How to Help Draft Your Couple’s Wedding Day Timeline

January 13, 2021

Have you ever showed up to a wedding and had no idea what the timeline of events for that day was? Yeah, me too. Early on in my career I sort of just showed up and hoped for the best! Or perhaps you have been shooting for a while and have experience building wedding day timelines with your couples, but you still feel like you could improve the flow of the day. Well,  either way, take a deep breath – because I am unveiling how to help draft your couple’s wedding timeline and sharing with you some of the necessities to creating an efficient, relaxing, and successful wedding day for both you and your couple! Check out my full podcast on this topic here !

Shooting a wedding can be overwhelming, exhausting, and sometimes chaotic.  Helping your couple build out a timeline for their big day not only puts them (and you) at ease, but gives you the opportunity to advise them on what times throughout the day are best to capture those ‘once in a lifetime’ moments.  

If they are already working with a wedding planner, then the couple probably already has a timeline.  Usually in this case, I ask for a copy early on so I can review what the planner has put together. This is a great opportunity for you to share your insight for how much time you might need throughout the day for pictures. You may find that communicating directly with the planner more efficient.  

If your couple does not have a wedding planner, offer to help them build out their timeline for their day. Side note: if your couple has a day of wedding coordinator provided by the venue, you are still most likely going to want to create their timeline for them. Either way, chances are the couple has not even begun to think about writing down the events of their day or budget for all the action that will be taking place.  Building out a wedding timeline is extremely important and extremely helpful for them, and for you! Remember,  you are the expert.  You can offer them a sign of relief by sharing your knowledge of how to timeblock their day so that everything runs smoothly.  

Often, on wedding day, your couple will be looking to you for direction (even if they have a planner!). This allows you a little bit more freedom to schedule certain photos at specific times of day when you think it’s best! For example, building in time for portraits before the sunset or scheduling a first look to before the ceremony.    

I always recommend offering timeline help from the moment your couple books with you. Then check in with them a few times between booking and the wedding day. Some couples will want to map out their day 6-12 months in advance, others may wait until the week of the wedding.  Either way, I want them to know that I am here to help.   Ideally, I help my couples create a draft timeline about 4-6 months before the wedding day, then the bulk of the timeline about a month out and then tweak the details the month of the wedding.  

Sounds like a lot of information to gather, right?  Right.  I have created a wedding day questionnaire to capture all the details needed to create a timeline and effortlessly help my couples build out their wedding day timelines.  I have outlined below the questions I include on the questionnaire and why that information is important to know.  Grab a pen, this is the good stuff. 

Pro Tip: I send this questionnaire to all my couples using Honeybook. Honeybook is my online customer relationship manager that helps me keep my mind straight (most often that is no small task). Each couple is listed in Honeybook along with their email addresses, so when it’s time to talk timelines, I just hit “Send” on that questionnaire and they can fill in their answers right online. After they’ve filled it out, I get a notification letting me know it’s complete!

If you’re not using Honeybook (you should be), but want to give it a try! You can use my affiliate link here to get 50% off your first year!

Okay, here’s the good stuff. Here is what you need to know, step by step, to start pumping out timelines.

  1. Start with the Ceremony Time

This is something that your couple has most likely already decided.  They have a good idea about where and when they want their ceremony to take place.  This is the easiest timeblock to start with because you can build the rest of the day around it.  

Now that you’ve got that time blocked out, I always recommend including a pre-ceremony chill (approximately 30 minutes before the ceremony) so that all parties can relax, eat and drink before the big events of the day begin.  This also serves as a buffer if anything from earlier in the day runs late.

2. Event Locations

The next details I ask are the location of all events.  You want to confirm where the bride and groom will be getting ready.  Are they at the same location? Do not assume that they are at the same location as each other or as the venue.  Sometimes the bride is getting ready at a hotel, the groom at a friend’s house, and the ceremony is at a completely different location. 

Once I have specified where the bride and groom will be getting ready, I also confirm the location of the ceremony and the reception. All travel time needs to be accounted for in your timeline and this can be a key factor in when portraits will take place.  Check these details early on! And remind the couple that moving people takes time. In other words, drive time, location changes, etc. needs to have buffers built in.  

3. Size of the Wedding Party

Knowing the details of how big the bridal party is essential when building out your wedding day timeline.  The time dedicated to bridal party portraits is directly impacted by the number of bridesmaids and groomsmen (or the size of the family). This information also helps me to advise my couple on the amount of time they may need prior to the ceremony to get ready (hair, makeup, getting dressed, etc.).  Working with two bridesmaids and two groomsmen is going to take less time than working with ten on each side.  

