I’ve worked with dozens of couples over the years to help them plan out their wedding day schedules, and I thought it might finally be time to write out some tips to share with couples who are in the midst of trying to put schedules together. The schedule was my biggest stressor when I was planning my own wedding—I was knee deep in Excel spreadsheets, and I had a hard time getting started.
Start by asking yourself a few key questions:
- Where will we get ready, and how many people will need hair and makeup done?
- What time will our ceremony start, and how long will it last? If we’re having a church wedding, does the church have a time when we have to be out?
- Will we see each other before the ceremony for a first look, or will we wait to see each other during the ceremony? (If you’re having a later ceremony, seeing each other before the ceremony will give you more flexibility to get more of your photos done before the ceremony begins so that you can go right to the reception. It’s also a good way to take some of the pressure off and to get those emotions and jitters out if you’re stressed about standing up in front of 100+ people during the ceremony. Jeff, my husband, and I took this time to read private vows to each other.).
- Who will be included in family photographs? How many groupings will we have for family photos?
- How much time will we have between the ceremony and the reception?
- What are our top two locations where we absolutely must get photos? Beyond that, what are the locations that we would like to make it to if time allows?
I always start with the ceremony time and work backward from there. When it comes to photography, assume that you won’t want to be taking any photos in the half hour before the ceremony begins—this should be your time to breathe and relax. This is when I typically take candid photos and get my gear set up for the ceremony.
Working backward from the ceremony, figure out if you want to set aside time for portraits before the ceremony begins. If you’re not going to see each other for a first look, this might simply be photos of the bride with her bridesmaids as a group, a photo with each bridesmaid and a few solo photos of the bride (I often have my second photographer do the same combinations with the men before the ceremony). I can usually get through all of these basic pairings in 15-20 minutes, depending on the size of the wedding party. If you plan to travel to take the photos somewhere beyond your getting ready or ceremony site, be sure to factor travel time in as well.
Working backward from here, I typically arrive about 20-30 minutes before the bride is ready to put her dress on. I have the maid of honor or a trusted friend or relative in charge of the “details box” to hand to me when I arrive. This is usually the shoe box that your bridal shoes come in. Fill it with all of the important details that you want photographed—rings, invitations, shoes, any special jewelry or perfume, your something borrowed, something old, something blue, etc. I always start with this box when I arrive, and it takes me about 15-20 minutes to photograph all of these details, along with your dress on the hanger. After the details are photographed, I typically get a few final getting ready photos (and any special photos, like matching bridesmaid robes, etc.) before the bride puts on her dress. After the dress is on, we go on to take the pre-ceremony photographs that I mentioned before.
Working backward from details and dressing, make sure that you’re accounting for the number of people who will have hair and makeup done, along with any travel time in between locations. If you’re going to a salon, work with them to figure out how much time will be needed. I recommend adding in at least half an hour of buffer time, since it’s common for hair and make up to run late. Decide whether you will have someone come to the hotel or house where you’re getting ready to do hair and makeup, or whether you’ll all go to a salon. Will you meet ahead of time for breakfast? For my wedding, we had a few stylists come to our hotel room, and we ordered in food. Many brides who get ready at home will have a family member pick up bagels or sandwiches and bring in food for everyone to get ready.
Now that we’ve worked out the basic morning schedule, let’s jump back to the end of the ceremony. Most couples take family photos immediately after the ceremony. If you’re getting married at a church with a strict time to be out for the next ceremony, make sure you know exactly what time this will be.
As soon as the ceremony ends, it will take some time to clear everyone out (especially with a receiving line, which can take half an hour, depending on how many guests you have). For church weddings, many couples do exit photos where guests will see them off from the church. Here’s the trick: you’ll do your exit, but you’ll actually loop back to enter the church again through another door for family photos.
Family photos are an important category of their own. Here’s what you need to know:
- You should carefully plan out exactly which groupings you want before your wedding date. Assume that it will take about five minutes per major grouping to get everyone in and out.
- Once the list is created, share it with a key person who knows most of the family members and can help call out names from the list to get everyone in place. I usually have someone read this list while I get everyone placed. It helps if they can be loud.
- Make sure that everyone who will be in these photos is aware of it ahead of time. Let them know that they should be a part of the exit immediately after the ceremony, and then they’ll head back inside (Note: it’s less common to do a formal exit during outdoor ceremonies; in this case, just let family know that they should stay close to start photos as soon as guests have cleared out). For church photos, also let family members know to avoid sitting in the first few rows during photos, since this can interfere.
- If you have more groupings than you can get to before your end time at the church, prioritize which photos you want in the church and which photos can be in another location. Here are two other options to get the rest of the groups: 1) Have the groups gather just outside of the reception site before the reception begins 2) Work with the DJ/band to have these groups get together just after dinner during the reception.
After family photos, many couples will move into portraits (Note: if you do a first look, you might move this section to the time before the ceremony). This is where you’ll want to discuss your top two must-have locations, along with nice to have locations if you can get to them. I can usually get a good number of photographs with the couple and bridal party within 10-15 minutes at each location (larger groups will naturally take longer). Also factor in travel time, and consider back-up locations in case of rain. This part of the day is the most flexible, depending on the number of locations you want to go to, how far apart each location is from the others and the size of the bridal party.
I often say that I am in charge of keeping things running on time with photography from the time that I arrive until the reception starts. Once the reception begins, you’ll work with your DJ or band to work out the rest of the schedule. I always meet up with this point person to make sure that we’re working closely together throughout the reception just in case anything needs to change (it’s fairly common for things to move around a bit during the reception, but it’s not a big deal if your DJ/band and photographer are working together).
As you work with your DJ/band, there are a few final photography elements to keep in mind:
- I always take the bride and groom out for photos about an hour and a half to an hour before the sun sets. If you take no other photos all day, try to make a point to do this. This is when you’ll have the most amazing light for photographs, and it also gives you a chance to have a small quiet moment together during your wedding day. It often works out that these photos are taken near the end of dinner while guests are eating and socializing—they won’t even notice that you are gone. Depending on the time of year, this might also happen before the reception begins (spring or fall weddings). Check out the sunset calculator to figure out when the sun will set on your wedding day.
- If you do still have family members to get photographs with, make sure that the DJ/band leader is aware of this. Again, plan for about five minutes per grouping. I typically give the list to the DJ/band at this point to read over the microphone near the end of dinner (often just before cake cutting).
- From there, you’ll go into cake cutting, first dance, father/daughter dance, mother/son dance, general dancing and a possible bouquet/garter toss. At this point, I take candid photos of the evening, but I also make a point to have the bride, groom and parents tell me if there are any casual group photographs of friends who they would like to get together. There’s no need to have your photographer stay for the entirety of dancing. Just make sure that you’ve scheduled enough time to capture the major events, along with at least 15 minutes to an hour of general dancing.
There you have it! I hope that you find this helpful. I love working with couples to make sure that everything is ready to go before the wedding day begins so that it’s a fun, relaxing experience for everyone. This is a celebration, after all.