August 12, 2019

Stress-Free Weddings Require a Great Timeline!

FILED IN: wedding planning tips, weddings

Today’s post is all about stress-free wedding timelines. Whether it’s you or your wedding planner, or perhaps it’s a collaborative effort of both, you’ll want to develop a rough timeline and fill in the details as you go. Here’s a general idea of what your wedding day photo schedule should ultimately look like, but of course this will vary based on the dynamics of your day!

layflat of miss dior perfume, bridal earrings and bracelet, sparkly shoes, and wedding ring in a purple mrs box styled on pink background
layflat of calligraphed wedding invitation suite styled on neutral linen styling board
White Christian Louboutin shoes in white bathtub at Langham Hotel in Chicago

Styled Details

A lot of couples want those beautifully styled details, and most publications require them. Truth be told, I love them, but they take quite a bit of time. So much time that I prefer to have my couples bring their details to me to shoot in studio pre-wedding instead of shooting them on the wedding day. Think of this as an added bonus when working with our studio, because not only do you get extra time, but we’ll be focused on people in the morning of your wedding day instead of details. If you insist on shooting details on the wedding day, plan to add one hour to your morning schedule.

Time Needed:
Styled Details Pre-Wedding: +0 hour
Styled Details On Wedding Day: +1 hour

groom tearing up reading letter from his bride
grandpa emotionally hugging bride after he saw her for the first time

Getting Ready

While you may be thinking that you need your photographer there at the crack of dawn, the reality is that the ladies want to look put together in photos. If you want some of those cute candids in your robes with mimosas and last minute touchups with hair and makeup, just have your photographer come about 30 minutes prior to the time you need to start getting into your dress. You’ll want to plan a minimum of 30 minutes for you to get into your dress and do bridal portraits, but don’t forget to add time to go to the bathroom before you get dressed and put undergarments on, time to read a letter or open a gift, time for photos with you and your parents, or time for a bridesmaids first look, if you want any of those things! If you want all of those things, I usually suggest having your photographer start 2 hours prior to the time you need to leave for the first event of the day, with making sure that your hair and makeup, as well as your mom and anyone else helping you get dressed, is done 30 minutes before you’re scheduled to get into your gown.

Thankfully, the guys don’t take as long to get ready as the ladies! If you just want simple groom getting ready photos and groom portraits, you should allow 30 minutes. If you want parent photos, letter/gift, or candids of the guys hanging out, extend it to one hour. If you have two photographers in your collection, getting ready can happen concurrently. However, it’s best if you both get ready in the same location (like a great hotel in different rooms) so that the photographers can work together before they split to cover the guys and girls separately. Generally, you’ll get better photos and more photos if you choose to get ready in the same location!

Time Needed:
Girls Candids, Robe Photos, Final Hair & Makeup Photos | Guys Candids: +0.5 hour
Bride Getting into Dress, Jewelry, Shoes, Bridal Portraits | Groom Getting Ready + Groom Portraits: +0.5 hour
Bride’s Letter/Gift, Dad’s First Look, Parent Photos | Groom’s Letter/Gift + Parent Photos: +0.5 hour
Grandparent Photos, Bridesmaids First Look, Pack up, Buffer: +0.5 hour

bride and bridesmaids in pink one-shoulder dresses laughing with each other
flower girl covering her face with her dress
bride and bridesmaids in leather jackets with pretty bouquets

First Look, Wedding Party & Couple’s Portraits Set 1

Travel time should be kept to a minimum to maximize the amount and quality of your photos, as well as minimize the amount of stress you’ll feel! In my professional opinion, one great location with great light is best! I generally schedule two hours for portrait time (outside of sunset portraits) if I have one location because this is usually the time that gets cut short if things run behind. The more time you can dedicate to portrait time, the more relaxed your day will feel, and the better your photos will be! Add 30 minutes every time you travel to account for loading, unloading, and actual drive time, and at least 30 additional minutes for every other location you go to. Please note that if you have a huge wedding party, more time will likely be needed. Also, if you are having a winter wedding and your ceremony starts at or after sunset, your portraits will need to be completed pre-ceremony if you want any natural light photos. Talk with your photographer asap to determine winter wedding timelines!

