How To Construct a Killer Wedding-Day Timeline

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During wedding planning, you'll be faced with many questions you hadn't anticipated answering. 

One of the more intimidating question marks comes in the form of timing. Vendors, Guests, Attendants; Everyone needs to know what time you need them, where, and for how long

You can get away with estimating for a while, but you'd probably be a lot happier putting that guesswork to rest! 

One of my favorite things to do for my couples is work-out a timeline. 

It's the perfect way to visualize your full day, not to mention, an amazing reference tool during planning.  This is a service I provide to my couples and potential couples.  If you'd like to let me do the heavy-lifting, give me a shout! If not, I have outlined a bonkers-good how-to below.

         Step 1) Discuss a traditional timeline               vs a ‘first- look’ timeline.

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TRADITIONAL - Your traditional timeline is based on the idea that the couple getting married will not see each other until the ceremony. This timeline is ideal for those who are steadfast in their views and do not mind sacrificing attending their cocktail hour (you do all your portraits during cocktail hour) to maintain that vision.

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FIRST LOOK - A ‘First Look’ is a moment where you and your fiance will see each other a few hours before you’re getting married.

Photographers are in love with the ‘first look’ for many reasons. So many reasons, in fact, that I am working on another full blog post about it.

As it pertains to your timeline, the first look occurs about 1.5 hours before the ceremony and gives you plenty of time to achieve gorgeous, un-rushed portraits which will leave you to enjoy your cocktail hour after your ceremony!

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HAVE YOUR FREAKIN CAKE AND EAT IT TOO - Ok, so you read all the ways the ‘First Look’ will ease anxiety and lengthen your day and you’re wishing there was some kind of compromise.  Well, there actually are TWO.

I call one, the ‘First Tease’.  It’s a way of designing your poses so that the couple can have beautiful photos together before the ceremony all without seeing each-other.  You may have seen couples do this by wearing blindfolds or holding hands on either side of a structure. The ‘First Tease’ is a highly controlled way of posing the two of you with your wedding party to get lots of portraits done all without a single peek!  (Side note: Not every photographer will be up for this option due to timeline, location, or other constraints! Discuss it thoroughly before proceeding!) This option will begin about 1.5 hours before your ceremony to ensure lots of relaxed portraits with the bonus of making it to your cocktail hour.

Your second option is a ‘gap’. As in, you get married and then plan 1-2 hour gap, at which time your guests must find a way to occupy themselves while you do your photos. I’ve been a guest at a wedding that was structured this way and I didn’t find it inconvenient.  Although, I must say I almost fell asleep while waiting back at the hotel. For example:

Gap Timeline

3-4pm Ceremony

4-4:15pm Family Photos

4:15-4:30 Travel

4:30-6pm Portraits

6pm Cocktail Hour Starts

This option doesn’t work so great if you’re having everything in the same place, as your guests would have nowhere to go.

Step 2) Start with your ceremony time.

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Alright, you know how you want to structure your day (First Look, First Tease, Traditional, or Traditional with a Gap). You are now ready to start your timeline.  When is your ceremony scheduled?  Write it down.

That was easy, right?  Before moving forward, I do want to let you in two secrets.  Your ceremony time dictates your whole day so you absolutely have to know these two things before setting it in stone (or in gold lettered $5 invitations):

  1. When is the sun setting on your wedding day?  This is a big deal because, if you’re going with a timeline where your photos are after your ceremony - you have to make sure the sun will still be up!  A good photographer can get amazing photos no matter what BUT if your vision was, bright outdoor photos, you’ll want to do yourself a favor, right now, and google “sunset time” and “your date”. You have to have your posed photos done by sunset if you don’t want to be plunged into darkness.

  2. How long is your ceremony going to be?  Your officiant should know, but for the sake of finishing the timeline, I have a little cheat sheet for you.

Non-Denominational Officiant/Celebrant - 15 minutes

Pastor/Priest/Rabbi but No Church Service - 30 minutes

In a Church with a Church Service - 1 hour

So, now that you've made sure all your natural light portraits will be achieved before sunset and you have your approximate start and end time of your ceremony!  Yay, progress!

Step 3) Begin building off your ceremony timing. (Examples)

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This section is best explained with examples. Starting with a hypothetical ceremony starting at 3PM, I've built out the hour before and the hour after with example timelines that follow a standard photo procedure:

Example #1: Alright, you’ve decided on a traditional timeline with an outdoor ceremony and your favorite pastor.  Here is what that will start to look like:

2pm Finish Getting Dressed and Do Some Shots of Bride(s)/Groom(s) alone and with their attendants

2:30pm Travel to Ceremony Location

2:45pm Arrive at Ceremony Location

3-3:30pm Ceremony

3:30-3:45pm Family Photos

3:45-5:30pm Couple and Wedding Party Portraits (During Cocktail Hour)

How about another example?

Example #2: You’ve decided on a ‘first look’ with an in-church wedding featuring a full mass. Here is what that might look like:

1pm Finish Getting Dressed

1:15pm First Look

1:20pm Couple Photos

2pm Wedding Party Photos

2:30pm Leave Photo Location

2:45pm Arrive at Church

3-4pm Ceremony

4-4:15pm Family Photos

4:15-4:30pm Travel to Venue

4:30-5:30pm Attend Cocktail Hour

Step 4) Factoring in travel time.

