It goes without saying that a wedding day has many moving parts... A lot of things have to align just so, in order to have the experience you've always imagined. In the wedding planning phase, figuring out the best way to navigate the wedding day, both logistically and emotionally can be an overwhelming task. BUT have no fear, I'm here to offer some useful insight to make planning your wedding day timeline a breeze!
Below you'll find some key considerations that will help you think about the best way to structure your wedding day timeline. AND some useful templates from real weddings!
In each section, we'll tackle the eight most important questions I ask my couples when it comes time to map out their wedding day timeline:
1) What type of vibe or experience are you hoping to create for yourselves and for your guests?
2) Is everything happening at one location, or multiple locations?
3) Do you plan to see each other before the ceremony (are you doing a first look)?
4) How many people are in your bridal party (if any)?
5) What is happening immediately after the ceremony?
6) Who are the people you most want to include in your traditional family portraits?
7) What time will the sun set on your wedding day?
8) What do you feel is the most important aspect of your wedding day?
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For a wedding day timeline to be thoughtfully crafted, the specific "to-the-minute" timeframes aren't nearly as important to your overall experience as the structure and flow of the events (the order in which you place each element in each phase of your day). SO as you read on, begin to visualize the order of proceedings for your day. Ask yourself (and your partner) as you go, what am I most excited about... nervous for... struggling with? This will really help to inform your planning decisions, and highlight which portions of the timeline you need more assistance with. Once the structure is in place, you can go back and plug in the key start and finish times for each element of your wedding day with a better sense of the overall experience.
The goal here is to alleviate stress, and allow you to be fully immersed in your wedding day, knowing that your timeline is rock solid. I promise, most of the weddings I photograph involve very little time checking along the way.
Question 1) What type of vibe or experience are you hoping to create for yourselves and your guests?
The first thing I encourage people to acknowledge, is that there simply aren't that many "rules" to a wedding day. Especially these days. Traditions have there place, sure. But now more than ever, couples should feel empowered to skip certain formalities if you feel that they don't align with your story, relationship, personality and values as a couple. And likewise, feel free to give a nod to the traditions that you do feel hold relevance and meaning to you both -- If that means having a straight down the line traditional church wedding ceremony followed by a ball room reception with all the trappings and formalities you'd expect (and maybe your parents expect) then you should do that. And know that there's a way to structure the day that allows for fun, creativity and emotion on even the most strictly traditional wedding days.
However, If you feel like ditching the neat rows of garland draped seating, expensive three course catering, and sparkler send off... and instead opt for a pop-up wedding in your uncle's back paddock, followed by a mini all you-can-eat food truck festival / dancehall shindig that skips all the formalities, then you should definitely do that! And feel supported by your guests and vendors for doing it your way!
The key is communicating with your partner about what type of vibe or experience would truly pay homage to your story and highlight the things that matter most to you both. So keep this question in mind as you make all your important planning decisions... "DOES THIS FEEL RIGHT FOR US?"
That way, you'll end up crafting an experience that uniquely reflects who you are as a couple, and signals what you're love is all about to all your valued guests... who will inevitably be the supporting peripheral figures in your marriage moving forward.
Moving on from the philosophical, there are some PRACTICAL questions that need answering before you can start jotting down time frames.
The questions I usually ask when helping couples create a timeline from start to finish are:
Question 2) Is everything happening at one location or multiple locations?
Notes on this topic: Travel time is wasted time in my opinion... not to mention the added risk factors like traffic, transportation breakdowns (or worse), and the bothersome hassle of getting in and out of a vehicle in a wedding dress along with x number of support crew.
However, having multiple locations isn't the end of the world and it's super common. Just to be mindful that EVERYTHING happens much slower on a wedding day. Moving large groups of people is like herding cats at the best of times... but especially when everyone is dressed to the nines and possibly in a high-strung and emotionally vulnerable state. And I can't tell you how many times a bridesmaid has had to run back up to the room to blot her running mascara, resulting in a delayed ceremony start.
My advice... to avoid delays due to travel (however short the distance), use google maps and estimate the travel time days in advance (consider peak traffic hours for weekdays), and double that travel time in your run-sheet (or at least add 50% more time). There's nothing fashionable about being late on a wedding day.
Speaking of time padding, believe me... something will inevitably crop up during the getting ready phase that eats up more time than you anticipated. Remember, there's often a lot of fanfare surrounding the preparations on the day... and the nervous energy and excitement can easily lead to accidents, spills, wardrobe malfunctions, unexpected emotional moments, or simply losing track of time.
