7 tips for the perfect wedding day timeline

Jan 10, 2023 | Planning

The key to a smooth stress-free wedding day is a carefully crafted timeline that allows plenty of time to enjoy each moment, and of course to photograph them too. So where do you start? We asked Virginia wedding photography studio David Abel for their top tips for the perfect wedding day timeline.

"After photographing weddings for over 15 years, we have picked up a multitude of tips that help your wedding day run smoothly and allow for us to create something special out of our clients once-in-a-lifetime moments," explains Kristy Abel. "We recommend working with your planner and photographer to develop a timeline that allows for everything you want to be captured, while also allowing the time for moments to unfold naturally."

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1. Determine sunset time

This is the first and most important thing that you need to do when planning out not only your timeline, but also your wedding day. You have the power to move everything else around in your timeline except for the daylight hours that you have available. Plan to finish up all daylight photography 1/2 hour prior to sunset as the sun will appear to set a half hour earlier on cloudy days.

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2. Decide if you are going to do a first look

The biggest time crunch for wedding days is the time between ceremony and reception where the photographer, couple, and wedding party/family have the most to do. Family, full wedding party, newlywed, cocktail hour, and reception detail images all need to be taken at this time, a general rule of thumb is 20 minutes for each.

If you decide to do a first look, then the standard cocktail hour works perfectly, but if you decide not to, think about extending your cocktail hour to an hour and a half to compensate for all that needs to be captured in this time, especially if you wish to join your guests for cocktail hour.

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3. Allow enough time for getting ready

Something that puts you behind at the beginning of the day can snowball and put the entire wedding behind by an hour or more. Plan to have all hair and make-up completed a half hour prior to stepping into the dress. Are you interested in robe shots, first looks with dad, a reveal to your bridesmaids? Exchanging gifts? Bridesmaids and Groomsmen group photos? Talk to your wedding planner to make sure everything that you are hoping to achieve has a realistic block of time associated with it.

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4. Keep your family photo list short, or allow a lot more time for it

How many family photos you want to capture will have a big impact on your timeline. We typically suggest no more than 12 shots since they usually take about three minutes per shot (bringing people in, posing larger groups, making sure they know what to do with their hands, making sure nobody has anything in they pockets etc - it all takes time). And if you have a list of 20-30 images you’ll want to budget about an hour to achieve all of it, and in our experience (no matter what family has said they would like) most couples, family, guests and bridal party all begin to lose interest after about 20 minutes.

Keeping your list small allows you to capture the most important shots while still letting everyone enjoy the wedding. If you have larger group shots (beyond moms, dads, siblings, and grandparents, we suggest capturing those during the reception).

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5. Allow more time for travel than you think you’ll need

The very best thing that you can do for your wedding is to keep everything in one location, however if you are traveling between locations on the wedding day you need to allow more time than you think. My general rule is to double the travel time required. If you are traveling to your ceremony from the hotel and it normally takes 15 minutes to get there, allow for 30 minutes. Keep in mind the time it takes to gather everyone, wait for elevators, walk down to the hotel lobby, and drive through traffic as well. On busy weekends, elevators can get held up or someone may leave something important in their room and it may take longer to get to your transportation than anticipated.

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6. Allow for buffer time

Wedding days are very fluid in nature, some things that seem like they would only take a few minutes end up taking a half-hour. Unexpected things will happen like a clasp on your dress needs some extra attention, or an entire side of the family is lost in cocktail hour and the family photos get behind, or the bus gets stuck in traffic and will be late delivering your guests the ceremony.

We recommend not planning down to the minute, if your timeline is too tight (ie step into the dress at 11:57am vs step into the dress between 12:00-12:15pm) you’ll be setting yourself up for being rushed around and not being able to enjoy your day. Instead, insert buffer time into your timeline between important moments so that when something does happen your timeline won’t suffer. Your wedding planner will have a good handle on inserting buffer time and allowing enough time for your day.

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7. Take some time for just the two of you

The wedding day can have so much going on and you’ll be pulled in many different directions by friends and family excited to celebrate with you. You likely won’t have a moment alone the whole day. My suggestion? Whether it’s a first look, a private five minutes after the ceremony, or walking away just out of view to capture some emotional newlywed photos, carve out some moments with each other to catch your breath and celebrate the monumental step that you are taking with each other. Many of our couples say these five minutes are a much needed balance to the rest of the excitement.

All images and copy by David Abel

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