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You may have noticed that I have 15 minutes of travel time built into the example schedules above.

Do you know how long it will take for you to travel to and from your various locations? 

Find out.  You absolutely cannot forget to factor it in!

When everything is said and done, you may have thought you budgeted 1 hour for portraits but you only have 20 minutes thanks to travel.

When I build timelines for my clients, I factor in travel time AND an extra 5-10 minutes per section of time because we're all human and sometimes need to pee!

Is this feeling really overwhelming?  Consider that I have had YEARS of experience to perfect this process, and it's still not perfect!  If you're interested in my services for your wedding day, call it quits and let me do the work for you.  Contact me now.

Step 5) Do have any of the following unique additions?

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1) Receiving Line - A receiving line can occur at the end of a wedding ceremony.  The just-married couple stands at the exit and greets every guest as they leave. It’s a nice way to make sure you personally thank all of your attendees, but it takes FOREVER. (Just being real with you.)  Here’s a handy chart to determine how long your receiving line will take:

20-40 Guests - 10 minutes

40-80 Guests - 15 minutes

80-120 Guests - 20-25 minutes

120-180 Guests - 25-30 minutes

180-250 Guests - 35-40 minutes

If you don't factor in sufficient time to great your guests, you could find all of the time you had allotted for photos gone.  Then, you'd have to make the not-so-fun decision of delaying your party or having only 5 minutes with your photographer (who you probably paid good money so you could have those stunning portraits in addition to candids). 

2) A Wedding Party Larger than 25 people - Larger groups of people take longer to corral.  Factor in a few extra minutes for travel and portraits for larger groups.

3) Ketubah Signing - Most Jewish couples opt for a ‘First Look’ because they come together before their ceremony to sign their Ketubah.  The Rabbi will let you know how long this may take but it’s typically 20-30 minutes and occurs right before your ceremony. It is also traditional in Jewish ceremonies to have 10 minutes of seclusion immediately following your ceremony - This can eat into your cocktail hour time and make organizing family photos difficult, so plan accordingly!

4) More than 15-20 groupings for family photos - Most people keep their family photos to a minimum after the ceremony, featuring just immediate family, spouses, children and grandparents.  If you want to include extended family in your post-ceremony photos - your family photos are going to go from 15 minutes to 30 minutes. (A way around this is by organizing large family/group photos during your reception with your photographer).

5) Multiple Photography Locations - More locations, more travel, more time...and where will you and your photographers park?

Ready to power forward?

Step 6) How much coverage do you want before your ceremony?  

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I love shooting the getting-ready portion of the day because it sets the stage for your story. At minimum, I like to arrive 1.5 hours before you're scheduled to be ready to go!  This gives me enough time to capture candids and details.  I'd never say no to more time, though!

At this point, I'll bring down one of sample timelines and add on to the beginning:

11:00am Photographer Arrives

12:30pm Finish Getting Dressed

12:45-1pm Travel to Photo Location

1:15pm First Look

1:20pm Couple Photos

2pm Wedding Party Photos

2:30pm Leave Photo Location

2:45pm Arrive at Church

3-4pm Ceremony

4-4:15pm Family Photos

4:15-4:30pm Travel to Venue

4:30-5:30pm Attend Cocktail Hour

Step 7) Finally! How much coverage do you want after your ceremony?

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For reception/party coverage, I have a little suggestion that most of my couples LOVE.  Have you photographer stay until an hour before the end of the night, rather than all night.  It saves you a smidge of money and saves your photographer from taking endless amounts of similar dance-floor photos.  

You, by no means, have to take this advice.  Especially if you and your crew are known, party-all-nighters and you want that captured!

Conversely, work with your DJ and caterer to set up a reception timeline to ensure you don't dismiss your photographer too early (like before dancing even gets under-way)!  I'll added to the example timeline so you can see just what I mean!

11:00am Photographer Arrives

12:30pm Finish Getting Dressed

12:45-1pm Travel to Photo Location

1:15pm First Look

1:20pm Couple Photos

2pm Wedding Party Photos

2:30pm Leave Photo Location

2:45pm Arrive at Church

3-4pm Ceremony

4-4:15pm Family Photos

4:15-4:30pm Travel to Venue

4:30-5:30pm Attend Cocktail Hour

5:30pm Reception Starts


First Dance


6-7pm Dinner

7pm Parent Dances

Dance Floor Opens Up

8pm Cake Cutting

Bouquet Toss

8:30pm Dancing Gets Underway

9:15pm Night Photos with your Photographer

9:30pm Photographer Leaves

How did you do?  Are you losing it right now?  I sincerely apologize if you are.  This is something I do on a daily basis so it is second nature to me. 

If you're interested in doing me the honor of letting me rock your wedding day photos then grab your pen and paper, throw it out the window and drop me a line!

From the bottom of my heart, I wish you the best of luck in planning your big day! Take some relief in knowing that the purpose of all this planning is so that you can be 100% present and joyous when you're marrying the love of your life and celebrating with your closest family and friends! 

I swear to you, I did it and I watch people do it over 30 times a year!  It's all worth it.  And, if all else fails, put the work into the hand of a professional!  You won't regret it <3