Building a Wedding Day Timeline

A solid timeline is going to ensure that everyone has a happier day - without one, we’re all running around without a plan. Who wants that?

I believe that part of a photographer’s job is to provide a clean, efficient timeline. Yes, we’re hired to take lovely photos, but if we can provide a realistic timeline for those photos, everyone wins.

Before you can sit down and really knock out a timeline for your clients, there are a lot of questions that need to be asked.

Key questions:

  • When is the ceremony? How long is it?

  • Is there a formal cocktail hour? (If so, do you want that covered by me, or do we need a second shooter?)

  • What time do you want to be announced into your reception?

  • Are we doing a first look? If so, are we doing group photos before the ceremony, or after?

  • If we aren’t doing a first look, do you want to do divided groups before the ceremony, or after?

Of course, a lot of other factors go into building a timeline: ceremony and reception in different places, large breaks in a day (usually during some religious/cultural weddings), etc. But for these examples, we’ll assume our clients are having their ceremony and reception all in one location, with a 10 hour booking.


Let’s look at an example with a first look, all posed photos before the ceremony, with a cocktail hour and a 4 hour reception.

EXAMPLE ONE (Client is “bride” and “groom”. Sunset time: 8:30pm.):

  • Ceremony time: 5pm (30 minutes)

  • Cocktail hour: Yes

  • Reception entry: 6:45

  • Reception Exit: 10:30

  • First look: Yes

  • Posed Before/After: Before


With that information, we know the following:

  • We are hired for 10 hours, and their exit is at 10:30. This puts our arrival time at 12:30.

  • They want a first look, and all posed photos done before 5:00. If this is before daylight savings, this means we are not shooting posed portraits in glowy golden hour. We should plan to bring lighting to accommodate harsh shadows, or plan to shoot this indoors — this depends on client’s preference.


When you start to compose this timeline, this is the very start of it:

12:30 - Arrive to venue.

1:00 -

2:00 -

3:00 -

4:00 -

5:00 - Ceremony begins!

5:30 - Ceremony ends, straight to cocktail hour coverage.

6:45 - Grand entrance to Reception

7:00 -

8:00 -

9:00 -

10:00 -

10:30 - Exit, and goodnight!


Now, answering some other questions, we can get a feel for what time will be needed for the pre-ceremony planning.

  • How big is the wedding party?

  • How big are the families?

  • Are there posed photos you want before everyone is in their wedding attire? (Most commonly in robes/pjs.)

  • Is everyone getting ready on-site together?

  • Is it equally important to have coverage of both parties getting ready? (While I would say yes, in my experience, most people don’t feel this is necessary. One person may want this more than the other, and if your package does not include a second photographer, it’s important to know how your time should be divided — or, great opportunity to upsell.)


Now let’s say we got the following answers:

  • Wedding party: 5 on each side

  • Family size: “pretty big”

  • Posed pre-attire: Yes

  • Everyone on-site: Yes

  • Coverage of both parties: “Not necessary, but cool if possible”


So we can plug in some more of the beginning of the day.

12:30 - Arrive to venue.

1:00 - Detail shots, Bride getting ready

2:00 - Posed photos of party in robes/pajamas

2:15 - Move to Groom’s suite, capture getting ready shots, into attire

2:45 - Move back to Bridal suite, into attire

3 :00- First look into Posed Newlywed Portraits

4:00 - Posed Wedding Party

4:15 - Posed Family

4:45 - Everyone into hiding // Photographing reception wide room shots

5:00 - Ceremony begins!

5:30 - Ceremony ends, straight to cocktail hour coverage // Photographing reception tablescapes

6:45 - Grand entrance to Reception

7:00 -

8:00 -

9:00 -

10:00 -

10:30 - Exit, and goodnight!

Now that the beginning of the day is set up, your clients can start to plan with their other vendors for their ready-times. For example, knowing that the bride needs to be photo-ready in robe at 2:00, her hair and makeup should be wrapped up by then, and all the bridesmaids needs to be ready by then as well. The groom in this situation also knows he needs to be in the suite to start getting ready no later than 2:15.

Next, we have the reception portion to fill out. Generally speaking, the flow is written up by a DJ or planner, so you might not have a lot of say here. But there are some questions left to ask!

  • Do you want to be pulled from the reception for any sunset/evening photos?

  • If guests start to leave earlier, do you plan on doing a “fake exit” for the photos? (I don’t recommend this because it frames the wedding as a production instead of, you know, a real day. If they lean yes to this concept, suggest calling it a “photo opportunity” as opposed to having a DJ announce a “fake exit”. “The bride and groom want to get a photo of everyone standing around them with sparklers! Please head outside.” — something like that.)

  • What timeline is already in place for the reception’s events?


In our example, let’s say our bride and groom said:

  • Sunset/evening photos: Yes

  • “Fake exit”: No

  • Reception events timeline: dinner at 7, toasts at 7:30, cake at 7:45, first dance at 8:15, into open dance floor. No bouquet/garter.


Cool. With that covered, we now have a general idea of the rest of the night. Let’s plug it all in!

12:30 - Arrive to venue.

