The absolute best way to ensure a wedding runs smoothly, (and by that, I mean as according to plan as possible,) – is by crafting a strategic wedding day timeline. I’ve seen a poorly created timeline wreck a wedding day, and I’ve seen strategic ones save them. Yes, it’s seriously THAT big of a deal! But don’t you worry, I’m going to show you how to create the perfect wedding day timeline (with photography in mind)!
What most people don’t know about their wedding day timeline, is that if it isn’t created with photography in mind, (where photography is a top priority,) then you won’t be guaranteed to get all of the photos you’re likely dreaming of having on your big day. When you’re shelling out thousands of dollars on photos, that’s not exactly what you want to hear!
Because wedding photography is an investment, no matter what photographer you decide to book, and I want to be sure you get as much out of your day as possible! And given the fact that this is probably your first time getting married, it’s hard for you to know what timeline would work best, and what to even prioritize on the day of!
So, I’ve created a guide on how to create the perfect wedding day timeline (with photography in mind) – to help ease all your wedding day stresses.
You’ll be able to build off of this framework, (or, you can even download my FREE wedding day timeline examples (both with a first look and without,) in order to create your own!
Let’s do it! 🙂
HOW TO CREATE THE PERFECT WEDDING DAY TIMELINE (WITH PHOTOGRAPHY IN MIND)
Decide whether or not you guys are going to do a “first look.”
The first thing you’ll need to do when deciding on your perfect wedding day timeline is to determine whether or not the two of you want to do a “first look.”
And before you read the words “first look,” and then say “yeah, we’re not doing that…” while scrolling on – just WAIT and hear me out. 😉
A first look is where the bride and groom are able to see each other before the ceremony. It allows for the two of you to share an intimate moment together, with nobody tugging you in another direction, (or hurrying you onto the next thing.) It’s almost as if time stands still at this moment.
Sometimes, couples write these off because they’re non-traditional, or because they “don’t want to lose the magic of them walking down the aisle and their groom seeing them for the first time.” They’re afraid that if they do a first look, their groom might not cry.
And while I understand that – what if I told you it could actually make that moment, (you walking down the aisle,) even better?
Throughout my last 8 years of being a wedding photographer, I’ve only ever seen a first look ADD TO the experience and the memories. AND… my grooms typically cry BOTH times. 😉
Because at the root of it, while brides say they want to stick with tradition…. what they’re usually really afraid of, is that they’ll lose their groom’s reaction. They’re afraid it won’t be what it could’ve been. (And that couldn’t be further from the truth.)
Most importantly, a first look allows you to carve out time for just each other. All of the noise/stress/distractions of the day fade away, and it’s just the two of you.
Your first look can last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on how much time you have, (the more the better!)
If you’ve been around me, (or my online home here,) you’ll know that “savoring” things is a pretty big deal to me. I mean, my brand’s tagline is “embrace your story, savor your season, find your wild.”
One of the things that hurts my heart the most is when a bride says her wedding day was “a total blur.”
That feels like such a knife in the heart to me! I mean, you dream about this day for the majority of your life, and then plan it out for up to two years… all for it to just go by in a blur. That’s gonna be a hard NO from me.
Carving out this intentional space in your wedding day for a first look ensures it doesn’t go by in a flash. If I’m being honest, that’s the number one reason I’m a huge fan.
But if that point alone isn’t good enough, here are some other reasons they’re also SUPER beneficial:
Option #1 | FIRST LOOK:
- The first time you see each other is private and shared just between you two! This is probably the only time all day you’ll get alone time!
- You both will look your freshest! Hair, make-up, the works.
- The nerves of seeing each other for the first time will be gone and then you can simply look forward to and enjoy your ceremony with your family and friends.
- You get so many more portraits! When things run late it’s almost always the bride and groom getting the short end of the straw, getting out time for portraits. This ensures we get a ton!
- You can schedule all wedding party photos before the ceremony, so afterward all the formal images left to take are family photos and then you’ll be able to head to your reception quickly instead of having your guests wait for a longer period of time.
- You get to go to your cocktail hour! And isn’t that the best food anyway?!
- Your bridal party and family ALSO get to go to cocktail hour instead of taking all the formal pictures. They’ll love you for this.
- This is a great trial run of walking around and moving in your dress before you have to do it in front of everyone at your ceremony!