Time Needed: 
First Look + Couple’s Portraits Set 1 (one location): +0.5 hour
Wedding Party (one location): +1 hour
Portrait Buffer: +0.5 hour
Load, Travel, Unload (each time you travel): +0.5 hour (minimum)

Bride and groom's first kiss during intimate elopement at University Club of Chicago
Bride smiling at groom during ceremony recessional at Stifel Theater
couple taking a moment post-wedding ceremony at st francis xavier college church

Ceremony & Family Portraits

Generally, couples want to be hidden away 30 minutes prior to the ceremony start time. If you’re the kind of person that will freak out if your guests arrive early and see you, you may want to back that up even more. Don’t forget to add in your travel time to get to the ceremony! After the ceremony, you’ll need to account for a formal exit if you’re having one, family formals (an average of 2 minutes per grouping), signing the marriage license, and a receiving line if you’re planning to do that. Receiving lines usually take between 30 minutes to one hour, so it’s something I generally suggest skipping. If your families have divorces where groupings will have to be repeated, be sure to account for that time, too!

Time Needed:
Pre-Ceremony: +0.5 hour
Ceremony & Formal Exit: +0.5-1.25 hours
Receiving Line: +0.5-1 hour
Family Portraits & Marriage License: +0.5-1 hour

Bride and groom looking at the camera at sunset in the woods at Silver Oaks Chateau
sunset portrait of bride and groom on the four seasons rooftop overlooking the st louis arch
sunset portrait of couple kissing at the muny in st louis, shot through pink flowers and fall foliage


Golden hour is one hour prior to sunset, which will provide the most beautiful light for romantic portraits! Sometimes this happens during cocktail hour, but sometimes it may not happen until dinner time, so note your sunset time for your wedding date. Plan to be pulled out for about 15-30 minutes for romantic sunset portraits. We really try to get you guys to cocktail hour if possible so you can enjoy it, but sometimes it doesn’t work with the timeline. Also, don’t forget to feed your photographer at the same time you eat! Couples often have to request this from the venue or caterer as they typically serve vendors after all guests have eaten, but your photographers will be working for 8+ hours and also need to be back in time for speeches and formal dances, so the best time to eat is while you and the guests are also eating, since nobody wants photos of them stuffing their faces with food! Once the dance floor opens, between two photographers, you only need about one hour of time to fully capture the dance floor and get grab and grin group photo. After that point, it’s usually the same group of people drinking more and more, with the photos becoming more like blackmail than something you want to actually remember! If you’re planning an exit, consider a faux exit with just your wedding party and family to save money and also keep it safer (especially if you’re wanting sparklers)!

Time Needed:
Announcement, Cake, Welcome, Blessing: +0.5 hour
Dinner Break for Couple + Photographers: +0.5 hour
Couple’s Romantic Sunset Portraits (Set 2): +0.5 hour
Toasts & Formal Dances: +0.5 hour
Open Dance Floor & Grab and Grins: +1 hour
Night Shots & Formal Exit: +0.25 hour

guest wearing chewbacca mask on dance floor at wedding at clayton plaza hotel

Sample Timeline #1

A little about this wedding: This was a ten-hour winter wedding with
everything on the same property, a small wedding party, a first look and all
photos pre-ceremony, and an evening ceremony after sunset.

12:00 – Bride, MOB, MOH, MOG done with hair and makeup; girls candids and robes/mimosas | guys candids

12:30 – bride gets dressed, bridal portraits, dad’s first look, portraits with parents | concurrently photos of groom getting dressed, groom portraits, portraits with parents

1:30 – first look

1:45 – wedding party photos

2:45 – outdoor immediate family photos (no divorces) (parents/siblings/nieces/nephews/grandparents)

3:30 – couple’s photos around the property & golden hour photos outside

4:30 – detail reception

5:00 – couple hidden/guests arrive

5:30 – ceremony

6:00 – cocktails (4 extended family photos then couple goes to cocktails)

7:00 – announcement/cake/welcome/blessing

7:15 – dinner service – we eat here while you eat

7:45 – toasts after wedding party and parents have eaten

8:05 – formal dances

8:15 – open dance & grab and grins

9:15 – bouquet/garter

9:30 – group photo list requested by couple

9:45 – night shots/faux sparkler exit

10:00 – end coverage (couple returns to party)

couple kissing after first dance at silver oaks chateau

Sample Timeline #2

A little about this wedding: This was a twelve-hour wedding over the summer with a Catholic ceremony and evening reception at a second location with no first look and a very large wedding party. We had to be out of the church by 3pm and both sides had divorces, so the family list was minimal but still took 45 minutes due to repeating photos for each side. They chose two locations for portraits. One was off-site, and one was right next to the reception venue.

