There are so many variables when setting up an outline for a wedding day. But don't let it overwhelm you! Take a deep breath, grab your laptop or the old-school notepad & pencil, and a cup of coffee. Or chocolate. Or chocolate covered coffee beans. Whatever makes the task sound less daunting.
Let's get right to it!
1. Find a ceremony starting point
Have you set a time for your ceremony? What is the earliest you have access to the ceremony site? What is the latest you can stay at the venue? If you don't have a set time yet, start by estimating and adjust it as needed. Do you want your ceremony to be in the afternoon? Evening? Go ahead, give it your best guess! Nothing is set in stone yet! Write this time and label it "Ceremony Time" in the middle of your page. We will work around it.
2. Get backstage in plenty of time
I always tell my clients to plan to be "backstage" (a.k.a. out of sight/in the prep room) at least 30 minutes before the ceremony starting time. Guests will begin to arrive as early as 30 minutes prior, and if you don't want to be seen in your gown or stuck greeting all the relatives, HIDE!
You can use this time for last minute touch-ups, gathering your personal belongings if they'll need to be transported to another venue after the ceremony, or a final moment of hugs, prayers, or pep talks with your mom & maids before you say "I do".
Write "Backstage" or "Final Prep" on your timeline above the ceremony time, and write the time, making it 30 min (or 45, or whatever you desire) prior to the Ceremony time.
3. Work your way backwards & think about photos
For each of these sets that you would like photographed BEFORE the ceremony, add time:
Groom + Men = 30 min
Bride + Maids = 30 min
Bride + Parents/Siblings = 20 min
Groom + Parents/Siblings = 20 min
First Look = 20 min
Entire Bridal Party = 30 min
While your photographer might not need an entire 20-30 minutes to shoot these photos, you'll be glad you have the elbow room to cover the transition time between photos and to gather groups of people. Also consider the amount of walking involved...or hotel elevators...if you are at a larger venue or will be venturing around the property or downtown you may want to increase the time allowance. If you need to travel to a photo location, add that time too! If your photographer is bringing a 2nd shooter some of these groups can be done simultaneously. (Not sure if you'll need a second photographer? Read more about that topic here!)
List these photo groups on your timeline, and do the math to see how early they need to start. Be sure to communicate this starting time with everyone involved!
4. Bridal Party Preparation & Detail Shots
Now we're thinking about the preparation time. If the ladies are having their hair & makeup done on-site, add plenty of time based on the number of stylists vs. the number of heads. Don't forget to include time for flowergirls and mothers of the bride or groom if needed! Subtract 2 hours, or whatever your hair & makeup estimate for the group is, from the time the bride's photos are scheduled to begin. Also include a good 15-20 minutes for the bride to put on her gown and share a sentimental moment with mom or the ladies. (Word of the wise... visit the restroom BEFORE you put that dress on!)
If the ladies are getting ready off-site, include the travel time and have them arrive at the venue approximately 20-30 min prior to their photo start time to allow time for dresses & accessories.
Have the Groom + Men arrive in time to be dressed and get some detail shots of their preparation before their photos begin. Subtract 20-30 minutes from their photo start time and have them arrive at the venue BY this time!
While you may not feel the need to have your photographer arrive early enough to capture photos during the "getting ready" stage of the day, bear in mind that this is the ideal time for them to set up some beautiful detail shots of the dress hanging up, the rings and bouquets, the shoes & accessories, the ceremony venue, and all the pretty things involved (see a list here!). If this is important to you, have your photographer come at least 30-60 minutes prior to the time you plan to be dressed & ready. If you're excited about seeing candid shots of the bridal party getting ready, have your photographer arrive at the same time as the bridal party! (As a photographer, this is my preference because I want to capture details and moments of the entire day!)
Don't forget to eat! If you need to add 20-30 min to grab lunch, do it! OR consider having light lunch items and snacks available for your bridal party to munch on as needed throughout the first half of the day.
Your timeline should be shaping up nicely! If you have any additional plans for the first half of the day, add them to your list and adjust the times accordingly. Now we move on to the remainder of the events!
