Outdoor Weddings I: Planning Your Ceremony for the Sun

Groom reading vows. Cherry Hill Golf Course, Amherst Massachusetts

An outdoor wedding can be a spectacular event. New England summers are vibrant and green, serving as a beautiful backdrop for your special day. The option becomes especially attractive when you find out the quaint little chapel doesn't have air conditioning for your 100 guests.

While every wedding is unpredictable, outdoor weddings add an extra layer of logistics. Nature isn't always cooperative. When planning an outdoor wedding, you need to accept the things you cannot change, prepare for the unexpected and hope for the best. As a photographer, I've seen the good and the bad and I'd like to help you ensure your wedding is the best it can be. Over the next few weeks, as spring finally starts to thaw out New England and wedding season draws nearer, I'll be disucssing a few tips to make your outdoor wedding one to remember (and not as a disaster).

The most important factor with any outdoor wedding is the sun. From a photographic perspective it can create a lot of opportunities and challenges during a wedding ceremony, depending on how the couple chooses to orient the ceremony.

Cute diagram showing how to avoid bad lighting at your outdoor wedding by Ryan Richardson, Massachusetts wedding photographerHaving your wedding perpendicular to the path of the sun creates bright hot spots and deep shadows on the faces of the bride and groom. Avoid this, if at all possible.The most common problem is couples placing the wedding perpendicular to the passage of the sun, so while they face each other one person is in shadow while the other's face is brightly lit. Modern cameras, and even film, can pull off some amazing feats from shooting in near perfect darkness to toning down the sunniest of days but when confronted with the two scenarios at the same time, it simply doesn't have the "dynamic range" to accomodate. Often, this means that one face will be well-exposed while the other is blown out or too dark to distinguish.

Fill flash can solve this problem, but the right orientation can make things much easier. By turning your wedding parallel to the sun's path, you can put a more even light onto the ceremony.

The second problem outdoor weddings run into, with regards to the sun, is timing. When thinking about how their wedding pictures will turn out, many believe that more light will produce better photos so the best time to have your picture taken is around noon. This couldn't be further from the truth.

Photographs are more about the quality of the light than they are about the quantity. At noon, the bright overhead light casts harsh shadows across the face that are at best unflattering. Light earlier or later in the day tends to be softer and more directional, which in turn makes it more flattering. Ideally, you could schedule your wedding to coincide with the sunset to give you brilliant colored light that's also flattering.

If you must be out at noon, consider having a tent or awning that will put you in shade. This will not only make you more comfortable, it will make for more flattering photos (and serve as a staging platform for decorations).

When you combine these two variables, timing and orientation, you can get some truly spectacular results. With the sun setting behind the couple you have the opportunity for brilliant shillouettes against a crimson sky, and with the sun setting behind the guests you can have your ceremony bathed in the warm, enchanting illumination.

On the plus side, it also tends to be cooler later in the day, a boon for those in formal wear.

Next time, we'll talk about preparing for the unexpected like the wind and rain that can come and ruin your day.