14 of the Best Wedding Day Timeline Planning Tips

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Wedding Tips

I’ve spent the last 21 years photographing weddings, and I’ve learned a thing or two (or a million probably) along the way. I’ve become an expert in wedding day timeline planning.

Since I will never use this knowledge to win Double Jeopardy or a Trivia Night, the least I can do is use it to help you.

Wedding Day Timeline Planning Tips to help figure things out

Before you dive head first into the planning process, I wanted to take a few minutes and share some wedding day timeline planning tips with you. You don’t want to get a month out from your wedding and realize you have 40 minutes to take all the pictures you need. I want to get this post in front of you now so it can help you determine your ceremony time, reception time, whether you want to do a first look or not, how much time is needed for pictures, etc.

I hope it will be helpful for you in making big decisions about your wedding day! I’m here to help every step of the way so if you are ready to make a big timing decision (such as when your ceremony will be) and want some input I’m always happy to help!

If you’d like to see sample timelines, be sure to sign up for my free Timeline Planning Guide! I get a bit more in-depth on how much time to allow for each part of the day, as well as how to begin to plan out your timeline.

Wedding Day Timeline Planning Tip 1: Don’t forget to check the sunset time!

Check the sunset time for your wedding day! Just Google “sunset time, {Wedding City} {Wedding Date}”. (Or you can check out this link) If you can, use this as the starting point for your timeline. (For church weddings, it’s probably not going to be possible, just FYI.) If you’re having an outdoor ceremony with a first look, schedule your ceremony start time to be anywhere from 30-60 minutes before sunset time for optimal lighting conditions during your ceremony. This is known as golden hour, and your ceremony pictures will be amazing!

If you’re not doing a first look before the ceremony, make sure you give your photographer 1.5 to 2 hours to complete your couples’ portraits, wedding party photos, and family photos before heading to the reception. THEREFORE, do not schedule your ceremony 30-60 minutes before sunset if you will be doing portraits after. You’d want to schedule it 2.5-4 hours before sunset, depending on your venue location(s) and travel time. 

Wedding Day Timeline Tip 2: Get all your photos done before the ceremony begins!

If you are doing a first look, it’s a great idea to do ALL your formal pictures before the ceremony begins so you can enjoy your cocktail hour with your guests! I always end all pre-wedding photos 30 minutes before the ceremony starts since that’s when your earliest guests will start arriving. You’ll want to allow 1.5 to 2 hours for portraits. That portrait time includes couples portraits, family photos, and wedding party photos. If you have a large bridal party and a large immediate family, allot for about 30 extra minutes.

If you’re not having a wedding party and you each have a small family, you’ll likely need closer to 1.5 hours. Getting everything done before the ceremony begins means that once the wedding starts, you’re free to be fully present in your wedding day and enjoy it. It’s intentionality. You don’t have to have any niggling feelings in the back of your mind about, “oh but we need to get to family photos but I haven’t seen my friend in forever and I really want to talk to her! But I don’t know what time it is and I hope I’m not supposed to be somewhere else… Wait, what did she just say?” 

Wedding Day Timeline Tip 3: Give yourself plenty of time to get ready.

Based on my 20+ years of experience, Getting Ready is where the timeline is 99% likely to go to shit. Ask any wedding photographer. This is where it all goes wrong, almost every single time. It’s always because there just wasn’t enough time. I don’t know about you, but I REALLY hate that panicky rushed feeling.

To avoid feeling rushed, schedule hair and make-up to start two hours before you *think* you need to begin. If you have a large bridal party, make sure you have more than one hair and make-up person. If anyone has thick or long hair, make sure to let your hair and makeup team know well before the wedding day. That way, they can schedule enough time for each person.

Giving yourself ample time in the morning is ESSENTIAL. Plus, if you’re done early there’s more time for lunching and dance parties, or just relaxing. 

**2023 update: since I first published this blog post several years ago, my couples have told me that yes, two hours earlier than you think is when you should get ready. Some have said I should change it to three hours if you’re the kind of person who procrastinates. So I’m adding an addendum: If you’re the kind of person who procrastinates by sitting on the bed in a towel staring at the wall or scrolling Insta, make it 3 or more hours. 

Wedding Day Timeline Tip 4: Make sure everyone knows exactly what hair and makeup look they want! 

While we’re on the subject of hair, here’s my next tip, and it’s a super important one! Make sure everyone getting their hair and makeup done knows exactly what hairstyle and makeup look they want. It’s a timeline killer when bridesmaids spend 10-15 minutes searching Pinterest and Instagram before the hair and makeup team can get started on them.

If you really want to be on the ball, select a hairstyle category for your bridesmaids (like half up or updo or braid). Some of my couples have told me they had anyone getting hair done take a photo of their hair and sent it to their stylist along with a photo of the style that person wanted for the wedding day. That way, the stylist knew what to expect and could better instruct that person on how to prep their hair. The consensus all around was a win-win since it meant faster getting ready time. And more sleep for everyone.

