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This page on outdoor wedding photography is intended to help bridal couples and wedding planners to understand some of the things that will influence outdoor photography.


If you are a bride or groom, don't stress out trying to learn everything on this page or you will go crazy planning your wedding!   These things are presented here so you know what the photographer goes through when your wedding pictures are taken.  


If you have an experienced photographer, he or she should be able to guide you in planning the pictures for your outdoor wedding.


It should be said that photography is like making soup - you start with a bunch of ingredients and there are countless ways of blending them together to get a good result.  In photography, there are hundreds of different ways to do essentially the same thing.  Every photographer is going to have his or her approach.


A couple of years ago I met with a bride who was planning a beach wedding along the Snake River here in Idaho.  She came to me with some pictures from a bridal magazine of a wedding couple taken on the California coast.  The photos showed a beautiful couple bathed in glorious soft warm light,  walking hand in hand, surf in the background, with the bride's veil blowing every so gently in the breeze.  I took one look at the shot and I could see how it was created.  Off to the sides of this perfect photo there were perhaps a dozen assistants, positioning sun shades, gold reflectors, lights, and at least one person controlling the fan that was creating the perfect breeze.  They probably shot for four hours and out of that effort the editors chose this one picture. 


It is very rare that a photographer will have perfect conditions that are created entirely by nature.  And very few weddings will have the budget or the time to stage their wedding pictures like the bridal couple on the beach.  Most outdoor wedding photography is going to be a process of making the best of the conditions that you have.   That, really, is what much of wedding photography in general is all about; being able to see the best (and the worst) that a location offers and quickly adapting a technique to work with that location to get the best shots.


This is why most professional wedding photographers will either place their subjects in exactly the best spot they can find and/or position themselves so they make the most of what nature has to offer.  I don't know how many times I have moved from side to side, back and forth, trying to find the right spot for me, that will make the bride look best. 


If you remember just one thing, have it be this; soft light, like the light on an overcast day when this photo was taken, or photos taken in nice even shade, will almost always give a more pleasing result than direct hard light.


Now comes some technical stuff.......Photography is all about light. 

  • Hard light ( like direct sunlight) makes for very distinct shadows and is not usually very flattering for portraits.  It can also make people squint their eyes if they are facing into the direct light and there is no way to stop squinting if the light is bright.  But hard light can also make for dramatic photos if used properly.  In a situation where you have hard light and cannot move locations, the best option is for the photographer to position himself where the light is hitting his subjects from behind, at an angle, and then use fill light from a flash or reflector ( see description below) to brighten up the faces of the subjects.
  • Soft light, like the light on a cloudy day or under a tree, makes for soft shadows and generally better portraits.   Wedding photographers will generally prefer soft light.  To the extent that it is possible, it will be best to have a location that offers some shade.   The photo of the couple at the top of this page was taken with very soft light created by the shade of the trees.  Outdoors, the best soft light occurs on cloudy or overcast days.  I know that all brides want bright sunshine, but the photographer will almost always be hoping for clouds!
  • Speckled light is very hard to work with.  Speckled light is what you might get under a tree where there are small patches of bright light mixed with the shade.  With speckled light some parts of the face will be in shadow but there will be little patches of bright light here and there.  There is not much you can do other than to move to an area that is more evenly lit, turn the subjects so that their back gets most of the speckled light (if possible),  or use a filter screen to block the sun.    With this kind of light it takes very exact positioning of the subjects so the patches of light don't fall on important parts of the image.
  • Back Light is light hitting the subject from behind them.  A good use of back light can help to define the subject and make the image come alive.  But if the back light is too strong or not used properly then the subject will be dark and featureless.  A silhouette photo is very strongly backlit.
This is a silhouette.  I took this shot at a wedding on Mt Hood in Oregon.  The mountain is strongly light in the background and there is just enough light striking them from the front to see some of their features. 
  • Fill Light is light from the photographer's flash.  It will be used outdoors if there is too much light behind the subject and the photographer wants to brighten up the subject so that the subject can more clearly be seen.  It takes a lot of experience to be able to use fill flash so that the photo looks like it was naturally lit.
  • Time of Day Light is generally a little softer towards the end of the day and at the beginning of the day because the sun is lower and the light is dispersed as it reflects from tiny particles in the air.  This light will also have a warm glow to it.  The hour before sunset is referred to as the "golden hour" because of the golden quality of the light.   If you are having your wedding ceremony at a location where the sun can be intense; like on a beach or the green of a golf course, scheduling it to take place during the golden hour can give very nice results.