1:00 - Detail shots, Bride getting ready

2:00 - Posed photos of party in robes/pajamas

2:15 - Move to Groom’s suite, capture getting ready shots, into attire

2:45 - Move back to Bridal suite, into attire

3 :00- First look into Posed Newlywed Portraits

4:00 - Posed Wedding Party

4:15 - Posed Family

4:45 - Everyone into hiding // Photographing reception wide room shots

5:00 - Ceremony begins!

5:30 - Ceremony ends, straight to cocktail hour coverage // Photographing reception tablescapes

6:45 - Grand entrance to Reception

7:00 - Dinner begins

7:30 - Toasts

7:45 - Cake cutting

8:15 - First dance, open dancing

8:20 - Sunset/Dusk photos

8:40 - Back to the dance floor

9:00 -

10:00 -

10:30 - Exit, and goodnight!

If our couple specifically said “sunset photos” and was NOT open to darker, duskier photos, we’d be in a pickle here. If that was the case, I would suggest taking them for sunset photos right after they finish dinner, moving Toasts to 7:45, Cake to 8:00, and First Dance to 8:30, OR moving Cake after some dancing happened. But in this example, let’s say our couple was flexible.

And that’s it! That’s a full timeline for this example — but let’s do another with different circumstances.


EXAMPLE TWO (Client is “bride 1” and “bride 2”. Sunset time: 5:30pm.):

  • Ceremony time: 1pm (15 minutes, short and sweet)

  • Cocktail hour: Yes

  • Reception entry: 2:30

  • Reception Exit: 6:00

  • First look: No

  • Posed Before/After: After

With that information, we know the following:

  • We are hired for 10 hours, and their exit is at 6:00. This puts our arrival time at 8:00.

  • No first look, all posed photos after, which means our posed photo window is from 1:15 - 2:30.

When you start to compose this timeline, this is the very start of it:

8:00 - Arrive to venue.

9:00 -

10:00 -

11:00 -

12:00 -

1:00 - Ceremony begins!

1:15 - Ceremony ends.

2:00 -

2:30 - Grand entrance to Reception

3:00 -

4:00 -

5:00 -

6:00 - Exit, and goodbye!




Again, same questions as before, with different answers:

  • Wedding party: 2 on each side

  • Family size: small

  • Posed pre-attire: No

  • Everyone on-site: Yes

  • Coverage of both parties: Yes


With that information, here’s how I would fill in the beginning of the day.

8:00 - Arrive to venue.

9:00 - Detail photos

10:00 - Bouncing between suites photographing both Brides getting ready.

11:30 - Bride B into attire

12:00 - Bride A into attire

12:30 - Everyone in hiding, wide room shots of Reception, tablescape shots if time permits.

1:00 - Ceremony begins!

1:15 - Ceremony ends, posed portraits begin with family.

1:30 - Posed portraits with wedding party.

1:45 - Posed newlywed portraits.

2:15 - Done with portraits, in position for grand entrance.

2:30 - Grand entrance to Reception

3:00 -

4:00 -

5:00 -

6:00 - Exit, and goodbye!

Pretty chill morning! When you have two Brides getting ready, it is important to know if they are both going to be in full hair and makeup, so you can stay on their schedules. Generally speaking, the key moments are towards the end of hair being done, and makeup shots once lashes/mascara is on.

And now we move to the reception portion with the same questions. In this example, our brides are said:

  • Sunset/evening photos: Yes, if possible

  • “Fake exit”: Yes, if needed

  • Reception events timeline: Lunch at 2:45, Toasts at 3:30, First Dance at 4:00 Cake at 5:00. They’ve also warned this is more of a mingle crowd than a dancing crowd.


Again, sounds like a really relaxing time. Here’s how the rest of the day should flow!

8:00 - Arrive to venue.

9:00 - Detail photos

10:00 - Bouncing between suites photographing both Brides getting ready.

11:30 - Bride B into attire

12:00 - Bride A into attire

12:30 - Everyone in hiding, wide room shots of Reception, tablescape shots if time permits.

1:00 - Ceremony begins!

1:15 - Ceremony ends, posed portraits begin with family.

1:30 - Posed portraits with wedding party.

1:45 - Posed newlywed portraits.

2:15 - Done with portraits, in position for grand entrance.

2:30 - Grand entrance to Reception

2:45 - Lunch is served

3:30 - Toasts

4:00 - First Dance

5:00 - Cake, immediately into QUICK posed Sunset Photos

5:20 - Back from photos, enjoy the reception!

6:00 - Exit, and goodbye!


It is important to get them back to their reception quickly after those photos — it’d the end of it, after all! If, by chance, guests have started to leave around 4:30, I would suggest moving the cake to 4:30, exit to 5:00, and then photos from 5:00-5:30. That does cut your day by 30 minutes, and the clients may or may not be cool with that. But you won’t know if this is even an option until the wedding day, so make sure everyone is on the same page to play it by ear.


Those are two examples of timelines with pretty different circumstances. Hopefully seeing this written out in blocks helps you understand how to most efficiently compose your next timeline!

Cortnie Davis