- Timelines seem to be way less stressful when everything is done before the ceremony!
- Seeing each other before the ceremony goes against tradition.
Option #2 | NO FIRST LOOK
You don’t see each other before the ceremony and the first time you see each other is when the bride is walking down the aisle.
- You get to keep up with tradition.
- If you are wanting to have a cocktail hour for guests only that you do not want to attend between the ceremony and reception, taking the bulk of your images after the ceremony will allow your guests to mingle and enjoy drinks while you’re getting your pictures taken.
- If the ceremony begins late, or family photos run longer than expected, then it’s always the bride and groom photo time that gets cut short.
- The photo time after the ceremony will take longer so guests will have approximately an hour and a half to two-hour break from when the ceremony ends to when the reception begins (this can be a pro or con depending on if you want to entertain your guests during this time or not!)
- The reason you’ll need to decide whether or not you’re doing a first look, is because the timeline will actually look COMPLETELY different depending on which you choose!
So step one: decide on a first look, (or not!) But I’m not shy on which I prefer. 😉
2. For the perfect wedding day timeline, determine the ceremony time based on the sunset time.
This is the most important part of the day to get right, because everything else is reverse-engineered from here. My favorite way to determine the ceremony time is to find the exact time the sun is going to set, at your venue’s location!
I start by googling “sunset time in [city, state] on [wedding date.] You can even add the venue name in your google search for the sunset time as well!
For example: Sunset time at Villa Del Balbianello in Lake Como, Italy, on June 3, 2023.
The sunset on that day is 9:06pm, (Italy is further from the equator than the U.S., so their sunsets are later!)
The next thing I do is pull up Google Earth Pro to verify the sunset. I enter the location, and then use the sunset feature to see exactly how the light is falling at that specific location, on that exact date.
Below, you’ll see we have Villa Del Balbianello, marked with a red pin drop:
If we click the sunset icon at the top, it will allow us to drag the slider back and choose the specific time we want to see how the light will look like at. It’s so cool!
Then, we click the little “person” (over to the right) and drag and drop him to where we want to see from “ground level view.”
Here’s what it would look like at 9:08pm, (the time that Google told us the sun would set!)
Due to the fact that Lake Como is situated at the foothills of the surrounding mountains, you’ll see the sun is going to actually set earlier than 9:06pm.
This is because the sun goes behind the mountains, which shades the entire lake region. (It’s the same situation you’d have if you got married in the woods, it would get darker quicker in the woods than out in an open field with open skies!)
So, we want to use the time the area becomes shaded as our sunset time, even if it’s not the “actual” sunset time.
We can see that the area becomes shaded by 8:00pm, so we’d want to count back around 2 hours prior to that time for the start of the ceremony. (Ceremonies typically last around 30 minutes.)
Therefore, I’d say a good ceremony time for a wedding at Lake Como on June 6, 2023 would be 6:00pm. I use this formula every single time, no matter what kind of wedding or where it’s at!
3. Decide whether or not you want a cocktail hour.
A cocktail hour is a period of time directly following the ceremony, but prior to the reception, where guests are able to mingle and keep themselves entertained while you’re taking photos.
If you’re not doing a first look, a cocktail hour is essential. Think about it, you’ll need to be taking all of your family formals, wedding party photos, as well as bride and groom photos ALL post-ceremony. This is at the absolute minimum going to take an hour, (closer to 1.5-2 hours if you really value portraits, but are set on not having a first look.)
By having a cocktail hour, you’re able to keep your guests fed and entertained, so they aren’t waiting around for you impatiently the entire time you’re taking photos.
I actually still recommend a cocktail hour, even if you do decide to do a first look, just because it’s another fun opportunity to incorporate your personal style/wedding personality into the day!
Keep in mind, you don’t actually have to serve alcohol if you don’t wish to, you can do fun lemonades, flavored waters, and/or teas, as well as hors d’oeuvres.
4. Decide how many hours of wedding day photography coverage you’ll need.
A lot of times, couples aren’t actually sure how many hours of coverage they truly need. Most of the time, they actually underestimate the amount of time it takes to capture their day in its entirety!
