Wedding Timeline Guide & Sample
Having an informative wedding timeline is a must for any couple planning their wedding. If you are blessed to be using a wedding planner, he or she will assist you in creating one. However, many couples do not have that luxury. It is crucial to start your planning process with some semblance of a timeline. Of course, it will likely change over time--even the day of--but having a document all vendors can reference is the first step in having a wedding day that flows smoothly.
How to Build a Wedding Timeline
Start with what you know, typically your ceremony time and work forward. Next, you will usually want to add 30 mins before the ceremony to account for guest arrival time. Nothing should be planned during this time, except for a ketubah signing, which is important in Jewish weddings. However, this can also happen a bit earlier as well.
To First Look or Not to First Look?
The next thing to consider is whether or not you and your spouse-to-be plan to see each other before the ceremony. The pros are getting all of the formal photos out of the way and getting to spend time during cocktail hour with your guests instead of taking photos. If you are getting married in late fall or winter, it can mean the difference between taking photos outside in the sunlight or being limited to inside your venue. That can dramatically change the look, feel and locations of your images.
However, for many couples tradition is still important and maybe light isn’t a factor, so they will opt for seeing each other at the ceremony. In that case, I highly recommend adding half an hour to your cocktail hour so you have more time for photos and won't miss your entire cocktail hour. You will also want to attempt to take as many photos as you can prior to the ceremony as to limit the amount you need to do after.
I suggest adding time on to the pre-ceremony schedule for both bride and groom (or groom and groom, or bride and bride) and do the photos without the couple together in them. (Like bride with bridesmaids, bride with her mom, groom and the best man, etc.)
The Formal Photos
You will want to schedule 1½ to 2 hours for your couple, wedding party and family photos. That is just for the photography part alone, not taking any travel into consideration. Out-of-venue locations can be great -- just know you will need to plan extra time and possibly arrange transportation if including wedding party or family members. Additionally, when dealing with large families, extended family members, large groups or parents who are divorced and have remarried, please note those situations will necessitate more time. Consult your photographer and start making a list to give them an idea just how much time it may take.
If there are any special extended family members you will want to get a photo with, make sure to have your photographer arrange a quick informal portrait during the reception.
Typically I recommend 1 to 2 hours for bridal getting-ready photos. For grooms, it can be the same or as little as 30 minutes. (And some guys would rather none!) While getting ready, details that can’t be photographed later like the dress, shoes and jewelry will be done. Sometimes the hair and makeup application is included. (Though I recommend not scheduling the completion of this too close to the getting-dressed time. I've had numerous weddings run behind because the hair and makeup took longer than expected.)
I almost always photograph the bride getting into her dress and putting on the finishing touches with her bridesmaids and mother or other important women. Sometimes, the father of the bride makes an appearance for a first look. At a bear minimum, for the guys, photographing the ties and cuff links going on and the final look in the mirror can be enough. However, some will want more coverage.
You’ll need to decide what is important to you and what you can accommodate in your budget. Photographing both getting ready usually will entail having a 2nd photographer. However, with careful planning and some good coordination, it is possible one photographer can do some of each. But again, consider your plans and photography goals.
Next, start with cocktail hour and build towards the end of the night. If you are using this time to simultaneously take all of your wedding photos, you really should extend this time, if possible. You should have a 2nd photographer if you have over 150 guests, for sure. (See this article on 2nd Photographers.) They are key during a cocktail hour when a lot is going on.
You’ll want a photographer covering the guests, another doing the formals, and then with the remaining time near the end of cocktails, one photographer will need to take pictures of the reception room and details. Often this area isn’t ready until 10 to 15 minutes before the guests are allowed to enter. If you are having a busy cocktail hour for whatever reason (once I had a couple do their formals and then speeches during cocktails), you really should make it 1½ hours, not the standard 1 hour. That is simply not enough time for 1, let alone 2 photographers to adequately document.
TIP: If you can’t extend, ask your photographer if they can bring a 3rd photographer in, especially if you are having lots of amazing details you want documented.
Wedding Timeline for Reception
When starting your wedding timeline, block off the reception and fill in later. Your venue, caterer, DJ, or band will be involved in this. You will hammer out these details within a few months of the wedding. (I often don't see a full reception timeline until the week of. However, knowing what you want is half the battle!)
The important thing is that someone is going to make a detailed timeline of the reception and execute it. If you are planning a very DIY wedding at a private home, for example, it will be worth it to hire a day-of coordinator to help with this. Not only will they help you create/review the timeline, they will be there to make changes on the fly if things are wrong or delayed. In addition, they will serve as the point person to coordinate the vendors.
There is almost nothing worse for me than arriving at a wedding where there is no reception timeline and no one is in charge. Even the simplest of weddings needs a formal timeline and someone to execute it. Trust me, your vendors will all be thankful and will be able to do their jobs much better.
Time for Dinner
Typically, the dinner timeline is something you will be working out with your caterers and venue. They will have suggestions for what works best for their space, your menu and your event size. Some of the top considerations are:
1. When Will the First and Parent Dances Occur?
Typically, first and parent dances occur right at the beginning of the evening after you make a grand entrance. Or would you rather wait until after dinner to open the dance floor?
This may depend on if you want dancing through dinner (or even just to kick things off with a short dance set) or if you’d rather wait. It may depend on the structure of the venue. They may need to flip your cocktail area for the dance floor, or it just may be in a different room than dinner. Often, the dance floor is surrounded by tables and typically something grand will kick off the evening in that setting. However, it need not be the first dance. It can be a welcome speech, followed by the first course and the best-man and maid-of-honor speeches.
I am personally a fan of doing the formal dances back-to-back since you already have everyone’s attention. Though, the other option is kicking things off after the entrance -- first dance and one song for everyone. You’d then reopen the dance floor after dinner with the parent dances (and possibly cake cutting)
To provide good coverage, I generally recommend 1 hour minimum after the formal dances for open dancing.
2. When to Cut the Cake and How?
This is usually the last thing I photograph before leaving a wedding, unless I'm staying until the very end. Don’t wait too long after dinner. You have the option of making it an announced event or doing it off to the side quietly. (I recommend keeping it less of a dance floor-stopping event if it would interrupt dancing that just got going. Ideally, you'll time it at the end of a set or do it off to the side.)Consult the DJ/band and venue on the optimal time. Often, this event's timing will be fluid.
3. Do You Want Full Reception Photography Coverage?
For many weddings, my recommended minimum of 1 hour open dancing works just fine. (That is after formal dances.) For larger weddings, or if you have a grand exit planned or just know you want ALL those moments captured, you will want your photographer(s) to stay to the end.
Sample Wedding Timeline
You may have some questions that need answers, but likely you can start to create a loose wedding timeline by now.
Here’s an example of a popular wedding timeline with 8 hours of coverage from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. with everything taking place at the venue:
2:00 -- Bride getting ready
3:30 -- First look, followed by couples photos
4:15 -- Wedding and family photos
5:00 -- Guests arrive
5:30 -- Ceremony
6:00 -- Cocktail hour
7:00 -- Reception begins
7:15 -- First dance and parent dances
7:30 -- Dinner with speeches during
9:00 -- Dancing
9:45 -- Cake cutting
10:00 -- Photo coverage ends