Looking for Light on Your Wedding Day by Los Angeles Wedding Photographer Brandi Potter
Planning a wedding is tough, and the last thing that you’re thinking about is light and how it can affect your photos. For most photographers we’re more concerned about what the lights doing than anything else while we’re shooting. The light effects our settings, the way we shoot, the way we pose, the way we position you, the way we move your face/bodies, etc etc.
Unless you’re a photographer you most likely haven’t even considered what type of light is best for every situation. Couples generally build a timeline around what works best for them throughout the day and not what works best for that time of day. Of course, it is our responsibility as photographers to be able to shoot comfortably in ANY sort of lighting situation, but it’s always nice when our people help us make our jobs a little simpler.
So let’s start by putting one of the most common phrases I hear at weddings in the fiery depths of the Sun where it belongs.
“The Sun’s out and PERFECT for photos!”
Unless this is said during golden hour or there’s a photographer who really loves shooting in challenging harsh light (ie. me, most of the time) this couldn’t be further from the truth. I can count on one hand the amount of people I know who are truly comfortable in shooting and creating in harsh light. Heck, I still have moments where I’m like “eh, but can we just shoot indoors, or?”
Harsh Light is a completely different aesthetic than soft or golden light that’s smeared all over pinterest. It’s a different playing field for us. We have to be more conscious about everything when shooting in harsh light, and honestly, it can be pretty easy for us to mess it up if we aren’t paying attention.
But light is all subjective, depending on the photographer, and I can’t speak for everyone. This guide is to help show MY clients how I use and experiment with light. If you’ve hired someone else please don’t hold them to my standards because like I said earlier, there aren’t many of us comfortable in shooting in weird lighting situations.
***PLEASE remember that none of us can guarantee the perfect lighting scenario. We also can’t guarantee that your photos are going to be lit the same as a previous wedding or someone else’s wedding. If you want your photos to be lit a certain way you need to consult with your photographer to see if it’s possible and plan your wedding around the light.***
I prefer that clients get ready near big open windows with lots of natural light. This isn’t always possible, but it definitely makes the photos better. Your makeup artist will also likely thank you, because they’ll actually be able to tell what your makeup looks like outside of fluorescent lighting.
Fluorescent lighting can create orangey skin tones and look pretty flat in photos. I honestly prefer that people skip renting a hotel room for prep, and either getting ready at home or renting out an air bnb with good light. If you end up staying home or renting a house then your photos are also going to be more aesthetically pleasing than a hotel, so it’s a win/win all around.
If you do end up renting a place with fluorescent lighting or a hotel room, just setting up and getting ready by the window will improve the lighting and photos so much.
The bride had giant windows to her left and it was midday so the light coming in was pretty harsh. Having the bride stand near the windows with her face pointed towards them enabled me to be able to create a pretty contrasty, “artsy” image of her getting her veil adjusted. (Click to see the full wedding)
In this case the bride had windows in front of her and to her right side. It was also pretty stormy the day of her wedding so there was nice filtered light coming in. (Click to see the full wedding)
The makeup artist had Cate right in front of the window while getting ready. It helped create some pretty beautiful natural light and didn’t cast shadows or make her skin look orange. (Click to see the full wedding)
Just by having Casey get dressed 10 feet from the glass doors created so much softness. If the option is available I will always have my clients get dressed in front of windows with the natural light streaming in. So much better than a dark corner in a cramped space.
Mid Day Portraits
The first look is arguably one of the most emotional parts in a day, and it normally takes place in some of the hardest lighting situations. First looks generally happen anywhere from 12-4PM, which is when the sun is the highest through peak wedding season. If you aren’t positioned right or in the shade then you can get some pretty wonky shadows that you’re most likely not going to like.
The same can be said for bridal party portraits. Unless I’m playing with the light then I normally end up backlighting, front lighting or trying to find a shady spot. Backlighting is generally my go to for everything harsh light, because it’s so much easier and you won’t be squinty. BUT front lighting my subjects in harsh light is my favorite type of image to edit. The limitations though are squinting and trying to get people to relax their faces while looking into the sun so it can be a tad difficult for people with really sensitive eyes.
