An ideal wedding schedule to borrow & tweak

It’s no mean feat to organise a wedding, especially your own. You might be wondering where to start and you’re almost definitely asking yourself “what’s the best wedding day schedule to go with?” I’ve seen a lot of weddings, done so many different ways, so if I’m your wedding photographer I’ll be very happy to give you all the benefit of my experience whenever you ask for it.

My first answer to most questions like “should we do X, Y, or Z on our wedding day?” is that it’s your wedding and you should do what you want to do. But there’s one thing I don’t recommend getting too creative with if you can help it, and that’s the basic running order of your wedding day.

Most ‘all day’ weddings follow the same basic timeline and like they say: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Every wedding’s different and there’s often good reasons to move things around a little bit. But something as seemingly simple as doing all the group shots before the ceremony instead of after it can have knock-on effects you might not have thought of yet. So if you do want to move things around compared to a ‘traditional’ schedule (like the one I’ve laid out below) it’s a great idea to check in with all your suppliers as early as possible, just to make sure they’ve got the time they need.

But for now you probably just want to know where to start, so let’s get going!

 

For the purposes of this imaginary wedding let’s assume a few details:

  • it’s an all-day wedding, with a bride and groom, and a 2pm ceremony,
  • and the ceremony, reception, and party are all taking place at the same venue,
  • with pre-wedding prep about 20 minutes drive away,
  • and around 100 guests, give or take a few dozen

In terms of heterosexual weddings compared to same sex weddings, the logistics are the same for everyone. All that really matters for now is where you want me to spend the time before the ceremony. And similarly it doesn’t really matter if you have 60 or 160 guests, all that matters is the more guests involved the longer it’ll take whenever we need to gather and arrange them.

I’m also going to be fairly liberal with some timings, especially group shots, portraits, and the first dance, which have the most potential to fall behind a bit. This just gives us the best chance of fitting everything in without much, or any, stress about the time – but without leaving things too ‘baggy’.  Then if we do get ahead of ourselves on the day it’s a bonus!

 

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11:30am to 1pm: Pre-wedding prep

Typically I’ll arrive to capture some pre-wedding prep around 2 to 2.5 hours before the ceremony, depending where you are for that. The goal is to have some relaxed time capturing what’s happening, and then get to the ceremony venue with at least half an hour to go. I’d like to capture as much of the ‘goings on’ as possible – it’s not all about closeups of people getting their makeup done. In fact it’s mostly wide shots taking in the general atmosphere, and some details that help build the story.

My only request as your photographer is please don’t rush to get ready and tidy up all the clutter before I arrive, or they may not be much of a story or atmosphere left for me to capture…

12:30pm: Start putting the dress on

If there’ll be a bridal dress moment it’s best to plan putting it on around 40 minutes before I have to leave, and definitely no later than 30 minutes beforehand. This gives you some time in hand to fall a bit behind schedule or for the dress to take a little longer than expected to put on. It’s all perfectly normal, just allow time for it.

Once I’ve got some lovely snaps of the buttons being done up and your family or wedding party seeing you all dressed up for the first time, I’m off to the ceremony!

1pm to 1:30pm: Photographer to ceremony venue

For this we’re assuming a 20 minute drive – but we’re allowing a few minutes for you to be a bit behind getting the dress on, plus a few minutes for me to pack up and get to my car, and a few more to find parking at the other end. Or if I’m getting a taxi allow a few minutes for it to be a bit late arriving.

What if you both want ‘getting ready’ coverage?

This is pretty simple if you’re both getting ready at the same venue or very close by (i.e. five minutes walk or so), as I’ll just bounce between you both, having planned what time you’ll be doing the important stuff (groom’s suit on, bride’s dress on, etc).

If you’re at very different locations I can probably only be with one of you unless we book a second photographer. This can add at least two or three hundred pounds to the price for just a few hours of additional coverage so it’s not always worth it for everyone. But if you’re concerned then let me know, I’m happy to discuss what you want and how we can achieve it.

What if you’re getting ready at the ceremony venue?

