Wedding Tips

A Guide for Creating the Ultimate Wedding Day Timeline + FREE Resource From A DMV Wedding Photographer

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No matter what kind of wedding you are having, you need a wedding day timeline. Big or small, budget or luxury, full-day or a few hours… A wedding day timeline is the one tool that can either make or break your special day. Creating the ultimate wedding day timeline for your specific event is simple, especially when you enlist the right help!

Virginia wedding photographers Emily and Kevin of Emily Nicole Photography prepare your custom wedding day timeline to help you create the ultimate wedding day experience.

What is a wedding day timeline?

A wedding day timeline, also known to some in the industry as a day-of timeline or run-of-show, is a list of events to take place on your wedding day from start to finish. It includes what time every event starts (and ends), often from the time the bride and groom must start getting ready (hair and makeup start times) all the way to the end of the night with a grand exit or sparkler send off.

Often a document, print or digital, wedding day timelines are prepared ahead of the wedding day and passed along to the involved parties. These include the bride and groom, members of the bridal party (maid of honor and best man at minimum), key family members (parents, siblings, etc.), the officiant, and all wedding vendors (venue coordinator, planner, DJ, photographers/videographers, etc.)

Who is in charge of creating a wedding day timeline?

As a wedding photographer, I create custom timelines for all my couples based on photographed events. This timeline can serve as your primary (or only) timeline if needed! Especially if you have a smaller event or no wedding planner. However, wedding planners and day-of coordinators will often provide you a timeline of their own.

Planner timelines are much more extensive in detail. They often include rehearsal dinner events for the night before, arrival times for each vendor and involved party, set-up and tear-down times, and other logistics many couples forget about.

The ultimate wedding day timeline is one that your planner and photographer collaborate on together! Here’s why.

The planning is usually up to wedding planners and day-of coordinators (not to be confused with venue coordinators). They often know the ins and outs of set-up and tear-down. And they’ve likely been in contact with every wedding vendor to understand their time needs in order to provide their services to you.

Photographers, however, are the only vendor that actually spend the most time with the bride and groom on the wedding day. Often, it is my job as a wedding photographer to know how long it typically takes to get in the dress, have a First Look with your dad and/or groom, take family photos after the ceremony, and so on.

Ultimately, both vendors need to agree on start times for each event that will be photographed. But you as the bride and groom need to equip both vendors with enough information about your wedding day plans and honored traditions to craft the perfect wedding day timeline, unique to you! I help brides do this by sending them a comprehensive Bridal Questionnaire when they book with me.

And if you’re looking for a planner in the Northern Virginia/Washington, D.C. area, I highly recommend Juli Valentine of Completely Coordinated Events! She’s freaking awesome. If you need other referrals, be sure to email me at emily@emnicolephotography.com and I’m happy to share the love to all my vendor friends (frien-dors!)

The Ultimate Guide to Creating a Summer Wedding Day Timeline | Advice for Brides from a Northern Virginia Wedding Photographer

Read the blog post for all the tips and advice you need to craft the perfect wedding day timeline + a FREE download to a customizable wedding day timeline template!

What time should the wedding start?

When crafting the ultimate wedding day timeline, the most important information for me to know as a wedding photographer are as follows:

  • How many hours of coverage did you book me for?
  • What time is your ceremony?
  • What time is sunset on your wedding day (and in your wedding’s location… not all sunsets happen at the same time depending on obstacles that may block the sun earlier like skyscrapers or tall trees/mountains)
  • What time is the earliest I can be on-site at your venue?
  • What time do all vendors need to leave the venue?

As your wedding photographer, I can help you determine the best start time for a ceremony based on the sunset, but if you already chose a ceremony start time then I will use that information to craft a timeline that allows for enough portrait time before we lose all natural light.

This can depend on the time of year as well.

Spring/Fall Weddings:

These weddings will depend highly on the time of year or proximity to Daylight Savings events. If you are getting married in the months of early March to mid-May, be sure to check with me on when to start your ceremony in order to have enough natural light for portraits after. First Looks can be optional (though still highly encouraged) if you plan to have an early enough ceremony to have plenty of sunlight before your reception starts. Ceremonies are best to start around 4:00 or 5:00 pm depending on date.

