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What You Don't Know About Wedding Day Timelines

Coming up with a solid wedding day timeline is the best way to keep the chaos to a minimum on your wedding day. It alleviates so much stress and gives everyone involved the direction they need to keep things flowing and navigating the day without a hitch. But knowing how long to block off for each part of the day when you have to consider so many things is daunting, especially when this isn't something most people do more than once in their lives. That's where your hired professionals come in.

I know I am biased, being a photographer, but trust me when I say, your photographer is the best person to help you make your timelines. If you have a coordinator, they will need to part of that conversation, but your photographer should not be left out of this. In most weddings, the day is often dictated by the pictures, and if you want good ones, one of the many things that needs to be considered is lighting...and the sun waits for no one, whether it's your wedding day or not. Experienced photographers will know when the best time to be taking the most beautiful photos outdoors will be and what conditions they need to get the shots that you want. They'll also know how long it will take them to get all the family photos and other priority shots you want because they're the ones that know how long it takes to set up and pose and do all the things required to capture your vision.

That being said, here are the most common things I address while making timelines with my clients...

What time is your ceremony?

Whenever I'm making a timeline, I start with this since it is often the thing that is set in stone and can't change. We work up to and from this point in the day. I will start with this, and work backwards to come up with the timeline for the beginning of the day, and then work forward to come up with how things will flow after it.

Will you see each other before the wedding, or save the first look for the aisle?

This one is huge for dictating the layout of the timeline and will dictate which direction we go from the ceremony for the next item blocked into the timeline. Whether you want to see each other determines if the portraits will take place before or after the ceremony, how much time is needed between the ceremony and the reception, what time we start photography for the day, among many other things. I have another article about the pros and cons of doing a first can find that here.

What is your family like and how big is it?

We will make a list of family and wedding party formals to check off on the day. For this list, we include parents, siblings, grandparents, nieces and nephews. Sometimes people include extended families (aunts, uncles, cousins), but it does add a significant amount of time to the timeline, which is something to consider. I usually calculate 2 minutes per grouping for immediate family and wedding party, and 5 minutes per grouping for extended family. This gets me pretty close by the time some take longer than others, and if all goes well, we usually finish up a few minutes early! If you are planning to do a first look prior to the ceremony, it's nice to get these knocked out ahead of time, so your guests aren't waiting for you to get done with allll the photos before coming to the reception.

How will guests be released from the ceremony?

I really don't believe there is a right or wrong way to do this. There are basically three ways to do this, and over the last decade and a half since I started working in weddings, I've seen them all come and go like trends. The first is the traditional receiving line, where your ushers release the guests, who file past the couple and their parents to greet and congratulate them. The second is where the couple releases the rows of guests themselves, accepting their congratulates and greetings as they go. This is faster than a receiving line--it takes less time to congratulate two people than it does to congratulate more. The thing I've seen most often since COVID, is to forego this altogether and go straight to pictures while the guests make their way to cocktail hour. There is always a lull during dinner where the couple has finished eating and sits, waiting for the guests to be served before moving on. The couples who skip releasing their guests are using this time to mingle around the room, greeting guests and chatting casually. This obviously takes up no time on the timeline since the greeting time overlaps with dinner.

What kind of place would you like for your non-formal photos?

Between the ceremony and the reception, your wedding party will have relaxed, which oddly enough, is visible in photos, so this is the best time for them, and they'll likely be your favorite shots of the day. Is your venue gorgeous so you want to take all your photos there? Is there a place along the way, between the ceremony and reception sites that would be a good fit? Whatever that place is, we need to take lighting into consideration, but also travel time when planning the timeline. I usually spend about 45 minutes on this part of the day--10 minutes with the bride's wedding party, 10 minutes with the groom's, 10 minutes with the entire group, and 15 minutes with just the bride and groom.

Let's talk about dinner.

Dinner is a significant use of time on your timeline, so the way that your caterer is serving, plus the number of guests, will be large factors into how much time exactly will be used for this part of the day. How many guests will be served? How will they be served--buffet style or plated? If it's buffet style, how many lines will there be? Will you there be servers physically dishing the food onto the plates, or will the guests be allowed to serve themselves? It all factors in, so these will be great questions for your caterer.

Are you doing toasts?

I usually suggest that couples limit their chosen toast-givers to five minutes per person. Especially if you have more than two people speaking for you. Guests tend to start glazing over if it goes much longer than that. Plus, it eats up time in your timeline that was allotted for other things, that then may not be covered by your vendors because they ran out of time. I've seen it happen. Knowing how many toasts will be given, and how much time is given or each of them allows you to block this time off in your timeline and keep your reception moving efficiently.

What about the dance?

I usually block off five minutes for each of the special spotlight dances, plus 45 minutes for open dance floor. That gives me enough time to get a variety of songs and people, but not so much time that the photos become monotonous if it's the same people on the dance floor the whole time. If you're doing a bouquet or garter toss (which I rarely ever see anymore), then we add an extra 10 minutes.

Are we capturing sunset photos?

Sunset provides beautiful, romantic, glowy light that is fantastic for photos of the couple. Depending on the time of year and the timing of the day, it's a great time to sneak out for 10 minutes and get some epic photos! Planning this in your timeline is something you probably won't regret!

I hope this was helpful and gives some clarity on how wedding day timelines are constructed, and what they look like from a photographer's perspective. There are a lot of factors that a person who isn't on this side of it would probably not think of, and I'm always happy to share this information!


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