Weddings are all different. Based on the priorities that you set for your wedding, the time — like your budget — will be split up in different ways to best highlight what you think is important. That being said, all weddings have similar elements: there’s a gathering of people, there is a commitment being celebrated, there is usually some sort of refreshment, and typically there is excitement that follows — be it dancing, toasting, speechmaking, fire-breathing, board-game-playing, just plain socializing, and other general merriment.

      Most clients, when they come to me, don’t know for sure what sort of structure their day will have. Their wedding is months away and right now they’re more worried about booking a caterer than how the day should be laid out. But I implore these clients to give their timeline some thought before everything is nailed down. As ephemeral as the wedding day is during the planning stages, certain suggestions may be worth keeping in mind.

      Here are some of my photography-related tips concerning wedding day timelines. Be aware that not all photographers think like I do or prefer to shoot the way I do, so this is all subjective!

      1. Are you going to have a first look or not?

      The timeline will differ greatly if you prefer to have a first look or if you don’t. If you DO plan on having a first look, it relaxes the timeline so that we can shoot wedding party formals — and even family formals — before the ceremony, without worrying that one-half of the couple will accidentally see the other.

      A timeline with a first look vs. without a first look, both with a 5:00 ceremony start time, can hypothetically look like this…

      With a first look:
      2:00 – photographer(s) arrive at venue
      3:00 – finish getting ready
      3:15 – first look
      3:30 – quick couples’ portraits
      3:45 – wedding party formals
      4:15 – formals with immediate family
      4:45 – guests are arriving
      5:00 – ceremony begins
      5:30 – extended family formals begin after ceremony ends
      6:00 – family formals finished; couples’ portraits during cocktail hour
      6:30 – couples’ entrance; dinner

      Without a first look:
      3:00 – photographer(s) arrive at venue
      4:00 – finish getting ready
      4:15 – separate wedding party photos (2 photographers, 2 locations)
      4:45 – guests are arriving
      5:00 – ceremony begins
      5:30 – ceremony ends; all family formals during cocktail hour
      6:30 – group wedding party photos; appetizers served to guests
      7:00 – couples’ entrance; dinner
      7:30 – couple pulled out for couples’ photos during dinner, before toasts

      Again, not all photographers work the way I do. Some may want to do all couples’ portraits right after the first look, etc. I prefer to take a few photos after the first look when emotions are still running high, there are involuntary smiles on everybody’s faces, and makeup/flowers/hair/etc. still looks fresh. (Texas sun likes to mess with everything!) Then later, we take extended couples’ portraits when the sunlight is just right, and guests are otherwise engaged in something like hors d’oeuvres, so it’s just the three of us with no distractions.

      Tip: No matter what, tell anyone who is going to be included in formal photos — your sister, your best friend, your Auntie Muriel — to be there 15 minutes before you really need them. If they’re only needed for the big family photo after the ceremony, tell them AHEAD OF TIME not to wander off. It’s always a drag when everyone BUT one person is standing around, waiting for that last straggler to show up.

      2. Family formals actually take a while.

      This shouldn’t be surprising, but somehow it does catch people off-guard. Every combination of family formals requires a readjustment. I like to budget extra time for family formals because it’s easier to get done early than to have to hustle and find time from somewhere else in the schedule. Each combination takes 2-3 minutes of adjustment, and for large groups it can take up to 10 minutes to have everyone’s face visible.

      Tip: Family formals are the photos that you typically print. You send them in your Christmas cards. You frame them on your mantle. Do you really want a photo of just you, without your partner? Chances are, you’ll want to print the ones with both of you in the photo. :) Your partner is a part of your family now! Include them!

      sun-kissed wedding portrait in austin tx

      3. Light is really important.

      Scenario: you’ve researched photographers for hours, days, maybe even weeks. You finally choose a photographer you love… their style! their eye! And then… your ceremony is at sunset and you decide not to have a first look. Which means… you’ll be photographing all of the formals — and your couples’ portraits — after dark. What will they look like?

      Good photographers can make their own light, obviously. But there’s also something to be said about style. If you chose a photographer who takes beautiful, sun-kissed photos and shows these beautiful, sun-kissed photos as most of their portfolio, chances are… beautiful, sun-kissed photos are what they prefer, and that golden hour of perfect sunset light is when they’d love to take your couples’ photos :)

      What I suggest to clients is that, sure, I can work with anything… but we want to start at an ideal so that we’re working with the best possibility. Schedules go awry, things get pushed back, we get on “wedding time”… but if we should at least attempt the best, most efficient use of our time… yes?

      Daylight Savings Time messes with sunlight and schedules — what may work really well for a wedding in May (sunset at 8) will work dreadfully for a wedding in November (sunset at 6). The above hypothetical timeline wouldn’t be that great for a winter wedding, for instance.

      Tip: Ask your photographer how much time is needed for important photo moments. Some photographers like to take couples’ portraits for an hour on the day. Some only ask for a handful of minutes. Some might not take them at all. If you hire a wedding planner, the planner is well aware of light limitations and will probably massage your schedule to make the best use of the hours you have.

      * * *

      Additional suggestions:

      Your hired vendors have experience with timelines, so defer to their opinion if you’re not sure about something. We are always happy to help!

      Not all timelines fit into a pre-organized structure, but if you’re interested in a basic guideline, there are downloadable Excel sheets over at A Practical Wedding (here’s the direct link to that page).

      As always, these are suggestions, not rules. If you are a client of mine, don’t worry! We will work together to customize your schedule for your individual wants and needs.


      My fiance and I are still debating if we want to do a first look. This will be helpful for us in deciding while our heads are still on straight. :) great advice.

      I love this! And I love that you showed the two options with First Look, without First Look. And mentioned the light! SO. Important! :)