Summer Weddings:

These weddings have the most flexibility! Long days mean lots of sunlight. First Looks are still a great option, though, because heat can often affect the appearance of hair and make-up. The First Look allows you to get portraits while you still look your best. These weddings are also great for Golden Hour portraits, which means more chances for stunning, glowy images of you as newlyweds. 5:00 or 5:30 pm ceremonies are most common for summer weddings in my experience.

Winter Weddings:

These weddings can be tough, logistically speaking. With very little daylight to work with, I advise winter brides to opt for early ceremonies (late morning or early afternoon). Sunset often happens as early as 4:00pm, which means we have limited time for natural light portraits. For my winter brides, I require a First Look in most cases. This helps ensure I give you the quantity of portraits together that you deserve. Without a First Look, most of your gallery will be of photos without the two of you together. I highly recommend considering a brunch wedding, or a ceremony between 1:00 and 2:30 pm, especially if you are adamant against having a First Look.

Winter Wedding Tip: If you have an earlier ceremony and don’t want guests to have to attend more than an hour cocktail hour, consider splitting your wedding day in half! Invite guests to the ceremony earlier in the afternoon. Then allow them a break to go home and change into more comfortable dancing shoes and snack before dinner is provided at the reception later in the evening. I’ve seen this done and it gives SO MUCH freedom to everyone. I get to take lots more photos of you and your new spouse. And guests get to shed off their heels, freshen up, and get drinks and appetizers at home or nearby the venue before partying with you at the reception.

The Ultimate Guide to Creating a Winter Wedding Day Timeline | Advice for Brides from a Northern Virginia Wedding Photographer

Read the blog post for all the tips and advice you need to craft the perfect wedding day timeline + a FREE download to a customizable wedding day timeline template!

I’m ready to create my wedding day timeline. Where should I start?

Once you know your ceremony start time, sunset time, and venue start and end times, you are almost there! Your photographer and wedding planner will likely want you to gather estimated time requirements from various vendors. Get started using this brief checklist:

  • How much time does your hair stylist need for your hair? How much time do they need for each bridesmaid/Mom’s hair?
  • How much time does your make-up artist need for your makeup? How much time do they need for each bridesmaid/Mom?
  • Is there any travel time between your getting ready space and wedding venue? How much time? (Make sure to buffer a few minutes on each end for traffic or road blocks!)
  • Do you have a large list of family formals for your photographer to capture? Or a smaller one? (I recommend no more than 10 groupings).
  • Have you decided to do a First Look?
  • What time is last call/your grand exit?

All of this information and more is used to craft a custom timeline for you.

As a wedding photographer, I have crafted dozens of wedding day timelines for my couples! I now have a template that does it all for me, leaving only needs for small tweaks here and there. The good news is I want to share this customizable template with you! Completely FREE!

If you need a wedding day timeline template that is editable to adjust to your perfect day, CLICK HERE! From there, you’ll send me your email and I’ll send you the FREE download!

Or, if you’re looking to hire a wedding photographer who can craft a custom timeline for your wedding day), inquire with me!

Otherwise, see below for my top tips for each part of the wedding day timeline. The below guide will help you create the ultimate wedding day timeline. The big moments aren’t missed when organization is prioritized.


Pre-Ceremony Timeline Tips

  • Schedule Hair and Makeup time to have 10-15 minutes longer than your hair and make-up artist(s) ask for. This is one of the number one time eaters that causes entire wedding days to run late!
  • Make sure Mom and Bridesmaids are fully dressed BEFORE you step into your wedding gown! You should be the last one everyone waits on.
  • If you’re having a First Look with your dad (or any other family members/bridal party etc.) make sure he is already waiting outside the door when you are getting in your dress. This eliminates the need to take extra time to go find Dad and bring him to your Getting Ready Suite.
  • Schedule in time for giving gifts/surprises. If it’s not on the timeline, there’s a good chance it gets forgotten in the height of emotions throughout the day (I completely forgot to give my parents their gift from me on my own wedding day, because I didn’t put it on my timeline!)
  • Once I am done photographing your rings, be sure to immediately give them to the person responsible for them. This will help prevent delaying the ceremony if the rings get forgotten.
  • GROOMS! Be 90% dressed BEFORE the photographer arrives! We only need to photograph you putting on your tie, shoes, watch, cuff links, etc. Plus we’ll want to photograph these accessories (a.k.a. Groom Details) before you put them on. Being dressed before I arrive ensures you aren’t late to the First Look. This goes for your groomsmen as well.
  • Buffer extra time for travel, if necessary. If getting ready at a location other than your wedding venue, add at least a 10-15 minute buffer for traffic or road blocks (even in the country… tractors tend to be on the road at the worst possible moments).

