Wedding Day Timeline: Ask a Photographer

Who doesn’t love a good comedy about a perilous wedding day? Father Of The Bride, The Wedding Singer, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Runaway Bride….classics. Of course, these hilarious hijinx are the last thing anyone would want on their own wedding day! And yet, for the uninitiated…which, I’m guessing many of you reading this article are…visions of movie-worthy, wedding day disasters may not be that hard to conjure.

With the hope of helping couples avoid unpleasant surprises and minimizing wedding day “glitches,” while at the same time getting the most out of their wedding day schedule, this article will address certain aspects of wedding day planning and timelines from the perspective of an experienced wedding photographer…me! It’s likely that this will not be the only article on planning your wedding that you will read, nor should it be. There are many great sources of wedding planning enlightenment, foremost among these would be an actual, professional wedding planner…something that Birch Blaze Studios would highly recommend, if it can possibly fit into your wedding budget. A plethora of online articles, Youtube videos, as well as past experiences of parents (which, undoubtedly, you will not have to ask for!), family, friends, and your own, should all be considered and weighed when figuring out just how you want your big day to play out.

And so, why a wedding photographer’s perspective, you ask? What’s that Farmers Insurance slogan….”We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two?” A wedding photographer has a unique perspective on a complete wedding day. Unlike most other wedding vendors, some of whom aren’t even present the day of, the photographer is not only very present most of the day, we are actually with the bride and groom, probably more than any one guest, or even bridesmaid, groomsman, or family member. We experience the day, the ups and downs, the successes and the failures, from the inside out. Almost from the bride and grooms’ viewpoint (you know that emotional rollercoaster picking up passengers on your wedding day? We’re usually riding in the last car). At the same time, ours is an objective viewpoint because it’s not our wedding, or even that of a close friend or family member. Part of our job, in my experience, sometimes entails being what amounts to a personal wedding day “coach.” Not taking the place of a planner, by any stretch, but acting as a sounding board of sorts….”is this normally how it goes?”…”Does anyone know how to tie a bowtie?”…”Does this look ok? Etc., etc. Wedding photographers, can I get an “amen?”

Besides being a day to share with your dearest relatives and closest friends, one of the biggest aspects of a wedding day, and I may be biased, is the photography (and we’ll let videography share a bit of the limelight, here). Stop me if you’ve heard this before….after the wedding day has passed, the cake eaten, the final dance, what are you left with? Basically, rings, an archived wedding dress, your own memories….oh, and photographs. Of course, there are some very big priorities other than photography that demand attention on this milestone day. So each couple should ask themselves, how important is wedding photography to us? This is an important question and there is no wrong answer, but the priority you assign to your wedding photography will impact your timeline. Let’s delve in…

To “First Look,” Or Not To “First Look”

Moody Mountain Farm NH Wedding Bride & GroomDepending on how far along you are in planning your wedding, you may have come across the phrase or concept of doing a “first look.” To clarify, a “first look” is when bride & groom decide to see each other before the ceremony. Typically, an intimate spot is chosen, the groom takes a position, and the bride then approaches…voila, “first look.” Many couples find that seeing each other beforehand, “takes the edge off,” making them less nervous during the ceremony. Usually, the first look is followed by the B&G portrait session, which serves to get this portion of the wedding photography completed, also prior to the ceremony. This in turn frees up time after the ceremony, which can be spent with guests at the cocktail hour, for example. Conversely, it will tend to make the pre-ceremony getting ready time tighter. Of course, some couples decidedly choose to not see each other before the ceremony in favor of tradition or simply personal preference. Again, there is no wrong answer here. Here is some insight from one of my recent brides on her reasoning and experience with their first look:

“I was really scared to totally lose it walking down the aisle and since a wedding ceremony is so openly emotional I thought it was important to get some of the nerves out of the way in a more private and intimate setting. Thank God [our photographer] had a plan because I was pretty much flying by the seat of my pants and running short on time every step of the way. [Our photographer] suggested this magical spot I never knew existed at the camp (venue), tucked into the woods and overlooking the water on a footbridge. I felt like I was in a fairytale and the photos [he] took there were some of my favorite. It was really fun to have some 1:1 with my guy, just being us. It was one of the only times all weekend we had “alone”. After seeing him at the first look, I had a surge of confidence and excitement.” – Sarah B.

