Wedding photography timeline is the key to the perfect wedding day. It’s the map that keeps your day on track and smooth. This step by step guide will help you to design a schedule perfectly suitable for your big day.
You will understand what a photographer makes during the wedding day and why it is so, and not otherwise. In the end, you’ll find the FAQ to create your ideal wedding photography timeline and get the best from the wedding days photography.
You can also watch this YouTube video for more detailed information.
Keep in mind that this is an essential topic in wedding preparation and you don’t want to miss anything 🙂
Table of Contents
Arrival at the Venue & Bride and Groom Preparations
Let us start from the very beginning of the wedding day. As a rule, I get to a venue in advance: for instance, if wedding preparations start at 10 am (with the arrival of the MUA), I will be there one hour earlier. If the second photographer will come at this time as well, we will take a look around together supposing where the best photo spots may be. The importance of lighting on your best day can hardly be overestimated. For a photographer, it’s crucial to understand how to take the most advantage of the natural light at the venue.
The sun always goes in the same direction and photographers can easily calculate where deep shadows, or diffuse light, or the direct sun will be during the day. For example, if the sun sets behind a barn, it means in front of the building it will be a good shadow and backlighting (or contre-jour effect when the camera is directly pointed toward the source of light) that is perfect for family & group photos.
Another necessity to “inspect” the area is the preparation for the shoot of getting ready details. A photographer has to find perfect spots for hanging the wedding dress and placing accessories so that it will look absolutely stunning and enchanting in the pictures.
When we are ready to shoot wedding preparations, we divide our duties and work separately from each other. The second photographer takes pictures of the groom’s preparation because it’s less difficult. The groom and his party can be ready in 30 minutes. At the same time, I (or another first photographer) capture all the wedding details of bridal preparation. Getting dressed and beautified, makeup, and group photos can last more than 2 hours. For the bride and her maids, this time is full of anxious excitement. The task of the photographer is to capture these memorable moments and to convey the intimate and joyful atmosphere of it without being too intrusive.
First Look Photos
One of the important points of our “site investigation” is searching for the First Look Spots. Finding a place can be difficult particularly at noon when the sun is directly overhead. This direct sunlight (in other words midday light) is far from the best lighting situation. In the middle of the day, the sun is at its strongest. Colors are washed out and shadows are short, which can give everything a flat look. There’s a lot of contrast and some details can look bleached in pictures, while others will be nearly black.
However, often we have no choice but to shoot in it. In such situations, we are looking for soft, diffused light over a location — for example, on verandas, galleries, or balconies that are roofed and partly enclosed or in wooded areas like groves and orchards. A dense cover of the trees makes the light go through the leaves and creates enough shadows. Shaded areas, however, should not be in full shade, we still need to have some available light. Otherwise, we will end up with dark photos without any light breaks.
If your best day starts as dull or cloudy, the thing which you need to know is the following: it’s sometimes better to shoot on a day like this than under the blazing sun.
Clouds in the sky create the natural effect of diffused light and there is no need to search for immediate shade. Photos in diffused light will look like sunset portraits. So, these images can be even better than photos in direct sunlight.
After reviewing the venue in the daylight, we understand where and how the ceremony will go. Every ceremony has its nuances, small differences:
- Sometimes the wedding altar area is brightly lit and the ceremony seating for guests is in the shade. For a photographer, it means that he can not take pictures straight from the guests’ area because of these different types of lighting. In that case, we usually shoot at the side of the aisle.
- It’s also important that the altar place is in the shade. The situation when one partner is in the shade and the second stays under the direct sun has to be avoided. These so-called partial shadows are responsible for failed close-ups when the light hits one person’s face and the other is in a complete shadow. We want the couple’s faces to be clear in the photos.
- Another story that you can expect with high probability at a Californian outdoor venue is the blazing sun in August or September. Usually, the staff of a venue offers some help to combat the heat (as at Serendipity Gardens with parasols and fans for guests during the ceremony). But you have to be aware of these small details particularly if it’s not possible to move the ceremony to another place.
- The venue itself may have some restrictions for photography as, for example at the Wayfarers church when a photographer has to stand behind the last pew during the wedding ceremony. Only after the ceremony is finished, he may re-enter the chapel for close-ups and group photos.
Therefore, it makes the most sense to visit a venue the same month the event will take place. Then you will have an understanding of what the light will look like on your wedding day and be sure that the management of the venue gives you unbiased, comprehensive information.
Wedding Party & Family Portraits
In a summer wedding, the family & group photos take place directly after the ceremony while guests enjoy their cocktail hour. In a winter wedding, group photos can immediately follow the first look as the daylight hours are very short and it may be not enough time for quality day pictures. In the FAQ below, I will speak more about the differences between a winter and summer event according to the wedding photography timeline.
By planning group photos in the bright sunlight, the main task is to find a shadow big enough to place the whole group. So that the light pattern will be the same and no partial shadows will appear.
Another challenge is time for family shots. You don’t need to calculate the exact duration of it, just calculate how many people will take part in it. From my experience, every group takes about 3 minutes of a photographer’s time. If there are 10-13 groups of family members or friends (based on the guest number of 150, for example), all the group photos will take approximately 30-40 minutes.