There is natural light and artificial light

  • Natural Light ( called ambient light by photographers) is the light that is naturally available.  It comes in different directions and can be a mix of hard and soft
  • Artificial Light is light created by the photographer, either using his flash or other off-camera lights positioned around the subject

Light also has a color to it.   Photographers will often refer to this color as the "Color Temperature."  In most cases our brain will interpret this color but cameras cannot.  Try this experiment:  take a piece of white paper and look at it.  What color is it?  It is white, correct?  Look at that piece of paper outdoors in the shade, indoors with household lighting, outside on a bright sunny day, and inside under florescent lights.  Still looks white, correct?   It's not really.  The color is different in each of these situations but our brain knows that this piece of paper is supposed to be white, so our brains compensate so we see it as white in all settings.

Cameras are not as good at this as the human brain.  Photos need to be adjusted to get the color correct.  The adjustment can be made as the photo is taken or the adjustment can be made after the fact, when the photo is processed on the computer.  Getting the color "right" , also called "color correction", will often make the difference between an outstanding photo and one that looks like a snapshot.

For me, setting the color temperature of an image is the first step I take in processing an image.  I do my color adjustments after the fact because getting the color 'right' is more of an art instead of a science, at least as I do it, and there is often no time to tweak the camera in all of the changing situations encountered in a wedding.

Sometimes the color of the light can make a dramatic statement, like the golden glow just before sunset.  This shot at sunset clearly shows the color of the light.  It is golden in color and, in this case, very direct, coming in from the side.
  • Warm Light is light that is yellow-orange in color, like the light at sunset.
  • Cool Light is bluefish in color, like the color in deep shade in winter.  Too much of this will make skin tone look dull and lifeless.
  • Daylight is "normal" average outdoor light.   Most flash units used by a photographer will create light that is matched to daylight.
  • Mixed Light is when light from many different sources mix together.  A good example of this would be taking pictures indoors under florescent lights with a little bit of camera flash to brighten things up.  It is sometimes difficult to get good color, particularly good skin color, when you have extreme mixed light situations.

It is more difficult to take good pictures if a part of the picture is very bright and a part is very dark.  An example of this would be a wedding ceremony with the sun directly behind the bride and groom..  The camera is not nearly as versatile as the human eye and it will expose for either the very bright part (the sky -  which will make the couple look very dark) or for the dark part (the couple -  which totally blows out the sky and it looses all color and texture.)   There are many ways to deal with backlight, one of which is to take silhouette shots, another is to use lots of flash for the foreground, but these things will take some preparation to get just right.  It's best to consider the position of the sun during the ceremony if your ceremony is going to be outdoors in direct sunshine. 

The photographer can add light to the dark part of an image by using flash or positioning reflectors to bounce sunlight into the scene.  In reality however, wedding photography is so fast paced, that the photographer will not have the time to do very much with reflectors and will probably rely more on flash, something that is referred to as 'fill flash" because the photographer will fill in the shadows with the light from his flash.  The downside of using flash is that it can create 'flat light' which can make the photo look a bit unnatural; like it was taken with a flash.  It takes a bit of experience to get it right with fill flash; but it can be used very effectively.

Backgrounds fall into two categories; backgrounds that add something to the picture and backgrounds that detract from the picture.  A beautiful river canyon would be a background that would add to the picture.   A park maintenance truck parked on the lawn is something that would detract from a picture.   The proper use or elimination of backgrounds can be achieved by positioning the action,  the subjects, or the photographer in such a way that the background is either seen or not seen.  It can also be controlled by the settings on the camera.   By adjusting the opening on the lens the photographer can keep the background in focus or blur the background and keep the focus on the subjects alone.  The photographer also has the ability to take shots wide angle or more narrow when that is best.