Wedding Day Timeline Tip Planning 5: Keep all special detail items you’d like to have photographed in one place.

Keep ALL your details in one place for when I arrive. Generally, this will be your dress, shoes, veil/hairpiece, jewelry, garter, invitations, any special gifts or cards from your fiancé or family, and anything else that has special meaning. It saves a TON of time when I arrive if it’s all ready to go for detail shots.

Please keep in mind I don’t spend a ton of time styling objects. I prefer to photograph all things within the context of the day. So while I will get a photo of your things laid out in a flat lay if you want, I prefer to photograph the items on you. That way it’s not just a pair of shoes, they’re your shoes. 

Wedding Day Timeline Tip 6: Don’t forget about travel time! 

Keep in mind how much time it takes to travel between all your venues (getting ready, ceremony, reception) and account for this in your timeline and your hourly coverage. You’ll also need to keep in mind that traveling in wedding attire and traveling with an entourage (the wedding party) will take more time than usual. You’ll want to add an additional 10-15 minutes each time you have to get in and out of a vehicle. (I know that seems like a lot of time, but TRUST ME on this!)

Wedding Day Timeline Tip 7: Don’t forget you’ll need to eat and drink throughout the day. 

If you plan on bringing a cooler with drinks/snacks, make sure the cooler is stocked and filled with ice BEFORE the day begins. Liquor store and gas station runs will majorly screw your timeline. Assign cooler duty to someone you trust will get the job done correctly. 

If you aren’t planning on this, you probably should, because you need to eat and drink throughout the day. It’s a long, overwhelming day, and you will need sustenance and hydration. Especially if cocktails will be consumed later in the evening. You want to feel your best, and to do that, you need to eat and drink. So assign that duty one of your dearest people that you trust to make sure it is done beforehand. And also that you trust to pack food and water and not just beer. 

Wedding Day Timeline Tip 8: The Reception Details

When possible, I try to have 10-15 minutes to capture the reception details untouched. If your portraits are all happening during the cocktail hour, this is also where having a second photographer comes in handy. The second photographer will be capturing cocktail hour and reception details while I am photographing portraits. 

Wedding Day Timeline Planning Tip 9: Steaming Dresses & Suits

Make sure your dress and the bridesmaids dresses and any suits are steamed BEFORE the day of the wedding. Nothing’s worse than trying to steam a dress or suit jacket and panicking the morning of because it’s taking a really long time. Often times, steamers will leave water marks on the dress, which can take quite a bit of time to dry. Check out this tutorial for tips on steaming dresses. There’s quite literally thousands of YouTube videos on how to steam dresses. And I don’t TikTok, but there’s probably millions of those. 

Wedding Day Timeline Tip 10: Try the rental tux on BEFORE you leave the shop.

Try on your rental tux at the store, before you leave. If any adjustments have to be made to anything, TRY THE TUX ON AGAIN AFTER THE ALTERATIONS HAVE BEEN MADE. I would say that there’s an issue with someone’s tux probably 95% of the time that tuxes have been rented. Also: BRING BLACK DRESS SOCKS. Those do not come with the tux and shoe rentals. Wedding day Walmart runs for black dress socks will cause a major delay! 

Wedding Day Timeline Tip 11: Consider hiring a Day-of Wedding Coordinator.

Hire a day of wedding coordinator to help keep all vendors on time and ensure the day runs smoothly. They also take care of any and all hiccups that happen like bouquet issues, tux rental issues (it happens- a lot!), lack of dress socks, centerpiece malfunctions, getting flats for you to wear because you forgot to bring them and didn’t realize how much heels SUCK, cutting your wedding cake, dress bustling, and the list goes on and on.

Don’t let this fall onto your wedding party or family members to fix, they’re there to enjoy the day!

Wedding Day Timeline Tip 12: If you want something photographed, do it when your photographer is there.

If your photography and video only cover a set amount of hours make sure all your important reception events fall into the time that they are there. Generally, I am present for the first 2-2.5 hours of the reception. That is usually more than enough time to cover all of the important events of the reception, as well as to get lots of candid photos of everyone dancing and having fun. 

If you hire a videographer, check with them to see how much additional time they will need. Not all videographers are strictly documentary. Some will need additional time to film details, bridal portraits, wedding party, and couple’s shots. It could potentially add an additional an hour or so to the timeline. (And if you’re looking for a fantastic videographer to work with, check out Recer Films and Divinity Films!)

Wedding Day Timeline Tip 13: Let’s talk about reception entrances.

Make sure your DJ / MC has all the information they need for the reception entrances. They’ll need the list of names in the order of entrance, as well as how each name is phonetically pronounced. Entrances can be a time suck, usually eating up the first 20-30 minutes of the reception. And in all honesty, your guests don’t really care about your wedding party’s entrance. They’re ready to eat and dance and visit with you! 

