The Definitive Guide to Creating a Wedding Day Timeline For Photographers

Wedding days are busy for photographers — I mean pretty much the entire time we’re there. We bounce from photojournalism to portraits to details and back to photojournalism and then back to details again in a non-stop fashion. Our couples have lists of people who are important to them, moments that are crucial and decor/mementos that they never want to forget. They’re expecting us to remember all of those things and get photos of ALLLLL of it.

The way you prepare will make all the difference, not only in how well you do all of the above, but also how you feel on the wedding day while you do all of the above. Your printed wedding day schedule (or a digital copy on your phone if you’re like Sean and don’t want to keep up with paper. Whatever.) is your key to success.

Over the years I’ve tweaked and honed our wedding day schedules as we’ve figured out what works best for us. You’ll do the same as you continue on in your career, but today, I can help you get a jumpstart on things.

The Basics:

We start with the basic timeline. Your timeline might look different from mine because you might need more or less time to accomplish different parts of the day, but I’m going to explain why I choose the amount of time I do for each part…

Getting Ready: We arrive 1 hour before the bride is finished getting ready. This allows me time to photograph the bride’s dress/shoes/accessories, get the tail end of her hair and makeup prep, and her actually putting everything on. Any earlier and I find that I’m just doing a lot of waiting. Sean will be waiting anyway, since men take about 3.5 seconds to get ready on a wedding day. Lucky.

First Look: If the couple is having a first look, we allot 15 minutes for them to see each other and have a little time together alone. For this, we will typically photograph their initial reactions to each other and then back off and let them actually be alone, not just “with the photographer” alone. This is also time that can be cut if things run late as they don’t actually need 15 minutes for a first look. It’s a built-in buffer and we put a few of these in place along the way.

Couple/Wedding Party Photos: These can be done separately or lumped together depending upon your couple and how far away from the ceremony site they want to get for portraits. If everything is taking place on-site, or your couple is afraid of PDA, having just the two of them together before bringing in wedding party is the way to go. If they want to walk around downtown or feel like their friends will help them loosen up, take them all together. Again, you will notice that we’ve given ourselves more time than we need, just in case.

Family Photos: We knock these out at the end because often parents are the last to get ready. If there are child attendants, have them come at the end of the wedding party photos or the beginning of the family photos so that they’re not worn out by ceremony time.

I plan these to end one hour before the ceremony begins, when in reality 30 minutes would do it. This is our biggest buffer for the day and I can’t tell you how many time getting ready has run over and we’ve needed it.

Post Ceremony: If the couple is not going to see each other before the ceremony, I say that we need at least 45 minutes and honestly, between corralling family and wedding party, it can get kind of hairy. With rare exceptions though, that’s the most time you’re going to be able to get and you don’t really want to make the guests wait much longer than the cocktail hour before seeing the bride and groom anyway.

After formals are complete, the day just kind of goes as it will and we’re along for the ride. Our timing portion is complete, but now comes the nitty-gritty.

The Details:

Overview and Getting Ready

We’ve talked about how we ask all the right questions ahead of time so that we know what our couple’s priorities are for their wedding day and all the things/people that are important to them. In our Top Tips for Photographing Your First Wedding, I mentioned that we take all of the answers to those questions and input them into the schedule.

Here’s what that looks like:

First, you’ll notice there are different colors on this page. The colors correspond to who is supposed to be paying attention to that particular item.

  • Red is for me
  • Blue is for Sean
  • Green is something we both should be looking for.

This way we can find the pertinent details that apply to each of us specifically at a glance.

  • At the top I give a brief overview of what our couple is looking forward to most and any concerns they may have. This is the stuff we both need to be keeping in mind all day long.
  • Addresses for any and all locations for the day are listed next to arrival times.
  • If there are special details or people that we can capture during getting ready, those are listed under the getting ready section of the timeline.


Must-Have Photos and VIP’s


I list the names of all family members and wedding party and highlight them in red so that I can reference them throughout the day (Ages are also listed for children). I try to remember everyone I possibly can, but this is a quick reference if I need it. It’s also helpful when you find that taking wedding party photos is like herding cats and shouting people’s individual names helps get their attention. Fun times.

You’ll also notice that I’ve made notes of whether the couple wants individual photos with each bridesmaid and groomsmen or not, and the complete family formals list so that I don’t accidentally forget one of the groupings. You can also have your second shooter check these off as you do them to help make sure everyone is covered.

Gear and Prep

If we need different gear for different parts of the day and we won’t be able to keep everything readily available, I write that down too. This is especially important if we’re doing fusion (photo/video) as some lenses are really only needed for video and not something we normally carry on us.

You’ll also notice that if we’re doing fusion, there are notifications throughout the ceremony and reception for when to mic someone in advance of a certain event.

The Ceremony

Here you see notes on where we can be during the ceremony and what the couple wants us to focus on. Also, maybe it’s just a Southern thing, but we occasionally still have people who want photos of all wedding party members walking in and out of the ceremony, so we ask and jot it down.

The Reception and Special Requests

We often wait until the reception to do ring shots, so that is also written down during a time when I know there will be a bit of a lull.

Here we have a list of people the couple want photos with during the reception.

And finally, we list cell numbers for the planner, bride, groom and other key players, just in case. If you find that you’re stuck in traffic, having trouble getting to their secure floor at the hotel, or the bride or groom are MIA at the start of the day, these will be especially important.

Now your schedule is complete and all the things are accounted for. The final step is to print a copy for each shooter/assistant and an extra for your gear bag. I have a bad habit of leaving my schedule in the pews during family formals, so that extra one comes in handy. ;) Reference it before every major event throughout the day and you’ll be all set.

I hope this helps you feel more confident and prepared for your next wedding! Best of luck!

— Mel

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