Whether your bride & groom photos are taken before or after the ceremony, how will this “mini session” impact the wedding day timeline? Part of the answer to that question depends on how much time you decide to budget towards those photos. First of all, these photos are the more intimate, and often romantic photos of you as a couple. Of course, they can be more fun and goofy, if that suits your personalities better. Most couples, and wedding photographers, also like to incorporate some of the natural beauty or points of interest around your venue (or urban cityscapes, if that’s your scene). Then again, maybe having epic imagery of the two of you just isn’t that important to you, and you simply want a more documentary approach to your wedding photography. These are all things to factor into how much time to spend on this portion of your wedding day photography. I’m sure every photographer will have their own recommendations here, but I’ll share what I have found to be reasonable time allotments in this area…

VT Wedding Photographers, Birch Blaze Studios, Shelburne Farms, Vermont wedding photography, Lake Champlain, bridal portrait,First Look/Bride & Groom Portrait Session is my personal favorite part of the day, but is also the most likely part of the day to suffer when other events run late. Fortunately, if you budget ample time for it, it can withstand a bit of shortening. What would be considered, “ample time?” Obviously, couples want to spend plenty time with beloved friends and family on this momentous day, and have fun…they also, generally want great photography. With some meaningful discussion, with each other, and with your photographer, along with some careful planning, both objectives can be satisfied.

Let’s talk numbers

In order to achieve beautiful, creative wedding day portraits of the two of you, whether before or after the ceremony, I recommend 45-60 minutes, including the actual first look (which usually takes about 5 minutes or less). Possibly longer if photography is a top priority for you. I’ve had as much as 90 minutes, and it was this photographer’s dream come true! Now, a good photographer can rock 15-20 minutes, and you’ll probably get some great images, but considering how much time and money you have likely invested in your venue and the way you’ve “gussied up” on your once-in-a-lifetime day, why not set aside the better part of an hour to create some amazing art that will forever capture all the beauty that you have worked so hard to assemble? With this kind of time to work with, both photographer and couple won’t feel pressured by time constraints. If they want to drive down the road to a beautiful meadow, or funky old building, there’s time for that. There’s time for your photographer to let those creative juices flow, trying 3 or 4 different “scenes” around the venue, incorporate meaningful props if apropo, and for both of you to just have fun and enjoy this little “mini adventure,” away from the crowds. Your photos will absolutely reflect this absence of rushing around, and you’ll get more of them. You won’t regret it! I have found that the above timeframe is totally workable, and does not take an inordinate amount of time away from wedding duties and guests, as long as it’s well planned for. This would include good planning for whatever comes just beforehand, to avoid unnecessarily cutting into this reserved time for your photos. In my experience, brides getting ready is a common culprit, tho’ understandably so.

But what if, for whatever reason, you actually are left with just 15 minutes, or less? Whether this is on purpose (again, maybe you’ve opted to spend more time elsewhere), or not, a good photographer can make 15 minutes work, though as previously mentioned, you won’t end up with nearly as many of these types of photos. And just 15 minutes for these photos generally does not lend itself to creativity. Often, though, it may be possible to fit in a few more B&G portraits later in the day. I like to offer my couples the opportunity to steal away for 5-10 minutes when the sun is getting low on the horizon. Commonly referred to as the golden hour, this seems to usually happen right around the time dinner is being served. Many couples really love this idea of getting sunset photos, and are willing to give up a few minutes at this time when the payoff is some epic golden light/sunflare images.

NH Bride & Groom portrait with sunflare.

To cap off our first look consideration, I’d like to add that I’ve found it’s generally a good plan to be completely finished with pre-ceremony photos 30 minutes before the ceremony is scheduled to begin. This seems to give everyone time to recompose and be ready to walk down the aisle. This timing may need to be adjusted if any travel is involved between photo locations and ceremony. And speaking of travel time, it should be considered when deciding on where everything will take place…multiple locations vs everything at one location. The latter being the king of efficiency.