SO, SPACE OUT YOUR GETTING READY SCHEDULE!
For example, if you know you need to be stepping into your dress by 3:00:pm Then tell the hair and make up team that you need to be ready by 2:00pm. That way, if you eat into that contingency time due to make up tweaks or setting the hairpiece just so, then you'll still be on track for the next phase of the day. And gents, iron your shirts the night before for goodness sake!
ALSO, if you do happen to have your hair and make up perfected with time to spare, then you just accumulate extra "chill time" which can absolutely be a blessing and an opportunity to be present and take it all in. AND personally, a little bit of extra time to be more creative with some portraits can really make the final set of photos pop!
Question 3) Are you planning to see each other before the ceremony (are you doing a first look?)
I could write another whole article about the pros and cons of doing a first look, and I'll give a few here... but ultimately this comes down to your philosophical preference as a couple.
- This is the best day of your lives, so spend as much of it together as you can
- If you know you're going to be a blubbering mess when you come down the aisle, a first look will help you get all the jitters out in a private setting
- There are obviously some beautiful photographic opportunities in a first look situation
- Seeing each other means we can gather family and bridal party before the ceremony to knock out the bulk of the formal portraits
- Get more hang time with guests after the ceremony since the family and bridal party pics are already done
- For some, it goes against tradition (if that's something you or someone important to you cares about... then have the conversation and do what feels right)
- A first look means an earlier start to the day for getting ready (for everyone)
- Doing family and bridal party photos after a first-look and before the ceremony means you're relying on all those people to be dressed, onsite and photo ready at a specific time and location, which opens your whole day up for a delay if just one person is running late, eek!
- The light is usually worse earlier in the day, which limits the location options and can result in less flattering photos
- Even if you get some creative newly-wed portraits in right after the first look, personally I still prefer stepping away with the couple at sunset for those romantic golden hour portraits (FACT: your emotions run way higher after the ceremony which always results in more beautiful, vulnerable and real photos)
Whatever you decide, is totally fine! I have no preference. It just means we plan accordingly.
If you DO have a first look, I like to default to scheduling it at least two hours prior to the ceremony. That's enough time for a poised and beautiful reveal moment, followed by some snuggly and creative photos... Then we'll invite the bridal party and immediate family members to join in the photo fun and get those all important portraits taken care of so you/they can all party harder later on. AND we'll still have a time buffer up our sleeve if any of the above gets delayed.
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Question 4) How many people are in your bridal party (if any)?
To be brutally honest, I find that bridal parties are virtually unnecessary these days. They seem to be playing less and less of a role on the wedding day ... and the size of the bridal parties seems to be trending smaller and smaller. Don't get me wrong, it's still a lot of fun to be surrounded by your closest supporters for the majority of the day. Someone to chat to, drink with, check your hair... there are loads of benefits. BUT just understand that their needs (emotionally and logistically), and dare I say their presence in general, can be a time consuming distraction. AND the more people you have around you, the more people you are relying on, thus the higher the risk of an incident or unforeseen delay.
Now, there is most certainly a way of including your closest friends in a supportive role that doesn't necessarily mean walking along with you every step of the way. Hang out with them the night before and/or morning of, invite them to share a dedicated toast or dance during the party. But if you do end up with a large-ish bridal party, be sure to tell them ALL to be ready earlier than you need them to be (I mean a 45 minute buffer at least). I promise you'll be glad you did when you realize how much time gets eaten up by fixing seven bow ties.
TIP: Having a VIDEOGRAPHER can really slow things down if we don't plan for it and get on the same page
Now the ceremony is one of those things that really depends on the type of wedding you're having. Whether it be a full catholic mass, a hindu marriage ceremony, a five minute non-traditional ceremony, or some combination of your respective family/cultural traditions, it's all equally beautiful and I've seen A LOT of different ceremony styles. Just be sure to communicate with whoever is performing the ceremony so you can all be crystal clear about how much time needs to be dedicated to this most special portion of the day.
A handy tip... If you think some of you guests may be the type to show up late, then include a time buffer on your invitation. For example, you could explicitly say on your invite: "Please arrive at 4:30pm for a 5:00pm ceremony start time". OR you could simply state the time as earlier than you're actually planning to walk down the aisle. It really depends on the crowd you have. A bigger wedding leaves more room for stragglers, where as a smaller wedding might leave some people scratching their heads waiting and wondering when things will start. Just consider your guest list and pad accordingly. And above all, don't wait... walk down the aisle when the time is right and don't risk the rest of your wedding getting pushed back.
