One of the most common things that couples tell me is how important photography is to their wedding. It stands to reason that if they’re going to hire a professional wedding photographer and are investing considerable time and finds into it, then they are expecting some great results. There’s one factor that never seems to get much consideration from brides and grooms to be, and yet it will have some of the most impact when it comes to the final look of your wedding photos; the time of day. Lighting is the underlying reason for this. In the almost two decades that I’ve been a professional wedding photographer, I’ve only ever had a handful of couples ask what the best time to do their photos would be for lighting. This is possibly because the vast majority of couples planning a wedding are not photographers. Lighting in photography isn’t something that they consider and contend with on a day to day basis, and they likely aren’t familiar with just how it will impact the look of the images. More likely though, the true reason that time of day for photos is not a consideration is just that; it’s not a consideration because the photo session is done when it has to be done. It has to fit into the schedule, not top be scheduled around. This reveals the true importance of the photos, as well as the level of compromise that a couple is willing to make.
So what is the best time of day for photos?
If a photographer were somehow able pick the ideal time for photos on every wedding they shot, most photographers would almost always make this decision based on the time of sunset for the particular time of year and region they’ll be in. This is a floating point, as it is constantly changing. The goal would often be to catch something known as “Golden Hour” at the tail end of the shoot. This time changes throughout the year, but there are tools available online to figure out when that will be for any area. One simple way to calculate it is to figure out what time sunset will be in your city, then simply subtract an hour. For example, today (April 24th) the sun will set at 8:10pm, so I would love to be shooting at 7:10pm. At summer solstice (Late June), the sun will set at around 9pm, and so I would be getting great lighting at 8pm until then. In Late November however, the sun will set at a way-too-early 4:40pm, and that time of year it sets fast! Not only that, but there tends to be much more overcast days in the off-season, and that completely destroys the benefit of Golden Hour, which I’ll get to further on.
Why is Golden Hour better for Photos?
If you have ever seen those photos with that surreal golden sunlight that makes everything look like it’s soaked in the perfect balance of warmth and light, then you’ll immediately recognize this as Golden Hour. There’s no mistaking that warm light. There are also many ways that a photographer can work with the light, since at sunset the light is the most directional. We can shoot against the light, creating awesome hazed highlights and warm lens flares. We can also shoot with the light, creating a more dramatic, contrasty look.
As the sun sets, there are other techniques that we can use to get creative with the lighting, like creating silhouettes. This is generally not possible in overcast or mid-day lighting. Though it’s not something that you would want for too many of your wedding photos, a couple of silhouettes can really increase the overall variety and dynamic look of your collection of images.
Finally, for those photographers who utilize off-cam lighting in their tool set, Golden Hour creates some of the most interesting, dynamic skies as a backdrop. This gives the opportunity to create some very creative portraits with some serious impact. Though off-cam lighting can be somewhat cumbersome, it definitely has it’s advantages when employed sparingly and appropriately. If time constraints aren’t an issue, then off-camera flash can really take your photography to the next level. If things are rushed however, then it’s probably best not to slow things down, and skip off-can flash in favour of getting a more complete shoot without it. This is why I tend to use it more on engagement photo shoots more than wedding day photography.
Sunshine vs Shade vs Overcast
First, lets start with the most common misconception; lots of sunshine at high-noon in June is not great lighting. In fact, it’s the most downright challenging. It creates a harsh overhead light that hides the subject’s eyes, emphasizes deep, dark eye sockets, and give a pretty bad glare on anyone “follicly challenged”. The sky may look blue, but often at eye-level in photos the skyline is just a blown-out white haze, that can cheapen the look from even the most luxurious lenses. Often a photographer will have to make sacrifices and compromises, exercising careful consideration when setting exposure on their camera. Too dark, and the shadows may be lost and too grainy. Just a hair too bright, and any highlights are gone forever. Add to this the fact that many of the photos will consist of a bride wearing white with intricate details along with a groom wearing a dark suit, and this challenge becomes a theme.
When the sun is past mid-day and at more of an angle as opposed to straight above, it creates more shade from available structures. Shade is important for photographers for a few reasons. It allows us to manage contrast much easier. It keeps the subject squinting at a minimal. It also creates a generally more flattering light and doesn’t highlight blemishes and imperfections. Shade is usually your photographer’s best friend, and it’s often in short supply. It’s actually a commodity that you will find photographers competing for. Visit the Distillery District on any sunny Saturday afternoon in June, and you’ll see wedding photographers waiting with their respective bridal parties to be the next in line for that sliver of shade that runs along any north-facing wall. The later in the day, the more shade in drawn. That eight-inch sliver of shade along that one wall becomes a 20ft patch, eventually connecting to the adjacent wall, and eventually allowing us to utilize the entire area.
With mid-day sunshine being a harsh challenge and shade being as valuable as gold, that brings me to the big asterisk of this topic; overcast days. Although it’s a rare event in Toronto, every once in a while I will have a wedding on a day when the cloud cover blankets the entire city in 100% useable, soft, non-directional, sweet overcast light. Although it’s rare, it provides the opportunity to basically forget about lighting and focus solely of everything else. If I see a backdrop or a little pocket somewhere that I like, I can use it. I no longer have to factor in whether the sun is behind, beside, in-front. I don’t have to formulate shots around shadows and harsh patches of sunlight. I’m free to be creative without worrying about light. Sometimes I’ll even have one of those days where there’s a few clouds, and I will usually time shots for when a cloud will pass in front of the sun.
One thing to keep in mind with overcast lighting though, is that it will effectively destroy Golden Hour. Hey, did you think you could have your cake and eat it too?! As rare as an overcast day is, it’s even more rare to have an overcast day that breaks for Golden Hour.
What can a bride and groom do to get the best photos?
While it’s not realistic to expect couples to schedule their entire wedding day around wedding photos, there are a few things that you can do to get the best photos. Here’s just a few points that are worth considering, whether you are a bride or groom, a photographer yourself, or a wedding planner, if you are using Jamieson Dean Photography or have another photographer, this is general advice for anyone.
- Schedule your photo session for as close to Golden Hour as possible
- If the photo session must be done at a certain time, plan to have a few photos with just the bride and groom as the sun sets
- Try to find a photo location with shelter and taller structures, such as buildings. Shade is key.
- Schedule enough time for a shoot. With enough time, great results can be crafted from most scenarios. A rushed shoot is never ideal.
- Do your research: Find wedding photos that you like for inspiration, and note the time of day that they appear at. You can even show them to your photographer. Here’s another trick; sometimes there’s something called EXIF information that can even reveal the exact date & time the shot was taken.
- Photographers; Manage your client’s expectations! try to uncover the look that they want, and compare that with the wedding day schedule.
- Let the Photographer do their job!: That little gate in the other side of the street may look great to your eyes, but if it’s half-covered in a hard shadow with patchy light coming through a tree and mixed reflections from the building across from it, you’re not going to like the results.
- If you have an outdoor ceremony planned, either work with your photographer or adjust your expectations to what your photographer has to work with.