As there’s no ‘travel time’ to the ceremony venue after prep I can either spend a bit more time with both of you, or start a little later. Once we’ve seen how the end of the day looks it’ll be easier to decide about when to start and finish.

What if we don’t want prep coverage at all?

In that case we’ll have more time to spend either at the ceremony venue as guests arrive or at the party that night. That said, there’s not always much benefit to staying later than 90 minutes after the first dance as it can all get a bit messy and repetitive.

Personally, I think it’s a shame not to have at least a few scene-setting shots as you all get ready that morning. I approach wedding photography like telling a story, and stories need a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even if you’re all sitting round having cups of tea, that’s the beginning of the story and I think you’ll value those photos a lot more than you think once a few years have passed and memories start to fade.

 

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1:30pm: Ceremony guest arrivals

I’ll want to be at the ceremony venue at least 30 minutes beforehand. I use this time to say hello to the officiants, check out the space, and start capturing guest arrivals, greeting the groom and the families, etc. Then I’ll be outside ready for the bride’s arrival just before 2pm.

2pm to 2:35pm: The wedding ceremony

Most non-church ceremonies take about 30 minutes, maybe 40 at the most. It depends if you’re having any readings or if there’s some cultural or religious elements to the ceremony. Let’s split the difference and get you hitched by 2:35pm – congratulations!

What if our ceremony is longer?

Most church ceremonies, for example, take about 60 minutes as they usually feature multiple readings, sermons, and choir performances, plus some additional religious elements.

If your ceremony will definitely be longer than 30 minutes just add that extra time on to the subsequent timings in this suggested schedule.

 

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2:35pm to 2:50pm: Confetti & congratulations

Where you do the confetti has a big impact on how long this part of the day takes, because we have to get all of your guests out of their seats and out to that spot, all lined up for you, and all armed with handfuls of confetti to throw. For these timings I’ve assumed it’s a 1-2 minute walk for one person, so more like 5-10 minutes for 100 people.

Keep an eye on ‘travel time’ details like this one – getting 100 guests out of the main doors and into position outside (at a church for example) can take 5-10 minutes on a good day, but if you have to walk them out the room, down some stairs, through a building, and outside to a garden space (at a hotel, for example) it could be more like 15 minutes. So this is a great time for your best man and ushers to take charge again and keep people moving – in the right direction ideally. Seriously, guests don’t really know what’s happening so they really appreciate some nice loud voices telling them where to go and what to do.

Once guests are arranged out you come from wherever you’ve been hiding and enjoy the moment (if you don’t hide guests will find you and want to congratulate you and it’ll hold everything up for ages…). It only lasts a few seconds, then everyone will crowd round for congratulations and hugs as it’s the first chance they’ve had. There’s lots of lovely moments here so I’ll capture as much of that as I can before we probably need to move on to…

 

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2:50pm – 4:45pm: Reception drinks, group shots, and portraits

After the confetti’s all been thrown and everyone’s had a few minutes to congratulate you it’s usually a good time to gather all the guests who are going to be in your group shots, and send everyone else off to the drinks reception. I’ll generally try to get groups and portraits done in one hour – or much less if possible – so I recommend making the drinks reception around two hours so that you’ve got a full hour or more with your guests later.

Some couples choose to enjoy the first half hour with everyone and then start groups and portraits after that. That does sound like a nice idea but it comes with a huge, massive, major caveat: gathering all the guests you need half an hour into the reception will take ages. Seriously, aaages. It’s much easier to gather the group shot guests while you’ve got everyone’s attention after confetti than it is when they’re two glasses of champagne down and have nipped off to the loo, maybe gone for a wander to explore the venue, and have totally forgotten about group shots.

So I personally recommend you have your venue manager bring you two some glasses of champagne and a plate of canapés straight after confetti, and then we do the group shots and portraits first and get you back to the party after that.

2:50pm – 3:20pm: Group shots

Group shots are your best opportunity to get all your favourite people together for a photo with you so we want to do these no matter what.