Good locations make for good pictures.  You will probably say "duh....no kidding on that one"  But there are good locations hidden away in almost any wedding setting.  If you don't happen to have the north rim of the grand canyon as your wedding backdrop then you need to find some very nice small settings and have shots taken much more closely.  Some tree branches, some colorful shrubbery, stonework, natural wood, or interesting architecture all provide great backdrops for wedding photos.  Interesting angles combined with some very small backdrops can make for very interesting closely shot photos.

When things start to get really dark - like one half hour after sunset - a photographer will need to use flash.  This will lighten up the subjects but not the background.  The photographer can adjust the ISO [ film speed ] of his camera to compensate somewhat, but there will be a point at which it will get too dark and this will no longer work.  In very dark night time conditions, if you are stumbling around because you can see very well, that's a clear sign that it will be very hard to get anything by 'deer in the headlights" kind of shots. 

Black and white can be used very effectively outdoors.  Some of the problems associated with lighting problems will be accentuated by the color in an image.  By stripping away the color and going to a black and white photo you can sometimes create interesting images.

Anything outdoors is pretty much at the whim of mama nature and you never know for sure what you will get until the actual minute arrives.  These include things like rain, snow, wind, dust, bugs, extreme heat, unexpected cold, etc.   The camera will catch even small amounts of rain or snow.  Drops of rain will show as little hash marks across the picture.  A little of this can actually make for interesting pictures but you don't want it in every picture.  If there are a lot of bugs ( little gnats are particularly a problem) they will show up in the pictures as little out-of-focus gray blobs.  Not very appealing.   Finally, anything that makes people uncomfortable, like extreme heat, cold, or wind, will show in the expressions on their face. 

Planning      The single most important thing to consider with an outdoor wedding is to have a bad weather plan.  There is no way that your perfect wedding will take place exactly as you envision it if the rain is pouring down.  You can arrange to have tents, choose a park location with a covered pavilion available, or have a plan to move the wedding to your reception location if the weather is really bad. 

Actually it's reasonable to just make a plan about everything.  If you are nervous, the chances are pretty good that part of the reason is that you keep going over all the details in your head. Make a plan, write it down, and then forget about it until your wedding day.   "What to do if it rains?" is just one item on that list.

Don't be obsessed with listing each and every shot you want to have taken.  As a photographer it is helpful when a bridal couple has a list of the various people to be photographed in group settings.  But I am certainly not a photographer who works well with long lists of shots to be taken.  I feel like if I don't SEE those things as the wedding unfolds then I'm not much of a photographer.

What about Makeup?      Now, I'm a guy and I would never claim to know very much about the whole makeup thing but it is certainly fascinating to me that a whole 50% of humankind more or less accepts the concept of putting colored lotions and creams on their face so they look beautiful.   And please believe me when I say that most guys think you already look beautiful!   As a photographer I tend to prefer less makeup on the women I photograph than more makeup.   Heavy makeup can reflect light and create changes in skin color.  The final word on makeup, at least from this photographer, is to wear what makes you feel comfortable but don't go to excess on the day of your wedding so you look 'beautiful' in the pictures.  If you have a few blemishes or a skin color issue you might use some light makeup.  I am going to notice blemishes and things of that sort, with or without the makeup and I can clear them up so fast in photo editing that you would be amazed.    I once had a bride look at some "before" and "after" pictures on the computer and she told me "Bottle that and you'll make a fortune!

Almost Done.....

If you have actually make it this far down the page you are probably thinking  "How in the world can I possibly arrange my outdoor wedding and get good pictures?!!"   Do a little planning but don't worry about it.  If pictures are really important to you then I suggest you find a good wedding photography ( and that certainly DOES NOT MEAN the most expensive wedding photographer) and sit down with him or her to discuss what you want and where you will be.  If the photographer seems aggravated at all your questions then you have found the wrong photographer.  If the person seems capable and interested in helping you to get the pictures that you want, then hire that person and contact him or her whenever you have a picture-related question.






  All photos and content on this website by Mike McElhatton Copyright Mike McElhatton 2000-2010