There is another piece of advice from the experienced photographer to avoid a tricky situation:).
If you are going to make family shots after the ceremony, inform all the participants in advance and remind them at least three times.
As far as I can tell, after the ceremony guests are eager to go to cocktails and anyone who has reached the bar is hardly to come back :). Spending time with pleas to take pictures will cost you precious time and nerves. Even 5-10 minutes spent on it is already a third of the time planned for family photos.
A Wedding Family Portrait Checklist
Some couples decide to take family photos according to the Wedding Family Portrait Checklist. They prepare this list in advance and share it with their photographer to take group photos a smooth experience. I especially recommend this list for big Indian, Persian, or Armenian wedding celebrations. Once, at a large Indian wedding, I made a 4-hours-family shooting with more than 500 persons. The groups of guests came to take pictures with the newlyweds in turn. Two hours later the couple made a small break. After that, they posed with the rest of the relatives for two hours more.
A Wedding Family Portrait Checklist can look as following:
Bride & Groom – Bride Parents
B & G – Bride Parents plus Brothers and Sisters
B & G – Bride Parents plus Brothers and Sisters plus kids and Partners
B & G – Bride Grandparents
B & G – Groom Parents
B & G – Groom Parents plus Brothers and Sisters
B & G – Groom Parents plus Brothers and Sisters plus kids and Partners
B & G – Groom Grandparents
Bride – Bridesmaids
Groom – Groomsmen
B & G – Bridal party (flower girls, page boys).
Sometimes I take Bridal and the Groom’s Party photos first and other relatives after because bridesmaids and groomsmen are usually related to the couple.
Important note: a photographer does not know the family tree of the couple. He can’t help organize people and here you need anybody who knows all the guests (usually it’s someone of the bridesmaids or groomsmen) to help out. This person has to be active and loud enough to call upon and gather everyone.
Important note: If you give a photographer a list with names or a list of family members it wouldn’t help to organize the crowd. He needs help from anybody who knows all the guests (usually it’s someone of the bridesmaids or groomsmen) to help out. This person has to be active and loud enough to call upon and gather everyone.
As you see, taking one photo after another according to the list makes sure that no one is forgotten. But if you are in doubt whether you need the list or not, you probably don’t need it.
Importance of Sunset or Golden Hour Shots in Wedding Photography Timeline
I highly recommend not underestimate the importance of sunset pictures. They may be the best photos in your wedding album. Not without reason this time (at about 20-30 minutes before sunset) is called the Golden Hour. This magical moment of the day produces the best light for a photograph. The sun is already low on the horizon and the light is more diffuse and redder. The air is filled with a beautiful golden hue and there are no harsh shadows that you can see at high noon. It helps to achieve enchanting effects in the pictures that aren’t possible at any other time of day.
I Know it’s a lot of photos 🙂 But I want you to understand through them how truly important sunset time is for photography!
In general, there are two best options in your wedding photography timeline to make sunset photos. The first photographer can suggest newlyweds make sunset shots right after the ceremony if there’s not much time left before sunset. It’s very common for winter time weddings. During that, the second photographer makes cocktail hour shots.
Otherwise, if there is plenty of time before sunset, the couple makes their Grand Entrance, and the reception party starts. After meals are served, the couple at a convenient moment can leave guests for sunset shots. Which is typical for summer time weddings.
I highly recommend not underestimate the importance of sunset pictures. They may be the best photos in your wedding album.
Not without reason this time (at about 20-30 minutes before sunset) is called the Golden Hour. This magical moment of the day produces the best light for a photograph. The sun is already low on the horizon and the light is more diffuse and redder. The air is filled with a beautiful golden hue and there are no harsh shadows that you can see at high noon. It helps to achieve enchanting effects in the pictures that aren’t possible at any other time of day.
It’s better not to shorten or rush the sunset shooting. Sadly that it sometimes starts later than it should be. Once I was asked if I could postpone the sunset pictures :). Unfortunately, the sun will not wait for anybody.
Sometimes, a wedding planner shortens the time for sunset photography because the newlyweds are needed for the Grand Entrance or Cake Cutting. As a result, we get 15 minutes of the shooting instead of 30-40 including the time to move from one spot to another. In such situations, I try to find a compromise while explaining that the couple needs more time until all the right moments will be captured. An experienced wedding planner will perfectly understand this necessity, without any further ado.
The reception party is less stressful for a photographer than other wedding day events. Although it can include many rituals, it takes place typically in only one location and the lighting can be controlled easily. Everything the photographer has to do is to follow the events and shoot. If he needs to leave his spot for a short period, the second photographer will replace him.
I couldn’t describe everything about reception here. Check out this specific article about Wedding Reception Program. It describes everything in details.
Sometimes, the reception hall may be too dark for quality shoots. The ceiling or walls don’t reflect light. Only one flash on the photographer’s camera is not enough. In such situations, we use additional light sources to avoid dark shadowy pictures. It can be some flash units in the corners, umbrellas, or other lighting equipment around the hall.