But…

This part of the day has the unique potential to suck up tons of time just standing around asking the groomsmen to go and find missing family members, or wondering where the people who were right here a minute ago have wandered off to, and so on. It’s a bit like herding cats, especially when there’s 100+ guests looking for champagne. Fun! But all part of the experience, so don’t sweat it too much – just build it into your timings.

Some of these group shots will end up on mantlepieces for decades to come so it really pays to get them right. But we want to balance that with getting you back to the party ASAP. That starts with arranging your VIPs into as simple a list of groups as you can. For best results I recommend most couples try and stick to around eight to ten groups, and I’ve got a starter list I can share you with.

Of course, if for any reason you have to have dozens of unique group shots we can do that, but you need to organise your guests with fearsome precision or risk standing there missing your own reception for much, much longer than half an hour.

I’ve actually written a dedicated guide to easy wedding day group shots – check it out here.

Here’s the highlights:

  1. eight to ten groups works best for most couples, and can take about 15-20 minutes if everything goes without a hitch, or much longer if we have to look for people
  2. ask your best man/maid of honour/groomsmen/bridesmaids to help gather everyone – it’s what they’re there for, but make sure they’re up for taking charge in advance
  3. avoid fiddly variations with minor differences – fewer photos with more people in them is simpler and often just as good. Every second counts when there’s champagne being poured!
  4. accept that kids often don’t like posing – being asked to stand still, smile, or even look at the camera typically results in the exact opposite happening!
  5. add extra time for an ‘everyone’ shot – maybe about 10 minutes to move and organise people, unless we can do it where we did confetti
  6. and another 20-ish minutes to make some great portraits together – and a tentative plan to sneak out of your wedding breakfast for one last portrait during sunset, if there’s a good one (when the best light happens it usually lasts about five minutes)

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3:25pm – 3:45pm: Couple portraits

This is much simpler than group shots as it’s just you two and me and a nice spot to go for a wander and make some lovely portraits together. It may also be the part of the day you’re dreading as let’s face it, most of us don’t feel super comfortable ‘posing’. Don’t worry: literally all of my wedding couples have felt like this – including every couple featured in this post, and look how amazing they look!

With me as your wedding photographer you absolutely do not need to be a poser. Some of the best portraits are the couple having a snuggle on a secluded bench, or walking along a tree-lined avenue. Or if you’re getting married in the city there’s always some striking urban locations to make a portrait in. My usual approach is to take you for a walk around the location while I run around finding nice angles to shoot from. Occasionally I’ll stop you and pose you a little bit, give you a bit of direction, ask you to whisper something saucy in his or her ear, and then capture the result – even if you fall apart giggling that’s a great moment.

And after about 20 minutes – it flies by! – we’ll get you back to that party.

3:50pm – 4:45pm: Reception drinks coverage

Once we’re back from the portraits I’ll use the remaining hour or so to capture as many candid moments between your guests as I can, as well as keeping an eye on you guys so I can get some of the hugs and congratulations you’ll be enjoying. I’ll also nip off to the wedding breakfast room in the last 10 minutes to capture it all set up and looking stunning before guests arrive.

Thinking about squeezing the drinks reception down to 90 minutes?

Don’t. Stop it. Stick to the plan! Your guests really won’t struggle to entertain themselves while you’re away, and I want you to have enough time to enjoy it properly once you’re back. If we’re held up doing group shots you could easily end up with just 10 minutes here, I’ve seen it before and it’s such a shame.

What if we did group shots and portraits before the ceremony?

Sure, if we’ve done all the groups and portraits beforehand then you can probably safely cut the reception drinks down to, say, 90 minutes, as you’ll be there for all of it.

Call to be seated: 4:45pm – 5pm

Even if the dining room is literally right next door to reception drinks it can easily take 10 to 15 minutes for that many people to get the message, find their name on a seating plan, find their table, and actually sit down ready to welcome you in. Especially if they’ve had a few drinks already!

