Building Your Wedding Day Timeline

The wedding of your dreams does not include uncles arriving late, a longer dinner, a shorter first dance, or your grandparents wandering off in the middle of your photos. Your wedding should be everything you want, and your photos should be too. So, our resident photography expert Sarah Harms chimed in on how to build your wedding day timeline to get the photos you want so everything runs smoothly and according to plan on your big day.

Whether you are planning your own or your planner is shouldering the bulk of the decisions, there a few key things to know before building your wedding day timeline.

A groom stands behind his bride who is holding her bouquet.


Before you schedule your day down to the minute, Harms suggests making a list of photos and moments you want to ensure are captured. These photos can include: getting ready, the first look, the couple, the wedding party, the families separately and together, the first dance, cutting and eating the cake, the receiving line, and the exit.

Your list is already getting long. But don’t worry, Harms says, these photos will be a breeze if you plan and communicate with your photographer ahead of time.

Start planning your timeline two to three months in advance. You should have most of your vendors and details narrowed down, and you should know what time the ceremony will start because it is the keystone of your day.

Harms laid out a typical timeline, but remember, this is your wedding day, so you can decide which photos you want and which to skip.


Getting ready shots are more for the girls, Harms says, but guys can do some tie-tightening and shoe lace-knotting for classy detail photos. The actual process can be lengthy, but if you know what you want captured prior to the day of, you can talk with your photographer to determine when they need to arrive and how long the photos will take.

A second photographer can be useful for getting photos of one of you and getting set up for the first look, while the lead photographer is snapping away with the other fiance.


The first look is optional, but if you do want a peek it’s most natural to do so when the couple is finished getting ready. Then you can move into formal shots together, and formal photos with your wedding party. Here, knowing what photos you want as a couple and what photos you want with the wedding party will streamline the day and help organize your timeline.


Getting your families together, on time and posed for a photo is a bit like herding cats. Harms says to know about how many family members will be attending before you plan your timeline. This will help determine how long family photos will take. She budgets an hour, but larger families can take longer.

The key to quick family photos is having everyone there. Harms tells her clients to have the family arrive 15 or 20 minutes before you plan to take family photos. That allows for the straggling cousins and siblings, without holding up the whole day.

Some people prefer to do family photos before the ceremony, while others prefer to take them after the ceremony. If the couple is doing a first look, it can be simpler to ask guests to arrive early and meet in a specific location for photos, rather than running around after the ceremony trying to find family members who have wandered off. However, if you are not doing a first look, the couple can still take their separate family photos before the ceremony and get family photos together afterward.

Harms recommends taking as many group photos beforehand as possible, if the ceremony is at the same location as the reception. But, if the ceremony and reception are at different venues, she says to take photos either before or after the ceremony, but don’t take them at the reception venue to ensure no lost family members.

So that the adorable little ones you love having at your wedding look their cutest in photos, have the photographer bring candy, stuffed animals or toys to get their attention.


Once the ceremony is over there are many different options for the timeline. Some couples have a receiving line, some don’t, some go into family and couple photos – especially if they didn’t do a first look – and some couples start the reception with dinner, a first dance, speeches or cutting the cake.

How do you know what to do first?

Prioritize. Know what shots you want your photographer to get, and know when your photographer is scheduled until. The cake cutting is usually an important shot, as are speeches and dances. But, Harms says, if you have a videographer that will be there all night, you might want the videos of the first and parent dances instead of photos. It all comes down to personal preference and knowing what you want. Communicating with your photographer about the length of the reception and when they are scheduled to leave gives you a better idea of when to do which parts of your reception, and if you need to add extra hours. You can usually add hours the day of, but it’s much more expensive and can be chaotic to do so.


The Instagram-able sparkler exit, the twinkly light photos, the “Just Married” sign glowing in receding taillights – all adorable, and all requiring darkness. These photos require at least twilight, and will probably require your photographer to stay for another hour or two, depending on the time of your wedding. Harms advises sharing your plans with your photographer and adding an extra hour onto your photography package for get any nighttime or exit photos you want.


Overall, communication is vital. Harms says meeting with your photographer in person is a good idea to clearly convey what you want and expect, and to verify that your timeline will work. Getting a lot of information to your photographer early on will ease the pressure and clarify things closer to the big day. To ensure your day is as smooth as that delicious frosting, double check with your photographer the week of your wedding about all the details and timeline tweaks. 

The wedding will be as smooth as the timeline, and good communication ensures both are as seamless as your dress.

Not sure if you need a second photographer to help orchestrate the day and organize your family?

Check out this post on the benefits of a second photographer.