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Building a wedding day timeline

One of the conversations that I have with every wedding client centers around the timeline, and fitting in all of the things that they want to accomplish on their wedding day. While I am understandably photography-focused, putting a timeline together that accomplishes what matters most is very important to ensuring that they have the best day ever. After all, at the end of the day a wedding is not just a photo shoot — it is a celebration with family and friends — but you’re investing in having the day documented so having a planned out timeline is a good idea!

There are a lot of considerations when putting your timeline together. Below are some tips for each major section of your wedding day. There is no definitive “right and wrong” when it comes to this, but there are some well-tested guidelines to think about.

Getting Ready

The Getting Ready portion of the day typically includes the lead-up to the first major events of the day. Most often this is the couple hanging out with their respective attending parties, and actually getting ready. For brides, this may include hair and makeup being done, detail photos (think dress hanging, rings, shoes, something borrowed and blue, etc.). For grooms, it’s most often hanging out, helping each other with ties (and googling how to tie a bow tie!), etc. How much time you need for this portion of the day varies based on what matters most to you, and also how near in proximity you are to each other while getting ready (i.e. the same hotel? town? state?).

Ninety percent of the time I will start coverage with the bride about an hour prior to her putting on the dress in order to have time for the details and candid moments. Brides often begin getting into their dress about a half hour prior to the first even that they are needed for, whether that is the ceremony or a first look. For grooms, if I am shooting solo (i.e. no second photographer present; that’s a whole other discussion you can find more about HERE), I like to have 30-45 minutes with them prior to starting with the bride.

So, when you’re thinking about your timeline, if your first event is your ceremony at 5:00 PM, you may want to begin your photography coverage around 3:00 PM with the guys getting ready, followed by the ladies at 3:30 PM. Plan for an hour or so earlier if you are having a first look. Also, having a second photographer can also affect this coverage by allowing the guys to start getting ready a little later since they will have a dedicated photographer with them. I still look to start around the same time with brides (an hour before putting on the dress.

First Look or Go Right to the Ceremony?

Your next big timeline decision is will you have a first look or are you heading straight to your ceremony after Getting Ready? A majority of couples these days are opting for a first look and getting all or most of their formal family photos ahead of the ceremony. There are many reasons to consider a first look, and you can learn more about those HERE. For the sake of this post, I won’t delve too deep into that right now. If you are letting traditions stand and not doing a first look, you are probably good with coverage starting about 2 hours prior to the ceremony, but if you are planning a first look, there are several thing to consider.

The actual first look happens pretty quickly, but you first need to decide where you will be doing the first look. I will help with this too, but will it be in the hotel where you were getting ready, at a nearby park, or 30 minutes away at the beach? While the actual first look will take less than 5 minutes, make sure to factor in any time needed to get to the first look location and then back to the ceremony. Even 10 minutes away just added 20 minutes to your timeline!

Most couples are planning a first look in order to get all or most of their family and wedding party photos out of the way ahead of the ceremony so that they can enjoy their cocktail hour with guests. Allowing an hour is sufficient much of the time, but I have also had a wedding where we had 112 group combinations to photograph, and we spent 2 hours doing so. I suggest 15-20 combinations — and I will work with you on this — so that we have enough time to get them done, as well as a little time for portraits of the two of you (which are also historically done during cocktail hour if you didn’t plan a first look). If you know you will have a lot of different combinations, I would plan 1-2 minutes per combination, with larger groupings taking longer to wrangle. Forty combinations, for example, will probably take 50+ minutes.

Therefore, in your timeline planning, allowing an hour for the first look and portraits plus any needed travel time to an off-site first look or ceremony location is a good start.

Reception Planning

Your reception timeline will likely be put together by your venue based on their kitchen and serving needs. But you get to provide input — often with your DJ or band — about how you want the reception to flow. Will you be doing introductions? Who will be introduced if so? Will you go right into a first dance, a dance set, speeches, parent dances, etc.? Some couples want to get everyone on the dance floor right away to set the tone for the night. Others want to front-end load all of their receptions events (intro, first dance, parent dances, speeches, etc.) so that right after dinner it’s all about the party. How you do it is up to you. Just consider the following…

If you want sunset photos, for example, don’t schedule 4 speeches during sunset… instead plan for a 10-15 minute window to allow for these special photos. Also, if you planned 8 hours of photo coverage, make sure that you are fitting all of the important things you want covered during the reception into that 8 hour block — or consider adding time. As a photographer, what events you choose to partake in doesn’t matter greatly to me, but making sure that they are covered does! Most weddings fit nicely into an eight hour day, especially with a first look planned, though do not include coverage to the very end of the reception. If you are planning an end-of-the-night special exit or other event such as a dress change that you want coverage of, be sure to let me know. More often these days, things like sparkler exits are only being done for the photos, and therefore couples are planning this photo op earlier in the evening before too many guests depart, are intoxicated, or both.

Sample Timeline

The above all sounds well and good, but what might it actually look like? Recognizing that the month/day of your wedding can have an affect of things (i.e. daylight hours), here is a sample timeline below. Your specific timeline will no doubt vary a little based on the specifics of your day but this is a start…

2:00 Guys getting ready
2:30 Ladies getting ready
3:30 Get into wedding dress
4:00 First look
4:10 – 4:40 Family & group portraits
4:40 – 5:00 Couple portraits
5:00 Get ready for ceremony
5:30 Wedding ceremony
6:00 – 7:00 Cocktail hour
7:15 Intros into first dance
7:30 Sunset photos
7:45 Speeches
8:00 Dinner service
8:45 Cake cutting into parent dances
9:00 Dance floor opens
9:50 Night portraits
10:00 Photography coverage ends
11:00 Reception ends

Again, this is a fictitious wedding, and yours will likely vary, but this is a starting point for a conversation about the unique needs of your day. As I mentioned at the very beginning, a timeline discussion is one I always have with clients, and one that I welcome so that we can best ensure that the things that matter most to you happen on your wedding day!

To find out more about Wedding Photography and having Eric McCallister Photography document your next major life event, contact me.