When I initially meet with a couple, we talk a lot about them: how they met, how they got engaged, what they are like together, what type of wedding vibe they’re going for. But no matter what, the conversation always turns towards the wedding timeline.
If you haven’t planned a wedding before or haven’t been in a wedding before, then you might have no idea what’s even being discussed when a vendor first mentions the words “wedding timeline” in conversation. We vendors throw that phrase around like no one’s business because it’s one of the most important parts of our jobs. Timelines are part of large events with many moving parts, like a wedding.
So what’s an ideal wedding timeline? Where do you even start planning a wedding timeline? How long do things take? Many of my couples turn to me to help them with this process. I encourage you to work with your photographer, videographer, and your coordinator (if you have one) to craft your timeline, as every wedding and every vendor is different, but I’ll share my take on the process, from a photographer and former bride’s perspective.
Decide what is most important to you.
This is a general rule of thumb for planning your wedding. Almost no one can have EVERYTHING at their wedding. Even amazing $100,000 weddings are up against time. Take a moment early after getting engaged and decide what is most important to you both. Is it a ton of photos of you and your new spouse? Is it to hang out with all of your guests as much as possible? Have you always envisioned getting married outside in mid-June?
Deciding what is most important will not only help inform where to hold your wedding, the type of wedding you want to have, and how to budget your day, but also will help determine where you’ll spend allocate time on your wedding timeline. For those that want to be with their guests as much as possible, they might prefer to do photos before the ceremony and get right into the party. For those that might want a mid-June wedding outside, the ceremony will need to happen in the evening (or under a tent) for best photo results and for guest comfort.
First look or not?
The first look, or seeing your new spouse-to-be before the ceremony in a special “reveal,” is a popular trend and debunks the down the aisle tradition. My couples opt for it both ways (it’s a very personal choice), but this decision impacts your wedding timeline from a photography perspective. It’s a matter of doing most of your photos before the ceremony (with as much time as you want to plan for) or after the ceremony (usually a little more pressed for time if your reception immediately follows your ceremony).
For most of my clients, this is the big pivotal wedding timeline decision. Generally, those that plan the first look usually get more portrait-style photos just because we have more time. However, for weddings with a large time gap between the ceremony and reception (this works well for Catholic weddings), a first look isn’t necessary to reduce stress and give more portrait time.
Know how long things take
Even the most well-meaning couple has made a mistake and thought that a list of 30 family formal photos would only take 15 minutes. Your vendors are your resource! Ask them how long different aspects take or how long they need. It’s so nice to be included in this process so you’re not disappointed and expectations aren’t dashed.
I can only speak as a photographer, and not as a DJ/band or coordinator, but here are the guidelines I give my clients for average times:
- Getting ready: 1-1.5 hours
- Couple portraits: 1 hour
- Bridal party portraits: 45 minutes to 1 hour
- Family formals: 30 minutes to 1 hour
- Ceremony: 30 minutes to 1 hour
- Cocktail hour: 1 hour
- Toasts: 15-20 minutes
- Dances/traditions: 15-30 minutes
Other wedding timeline considerations
Sometimes people forget that it takes time to move large amounts of people from one place to another or how long it takes to walk around in a large dress and heels. Be kind to yourself and plan more time than you think you need for travel. If anything, you’ll end up with extra time and you won’t be as stressed.
Time of day/year
A good photographer can work at any time of day but most will tell you that no one looks flattering in high-noon July sunshine. Think about when the sun sets — a big must for December weddings who wish to have all of their photos taken outside — and how that impacts your day.
Talk to your venue about any recommendations they may have. Many venues have their timelines down to a science as well, or they may have restrictions about how long you have for photographs following the ceremony or when you must vacate the premises. Find out as soon as you can and plan for it!
You’ve spent all this time planning. Now communicate it! Don’t forget to tell your bridal party, family, vendors, etc. about your timeline. This happens more than you think!
Planning a large event like a wedding can be stressful, but my biggest piece of advice to couples is to think through their timeline. As I mentioned in my reducing anxiety post, a well-planned wedding timeline is the best way to reduce stress on your wedding day. Though things can fall apart and weather can happen, having a plan keeps everyone calm and gives a structure that you’ll end up being thankful for in the end. And your vendors will thank you too.
Need a wedding timeline starting point? Download my sample wedding timelines I send to clients!