When it comes to the Wedding couple and their portraits, I generally experiment a bit more with the light. It’s easier to control when they aren’t having a moment like the first look and it’s only the two of them.
This is honestly one of the best examples I have of playing with light during mid-day. I can create some really striking portraits when my people are willing to go with the flow and try things out. For this portrait I saw the spotty light on the floor in the chapel during their first look and asked if they’d be willing to lay on the stone floor. Obviously when I ask these things there’s no guarantee that the photo will work, but in my mind it’s better to try and it succeed than to not. I lined them up so that her eyes were in view and it was his mouth and it’s honestly one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. (Click here to see the full wedding)
This image is on the line of being harsh light and golden hour, but it works for what I want to talk about. The sun was to their left and I wanted a big sweeping effect with her dress. I had the Groom face the sun and just slightly tilt his chin up to get rid of shadows and had the bride face me. I told her to swing the skirt of her dress towards the sun, which also resulted in her body turning slightly towards it as well, but her head stayed stationary. I love the way the shadows line up on her body and the way it opens up towards the light. (Click here to see the full wedding)
By this point in their elopement the sun was pretty high, pretty hot, and pretty harsh. I had my back to it so that I could shoot them while they played through the sunflowers without it being wonky. You can see the shadows on their faces, while not terrible, would be much better had we been in the field a bit earlier or if it were cloudy. I don’t hate the contrast though. (Click here to see the full elopement)
I LOVE shooting indoors when harsh light is streaming through windows. It is honestly so much fun and can be more unique than the standard outdoors portraits. When I shoot indoors during mid day I always look for light patterns and shadows and stick my couples in the patches. The windows in this venue are on the ceiling so we were getting some pretty killer and even light streaming in, which was perfect for this type of shot. (Click here to see the full session)
We went to Cannon Beach hoping for the normal PNW fog and gloominess and the PNW said NO and laughed at us. We ended up at the beach when the sun was at its highest and just shot in it, because why not? The sun was to my right, I wanted to capture them silhouetted without losing too much detail on them and without losing the detail behind them. (Click to see the full session)
The main focus of your wedding will likely be the ceremony. It’s the reason we’re all there. It’s the reason your friends and family are there. And it’s the reason people end up spending so much on weddings. It would be such a shame if the sun or bad lighting indoors ruined the photos for you.
Having an outdoor ceremony can definitely be tricky depending on the time of day, the time of year, and if you’re in an open space or in shadow. I’ve shot several outdoor ceremonies where the sun was to the left or right of the ceremony and it ended up casting half of the bridal party in harsh light and half in dark shadows. That’s the worst case scenario for me, because it’s honestly really hard for us to expose for both sides and make the photos look good.
I HIGHLY suggest that you go to your venue at the same time of year/day and look at the way the light hits your ceremony location. Even if it’s just the evening before to make sure you don’t need to make some micro adjustments to the placement of chairs and where you’re standing.
If you’re having your ceremony indoors there’s not a whole lot that we can do about the lighting unless you bring in a lighting expert, but just be aware that the fluorescent lighting or dark lighting will affect the way your images turn out. If you’re hiring me, then you will kinda have an idea of what your photos will look like, but definitely check with your photographer and make sure they can shoot in darker light.
I honestly prefer to shoot indoor/dark ceremonies and weddings. It’s a nice change and challenge and always ends in a result I LOVE. It was DARK in this tiny restaurant (I’ll show you a before/after if you ask), and I declined having the lights turned up at all. Just because it was going to make my job a bit harder, I didn’t want to ruin the mood or the moments for my couple. I’m pretty comfortable with shooting in dark spaces, and knew I’d be able to make this work for them. (Click to see the full wedding)
This space wasn’t AS dark as example one, but it was still an old mansion with really dark rooms. The biggest challenge for me in shooting ceremonies in locations like this is the way the wood bounces back and casts an orange tint on the photos. Editing fixes those issues so a room (any room) is totally doable. (Click to see the full wedding)
This ceremony took place 2-3 hours before sunset, so the sun was in this awkward position in the sky. It was high enough to create shadows and low enough to make the light seem pretty nice and buttery if that makes sense. The sun was slightly to the right so you can see that the bride is pretty lit, while the grooms face is shadowy. I don’t personally mind it but if you’re looking for a pretty even ceremony spot outside, YOU HAVE to pay attention to where the sun is. (Click to see the full wedding)
This ceremony was tricky. It was alternating between being completely cloud covered and being direct overhead sun. Their ceremony wasn’t *as* close to the trees and in the shade so we just had to work with what we were given. This setting is another time when you should DEFINITELY check out the venue at the same time of year and time of day that you want to have your wedding. Because of all of the trees there was real potential of some serious shadows being cast and covering half of the bridal party. (Click to see the full wedding)
This is honestly the best sort of outdoor space if you’re plan is to get married during mid-day or when the sun is harsh. It was covered and shaded by all of the trees, but light could still get in behind the couple. It just means that all of the photos are nice, even and soft with no wonky shadows going on.
