Creating a wedding day timeline can be one of the most confusing parts of the wedding process. Particularly where photography is concerned, often times brides and grooms are unsure of how long to plan for segments of their day, such as family formals, bride and groom portraits, or even something as simple as when to have your photographer show up!
I recently revamped my pricing to include one 8 hour coverage package with a la carte options. I previously had packages ranging from 6-9 hours, and I found over time those selecting packages with the smallest amount of coverage often had to sacrifice something during the day, whether that be shortened family formals or portraits of the bride and groom. The other issue is that wedding days often run behind! This is simply a reality and the best way to deal with it is to pad your timeline so that if things run behind, it is not a big deal.
The first piece of information I get from my couple is whether they will be seeing each other before the ceremony. I understand a lot of photographers prefer a first look; I believe it is a personal choice and do not sway my clients either way. If there is a first look, the couple should plan for two hours of bride and groom portraits as well as bridal party portraits. This may seem like overkill, but most of the time when weddings run behind, it’s in hair and makeup. So in a worst-case scenario where you are a half an hour behind, you still have time for portraits!
Without a first look, the couple should plan on at least two hours of portraits following the ceremony. When I say two hours, in reality it’s usually an hour and a half, since afterwards the bride and groom will mingle a little bit with their guests and hear congratulation and well wishes. Immediately after the ceremony, I prefer to shoot family formals, since everyone is on-site, followed by bridal party formals, and bride and groom portraits. Even if we’ve had some time to shoot during the first look, I will likely grab the bride and groom for another 15 minutes here, since the light is softer and more flattering later in the day.
Ceremony time is an important consideration. The majority of my weddings in California include an outdoor ceremony. An ideal time for shooting is an hour before sunset. The light is very soft this time of day and you will avoid having harsh shadows on at least one person. Many times if the ceremony is earlier, the bride and groom’s faces will be at different exposures, because of the way the sun is hitting their faces. For an experienced photographer, this is not a problem, but there’s no doubt the closer you get to sunset, the more flattering the photographs. I would ONLY plan for this option if the couple has had a first look.
Lastly, when should you start and end coverage with your photographer? I recommend starting coverage about 30-45 minutes before your own hair and makeup are completed. When I arrive, I take pictures of all the details (rings, shoes, dress, etc), and take pictures of the bride as she is in final touches. The bridal party should be dressed and ready to go before the bride, as typically the bridesmaids (or mom) will assist the bride in getting into her gown. I recommend ending coverage about an hour after all reception events are completed and the full dance floor has opened.
So, in summary, here are some general guidelines:
With First Look
- 2 hours of portraits with the bride and groom + bridal party. Add 45 minutes if you want to take family formals prior to the ceremony.
- Make sure to accommodate for travel time to the ceremony site following the portrait session. Even if there is no travel time, I stop all portrait shooting 30 minutes in advance to allow everyone to relax, as well as get images of the ceremony site and guests arriving.
- Ceremony time an hour before sunset (sunset calculator here)
- 45 minutes for family formals following the ceremony, if not taken before
- Additional 15-20 minutes following the family formals for bride + groom portraits / bridal party portraits
Sample timeline with first look – sunset at 7:00
- 2:00: photographers arrive (photograph bride’s hair and makeup and getting into her gown, candids with bridal party)
- 3:30: meet for first look
- 3:30 – 5:30: bride + groom portraits, bridal party portraits
- 6:00: ceremony
- 7:00: Family formals
- 7:45: Bride + groom portraits
- 8:15: Reception
- 11:00: Photography coverage ends
Without First Look
- An hour for separate bride + bridesmaids / groom + groomsmen photos prior to the ceremony (everyone should be dressed an hour and a half before the ceremony)
- 45 minutes for family formals and bridal party formals following the ceremony
- An hour and a half for bridal party portraits + bride and groom portraits
Sample timeline without first look – sunset at 7:00
- 2:00: photographers arrive, photograph bride + groom getting ready separately
- 3:30 – 4:30: portraits of bride + bridesmaids, groom + groomsmen
- 5:00: Ceremony
- 6:00: Family formals + bridal party formals
- 6:45: Bridal party portraits + bride and groom portraits
- 8:00: Reception
- 11:00: Photography coverage ends
With the no first look example, you’ll see I moved the ceremony back one hour. This has to do with the sunset time and that if there is no light following the ceremony, portrait opportunities will be limited! I’ve also limited formals, bridal party formals, and bride and groom portraits to 2 hours. This can be more or less, depending on how long the ceremony is. This is a particularly tough timeline when your ceremony and reception are at the same location. Cocktail hour is usually planned for one hour, and trying to fit all those portraits within that time period is very, very difficult. My recommendation, if that is your scenario, is to limit family formals, take just a few formal bridal party pictures, and then spend the rest of the time on bride and groom portraits.
Some clients I have worked with in the past have had a larger gap between the ceremony and sunset time. For instance, a June wedding I photographed this year had a ceremony at 5:00 and sunset at 8:00. The couple chose not to have a first look. After the ceremony, I shot all formals, did a few bridal party images, and because the sun was still so bright, we all left to start reception coverage. At about 7:30, I asked the couple for 20 minutes of portrait time. The light was lovely and we were able to get a variety of pictures in a very short time.
This can all be confusing! Really, you only need to think about a couple of things:
- Decide if you’re having a first look
- Determine how much time will be between your ceremony and reception (usually more important if ceremony and reception are at the same site / you aren’t having a first look)
- Prioritize what you want! Some couples don’t want a lot of portraits and bridal party photos, and if that’s your (and your photographer’s) aesthetic, that’s a-okay. You can also limit your family formals, and if you are having an early ceremony, reserve some time before sunset for additional bride and groom portraits.
- Have realistic expectations!
- Lastly, consult your photographer! He or she is experienced at working through the wedding day with you. If you have a wedding planner or day-of coordinator, even better!
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