A wedding photographer’s guide to creating your wedding day timeline

When we first talk to couples about how long to hire us for their wedding day, we usually start with what they expect the day is going to look like and it seems like starting a timeline can be a daunting task, especially if you aren’t working with a coordinator.  Today, I’m walking through a typical wedding day timeline with ceremony and a dinner reception.  Of course, this is just one way to run a wedding day and there are all kinds of celebrations you could have and if you’re having a breakfast wedding, this might be less than helpful (and please call us because we’d love to photograph it!).  Depending on travel time between locations, this timeline usually requires between 6 and 8 hours of photo coverage to hit all of the key events.

Even if your wedding day looks nothing like this, the thoughts we share about where to plan extra time in case things fall behind and where to allow time for photos could be helpful for any timeline.  We always tell our clients that we’ll make their vision work, but there are some parts of the timeline that need a little bit of space if you want posed photos.  Either way, hopefully the thoughts below about where to plan times for photos and where wedding days have a tendency to run late are helpful to anyone.  At the bottom of the post, you can find a sample timeline that puts these tips to work.5da_2638

1. Getting Ready
Typically, we like to photograph the last 30 minutes or so of couples getting ready, so we’ll have our clients schedule our arrival at the end of any hair/makeup appointments to photograph the finishing touches.

For anyone who is enlisting the help of others (whether they’re professionals or friends) for hair and make-up, plan for more time than you think you need.  Hair and makeup appointments run late at many of the weddings we photograph, and it really makes for a time crunch that can limit how many posed photos you have time to take with your friends, family, and partner.  We recommend taking the time you think you need to get ready, and adding 30 minutes extra for a few posed photos at the getting ready location.  If your getting ready goes smoothly, there will be extra time to enjoy a minute to breathe with your loved ones, and if you’re behind you’ll be grateful you built in the time.  Don’t forget to plan for travel time from getting ready locations to the ceremony site, if necessary.

2. Pre-ceremony photos
Plan for thirty minutes to one hour.  If you decide to see your future spouse before the wedding ceremony (“first look” in cheesy-wedding-photographer language), definitely closer to an hour.   If you don’t see your partner before the wedding, we’ll photograph each of you with your bridal party/friends and family separately, and save all of the pictures with the couple together for after the ceremony.  If you opt to see each other before the ceremony, you can knock out most or all of your pictures with family and bridal party before the ceremony, and head to the reception sooner (often, if you’ve done a first look, we’ll only have extended family photos left to do post-ceremony).

3. Ceremony
Give yourself 30 minutes before the ceremony without anything scheduled, both to allow for things running slightly behind and in case you want to tuck into a private place to wait so you don’t see your guests as they arrive (or, a non-traditional alternative which we loved at our wedding, take time to greet guests as they arrive).  It’s also best to plan for a 15-minute buffer after the scheduled ceremony end time since it can take a bit of time to get people together for post-ceremony photos.

4. Post-ceremony photos/cocktail hour
Generally, we suggest you plan for an hour if you didn’t do a first look and 30 minutes if you did.  The actual amount of time required depends a lot on how many combinations of group photos you hope to take, and how big your groups are.  We always try to do our group photos in less time than we have scheduled and leave time for the couple to have a quiet moment before the reception.  If a dress needs bustling before the ceremony, add another 15 minutes (we also recommend practicing the bustling before the wedding day; this is seriously tricky sometimes!)

Post-ceremony is typically the end of posed photo time, but depending on what time the sun sets, we encourage couples to take a few minutes just before sunset to take just a few more photos together.

5. Dinner
Dinner is the one part of the day where your photographer is likely to sit down and take a break.  People don’t like to be photographed when they’re eating, and in the middle of a 6+ hour day of standing and carrying gear, we need 20 minutes to sit down and eat.  We always stay close in case any photo emergencies arise, but this is a quiet moment as far as photography goes.  Our favorite approach to the end-of-dinner scheduling is to go right into toasts after your last guests get their food, and after toasts are finished to start the first dance and parent dances.  Then you can open up the dance floor (0r the lawn games, or the dessert bar, whatever suits your style!).

6. Party Time
We encourage couples to have us stay through the last scheduled event (usually cake cutting our a bouquet toss) but if you’re like us, you may skip those traditions.  Either way, in this type of timeline for full coverage we usually suggest couples try to get at least an hour of post-dinner coverage time for dancing photos (or other socializing photos, if dancing isn’t a big part of your wedding).  We generally don’t encourage people to hire us to stay through the whole reception, because no one needs that many pictures of late-night partying, but if couples really want a grand exit photographed, then we make arrangements to stay through the whole reception.

Sample Timeline
about 6 hours of photo coverage, all events at same location, with a first look, 5PM Ceremony, and 8PM Sunset
12:30 Bridal party/friends/family arrive, couple begins getting ready
2:00 Photo Coverage Time Begins
2:30 scheduled end of hair/makeup, put on wedding garb
2:45 Photos at getting ready location, individual portraits and portraits with close friends/family, plus a few minutes of resting
3:35 First Look
4:00 Bridal party,  immediate family photos
4:30 Finish photos, couple prepares for ceremony
5:00 Ceremony
5:30 Ceremony scheduled end time
5:45 Post-Ceremony Photos (extended family, anyone who was missing pre-ceremony)
6:15 Couple to happy hour
6:30 Dinner begins
7:10 Toasts
7:30 First Dance, parent dances
7:45 Sunset portraits of couple
8:00 Bouquet/Garter Toss, Cake Cutting
8:30 Photo Coverage Ends
10:00 Reception ends, after party begins!

An alternative photography plan, if you want beautiful photos but are trying to keep to a small photography budget, consider skipping reception coverage and hiring a photographer for just the ceremony and the hour before and after. There’s still time to get some heart-warming candids, and those posed group photos are usually the ones that get hung on family members’ walls.

If you’re not hiring a wedding coordinator, ask your photographer to help you craft your own wedding timeline, chances are they’ve seen enough celebrations to offer some good insights into logistics.

Happy wedding planning!

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