Tips + Techniques

9 Ways to Balance Natural Light and Dark Shadows Before a Wedding Ceremony

June 5, 2020

By Paulo Santos

© Paulo Santos Photography

Let me start by explaining something: To me, light and the point of the image are intrinsically linked. This is just the way I see things. Both depend on each other and affect how I feel about the image, and ultimately if I’ll decide to take the photo. Seeing images where these two elements are not working together in unison just feels incredibly disjointed to me.

I use natural light. I love the challenge of finding a natural, interesting light source. I walk into a room and look at the environment, doorways, skylights, windows, blinds, mirrors, the floor, anything that gets my interest.

1. The Dress

natural light warm glow wedding photography back of bride's dress
Photographed with a Nikon D750 and 24-70mm lens at 58mm, f/2.8, 1/200 sec and ISO 200.

This image features the back detail of a stunning Oscar de la Renta gown. I’m very sure the back of the dress was one of the reasons the bride, Bel, chose it. I always get a dress photo, but I also recognize that some dresses just don’t look good on the hanger and only reveal the true beauty when worn. This was that. I already noted the window I wanted to use and was quite happy that only a table needed to be moved to give space. This image was one of just a few taken just before leaving for the ceremony. All electric lights were turned off, the curtains were used to control the window light, and the settings were adjusted to expose for highlights.⁠

2. The Bride

natural light warm glow wedding photography bride portrait close up
Photographed on a Nikon D750 and 24-70mm lens at 60mm, f/2.8, 1/200 sec and ISO 1000.

Summer, winter, dull days, bright days, modern venues, dark venues, lots of time, zero time—I always find a spot to capture a few of those images that make me happy and will make my client happy. I only use the natural light in the area I’m working in, so I’m able to shoot images like this in seconds. Which is handy, as with all the best planning, many brides end up with not a lot of time to spare before the ceremony. Just like Kathleen here, who really wanted a small set of images once she was ready. The old, small cottage window had those thin voile linen curtains, perfect for super diffused portrait light. Standing on the bed, shot from above, this was my favorite image from the morning.⁠

3. The Champagne

natural light warm glow wedding photography champagne glasses groom getting ready
Photographed with a Nikon D750 and 85mm lens at f/2, 1/200 sec and ISO 200.

I know, it’s just champagne at a wedding—it’s nothing groundbreaking. But my clients, they love their champagne and wanted at least a few photos of the delicious fizzy stuff blended into their final set. This was taken while the boys were getting ready. Not even married yet and the good stuff is out! Maybe if I had been super stuck on how to shoot this, I could have grabbed a bottle and placed it in a window or something, but in time I recognized just how perfect the lighting situation was right then. When a light object is sitting just inside the light, but against a dark backdrop—awesome. It looked good to me. The addition of the hand adds to it for me.

4. The Portrait

natural light warm glow wedding photography bride portrait dutch masters
Photographed with a Nikon D750 and 24-70mm lens at 66mm, f/4.5, 1/200 sec and ISO 220.

I’m hugely influenced by the Dutch Masters and their portrait paintings during the 17th century, especially the way light and composition are used to show a scene and the character within. For me, it’s often more about the feeling it gives than the look. Obviously, I cannot ever hope to recreate anything that rivals those masterpieces, but if I can take an image that hints at the same feeling I get when I view them, then I’m winning. This is Hannah, completely trusting me when I suggest a spot that at first glance doesn’t look brilliant, and isn’t where I’ve been told that other photographers take photos. In fact, the venue said I was the first person to ask for access to this part of the building. All I wanted to do here was take a few nicely lit, timeless images that showed how beautifully elegant Hannah looked.

5. The Delicate Details

natural light warm glow wedding photography detail shot bridal jewelry
Photographed with a Nikon D750 and 24-70mm lens at 38mm, f/2.8, 1/200 sec and ISO 800.

The way light falls on a subject never fails to fascinate me. I don’t want my images to look like they do through the eyes of the person standing next to me. I want you to see what I see, using light to show you only what I want to be visible. I also love timing and the sense of moment it creates in a still photo. This final wedding prep detail photo gives me that good light I want and a sense of the moment with her fingers just in the right place. This image made both myself and my client happy, and that’s why I do it.

6. The Location

natural light warm glow wedding photography bride location portrait
Photographed with a Nikon D750 and 85mm lens at f/2, 1/200 sec and ISO 800.

It pays to manage client expectations and explain how time actually works on a wedding day. I need to make sure it’s never left to chance that images like this can be created. This is the Savile Club in Mayfair, London. The way the light from the window much higher up bounces around before ending up on the landing like this is just stunning. I remember taking this photo and how lucky and happy I felt whilst taking it because at that exact moment, everything was perfect: the mood, the peace, the light—it’s all contained and will affect how Gemma views the image. That’s why it had to happen then and not later in the day.

7. The Getting Ready

natural light warm glow wedding photography bride and sister getting ready
Photographed on a Nikon D750 and 24-70mm lens at 24mm, f/4.5, 1/200 sec and ISO 400.

The majority of this morning’s images were taken in one very beautiful room, but I felt a few images in a different setting were needed to finish off. I suggested the window light would help the bride and her sister see what they were doing, and it would help me get the photos I wanted. Amy has the back of her dress finished by her sister (who is expecting) moments before walking down the aisle. It’s a moment, for sure. Although I got much closer and took a few shots to complete the scene, this was the one I saw in my head. Have I used composition and framing to show what’s happening? Or have I used light?

8. The Distraction-Free Environment

natural light warm glow wedding photography bride portrait in shadow
Photographed on a Nikon D750 and 24-70mm lens at 70mm, f/2.8, 1/200 sec and ISO 360.

Just as you wouldn’t leave an off-camera flash in your frame, I tend to avoid including the source of light I use in the image too—especially when I’m using a window as a side light source. I simply don’t want the massive bright window messing the image up and taking away emphasis from what I’m choosing to take photos of. This was taken with a cool skylight in the roof and with all the lights turned off. The room didn’t have main windows so the roof light fell through nicely.

9. The Groom

natural light warm glow wedding photography groom portrait
Photographed with a Nikon D750 and 24-70mm lens at 60mm, f/2.8, 1/800 sec and ISO 100.

Just like in image #3 with the champagne glasses, I found a spot with a sharp light cut-off where I could place Dom for a few portraits, just into the light, with darkness behind him. The reflected light from a nearby window is just a cool, nicely placed bonus. This is probably my favorite of all groom portraits—just good simple stuff that allows his character to shine through.

I once got asked at a wedding by an uncle named Bob if I didn’t use flash guns because I didn’t know how to. Although quite an odd question to ask, I also found it quite ironic as when I started shooting weddings, lengthy, over-the-top off-camera flash setups were kind of my thing. How things change. I suppose the same irony could be said for me shooting on camera automatic modes like I do. I can shoot manual and meter for the scene standing on my head, but I didn’t spend thousands on high-tech equipment to walk around at weddings figuring out exposure settings for every photo I take.

Paulo Santos is a wedding photographer based in the UK who is taking over Rangefinder’s Instagram account @rangefindermag from June 5-7, 2020.