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Wedding breakfast & speeches & cake cutting: 5pm – 7:15pm

Timings all get a bit wobbly from here on out but there’s some timings you can usually count on: a three course meal alone will usually take at least 90 minutes to serve and clear for 100 people. Including 3 or 4 speeches easily gets us to two hours, and cake-cutting slows things down a bit too, especially if you’re doing it after the mains so it can be sliced by the caterers for guests to enjoy as dessert.

When’s the best time to do speeches?

Assuming you go for the standard three speeches (father of the bride, the groom, the best man) then personally I strongly recommend not doing them all together, and not doing one between each course, but rather one before the first course, then the last two after the main course, and no speeches at all between the starter and main. That way everyone gets to enjoy the flow of the meal properly, and the caterers will love you too. In fact a lot of wedding venues I’ve worked at recently won’t allow speeches between the starter and mains, for these reasons.

I find that bunching them all together can lead to people getting restless by the last one, especially as that’s often the longest. But putting one speech between each course means the meal is always being interrupted, and can make it hard for the caterer to keep the main course fresh. Plus it’s much more likely I could miss a speech that starts earlier than expected as I’ll take a half hour break when my meal is served.

Some spare time: 7:15pm – 7:45pm

Like I said, timings around here get wobbly, and there’s lots of different ways to do the whole meal/speeches/cake bit of the day. So, having some time in hand here allows for lots of stuff to happen that might otherwise cause a stricter schedule to run late anyway. For example it can be filled with: longer speeches; cake-cutting, slicing, and serving; comfort breaks; smoke/vape breaks; stretching legs outside; chatting to other tables; fixing makeup; changing outfits/shoes; getting away from it all with your new spouse for a ten minute breather, etc.

Or if you’re on time and everything’s done you can use it to invite everyone to join you in the bar, or wherever you’re serving drinks for the party that evening after the first dance.

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The first dance: 7:45pm

So, even though this is my own ‘recommended schedule’, I’d be surprised if we got to the first dance on time, and that’s totally fine, by this point nobody’s really thinking about timings. Your guests aren’t going anywhere, a bar just opened up, there’s cocktails to try and cake to eat and they just found the photo booth and everyone’s having such a good time! So you’ll probably sail clean past the time you planned. Truth be told, I’ve only seen the first dance go off ‘as scheduled’ three times ever. So let’s try again…

The first dance, realistically: 8pm

That’s more like it. Whether you’re having a nice slow shuffle for a minute or two, or you’re got a full choreographed performance up your sleeve, enjoy it! Oh, but, if you do choreograph something please let me know if there’s a cool moment to be ready for – like the one in that cracking first dance photo above.

 

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The party: 8:02pm until…

I like to have at least an hour left with you after the first dance, ideally an hour and a half, or occasionally a bit more if the party is really bouncing. So for this imaginary wedding my ‘official’ wrap up time would be around 9:30pm. And would you look at that, I’ve got 90 minutes left. Perfect!

Every wedding party is different though, so I’ll play it by ear. Generally after the first few tracks a lot of people disperse to hit the bar until another banger drops, so I’ll go where there’s interesting social moments happening that I’ve not already got – there’s only so many shots of Auntie Janet and Uncle John doing the Running Man that you need, right?

Once I feel like I’ve got everything I need that’s when I’ll come find you and say my goodbyes. It’s usually a bit emotional, but I know I’ll be speaking to you again soon!

What if we overrun and there’s hardly any time left after the first dance?

Speaking for myself it’s fine to stay later but to avoid you having to think about it on the night I’ll ask about how you’d like me to handle it in the ‘final details’ questionnaire I’ll send before the wedding. You can either ask me to stay for as long as it takes to give you an hour after the first dance (and invoice for it later), or you can say you’re not bothered and to finish on time – most couples choose the former option.

And that’s it!

That’s a fairly decent rundown of the average wedding day, and you’re welcome to copy it – with one major caveat: no wedding schedule survives contact with reality (or your guests) unscathed.

Wedding day time isn’t like normal time, it goes so much quicker. Even this schedule could go out of the window – probably around the group shots, but who knows? Nobody! Weddings are magical mystical beasts and you cannot tame them, you can only climb on and enjoy the ride- see you there!