I LOVE when people have string lights or candles scattered everywhere for their receptions. I normally don’t use a flash for receptions (except for dancing) because I love capturing the natural ambience of a room. I don’t want to take away from the reception that you planned by using a ton of lights to make it look like a completely different room.
That’s why for dancing/partying I prefer to use direct flash. It makes it feel like a party instead of just making the subjects completely lit and dare I say, boring.
I realize I shoot receptions differently than most photographers and would be more than happy to show you examples of a full reception if you’re interested in hiring me or have already hired me. Writing this is mainly a way for my people to understand the way I shoot, the way I look at light, and what would help at the wedding to give you the most banging images around.
This is one of my favorite reception rooms to shoot in. They have these great candlestick lights along the wall, and you’re able to have contained candles throughout most of the room. That alone adds enough light for me to be able to confidently shoot without a flash and adjust in post. While the image is still darker, it captures the ambience and the mood perfectly.
The only light for this reception came from string lights, heaters, and some candles. The string lights were honestly enough to be able to shoot and capture the ambience though. Having nice overhead lights like those in the background can really add to your images. If it ends up being a huge party then those lights will also allow me to drag the shutter around and make some really neat dancing shots for you. (Click to see the full wedding)
For this venue, sparklers weren’t allowed, and the couple wanted to have a bubble exit. Obviously with no sort of light source available it would have been hard to see them and the bubbles. I had some of the guests turn on the flashlights on their phone and hold them up high to light them as they came through.
This is direct flash. Their reception was outdoors with only the DJ lights you see behind the groom and a couple of string lights sporadically throughout the venue. It was enough to see with, but a bit too dark to shoot in. The dark flash makes them pop, makes it more dramatic, and honestly (in my opinion) it makes it a better image than if I would have tried to evenly light the entire area. I would prefer that there are more light options available throughout the reception space, but it ended up being fine because there was still enough light for me to focus and compose before taking a photo. (Click to see the full wedding)
This is a shutter drag. I can only do this if there’s a light source SOMEWHERE within your dance floor space. Whether it’s string lights (my personal favorite) or DJ booth lights. I can not create cool party images like this without that, which is one of the many reasons why I love when people have these things available.
Night photos are my JAM. They can be extremely difficult and challenging, and may not turn out but it’s SO REWARDING when they do. I just need a bit of light and we’re golden to create some truly unique images at your wedding. I promise that your guests won’t mind if you sneak away for 10-20 minutes to do this (most of the time) and will love the photos we produce doing so.
I think a lot of people think of star photos when they think of night portraits as well, which isn’t always the case. I haven’t actually taken a star shot with a couple in years (although I’m very open to it). I love the idea of a good night sky portrait, but for this guide I’ll be sticking to other types of night photos.
Paige and Brandon got married on her families property where there’s an old-old house. They used the house as a backdrop and even spent MONTHS fixing it up on the inside to set up different rooms on the bottom floor. The windows didn’t have glass in them and the house had electricity so I wanted to do a window shot/silhouette with them in it. This is one of my favorite images I’ve ever taken, and love that they trusted me enough to play around while their family danced. (See the full wedding here)
Like in some of the reception photos this image was only lit with the string lights. They had them spread out outside of their barn so that guests could walk out and get some air, and it was PERFECT for night time photos. I just made sure there were string lights in front of them and it was enough for me to be able to light their faces just enough. (See the full wedding here)
This is kind of along the same lines as example one. We went out to do their sparkler exit and we noticed how great the windows looked on the bottom floor from the outside. They were married in an old historic mansion so using the windows provided us with enough film to make this portrait nice and creepy and beautiful in it’s own right. I had them run in and stand in opposite window panes because they’re tiny. I love the subtle details you get from this, and that it’s not a completely blown out bright image lit from the front.
