How to Build the Best Wedding Timeline for Photos

Even though your photographer is there on your wedding day to take photos, you may not realize how much of a role they will play leading up to the wedding day. I work with every couple before their big day to make sure there’s plenty of time to get the photos they’re expecting. After all, wedding photography is a big investment, and I want to make sure we have as much time as possible for photos! 

There are a few things to consider when putting together a wedding timeline that allows for ample photography, but I'm here to walk you through the process. If you're ready to put together your own timeline, scroll to the end of this post to download my Wedding Timeline Workbook for Brides.

bride walking down the stairs at blue haven barn

Before we start, think about these things:

1. Time of the ceremony 

With every timeline, I start with the time of the ceremony (or roughly the time of the ceremony) and work from there. Typically you need to be out of the church and “in hiding” 30-60 minutes before the ceremony begins, so from there I work backward. The last thing we do before you get to take a break is family photos. Before that, it’s wedding party photos, and before that it’s bride and groom portraits and the first look. 

2. First look

While I certainly don’t require it, 99% of the weddings I shoot do a first look before the ceremony. Even on the days with the earliest ceremonies (Catholic weddings, I’m looking at you), first looks make our lives so much easier. I’m a huge fan of first looks which is the topic of a different post, but they certainly make it easier to put a timeline together, too.

dreams do come true sign and wedding dress

3. Time Between Venues

I add in time “cushion” because of all the “just in cases” that can pop up on a wedding day. If you’re traveling quite a ways between locations (like the ceremony and the venue, or even just if you take photos off-site), make sure you add it time for traffic and other unexpected things that can make you run late. 

4. Time of sunset

I like to end the night with some sunset portraits of just the bride and groom, and you obviously can’t do this if you don’t know what time sunset is. The last 15 minutes of sunset is the best for that warm glow and it goes FAST, so make sure you are ready. 

black eyed susan bridal bouquet

Once you know those things, it’s super easy to put a timeline together for the wedding day! My wedding packages are 8 or 10 hours. In my experience, there is no need for me to be there beyond that. If I’m there any earlier, there’s nothing for me to shoot (and most bridesmaids aren’t huge fans of me sticking a camera in their face before hair and makeup!), and if I’m there much later it’s more of the same (I love a good party, but there are only so many ways to shoot a crowded dance floor). 

Planning the Timeline: the Ceremony (and before)

Let’s start the timeline by working backwards…

Start with your ceremony time. Subtract 30 minutes from that, and that’s when you need to be done with portraits. To be extra safe, subtract an hour. 

From that time, subtract 20 minutes. That’s your start time for family portraits. For large families or big groups, subtract 30-40 minutes instead. I recommend just doing immediate family before the ceremony, and leaving big groups for later if you have to do them. No need for half your guests to see you in your dress before you walk down the aisle!

bride writing letter to groom

From your family portrait start time, subtract another 20 minutes (if you don’t have your photographer for 8+ hours, have a small wedding party, or will be on-site for photos) or 30-40 minutes (if you have your photographer for 8+ hours, have a larger wedding party, or will be going off-site for photos). That’s your start time for your wedding party portraits. For both family formals and wedding party portraits, I always tell brides that I don’t need more than 20 minutes for each, but I’ll take more if I can get it. 

From your wedding party portrait start time, subtract anywhere from 30-60 minutes, depending on the factors I listed above. I love having 30+ minutes for your bride and groom portraits, but can cut it short if we’re going to be doing sunset photos, need to travel off-site, or just plain don’t have the extra time. 

family formals on wedding day

Once you’ve subtracted that 30-60 minutes from your wedding party portrait start time, you know that will be the start of your first look (if you’re doing one, of course). That’s the first time during the day you’ll see your hunny–get excited! 

I like brides to be ready about 20 minutes before their first look (depending on travel). This allows us time for some bridal portraits, and getting-ready portraits, like your mom putting on your necklace, or you buckling a shoe. We can also do a daddy-daughter first look at this time if you want one–these tend to be pretty easy to fit in if it’s important to you.

Now that you know what the schedule looks like for this part of your day (from when you’re ‘ready’ onward), I recommend chatting with your hair and makeup crew and letting them know what time you have to be ready. Keep in mind that not everyone needs to be ready by then. While I do recommend having at least some bridesmaids ready to go when you are so they’re photo-ready, the most important thing is making sure you are ready. If that means a bridesmaid is waiting on an up-do or some false eyelashes, that’s perfectly fine. They can put on their finishing touches while you go do your first look. 

bride holding bouquet on wedding day

Depending on the day, I will arrive on a typical wedding day 1-3 hours before the first look. I use that time for some bridal getting ready photos (just people hanging out at the salon, or some shots of your crew getting their hair and makeup done), and then I quickly move to detail photos.

I’ll shoot the dress first so it’s all ready for you, and then take your details and play for a while. I highly recommend giving your photographer this time! It’s one of my favorite parts of the whole day, and really helps get my mind ready creatively. It helps me understand the vibe of your day, and it also allows for some great images for album spreads. All good things! 

After the Ceremony

After your ceremony, it’s best to leave a little more time than you think to get everyone out of the church, especially if you’re doing a receiving line. This part of the day usually takes longer than you think it will, so keep that in mind. Luckily, this part of the day can get a lot more flexible, so it probably won’t be super important to stay on schedule. 

Depending on your wedding, about an hour after the ceremony it’s typical for there to be a cocktail hour for guests. Often times the wedding party will use this time to celebrate on their own, and then their arrival at cocktail hour kicks off the official reception. 

head table toasting at wedding reception

The Reception

This timing is fluid and your DJ can often help with a lot of it, but my biggest advice is to keep things moving. Once the wedding party arrives at the reception, you should move right into serving the head table and reserved tables and start dinner. Keep in mind that by then, your guests have been waiting and your ceremony was hours ago. It’s time to roll! 

By the time the head table and reserved tables are about done eating, the rest of your guests will have their meals. Now is a good time for speeches. We’ve all been to weddings where the speeches get long and awkward, right? Don’t feel bad about (politely!) making sure your wedding party or family members know to keep speeches short and sweet. It’s your wedding! And if you’re the one giving a speech: now is not the time for an inside jokes or stories of drunken hilarity. Keep it short, sweet, and sincere and everyone will be much happier. 

dad giving toast at daughter's wedding

After speeches is a good time to cut the cake, and then head into the first dance shortly after. You’ll likely be stopped a few times by family and friends wishing you congrats, which is totally expected to happen. Soak it up! It’s so hard to make sure you say hello to everyone, so use this opportunity for hugs and handshakes. In my opinion, you don’t need to leave extra time between the cake cutting and the first dance–time tends to happen naturally, and usually by the time you have the first dances, people are ready to party.

mom and daughter hugging at wedding

The first dances can head right into the father-daughter and mother-son dance, and then you can consider your dance floor open! Depending on the time of year of your wedding, and therefore the time of sunset, this is usually a good time to sneak out of the reception for a few minutes for sunset portraits. 

As the photographer, I usually stay for the first couple dances until I feel like I’ve covered as much as I can cover, and then I’ll pack up my equipment. By then, the party is full speed ahead and I’ve captured the entire day.


Ready to put together your timeline?

I've put all of this information PLUS a timeline you can fill in yourself in my Wedding Timeline Workbook for Brides. Fill out the form below to have it sent right to your inbox. 

wedding timeline workbook for brides
Name *
Name