I’m going to break down the biggest pros and cons of eloping at sunrise vs sunset, show photo examples from different times of the day, and hopefully by the end of the post help you decide what you want from your own elopement—as well as reassure you that you can get beautiful photos any time of the day.
Here in Colorado, we have about an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening when the light is softer. Because the sun rises and sets over mountains rather than a flat horizon line, even our “golden hours” are less golden than on the flat plains or coasts.
Most of my elopements are between 6-10 hours, so most of the photos are taken in the middle of the day, when the sun is higher and the light can be harsher. That’s not a problem if you know how to work with it, and you can of course get great photos any time of day (as long as your photographer knows what they’re doing), but it does change the look of the photos when compared to sunrise and sunset.
If having soft, cinematic light is important to you, it’s absolutely worth planning part of your day (usually your first look, private vows, or portraits) around being outside at either sunrise or sunset. I also think there’s magic in the air at these times, when you can be alone in a breathtaking location, seeing it in a light that few ever will.
Enough talk—let’s get to some photo examples of sunrise vs midday vs sunset elopements!
If you want to be outside for sunrise, that usually means that we’ll also be shooting before that—getting ready, hiking or driving, making sure we’re ready for the sunrise. This can be a great time to get star photos, depending on the moon cycle and of course cloud coverage.
One of the reasons why photographers, especially in Colorado where we have big mountains, are obsessed with sunrise elopements is the phenomenon called “alpenglow.” Alpenglow appears as a reddish orange glow on the mountains that face east, right before the sun peeks over the horizon at the actual sunrise time. It only happens on clear sky days, but it’s fairly predictable in the summer months in Colorado since we rarely have cloudy mornings.
Catching alpenglow in photos means getting up hours before sunrise, and usually hiking or driving to our location in the dark so that we can be ready when it happens. It only lasts for around 15 minutes before the sun comes out, and the deep colors turn a brighter light.
Once alpenglow is over and the sun is above the horizon, the lighting quickly goes from soft to harsh, casting dark shadows on anything that is not yet in the light. At this time, it takes more skill in both photography and editing to balance the bright and shadowed parts of the landscape, but it’s still possible to get beautiful photos.
If you’re not in a location with east-facing mountains at sunrise, you won’t get to see alpenglow. Instead you’ll get the most beautiful warm back-lit sunrise, which is incredibly flattering and easy to photograph. The landscape is glowing, you’re glowing—it’s beautiful. The light stays warm and soft for around half an hour, depending on the location.
These five photos were all taken within ten minutes of each other. The only thing that changed was my own position to the couple—but the light is vastly different between them.
If you are eloping on the western side of the mountains so that the sun is coming up from behind the mountains, you’ll have quite a bit of daylight before you actually see the sun. It’s great for when you want a morning elopement without having to start in the dark, and you can get a lot of photos with indirect light before the sun peaks over the mountains and gives you pretty backlighting. This is especially nice in winter when the snow acts as a reflector, casting light onto you before the sun is in the picture!
The sun goes from soft to harsh quickly in Colorado, so once the warm sunrise is over, I try to photograph my couples with the sun behind them. We plan our locations in part based on the lighting, so that once we’ve seen alpenglow and had warm sunrise backlighting, we can switch up the location to a different view facing east where we’ll get this light. It’s still flattering light, but it’s getting brighter.
By the middle of the day, the light in Colorado is always going to be pretty harsh to photograph in on a sunny day. And with 300+ days of sunshine a year, that’s most of them. While you can plan some indoor activities during this time, we’re often going to be outside for at least an hour or two with harsh light as well.
Afternoons in Colorado can still be pretty harsh, but there’s more direction to the light. In summer (June-Aug) there’s always a chance of afternoon thunderstorms, which can come out of nowhere and rain or even hail intensely for half an hour before passing by. As inconvenient as that sounds, it’s often leads to some of the most incredible light—and rainbows!
Regardless of light, afternoons usually end up being a big chunk of an elopement timeline.
Sunset hits very differently in different parts of Colorado. If you are in a place like Boulder, or anywhere close to the base on the east side of mountains, you’ll lose the sun at least an hour before the scheduled sunset. If you are at the top of a mountain without anything blocking the sun to the west, you’ll get golden hour followed by a beautiful glowing dusk. And if you are at the base of mountains that face west, you might get lucky with sunset alpenglow.
No matter where you are at, sunset is absolutely worth getting outside for. If photos are important to you, this is the best time to be outside in our best location of the day, just the two of you.
I know sunset can be late in summer: around 8:30pm at the end of June. That can make it hard to do photos at sunset if you also want a dinner celebration with your guests at a reasonable time. While you could celebrate with guests earlier in the afternoon, or even do dinner the evening before or after your actual elopement day, I also don’t want you to feel pressured into sunset photos if it’s not all that important to you. Your experience matters more than the light when it comes to getting good photos—I promise.
While we get more sunny days than cloudy ones here in Colorado, it’s not at all uncommon to get clouds for part of an elopement. You might have heard that clouds create soft light for photos, but just like when the skies are blue, direction of light matters when it’s overcast too.
Winter is a wild card. The weather is even more unpredictable, the snow can work as either a giant softbox (good) or reflector (bad) depending on the time of day and direction of light, and more often than not it’s snowing heavily enough that you can’t even tell what time of day it is. That being said, I freaking love photographing in winter. Whether I get “good” light or “bad” light, the photos are always my favorite.
So what time of day should we do our elopement?
If you’re one of my booked couples, I’ll help build your timeline based on the best time of days for your locations and date. If you’re working with someone else—ask them! Not every photographer is going to agree with me on this post, and there are too many variables for me to say that you should always elope at sunrise, or never elope at noon.
But I hope this post gave you some insight into how your photos will be different at different times of day—and reassured you that you can (and will) get good photos all day long!
About Nina Larsen Reed
Nina Larsen Reed is an elopement photographer based in Boulder. She plans and captures adventure elopements and micro-weddings across Colorado, and has photographed over 220 elopements since 2017.