What if you’ve opted for the more traditional route of not seeing each other before the ceremony? How does the above information apply in your case? In my experience, the most common schedule for wedding day photos when there is no first look, looks like this: Immediately following the ceremony, family formals (more on family formals later…) are photographed, which should typically take 30 minutes, or less. This tends to be the best time because, 1. Everyone to be included is most likely present and in close proximity. And, 2. Everyone is probably as fresh and “put together,” as they will be for the rest of the day. After family formals, we move on to the entire bridal party (10-15 minutes, see below). Finally, the portrait session with the bride & groom as outlined above (minus the first look). In planning for this scenario, it’s important to be aware of how much time there will be between the end of the ceremony and the bridal party introductions at the beginning of the reception, and/or dinner service. Usually these post-ceremony photos are happening during the cocktail hour. Depending on timing, a couple might get to enjoy at least part of cocktail hour, but sometimes, may miss it completely. Something to consider. If you want to do your photos after the ceremony, but would also like to enjoy at least part of the cocktail hour, you’ll want to discuss this with your wedding planner, your photographer, and plan accordingly.

Let’s go into a bit more detail on Family Formals. The timing of shooting the family formals ultimately will come down to how many different groupings you have and how organized you are. The more time you you put into planning these photos, the smoother they will go. I have an article I share with my couples along with a more in depth discussion to help them better understand how best to approach that. Personally, I’ve found that with an average of 10-15 different groupings (B&G with bride’s parents, B&G with groom’s parents, bride with siblings, etc.) and a list that I typically receive ahead of time and bring, printed out, we can get through the family formals in 20-30 minutes….as long as everyone is present (very important!). As mentioned above, these photos are usually best done right after the ceremony, as most likely everyone will be nearby. If someone has to be sent out to track down Uncle Joe and Aunt Sally, this is when the schedule can really get off track. Letting family members know ahead of time that they need to be in a certain place at a certain time to take part, isn’t a bad idea either. Sidenote: Often, there are family formals taken of just the bride and her parents, or just the groom and his father, for example. If time allows, these can be done earlier in the day, when each side is getting ready with various family members present.

The Bridal Party. Where the family formals are just that, formal, the bridal party photos are where I like to get more creative. Staggered groupings, everyone walking towards the camera with overly-dramatic laughter (which then turns into very real, very natural laughter), and the like, make for very fun and beautiful bridal party photographs. Allow about 15 minutes or so for 2-3 different “scenes.” A word about bride/bridesmaids and groom/groomsmen photos: Ideally, these photos will have already been taken, hopefully right after the bride and groom have finished getting ready, earlier in the day. Sometimes when a first look is planned, there is not enough time for the separate groomsmen and bridesmaids photos. If that’s the case, it would be best to take them at the same time the full bridal party photos are taken (just before or after).

Other Parts of The Day

There are just a couple of other portions of a wedding day schedule I’d like to touch on before you merrily click away to the next stop. They have to do with when you should have your photographer start and end. In packages that offer a set number of hours, the start time obviously dictates the ending time. I generally encourage couples to budget more time earlier in the day, because there seems to be more special moments with the most important people before the ceremony when everyone is preparing for what lies ahead. After the big events usually slated for the reception, i.e. first dance, parent dances, cake cutting, etc., 90-120 minutes of all out partying is usually plenty of coverage time for the photography. The exception to this is if you have a grand exit planned. Sparklers, fireworks, sky lanterns, and the like. Some couples opt to plan these activities an hour or so before the official end of the reception, which seems to work well. But if you do have any end-of-the-night events planned, discuss these with your photographer in relation to their scheduled departure time. I make it a point to alert my couples 30-45 minutes before I’m scheduled to leave, in case they have any last-minute photo requests. I also offer my couples the opportunity to have me stay an hour, or more, longer than scheduled if planned events are running behind. This is something they can decide at that time.

So there you have it. I hope these observations and suggestions, based on my experiences as a wedding photographer, can help you sort out the ins and outs of planning your wedding day timeline. Remember, that while many well-meaning folks–family members and wedding professionals alike–will offer a steady stream of rules and suggestions, this is your day. You get to decide. So graciously take in all the suggestions and ideas you will hear and read about, digest and discuss, take family into account where necessary…and then decide on what exactly will make the two of you the absolute happiest. Then you’ll look back on your wedding day in the years to come and be so glad your plans perfectly fit who you are as a couple.

Kerry Struble has been a NH wedding photographer since 2009. He operates Birch Blaze Studios with his Wife, Taylor. Kerry photographs weddings in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. In fact he loves travel and has shot weddings across the US…as far away as Alaska. Get in touch for pricing info and to setup a no-obligation chat 🙂