I also recommend adding artificial lights (to light candles, to hang bistro lights or string bulbs around tables, etc.) for darkened indoor and outdoor areas.
It adds a magical romantic ambiance and helps to highlight beautiful wedding details which after will look great in the pictures.
FAQ about a Wedding Photography Timeline
Here are some of the most popular questions about a wedding photography schedule that I’ve heard during the past 7 years while photographing more than 500 weddings.
Does it matter if you haven’t worked at my venue before?
In my opinion, it doesn’t matter for a successful wedding photoshoot whether I was there before or not. For me, it’s enough to investigate the area one hour before the event will start to get an idea of where the best spots are. Reviewing other photographers’ work can also help. If you’re still concerned, if I’ve worked at your venue please send me an e-mail and I will give you all the necessary information.
Do you as a photographer attend our rehearsal?
It’s a common practice that a photographer attends a rehearsal. Sometimes, couples book the shooting of the entire pre-wedding day. It’s a so-called pre-wedding photoshoot. I had clients which booked three days of the shoot: before the event, the wedding day itself, and the day after. I am doing exactly what the client wants.
As for a wedding rehearsal, in my opinion, it’s worth doing particularly if the wedding includes special rituals, is large or kids participate in the ceremony. You need to make sure that everybody knows what he will do on the wedding day.
It’s better to devote a day to this pre-wedding preparation. If the ceremony and other events are small, with few attendants, and don’t include any rituals, you can try to make the rehearsal on the same day in the morning. However, it’s not a totally perfect idea because of the usual morning hustle & bustle.
Can we give you a list of specific shots we want?
For me, it’s an absolutely normal practice as well. I am always up for such wedding photo checklists. I explain in advance that this list has to comply with the ambiance of the venue chosen for the celebration and its surroundings. But as for me, I will try to do my best to fulfill the wishes of clients.
From my experience, I know only two reasons that may prevent me from capturing the moments you wish:
- Unfortunately, it may be just not enough time in the wedding photography timeline to make shots from your checklist. Sometimes, it’s no time even for sunset photos (as I explained above). To avoid it, I recommend adding the shoots you wish into your timeline in advance. Don’t forget to specify not only your must-have shots but also the time duration planned for them. A week before the wedding I usually call the couple and we discuss their timeline including must-have photos.
2. The second problem occurs rarely, but still. There are wishes a bit far from reality. For instance, a couple chooses a mountain venue, however, their must-have shots are on the beach. I understand they like the idea of a seaside shooting but unfortunately, it’s extremely hard to fulfill this wish. Even though the sea can be not far from their venue, there is no time in the wedding timeline for this trip.
Here is an example based on the real-life experience: newlyweds booked the perfect Victorian Santa Monica wedding venue. The couple supposed that the beach photoshoot will last no more than 10-15 minutes as it is not far from the venue. My opinion was we had to count on a minimum of 40 minutes. As a rehearsal, they arrived there by car — 10 minutes, looked for a parking spot — 25 minutes to get to the shore line — 5 minutes more (plus time for the shoot) and the same way back. They realized their estimation of time was far from accurate. In that case, we found a solution: on the wedding day, we arrived by a chauffeur-driven car. The entire shoot lasted about 40 minutes…
There may also be some highly unrealistic wishes. For example, I had a request for a photoshoot like on the wedding day of Prince William and Kate Middleton. I completely understand the client’s desire to get the fairy-tale ambiance of the royal celebration (attire, a palace, etc.). But in our situation, it was very hard if not impossible to implement it into their actual wedding.
Is there a difference in the wedding photography timeline between a winter wedding and a summer wedding?
Yes, there is. By making the wedding photography schedule for a winter wedding keep in mind that the sun sets earlier in winter, at about 4.30 or 5 pm. It’s approximately 3 hours earlier than in summer. To make good use of the time I highly recommend making Wedding Party & Family Portraits immediately after the First Look. That will help to go exactly according to the wedding photography schedule. A common mistake at a winter wedding is to be late with group photos. They should not be taken after sunset as it’s already not enough light for quality shots. Besides, by adding group pictures to First Look shots you won’t need to gather and call up all the participants again. So, I always advise combining First Look and Wedding Party & Family Portraits in winter. In this way, your wedding days photography will be stress-free.
When do you usually start shooting on the wedding day?
It’s pretty standard for me that I start an hour later than the MUA. But actually, it depends totally on the bride’s wishes and what moments she wants to capture during her wedding preparation.
How long will your wedding makeup last? You can roughly estimate it while making your makeup trial some months before your big day. A lot of brides use their makeup trials for engagement shots. You only need to calculate accurately the time of the entire makeup process, as a conclusion you will have its real duration. Add 20% more to it and rely on this estimate. Usually, there are 2.5-3 hours and not 1-2 as many brides believe.
How long do you typically stay at receptions?
Again, I always try to do my best to fulfill the wishes of a client. Generally speaking, I finish at 11 pm, near the end of the reception. If the venue allows the Sparkling exit, surely I will capture it. At large Armenian, Indian, or Thai weddings I may stay until 2 am. But I’ll be there as long as you want me to be there.