4. Special Moment Prior to the Ceremony

One of the questions I make sure to ask is if the bride and groom want to share a first look, gift exchange, or any other moments prior to the ceremony.  This is a popular request and I usually allot about 15-20 minutes for these types of portraits to be taken.  Sometimes it is shorter, but buffering more than enough time is important.  

If the couple is doing a first look and actually seeing one another, I always ask if they want to do some of their bridal portraits prior to the ceremony.  

5. After the Ceremony

For the reception period of the night, I ask a number of questions so that I can gather all the details of the evening.  These questions are important for the timeline but also to get your couple thinking about the decisions that need to be made prior to their wedding day. 

For example, will there be a toast and if so, who will be speaking? Will there be a blessing for the dinner? 

If any or all of these events are occurring during the reception, make sure that they are blocked on the timeline so as to allow the evening to run smoothly.  

I also ask about how their dinner will be served (plated or buffet) so that I have an idea of what to expect for that period of the evening. When building out a timeline for after dinner, I gather information about the types of dances that will take place (dad/daughter, mother/son, speciality dances, etc.).  This is a great place to softly discuss the family dynamics so that you are aware of any non-traditional events as well. For example, maybe the bride has lost a parent, and a brother will be dancing with her instead.  

6. Evening Games and Activities

Games are all those extras during the evening that take place after your dinner and traditional dances – the apron dance, the shoe game, and other fun activities.  I always discuss these details with my couple as well.  I make sure to note in my questionnaire that if they are not sure what each of these “games” are to ask me because it might be something they want to do.  

Finally, I inquire about the cake cutting and the send off (bubbles, sparklers, etc.).  This will help determine when you, as the photographer, will be present for the day.  I typically book 8 hour wedding packages, so if the send off is after this time period, I might not be there for the send off.  It is also a great idea to confirm the time that the reception must end, so that the send off can be planned accordingly.  

The last thing outlined on my questionnaire is a blank place for the couple to write in any “must haves” for their day that I may have forgotten or that are specific to them.  

7. Building the Wedding Timeline

Once I have gathered all the information through the questionnaire, I begin building the timeline.  I always start with the ceremony.  Then, I add in the pre-ceremony chill (30 minute) block.  This block of time is meant for all parties to relax, but also as a buffer so that we are not scheduling right up to the very last minute pre-ceremony.  So for example, if the ceremony is scheduled for 4pm, the pre-ceremony chill block would begin at 3:30pm.  Once this is in place, you can begin to schedule the rest of the day.  

If they are not doing a first look, I want the bride in her dress about 30 minutes before the pre-ceremony chill.  This will give me time to grab shots of her getting into her dress, with her bridesmaids, with her mom and then head over to grab photos of the groom.  

If they are doing a first look,  I typically block 15-20 minutes per event, such as first look with dad, first look with groom, letter exchange, etc.  This can add up to about 60-90 minutes depending on the people / items involved. 

From this point, I work backwards, building out the events of the morning such as the bridesmaids getting dressed and hair / makeup.  I always buffer in about 15 extra minutes in case these timeblocks run longer than expected.  

Then let’s work the other side of the timeline, after the ceremony.  Typically the ceremony will be about 30 minutes, however, make sure to ask the couple if they are doing a specific type of ceremony, such as a catholic mass, that could take much longer.  Another event that can take a little longer is if your couple is having a receiving line (greeting all of their guests after the ceremony).  Be sure to allot time for this as well.  

Once I have buffered the time for the ceremony, I then outline the time for the portraits of the bridal party, family, and bride and groom.  I usually allot about 60 minutes for this, as the bride and groom portraits are personally some of my favorites to shoot.  Sometimes, if the bridal party and family is large, I do ask if I can buffer 90 minutes for this section. 

When time blocking the dinner hour, I allot about 10 minutes for each toast and blessing and about 60 minutes for dinner. The specialty dances, games, and cake cutting are short blocks (5-10 minutes) that you can schedule throughout the rest of the evening.  One thing to note is that as soon as the couple cuts their cake, guests will begin to leave.  If the couple wants guests to stick around and dance, push the cake cutting to later in the evening.  Last thing to schedule is the send off.  Again, make sure to confirm the end time of the reception so that the send off can take place before the venue says doors closed.  
Phew!  That’s a lot to take in.  I hope that this was helpful to you and gives you more confidence and clarity when helping your couples plan their wedding day.  If you take anything from this, I hope that it helps to streamline the process for you.  I want you (and your couples) to have success when building out their big day. 

Here’s a snap shot of what my timeline questionnaire looks like!

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