Tips on Putting Together a Wedding Day Timeline

Ahh! The dreaded timeline!

Folks, it’s time to roll up those sleeves, literally. Whenever it comes time to put one of these together, I can always imagine the collective anxiety building up on the other side of screen. Most folks fall into the “I don’t even know where to start!” category, judging by all the frantic emails we find in our inboxes everyday. On the other end of this spectrum, we have clients who send us detailed, color-coded spreadsheets of where everyone/everything is going at precise times throughout the wedding day. If there is a mason jar out of place, these clients would probably know immediately. There’s no right or wrong way to go about it, of course, but the wedding day itinerary still needs to be done. We certainly don’t expect our clients to be professional brides and grooms, so that’s where we come in.

So what’s the secret to planning the wedding day timeline?

I hate to break it to everyone, but there really is no secret. It doesn’t matter if it’s a daytime wedding or evening wedding. It doesn’t matter if the photography team is offering 6 hours or 600. It doesn’t matter if it the couples are getting married in the countryside, city hall, or even in the middle of the woods. Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist weddings? They all follow pretty much same format. Weddings, at their core, have not changed very much since the beginning of civilized humankind; the bride/groom’s going to get ready, they’re going to get married, and they’re going to celebrate (with food, dancing, whatever they can possibly dream of). Since the advent of photography, the only decision the bride/groom need to make regarding this timeline is when they wish to take their photos. That being said there are basically only two kinds of timelines:

Getting ready ➞ First Look/Photos ➞ Ceremony ➞ Reception
or
Getting ready ➞ Ceremony ➞ Photos ➞ Reception

It simply boils down to whether the clients wish to take photos before or after the ceremony. It’s not my place to say if one approach is better than the other, because it comes down to the needs and desires of the clients. Every client is different. We always start our clients off with 10 hours of coverage in our most basic only package, which allows them the freedom to go either way. Why? Because one less headache for the client is one less headache for us.

There are only three things that brides and grooms need to consider when putting together a sensible timeline: (a) Locations, (b) Time spent at locations, and (c) Travel time between locations. Generally speaking, the ceremony time will serve as the anchor for most wedding days, because it serves as the invitation time for your guests (which was probably also set well in advance). Working backwards from the ceremony start time, we can usually determine the best time to start getting ready.

Here are some tips that should be helpful:

  1. Budget 2 hours for the bride’s hair & make-up. Consult with the HMUA (Hair & Make Up Artist); they’ll have a better idea of how much time they’ll need.
  2. Budget 30-45 minutes for each bridesmaid’s hair & make-up. If moms, grandmoms and flowergirls are getting professionally done too, they need to be factored in as well. If there are multiple hair/make-up professionals that morning (actual HMUAs, not assistants), this prep portion of the day may require less time. The HMUAs will generally tell you how much time they’ll need. Generally speaking, most HMUAs should be able to handle 5-6 ladies over the course of one morning by themselves (without delays). If there is a larger wedding party, bringing in additional HMUAs may be recommended.
  3. Guys will need roughly 30 minutes to get ready. Doesn’t matter if it’s 2 groomsmen, or 10. Sucks to be a guy, I know :).
  4. Whatever you budgeted for travel or what Google Maps says, tack on another 30%-50%. For us NJ wedding photographers – if we have to cross the Hudson River to go into New York City or Long Island, we always double the recommended travel time.
  5. If the wedding falls on a Friday, consideration for rush-hour traffic must be taken.
  6. Most photographers will want 1 hour of exclusive time for formal portraits, which will allow them to photograph the bride/groom, bridal party and family. We always budget two hours. Whether we do it all at once, or sprinkle in this time throughout the day, it’s entirely up to the needs of the clients. Because we offer more than enough coverage for all of our clients, it affords us the flexibility to accommodate their needs.

That being said, here’s an example of a typical itinerary with a first look:

10:30am // Bride starts hair/make-up no later than now
11:30am // Photography coverage starts now
12:30pm // Bride done with hair/make-up
12:45pm // Bride in dress
1:00pm // Bridal Party en route to Photo Location
1:30pm // First Look, Photos with Bride/Groom, Bridal Party and Family
3:30pm // Bridal Party en route to Ceremony (off-site)
4:00pm // Ceremony Start
5:00pm // Bridal party en route to venue
5:30pm // Cocktail Hour Start
6:30pm // Formal reception start
10:30pm // Formal reception end

And here’s an example of a typical itinerary without a first look:

10:30am // Bride starts hair/make-up no later than now
11:30am // Photography coverage starts now
12:30pm // Bride done with hair/make-up
12:45pm // Bride in dress
1:00pm // Bridal Party en route to Ceremony (off-site)
1:30pm // Ceremony Start
2:30pm // Bridal Party en route to Photo Location
3:00pm // Photos with Bride/Groom, Bridal Party and Family
5:00pm // Bridal party en route to venue
5:30pm // Cocktail Hour Start
6:30pm // Formal reception start
10:30pm // Formal reception end

Every itinerary is going to be slightly different, but will more or less follow the same structure. Pretty simple, right?

And for the brides who didn’t read this entire post, and simply want the abridged version:

  1. You’ll need to start your hair/make-up roughly 3 hours before you need to head out the door.
  2.  I will probably show up during your prep roughly 1.5-2 hours before we need to head out the door, roughly the same time the groom/groomsmen should be getting ready.

You’re welcome :).

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