10:00 – Bride, MOB, MOH, MOG done with hair and makeup; girls candids and robes/mimosas | guys candids

10:30 – bride gets dressed, bridal portraits, letter/gift, dad’s first look, portraits with parents, portraits with grandparents, first look with bridesmaids | concurrently photos of groom getting dressed, groom portraits, letter/gift portraits with parents

12:00 – depart for ceremony; travel time

12:30 – hidden away

1:00 – full mass

2:00 – bubble exit

2:15 – family formals (divorces on both sides)

3:00 – travel to off-site portrait location

3:30 – wedding party portraits

4:30 – travel to reception venue

5:00 – couple’s portraits (walk – next door to reception venue)

6:00 – cocktail hour; detail reception

7:00 – announcement/cake/welcome/blessing

7:15 – dinner service – we eat here while you eat and then sneak out for sunset photos!

8:15 – toasts after dessert has been served

8:30 – formal dances

8:45 – open dance & grab and grins

9:45 – night photos & faux sparkler exit

10:00 – end coverage

couple walking away from cutting the cake at wedding reception at scape

Sample Timeline #3

A little about this wedding: This was an 8 hour fall wedding with no first look, with sunset at 6:45. Not seeing each other pre-ceremony was very important to them. It was a very difficult timeline that met their priority of not seeing each other pre-ceremony, but as a result, they got minimal photos. This is a non-ideal timeline and an example of why you need to work on a timeline early and understand that your photo expectations must line up with what time you give your photographer.

1:30 – bride gets dressed, bridal portraits, portraits with parents | concurrently photos of groom getting dressed, groom portraits, portraits with parents

2:15 – girls & photographers travel to portrait location

2:45 – bridesmaids portraits; bridal portraits

3:15 – bridesmaids depart and travel to venue; groomsmen depart hotel and head to portrait location

3:45 – groomsmen portraits; groom portraits

4:15 – groomsmen & photographers depart and travel to venue

4:45 – everyone hidden away

5:00 – ceremony

5:30 – cocktail hour –  family portraits + full wedding party (primary photographer); detail reception & set up lights (second photographer)

6:00 – couple’s portraits while guests are seated

6:30 – announcement, cake, welcome, blessing, toasts

7:00 – dinner

7:45 – formal dances

8:00 – open dance & grab and grins

8:30 – end coverage

sparkler exit from wedding at stifel theater

How Many Hours Do I Really Need?

  • For couples who just want their ceremony photographed plus family formals, couple photos, and wedding party photos, 4 hours is generally sufficient.
  • An 8 hour day is generally plenty for couples who have an evening ceremony & reception and do the vast majority of their photos pre-ceremony.
  • For catholic afternoon ceremonies with receptions at a different location later in the evening, most couples need 10-12 hours.

bride and groom kissing with veil flowing in the wind at washington university st louis

A Few Parting Thoughts

  • Work on your timeline early in your planning process. Once things are set closer to the wedding, it’s difficult to make changes.
  • Pay attention to the sunset time on your wedding day. If you are having a ceremony starting after sunset and don’t want to have a first look, your photos will have to be lit with flash. I wish I was a magician and could make the sun appear, but alas, I have not gained those powers yet.
  • If you have a large wedding party, divorces among your parents, or have a long list of group photos you want, you must allow time to get the photos you want.
  • Limit traveling as much as humanly possible.
  • Make a backup plan for inclement weather!
  • Plan for buffer time so that your day is as stress-free as possible!

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ashley fisher is a timeless, romantic, and editorial saint louis wedding photographer & CINEMATOGRAPHER serving the midwest & is available for destination weddings.

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