on any specific day and location. Once you know what direction the sun will be coming from, you can see if there are any issues with lighting.
If the light is mostly coming from behind the couple/officiant this is generally easier for photography. Why? The backlighting will place the faces of the couple in shadow. Light will be reflected from the ground back to their faces, which is usually good. The processional may be evenly lit or not, but my main concern here is the ceremony itself because it doesn’t move. The later in the day is typically better for backlighting, but it depends on the time of year/location.
If the light will mostly be coming from in front of the couple/officiant, then you may have some issues. Take any structures into account like trees and houses that will create shadows as the sun moves lower across the sky. The greater distance between the ceremony location and any structures will let light hit that spot closer to sunset. The closer, you will have shadows or dappled light created by leaves.
Planning Ceremony Time
In an ideal world, you would view the location on a sunny day in person exactly a year before to see what conditions are like. (It doesn’t need to be the exact day, but near it for best results to decide what you prefer.) Observe the conditions for the length of time you anticipate the ceremony to be. Even 30 mins can make a big difference if you are near a structure/trees. Make adjustments to location and time depending on what you see and if you plan to erect a tent.
If you are unable to see the location a year in advance, use the sun positioning website and take into account any structures and make an educated guess about shadows based on the height of the structures. Then visit the location a few days before the event and confirm you won’t have any unexpected issues if the day is sunny.
What if it is Overcast?
While I love beautiful sunlight, an overcast day will eliminate most issues with sun positioning and shadows, however it may be much darker earlier in the day. But since you can’t predict the weather, plan for the sun and if it is overcast, then enjoy!
If the ceremony location view will be unobstructed at sunset, be considerate of the fact that guests may be facing directly into the sun during the hour or so before the sunsets. If you must, provide guests fun sunglasses and aim for the closest to the sunset you can start so at least part of it will be less intense. (and you can all see the sun set together!) Sometimes the clouds come in and the sun “sets” earlier which could spare their eyes.
If you must wait until after sunset for religious or other reasons, conduct the ceremony asap. These ceremonies will experience dramatically shifting lighting conditions and will end with needing flash photography. I prefer this vs having a couple unevenly lit, but know that flash will be required to reliably capture movement like during an indoor ceremony.
Avoid a full nighttime outside ceremony unless using professional continuous lighting in the set-up. Ambient lighting of things like flood lights may create strange shadows or colors. I typically need to use flash for an outdoor wedding ceremony at night. (I’ll typically set-up two lights on stands at the back) Setting up professional continuous lighting which will be attractive on the couple and also allow guests to see is best. Candles are great for ambience, but they will not properly light the ceremony alone.
Examples of Backyard Ceremony Lighting
Sun from behind to the left, diffused by trees. Later afternoon in the fall. Great spot for afternoon wedding.
Position away from structures or time it right to having even light, at least on the couple. 15 mins later it would have been uneven on the couple.
Examples of Uneven Lighting
These are some example of what we are trying to avoid happening. I do want to say, I was able to still make some lovely images at these weddings, but it wasn’t easy. There are also techniques in Photoshop which really help with high dynamic contrast or adding in fill flash. However, I am trying to take photos as natural looking as possible and neither of those methods will look natural. (or in the case of lighting, would be hard to do because the scene is changing so rapidly and the sun is bright!)
If the ceremony had taken place an hour earlier or later in the day, the lighting would have been more even. In this case, Photoshop was used to enhance the shadow area.
This setting was gorgeous but tricky when the sun got blocked by the house and unevenly lit the couple. Between telephoto close-ups and fill flash, the ceremony was captured as well as possible. Fill flash was used for the exit photo.
An issue when getting married under/near a tree any time of the day!
This is the hardest situation to deal with. Cameras have gotten better at handling extreme dynamic range especially in RAW formats, but Photoshop is no replacement for having excellent lighting conditions in the first place.
The solution (other than an overcast sky!) would be placing the light behind the couple. In this case, the location didn’t allow for that and we did the best we could!
Backyard Reception Lighting
For an outdoor reception, or even a small dinner party, assess the lighting conditions on any evening. Is it too dark? What decorative (candles) or functional (light strands, uplights) can we bring it for safety or ambience?
Don’t forget to add lighting to your tent! I once did a wedding where there was only decorative lighting and it was very hard to see people or even see your food. Ambience is great, but make sure there is some overall lighting for practical and safety
Hire a photographer like me who has experience dealing with challenging lighting issues and knows how to light using off camera flash. This is imperative when dancing after dark and when there is no tent or ceiling to bounce from. I also highly suggest a wedding planner! When you are creating a wedding venue from scratch, there is much to consider and you only get one shot at it. Bring in the professionals and have the unforgettable, beautiful day you are dreaming of!