Question 5) What's happening immediately after the ceremony?
THIS is the part where I see the most opportunities, not just for great photos, but for a more enjoyable and dynamic experience for everyone.
To explain... quite often the couple joyfully bounds down the aisle getting showered with rose petals having just shared the most vulnerable and beautiful high point in their lives with all their nearest and dearest... AND THEN the photographer or planner, or catering manager quickly whisks them away to some dark, quiet corner of the venue for a quiet (aka pointless) glass of champagne... WHYYYYY!?!
It's always baffled me why anyone would want to abruptly cut into the purest moment of sheer joy and communal elation that occurs on a wedding day simply for the sake of ushering the guests over the bacon-wrapped shrimp and designer cocktails.
INSTEAD of running in any direction to avoid the congratulatory hugs and kisses... EMBRACE IT.
Hang out at the end of the aisle and let people huddle around you so you can FEEL the love! I promise you this is a special moment worth experiencing and documenting. It doesn't have to go on forever (a receiving line is a total timeline killer by the way), but once you get the sense that your marriage has be realized and applauded by all your loved ones, and maybe you've had a chance to shed a tear on your mother's shoulder and thank her for her support, then we'll simply move on to the next thing.
And if that next thing happens to be the family portraits (if you didn't already do them prior to the ceremony / after the first look), then a simple announcement by the photographer, planner or celebrant asking for the immediate family to gather at the altar for photos (or some other photogenic location nearby) is usually the only cue the rest of your guests need to understand that they should probably wrap up the small talk, go grab themselves a drink and let you get on with it.
Which brings us to...
Question 6) Who do you most want to include in your in your traditional family portraits?
The best part of having all the family within an ear-shot after the ceremony is that it's easy to spot and gather everyone we need for photos, so we can get through them smoothly and efficiently.
A lot of photographers schedule a ton of time for this and shoot every possible combination of relatives... Which in my opinion is a terrible idea! If you think about it, nobody "loves" the idea of standing stiffly in front of a stranger's camera and being told how to hold your face muscles. Not fun. Plus NO ONE EVER prints that one photo of all their uncles and aunties that took 15 minutes to track down in which half the people have their eyes closed.
MY SOLUTION... Use this time to prioritize your immediate family, and give them the time and acknowledgment they deserve. Keeping the family photo list short means we can take the utmost care in posing and capturing genuine expressions. "Immediate family" technically means the couple's parents and siblings only. But to me, it also includes other honored guests such as grandparents and spouses and/or children of your siblings (if any). This limits it to about 10-12 photos max, and it almost never takes more than 15 minutes to nail without rushing. One trick for getting it done smoothly, is to nominate a key family member on each side to gather all the people we need and tell them where to wait. It's also helpful to give those people a heads up before the wedding too, so they know not to disappear right after the ceremony.
As for all your extended family members and groups of friends, they are always welcome to request a photo during the reception (so long as it doesn't interfere with any key formalities or great candid photo ops). This way, you can rest assured knowing that the people who desperately want a photo with the newly weds will generally get one if they ask for it. And you're not left trying to appease the whole guest list with the drudgery of posing for a million cringey photos right after your ceremony. Also, often these spontaneous group shots happen towards the dance-floor portion of the evening, which (after a few beverages) makes them a lot more fun.
Question 7) What time will the sun set on your wedding day?
Easily google-able and always accurate, this is the MOST IMPORTANT thing we need to determine when creating your wedding day timeline. The sunset is the only thing we cannot change, and therefore it is our anchor point for all scheduling purposes.
Why does it matter so much? Well, in photography, lighting and timing are paramount. Natural light is the most flattering type of light there is... and on a wedding day, we want the most flattering light we can get! ALSO the fading light towards the end of the day serves a greater purpose as a mood setter and storytelling mechanism. There's just something magical that happens at dusk... especially if you've just spent the day prepping for and executing the most special and intimate day of your lives.
An so, I always aim to steal the two of you away for a quiet moment of reflecting and canoodling in the best available light and in the most epic location we can find. The photos of these moments speak for themselves... But really it's not just about making pretty pictures. It's about the two of you getting some alone time (which there is none of if you don't make a point of it), and just melting into one another as you savor the moment.
Quite often, little is said during this time, BUT MUCH IS FELT.
