I get these questions all the time and the answer is simple, magic hour. What is magic hour or golden hour or whatever you want to call it? It’s the last hour of the day when the sun is about to set and its rays are golden and simply magical (assuming you are lucky to get a nice sunset). It also happens the first hour of the day but I don’t know too many couples that want to get up at 5am on their wedding day to take pictures.
Why is magic hour better than other times of the day? In addition to a setting sun providing a beautiful backdrop for your pictures it also gives your photographer more creative options to either use the beauty of the sun to light you or shooting back into the sun for lens flare or a silhouette. Lastly, when the light comes from directly above in the middle of the day the light is harsh and it also creates unflattering shadows under your eyes. The photographer can offset this with fill light or a reflector but it still won’t look natural like it does when it comes from the side during sunset.
WHO DO I ASK FOR ADVICE, THE WEDDING PLANNER OR THE PHOTOGRAPHER?
If you have a wedding planner make sure they consult with the photographer. Most really good ones will do this but sometimes the planner isn’t thinking about the photography as much as they are with scheduling timeliness that work for their overall schedule.
If you booked the photographer directly put them in an email with the planner and defer to your photographer about this timing, you will be glad you did. If the wedding planners handled the photographer it’s still a good idea for all of you to be in an email together to make sure this is done right and it’s all clear for the big day. I’ve done weddings with hotel and resort event planners doing the schedule and they have the bride walking down the aisle at sunset and by the time the ceremony is over no more light is left for your portraits and that’s a big problem. Photographers can do many things but we can’t fake the sun.
If the photographer was hired by the wedding planner or does a lot of work with that planner they might not be as vocal about this as to not upset the planner because often they provide them with a pipeline of work. This shouldn’t happen but it can so make sure you take a few minutes and consult with the photographer directly and remember your images last a lifetime so listen to your photographer. He/she will know best about light and timing and what they need to get the shots you hired them to get and at the end of the day they only have getting you the best pictures in their best interest.
HOW MUCH TIME IS ENOUGH?
I’d commit to a solid hour if you can because things run late sometimes and again along with your candid shots you’ll want some nice portraits to remember the big day. An hour is enough time for your photographer to get you a nice variety of creative shots that you’ll be happy with for a lifetime. I know you want to join the party and in due time you will but take a few members of the wedding party with you during the shoot to carry your cocktail and have fun with it.
If you simply don’t care that much about the portraits and you’d prefer to spend that time partying with your friends that’s completely understandable. What I would do in this case if you don’t mind seeing each other before the ceremony spend a little time then doing some portrait during the days and then at sunset maybe just 30 minutes. This covers you in case the ceremony runs late (it shouldn’t if you have a good planner) but it’s a nice insurance policy against pitch dark portraits and frees you up for more party time.
Most wedding planners understand this but again some don’t understand the importance of beautiful light even if it is a matter of 30 minutes on the timing so when it comes planning the portrait session make sure you consult with your photographer and listen to their advice. Let your wedding planner know your plan and be strict about it. The last thing you want is dark or flash portraits because your schedule ran late and you’re left with the photographer and planner pointing fingers at each other playing the blame game. Your photographer will know exactly when and how much time he/she needs and if this is important to you make sure you make this clear and in writing to your planner.
My advice for the best overall light is to have your ceremony 2-3 hours before the sun goes down. You still get beautiful light for your vows and that leaves you with gorgeous light for the portrait session a win win.
Remember, this is only a suggestion from a photographer on how to optimize the day for the best pictures possible. Never forget it’s your big day and you should plan it and prioritize things based on what’s important to you. The planner and the photographer are there to give their input but at the end of the day they are there to serve you and make your day perfect.
Justin Mott is the founder of Mott Visuals Weddings, a boutique destination wedding photography and film business documenting weddings worldwide. Justin is also an accomplished photojournalist most notably as a frequent contributor to the New York Times.