Having a different source of light for night portraits is also an option. I’ve used lamps, flashlights, candles, and now light sabers to light subjects. It’s really just all about time and trust for me to be able to do this sort of thing.
Using candles is one of my favorite ways to light people at night. It creates such a romantic and moody vibe which is so cinematic. I would literally do ALL portraits at night with candles if I could. It’s all about finding the right amount of candles and the right angle to light you perfectly. (See the full session here)
Golden Hour – Sunset and Sunrise
When you see the nicely lit pretty photos on Pinterest or social media they were likely taken during Golden Hour. Golden Hour is the hour before sunset and after sunrise and is literally just perfect golden light. If that’s what you want out of your images you have to be willing to plan for it. We have to be shooting at the right times to make it happen, and can’t really make it look like golden hour in photoshop.
I know a lot of my friends who have had clients want golden hour but unwilling to plan for it, and then they end up disappointed because they weren’t willing to work around the times. Talk with your photographer before the day and have them help you with your timeline so they can tell you exactly what you need to make it happen.
We were shooting in the city so I was unsure if we’d actually be able to see the sun set from down there. We got really lucky with an opening that had the sun setting in it which let us get some of that nice golden light we all love behind them for a few minutes. (See the full session here)
If windows are available and it’s cold out, shooting golden hour indoors CAN (not always) be an option as well. If it is it all depends on the position of the sun to the windows, but it can allow us to create golden hour portraits that aren’t the typical. (See the full wedding here)
When shooting golden hour I prefer shooting at sunrise because the lights normally a bit better, and there are less people out and about. The sun was coming up behind me and to my right so it was casting some pretty cool shadows on the hills. I just had Ashley face the light and turned Casey away from it to create some contrast from the pretty golden light going on. (See the full session here)
The sun was setting to their right. By having them lay down on the ground I was able to get some nice golden light on them while also getting some pretty contrasty shadows for a moodier more romantic image.
Twilight & Blue Hour
Shooting during twilight and blue hour is really underrated. It’s probably my favorite current time of day to shoot, but it’s hard to convince people of that sometimes. Typically if you’re shooting golden hour and just hang out while the sun drops then you’ll catch the most beautiful soft light, blue sky and some truly unique and beautiful images.
Like shooting at night time it can sometimes be a bit difficult towards the end of blue hour, but it’s so worth the challenge. If you’re a photographer I highly suggest that you try it at least once, and if you’re hiring a photographer I suggest you look into it for your engagement photos and portraits.
This was around 10-15 minutes after the sun had dropped behind the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s soft, delicate, and of course moody because of the light. It’s the perfect combination of all of the things I love in my images. We only had this light for 10ish minutes before it got to dark, but that’s what happens when you shoot in the mountains. (See the full session here)
This was at the tail end of blue hour before the sun popped up over the ridge line. Anytime I’m shooting a sunrise session I try to get to the location a little early so that we can shoot in blue hour for a few moments before the light hits. Sunrise blue hour is obviously a bit brighter than sunset, but it’s still soft and moody. (See the full session here)
At Lillian and Chris’s wedding we ended up doing their portraits right through golden hour and a little into blue hour. This was one of the last few photos I took, but shooting up into the sky with a little light still hitting their faces after the sun had gone down really wowed me. I love the contrast of their skin with the sky and the deepness of the image.
Blue Hour is also great for making silhouettes. I had been out with the couple to finish up their portraits during sunset and they wanted another bridal party photo. We had lost most of the light at this point so I decided to try something different than the normal group shots you see. I lined them up like I would probably a couple and it ended up working beautifully. (See the full wedding here)
In the End
We can’t control the light and we work with what we’re given. Light is rarely the same from day to day, and in it’s own way, it’ll make your wedding or session truly unique. Trust your photographer to guide you through the process and it is 100% ok to ask them for advice when planning timelines and sessions. We are here for YOU and it’s our job to educate and guide you through our process with light.