The traditional wedding timeline portions consist of: bridal details, bride prep, groom + groomsmen prep, bridal party photos (separate), first look, bridal party photos (together) pre-ceremony family formals, ceremony, post-ceremony family formals, grand entrances, special dances, cake cutting + toasts, open dancing, staged exit.
If I was able to determine the amount of time I wanted to be able to photograph each of these portions on the wedding day, here’s roughly what it would look like:
- BRIDAL DETAILS – 1 hour (shooting the dress, invitation flatlays, rings, jewelry, shoes, etc.)
- BRIDE + BRIDESMAIDS PREP – 1 hour (photographing the bridesmaids getting ready in robes, hair & makeup finishing up, etc. Then, first look of the bride with her dad/brothers, etc., and first look with bridesmaids.)
- GROOM + GROOMSMEN PREP – 1 hour (photographing the groom details, the guys putting on suit jackets, boutonnières, etc.) Note: If you have a second photographer, they would be photographing this while the primary photographer (me) would be photographing the bride + bridesmaids!
- BRIDE + BRIDESMAIDS – 30 minutes (all together, as well as individuals)
- GROOM + GROOMSMEN – 30 minutes (all together, as well as individuals)
- FIRST LOOK WITH GROOM + COUPLES PORTRAITS – 30 min to an hour
- FAMILY FORMALS (PRE-CEREMONY) – 30 minutes – (these would be immediate family first on both the bride and groom sides
- WEDDING PARTY (PRE-CEREMONY IF POSSIBLE) – 15-30 minutes
- WEDDING CEREMONY – 30 minutes (typically)
- FAMILY FORMALS (POST-CEREMONY) – depending on how many are taken prior to the ceremony, this could range from anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes
- WEDDING PARTY (POST-CEREMONY) – if all have been taken prior, then we’re good. If these still need to be taken for whatever reason, I like about 15-30 min
- GRAND ENTRANCE – 5-10 minutes (I like to flow into the first dance directly after the grand entrances, and then the parent dances directly after)
- FIRST DANCE + PARENT DANCES – 10-15 minutes
- TOASTS + CAKE CUTTING – 30 minutes
- OPEN DANCING – 30-45 minutes
- STAGED SPARKLER/GRAND EXIT – 20 minutes
If you add up all of those time chunks, you’re looking at a 9-hour wedding day. (It doesn’t seem like there could be any way you’d need that many hours of coverage… but I’m tellin’ ya, it adds up QUICK!)
We could trim some things here and there, and probably get it down to 8 hours. However, most of my couples end up needing between 8-10 hours of wedding day coverage, with the majority upgrading to 9 or 10!
If you’re wanting all of the things listed above, you’ll want no less than 8 hours of wedding photography coverage!
5. Now that you have your decisions on your first look, ceremony time, cocktail hour, and hours of coverage – you’re ready to create your perfect wedding day timeline!
In order to put all of these things together to create the perfect wedding day timeline, you’ll want to start by placing your ceremony time FIRST. Then, you’ll reverse-engineer everything else from there!
So, let’s say you decided on a 6:00pm ceremony (with an 8pm sunset time), with a first look, a cocktail hour, and 9 hours of wedding photography coverage.
Next, you’ll want to add in the following parts of your day. (And anything else that applies!) Below, you’ll see the general flow of events for a wedding. I also have the amount of time I recommend allotting for your photographer for each beside them! 🙂
- Bridal Details (45 min – 1hr)
- Bride & Bridesmaids Prep (1hr)
- Groom & Groomsmen Prep (1hr)
- Bride + Bridesmaids First Look, Bridesmaids Portraits (30min)
- Bride & Groom First Look (30min-1hr is ideal, at minimum 20 min)
- Full Wedding Party Photos (30 min, can do 15 if needed)
- Family Formals (30 min)
- Wedding Ceremony (30 min)
- Family Formals (30 min, could be 15 if most were done prior to ceremony)
- Golden Hour Photos of Bride & Groom (min: 15 min, max 1 hour)
- Grand Entrances (5-15 min depending on bridal party size)
- First Dance, Special Dances (10-15 min)
- Toasts + Cake Cutting (30 min)
- Open Dancing, (Bouquet & Garter Toss if applicable) – 30-45 min
- Sparkler/Grand Exit (20 min)
And there you have it! Now, you’re ready to create the perfect wedding day timeline (with photography in mind)! 🙂
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