5. Post-Ceremony & Portraits
Going back to the center of your page think about your ceremony and how long you expect it to be. Your officiant should be able to help you with this! Also, consider whether or not you are going to dismiss the guests and include time for a row-by-row dismissal or receiving line if needed. Write this time (add ceremony time + dismissal time) on your timeline as "Ceremony Complete" or whatever suits your fancy.
Next, add about 10 minutes to the timeline to give everyone a chance to use the restroom and gather all the necessary relatives. Write this on your timeline as "Family Formals" or "Family Portraits". If you are taking these photos at a different location, add travel time. If you've decided to do all of your group portraits at the beginning of the day then just use this as a guideline to insert it wherever needed in the timeline. (To make this process go even smoother, take a look at the tips in this post!)
Most family portraits can be done in 30 minutes if everyone is present and cooperative. This would include parents, grandparents, and siblings, but not extended family. If you have more groups to include, add about 5 minutes per grouping.
You can also include another 20 minutes for photos of the entire bridal party and portraits of the bride and groom. Even if you are planning to shoot these photos later at the reception location, or if you've already shot some earlier with a different background, it's nice to capture a variety of images to be able choose from, if you have the time!
6. Cocktail Hour & The Reception
If you are planning a cocktail hour, put the estimated start time around the time it would take for guests to arrive at the reception venue once the ceremony is completed. Don't worry about the portrait session overlapping with this; your guests expect this and understand that they will have some time to mingle before the bridal party arrives. (The same goes for receptions without a cocktail hour. Don't feel stressed or rushed about getting there ASAP...they will understand!)
Other than calculating your travel time, give yourself a few minutes to touch up hair and makeup and to bustle your dress if needed. If you are planning additional group photos at the reception venue and would like to do them before you make your entrance, use the guidelines above to build an additional photo session into your timeline.
Write your "Reception" and start time on your timeline. You're on the home stretch!
A number of variables come into play here, so I'm not going to help you micro-manage your reception. Make a list of everything you would like to include and put them in chronological order. Let your DJ, MC, or wedding planner help you out; or leave it in their hands entirely!
7. Sunsets, Night Portraits, & Exits
One last thing for you to consider! While these items may not have a specific time slot on your timeline, be sure to communicate them to your photographer if you'd like to include them.
A sunset portrait during Golden Hour (that magical moment of gorgeous light the hour before the sun has set) is a beautiful addition to your wedding gallery if it falls at a convenient time...like before you enter the reception, or while the guests are still eating dinner... and it can be done quite quickly. Just grab your groom and step outside!
If your photographer enjoys working creatively with off-camera flash consider stepping outside after dark for a dramatic night-time photo. This may take a few extra minutes, but if you give your photographer a head's up they should be able to set up the lighting and grab you for some photos as soon as it's ready!
Are you planning a big exit as you ride off into your happy ending? Guests lining up with sparklers? Make sure to communicate this with your photographer, and be sure to plan ahead so that you're guest count hasn't dwindled down after hours of dancing. Even if you "fake" an exit for the sake of some amazing photos, and then re-join the party to make your rounds and say good-byes. ;-)
What time do you anticipate your reception ending? What end-time is stated in the DJ's contract or the venue contract? Write that as your final time on the timeline, along with "Happily Ever After"!
We hope this has been a helpful guideline for you as you plan the timeline for your wedding day! If you are still looking for YOUR wedding photographer, and are getting married in southeast Michigan, please contact us today to check the availability of your date!
About the author
Nicole Grace (aka "Nikki") Schuler is the owner & lead photographer of Awakened Light Photography, LLC. She has traveled to over 40 countries as a volunteer using creative arts as a ministry, and now resides with her husband & 4 children in a cozy vintage farmhouse in Oxford, Michigan. Photography brings her so much JOY as she delights to connect with new people, places, and smiling faces!
Nikki Schuler specializes in wedding & portrait photography and is the owner of Awakened Light. Her award-winning work has been featured in several publications. She enjoys instructing photography workshops and resides with her husband & 4 children in a cozy vintage farmhouse in Oxford, Michigan.