Ideally, you'd plan for the cocktail hour to start wrapping up right in the last 20-30 minutes of daylight. This gives you a bit of mingle time with guests while you enjoy some of that good food and wine you're paying for, before easily sneaking away as your guests begin to transition into the reception area.
However, the location, time of year, surrounding environment, and weather all play a huge role in what time it will get dark on your date, and therefore how your structure the flow of events. But again, there is a creative maneuver for every scheduling challenge! For example, if you think you'll lose light earlier than what google says because of the huge trees and mountains surrounding your venue, then add more time!
Ok, here's a tricky one... so you figure out exactly what time you can expect to lose the light... and if say it's around 8:00pm (or sometime after your reception has already started), then we simply structure the key formalities to allow some downtime around sunset, so you can stealthily sneak away and soak up that last light!
For example, if sunset is at 8:00pm... maybe have your reception entrance and announcement at 7:00pm, go straight into your first dance, followed by a short welcome toast by the father of the bride, then have the caterers plan to serve dinner to the couple at 7:20 ish followed by the guests shortly after. This way, you get to experience your grand entrance and a little bit of your reception, enjoy your dinner, then while your guests are all occupied with their meals, you can step away for those golden hour portraits and no one will even notice you're gone. Easy!
And after the sun dips, and you realize you still have a whole night of celebrating ahead of you, I promise you'll be re-energized from you're quiet moment together and ready to party... and so will I ;)
Another tip for around this time: Figure out how long it takes to bustle your dress, and have helpers at the ready!
Ok, once your reception is well and truly underway, from a documentary style photographer's perspective, this is where all the nitty gritty timeline details become less relevant.
There are a million different combinations of formalities and traditions that you could chose to include or omit from the celebratory portion of your wedding. Do you have your first dance at the start or in the middle?? How many people should give a toast?? When should you cut the cake (or do you even need a cake)?? Remember, there are no rules... so do it your way and make it a reflection of the things you care about, skip the all the fluff, and get down to the business of getting down (if that's your thing)!
Personally, I see my role on the day as your guide to getting you to the party in a way that allows you to fully experience every moment and every emotion along the way... without the fear of unforeseen delays, awkwardness or missed photo ops. THEN, once they party starts and the formalities take over, I take a step back and let it all unfold naturally, and simply document. Since I'll be close by, I'll notice when all the big moments are happening... and I'll communicate with the planners, DJ/MC/Band and other staff to be sure I get a heads up. And usually I'm there until the final send off, and sometimes even the after party... it just depends on your unique wedding plans, and how you answer this next question...
Question 8) What do you feel is the most important aspect of your wedding day?
We've talked a lot about what YOU need to be mindful of when coordinating your wedding day schedule... But this question let's ME know what you care about most. Your answer informs my creative decisions, and let's me know what I should be looking out for. That way, we can easily tweak the schedule to allow more room for the key aspects that you want covered.
For example... If you told me you chose to get married in Yosemite National Park because your late Father was an avid outdoorsmen, and you felt this would've made him happy... then I'll make sure we hit all the beautiful mountain peaks for your sunset portraits so you can feel that this aspect of your story was intentionally incorporated front and center.
Until we meet, I can't say specifically how your wedding vision will translate neatly into a functional wedding day timeline... Just know that I'm hear to listen to your hopes, your fears and your wild ideas, and help you pull it off in a way that feels right.
NOW, HERE ARE SOME REAL TIMELINES I'VE HELP OTHER COUPLES PUT TOGETHER FOR THEIR UNIQUE WEDDING SCENARIOS
Keep in mind, these timelines are made from a photographer's perspective... so the logistics are most relevant in terms of capturing a wedding day. Quite often a planner, venue coordinator, or even the more organized couples themselves will have a "master timeline" for the all other moving parts, like: vendor load in times, arrival of flowers, times for salad to be served etc... But for the purpose of illustrating how the experience will flow from one key moment to the next, this far less wordy timeline does the job simply and thoughtfully.
MULTIPLE LOCATIONS // NO FIRST LOOK // WITH BRIDAL PARTY // SUNSET BEFORE RECEPTION ENTRANCE
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MULTIPLE LOCATIONS // NO FIRST LOOK // WITH BRIDAL PARTY // SUNSET AFTER RECEPTION ENTRANCE
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MULTIPLE LOCATIONS // WITH FIRST LOOK // WITHOUT BRIDAL PARTY // SUNSET AFTER RECEPTION ENTRANCE
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REMEMBER THE GOLDEN RULE:
Give yourself MORE TIME than you think you need at time at every phase of the day!