Why you should consider opting out of a wedding party entrance: 

Opting out of doing a full wedding party entrance is beneficial for a few reasons. Number one, you’ll get to eat sooner.  And number two, you’ll have more time to party later on. When your reception is only 4 hours, 30 minutes is a really long part of that time. And for any DJ who says it DOESN’T take that long is full of shit. I’m really hungry and clock watching, trying to do the math on how much longer til I eat. (Number of toasts times average time of a toast plus wedding party entrance plus time to organize wedding party entrance. Toss in a wildcard dad welcome toast that’s eighteen pages front and back, and it’s 25 minutes if I’m really lucky and over an hour if I’m not.)

I know the DJ and probably a Boomer or Gen-Xer told you “but it starts the party!” or something like that, but no. No, because ya’ll are sitting down to dinner. Not running out to play the championship sports ball game. Maybe if the reception started with the dance floor but it doesn’t. It starts with dinner. 

Reception entrances never makes sense to me when there’s been a cocktail hour that the wedding couple and wedding party are present for. The wedding party leaves the room, then the DJ loudly announces them back in to the room like they haven’t been there for the last hour. And we all cheer and pretend like we agree that it’s the first time we’ve seen them. Why? Just… why? Why do we continue to do these ridiculous things? 

Wedding Day Timeline Tip 14: Relax.

Seriously! At the end of the day, no matter what tiny details go wrong, you are still marrying the love of your life. And in reality, it’s not the wedding that matters, it’s the marriage. Besides, things going wrong makes for the best stories later on! 

If you want more timeline tips, or you’d like to see sample timelines for wedding days, sign up for my Wedding Day Timeline Planning Guide. And as always, if you have any timeline questions, shoot me an email! I’m always happy to help with timeline management. (It’s definitely one of my wedding photographer superpowers!) 

bride getting ready and putting on her shoes. She's happy because everything during her wedding day is running right on time. bride reaching for her dress that is hanging from a curtain rod a bride getting makeup done during the getting ready portion of her wedding day timeline

groom and groomsmen getting ready during the getting ready portion of the wedding day timeline groom getting ready during the getting ready portion of the wedding day timeline groom getting his dog ready during the getting ready portion of his wedding day timeline bride seeing her bridesmaids for the first time during the getting ready portion of the wedding day timeline First Look with a bride and groom during the First Look portion of a wedding day timeline bride and groom exchanging private letters during the first look portion of their wedding day timeline bride and groom with their dog during the portraits portion of their wedding day timelinebride and groom holding hands and looking at each other during the portrait portion of their wedding day timeline bride and groom walking down the street during the portrait time of their wedding day timeline bride and groom playfully running together through ginkgo leaves during the portrait time of their wedding day timeline. The bride is wearing a dress with stars on it. Bride and groom sit together with their daughter in a VW Bus turned Photo Bus during the portrait time of their wedding day timelineBride and groom hold hands at Klondike Park during portrait time part of their wedding day timeline Silhouette of a bride in the sun during portrait time of a wedding day timeline a bride is walking down the aisle with her dad during the ceremony portion of a wedding day timeline a dad is lifting the veil over his daughter's face during the ceremony portion of a wedding day timeline The wind is dramatically blowing a bride's veil behind her during a ceremony portion of a wedding day timeline A couple gets very emotional during their vows during the ceremony portion of a wedding day timeline A groom chokes back tears as he recites his vows during the ceremony portion of a wedding day timeline Dramatic light filters through the back of a bride's dress as she stands at the front of the Jewel Box in Forest Park with her husband during the ceremony portion of their wedding day timeline Guests hold umbrellas during a rainy ceremony part of a wedding day timelineA couple have their first kiss in a historic old church in Hermann, MO during the ceremony portion of their wedding day timeline A bride high fives her guests during a receiving line portion of her wedding day timeline. the sun shines through windows, illuminating water glasses sitting on reception tables at Jefferson Underground. collage of details of champagne glasses and tabletop florals at a wedding reception a vintage-inspired place setting with a green glass goblet with a lace tablecloth and a blue napkin A couple gets toasted by the best man during the reception part of the wedding day timeline a couple gets toasted by the maid of honor during the reception part of the wedding day timeline the wedding party clinks their glasses together during the reception portion of the wedding day timeline The bride and groom share their first dance during the reception portion of the wedding day timelinethe bride wraps her arms around the groom's neck during their first dance during the reception portion of the wedding day timeline the bride dances with her father during the reception portion of the wedding day timeline Guests dance and have fun during the reception portion of the wedding day timeline Guests dance and have fun during the reception portion of the wedding day timeline Guests dance and have fun during the reception portion of the wedding day timeline Guests dance and have fun during the reception portion of the wedding day timeline Guests and the bride dance and have fun during the reception portion of the wedding day timeline The bride and groom exit the ceremony via a sparkler sendoff a bride and groom play with sparklers during a sunset portrait portion of the wedding day timeline


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