How to Illuminate Your Outdoor Wedding

Here's everything you need to know about lighting up your ceremony and reception spaces.

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Photo: Jillian Mitchell Photography

If your idea of a perfect wedding reception involves dancing outside beneath a starry sky, then you'll need to leave room in your budget for great lighting. While all events can benefit from a team of lighting experts, it's especially important to illuminate the details of your day when the party is taking place outdoors. Otherwise, once the sun sets, your guests won't be able to see any of those details you spent months perfecting. But the lighting you choose for an outdoor wedding has to be just right. "When couples see photos from older weddings with the bride and groom on the dance floor under a spotlight or a color wash, it feels like a big, overdramatic show," says Cynthia Manchester of Oleander Curated. But modern trends-including low-energy LED lights, neutral-colored bulbs, and artistic fixtures-allow for lighting that enhances your wedding vision instead of overpowering it. "Everyone just wants to feel like they're part of a family gathering," says Manchester, "and not like they're on stage."

To help you get your outdoor wedding lighting just right, we asked the experts to give us their tips for planning a perfectly illuminated open-air celebration.

Power up.

Before you and your groom start debating bulb colors and chandelier styles, ask your venue for a quick rundown on their power options. "First, see what they offer and what their traditional lighting package is," says David Manchester, also of Oleander Curated. "Then the next question is what they will allow." Ask about the number of circuits and the amps that you'll have to work with-keeping in mind the power needs of your band, DJ, caterer, and photographer-and whether your location allows open flames, provides places to anchor suspension cables for overhead lighting, or requires you to put down path lighting from your location to the bathroom or parking lot. "From that," he says, "you can determine what you can and can't do creatively and come up with a composite in the middle."

Mix old and new.

Advancements in LED technology have made these types of bulbs an increasingly popular option for lighting designs, especially since newer versions offer a warmer, more natural light than the older generation. LED lights use up to 90 percent less energy than traditional bulbs, so they're indispensable when power is at a premium, and they run on batteries, which makes them easy to arrange to suit your space. But be wary of using too many of them, says Larry Ginesi of Illusions Lighting Design: Even at the "ideal" warmth of 2700k, an event lit entirely by LED won't have the same glow as one that combines LED with traditional bulbs. "You're going to have a flatter look," says Ginesi. "There's a spark missing. You can adjust the color temperature, but if you want that warm, cozy feeling for your wedding, you have to be really careful."

Make the space your own.

Along with the practical effects of lighting-like allowing your guests to see each other (and your dress!)-there's a decorative aspect, too. By drawing eyes toward or away from different areas, lighting lets you show off (or hide) features of the space. Use uplights to highlight a stunning architectural detail, as the Manchester's did for a wedding in Italy, or a put a pattern wash on the ceiling of a sailcloth tent to make the space feel more intimate. Ginesi suggests putting battery-operated pin spots above each centerpiece to allow more light in areas where guests are eating and chatting. "We hit the florals, not the whole table," he explains. "The detail that it adds is just phenomenal." Another idea is to create a focal point over the dance floor with a hanging chandelier, even if you're not inside a tent; Ginesi has hung chandeliers from oak tree branches and suspended them from redwoods.

Light the surrounding areas.

After you've lit the space immediately around your tables, dance floor, and band, consider the rest of the property. Lighting the trees or nearby buildings expands the scope of your reception area, says Cynthia Manchester. At one wedding, she used a soft wash on the outside of buildings around a tented reception. "Instead of being in a lighted tent in a dark outdoor space," she says, "it gave a nice glow and felt like [the space] extended beyond the tent." Ginesi also recommends lighting nearby greenery, too. "That's the background for the whole weekend. The backdrop that it creates makes an incredible difference."

Remember that less is more.

While you shouldn't expect a single chandelier to light an entire space, you also don't want to go too bright. "It is easy to overdo lighting," says Ginesi. "You want smaller pockets of light, more of them, and you want to keep them dimmer." Consider eye-catching pendants, a collection of hanging paper lanterns, elegant tabletop candelabras, or gallery-worthy installations of Edison bulbs in the entry. If you really have your heart set on string lights, says Cynthia Manchester, incorporate them into a design that includes more formal candelabras or embrace their more casual style. "There's still such an appeal for them, in the same way that outdoor weddings will never go out of style," she says. "People are still looking for that feel of a beautiful outdoor evening."

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