When it comes to planning a wedding, it seems like there are endless details that need to be picked out--and I'll leave that to you ;) But one of the biggest and possibly hardest things to plan for people who aren't working in the wedding world all the time is a wedding day timeline. Whether you're having a brunch wedding, a New Year's Eve wedding, or your typical Saturday-afternoon wedding, it can be an overwhelming thought to try and decide exactly how long you need for everything.
The good news is that I'm here to help, and most likely, some of your other awesome vendors (specifically the venue and the DJ) should be able to as well!
Planning a wedding timeline is tricky, which is why I do it for all my couples.
There are so many variables that go into planning: what time is sunset? Do you want all the pictures outdoors? Where's your ceremony compared to the reception? Are you doing a first look? How many people are in your wedding party or guest list? Does your venue close earlier than you were expecting?
I'm going to break everything down for you, and give you a few sample wedding timelines to get started!
You can also contact me for help planning your exact wedding timeline!
Step 1: Sunset Time
The first thing I always do when planning a wedding timeline is look up what time sunset is, and base EVERYTHING off of this! A quick Google search of "sunset in city on wedding date" will give you the exact time, even if your wedding isn't for another year or two!
Golden hour is one hour before sunset right up until the sun sets--this is the BEST time for portraits! Typically, you want to do couples pictures and probably the wedding party at this time, so the ceremony needs to end around 60-75 minutes before sunset so there's a bit of time to mingle and get to the pictures. However, if you're doing family pictures right after the ceremony (super common), you might want to end the ceremony even sooner.
What's the best order to do portraits?
Before we move on, let me share with you the most common/best way to order portraits on a wedding day!
- Do the wedding party before the ceremony. If there's no first look, just do both sides separately (just the brides + bridesmaids and just the groom + groomsmen). You can also grab a few solo shots of both people getting married at this time.
- If there's a first look, this means you can fit in the wedding party group photos before the ceremony too! If sunset is early, I highly recommend a first look to help the day go smoothly and make sure there's enough light left for gorgeous group photos. Then, if there's time, you can also do the couples portraits before the ceremony.
- If there's NOT a first look, we'll do everything after the ceremony! Start with family pictures--have the officiant announce that the family of the couple should stay put so we can whip those out really quickly. Then, let the family go mingle and refresh while the wedding party finishes up any pictures they need. If you got some of these done before the ceremony, this shouldn't take too long! Finally, do the couples portraits alone--hopefully you've got the perfect sunset in the background for those dreamy, romantic, backlit photos.
Step 2: Ceremony length
Are you having an hour-long mass? Or a quick 10 minute ceremony? Maybe somewhere in between? Decide about how long your ceremony will be so you can time it backwards from sunset, based on the next step!
Step 3: First look or not?
Decide if you're having a first-look. If sunset is early, like in winter months, I recommend having a first look, or moving your ceremony to much earlier in the day (2-3pm!). If you do have a first look and you're okay with seeing each other before the ceremony, it means you can also knock out all the pictures besides family pictures before the ceremony even begins. This is a great way to make sure the second half of the day is alllll about the party! Not a fan of seeing each other before the ceremony? No worries! Just time your ceremony start accordingly to make sure you have enough sunlight left afterwards. Sometime, people choose to do pictures after the ceremony, even if they do have a first look, so options here are a-plenty.
Step 4: How far away is your ceremony and reception?
If you're getting married in the same place as the reception, you won't need much extra travel time unless you're going off-site for photos. But if you're getting married one one side of the city and having your reception on another, make sure you schedule in extra time for travel!
Think about where you want photos--near the ceremony, near the reception, somewhere in the middle, or somewhere totally different? Mt recommendation is to choose a location you love rather than just choosing what's the most convenient--these are your wedding photos after all, and making sure you're absolutely in love with them is so important!
Let's look at some sample timelines!
If you have a larger wedding party or guest list, consider adding in some extra time for padding so you don't end up running behind! Down time can be used to play games, grab a bite or drink, or just relax before you get married.
Timeline 1 | 5pm sunset, First Look, Long Ceremony
1:30pm- first look
2pm- wedding party photos, couples photos
3pm- Long Ceremony (Catholic Mass)
4:15- family pictures
5pm- sunset & reception
Timeline 2 | 8pm sunset, First Look, Short Ceremony
5pm- first look
5:30pm- wedding party photos, couples photos
7pm- Short Ceremony
7:15pm- family pictures
8pm- sunset & reception
Timeline 3 | 8pm sunset, No First Look, Long Ceremony
4pm- wedding party photos (bridesmaids only and groomsmen only)
4:45pm- Long Ceremony (Catholic Mass)
6pm- family pictures, full wedding party, couples pictures
8pm- sunset & reception
Timeline 4 | 10am wedding, First Look, Long Ceremony
In this case, we don't care about sunset, but want to get photos done as far away from 12pm as possible, which typically means the earlier the better.
8:30am- first look
9am- wedding party photos, couples photos
10am- Long Ceremony
11:15am- family pictures & reception
Overall, here's about how long each section takes so you can build your own timeline!
- First look: 20 to 30 minutes
- Bridesmaids OR groomsmen only: 45 minutes (groups, different combo, poses, and individuals of each person!)
- Full wedding party: 15 minutes for the group, plus time for individuals if you want
- Couple: depends on how long you want to spend. I spend anywhere from 15-45 minutes on this!
- Family: depends on size of family and how many combinations--it can take up to 5 minutes per photo when posing large groups! I like to leave about 45 minutes for this in most weddings--better safe than sorry! If you're only doing a few small groups, feel free to cut down the time significantly. **When including lots of extended family, especially children who won't stop moving and grandparents who won't move very quickly, it can take a while to get the photo just right.
Don't forget to leave a few minutes in between each section to account for time you're walking around to change location, grabbing another person, switching lenses, etc. For example, if you start a first look at 2pm and it's 30 minutes, start the next section around 2:35 or 2:40 instead of right at 2:30. If you get ahead of schedule, just sit back and relax! Don't make yourself stressed with too tight of a schedule.
I hope this wedding timeline planning makes you feel better about planning your day!
Alana Lindenfeld is a Chicago wedding and portrait photographer for laid-back couples who want a stress-free experience and a photographer who is going to take care of the hard work for them.
She has photographed couples across the U.S., including couples in LA, San Francisco, NYC, Nashville, Cincinnati, and more.