First Look Timeline Tips

  • GROOMS! Be early to the First Look! It’s easier to set you up where you should stand then bring in your bride rather than the other way around. Don’t make your woman wait on you.
  • The First Look is about the only time we won’t rush. Take in this moment, hug each other, show off the wedding gown, breathe. This is going to be the most amazing day!
  • Have your bridal party (bridesmaids AND groomsmen) on standby before you start your First Look. As soon as the First Look ends, we’ll move into wedding party portraits, so we don’t want to have to go looking for missing groomsmen or bridesmaids.

Wedding Party Timeline Tips

  • Make sure bridesmaids have their bouquets and groomsmen already have boutonnieres and pocket squares set on their jackets. This takes time, so it should be done well in advance of wedding party portraits.
  • Offer restroom runs well in advance of portrait time, and ask wedding party members to leave behind any drinks, wallets, and phones. Stuff in pockets tend to always show through in photos.
  • If you have a Flower Girl/Ring Bearer younger than 10, invite a parent to accompany them in case they get camera shy. We’ll take photos with them first so they can relax after a few quick shots, while we still have their attention and energy!

Ceremony Timeline Tips

  • Remind your officiant to announce for guests to go on to cocktail hour, but family of the bride and groom to stay behind for photos. One of the other most common timeline obstacles is when family wanders off and we have to go looking for them for photos.
  • When you are officially pronounced husband and wife, recess down the aisle and into a “hiding spot.” If guests see you after they get up from their seats, they’ll want to hug you and talk to you immediately, which can make us lose precious time before the sun sets.
The Ultimate Guide to Creating a Spring Wedding Day Timeline | Advice for Brides from a Northern Virginia Wedding Photographer

Read the blog post for all the tips and advice you need to craft the perfect wedding day timeline + a FREE download to a customizable wedding day timeline template!

Family Photos Timeline Tips

  • Also known as Family Formals, this portion of the day is no one’s favorite. But we can speed through them so everyone can get on to cocktail hour! To make it go faster, work with me (your wedding photographer) to create a concise list. Include names AND relationship so I know who to add to each photo in the shot list!
  • List grandparents and young children first in the family photos! Getting the eldest and youngest members photographed usually takes the most time and attention to detail, especially if grandparents require a chair or extra time to walk in and out of place.
  • Once members are no longer required for future shots, release them to cocktail hour. Less people means less distraction for the rest of the family and keeps everyone focused on the goal: getting to your party!

Newlywed Portrait Timeline Tips

  • You’re finally married! You want this time to soak it all in. If at all possible, schedule as much time as you can for these portraits. 20-30 minutes minimum, but even more is ideal.
  • Be sure there will be enough time before sunset for photos. If it is summer and we’re well ahead of sunset, maybe schedule an extra 5-10 minutes during dinner for Golden Hour portraits as well!
  • My biggest timeline tip for wedding day portraits is not neglecting to do your engagement session beforehand! This is where we’ll practice poses so we don’t have to take the time to teach you on the wedding day.
The Ultimate Guide to Creating a Fall Wedding Day Timeline | Advice for Brides from a Northern Virginia Wedding Photographer

Read the blog post for all the tips and advice you need to craft the perfect wedding day timeline + a FREE download to a customizable wedding day timeline template!

Reception Wedding Day Timeline Tips

  • Ultimately, your DJ and wedding planner can be super helpful with planning a reception timeline on your wedding day. Trust their expertise for order of events for a seamless flow and experience for you and your guests!
  • If you have limited photography coverage, consider moving your cake cutting up earlier. Some couples now opt for cutting the cake right after their entrance to the reception!
  • If you have limited photography coverage, consider doing a faux exit! Gather your immediate family and bridal party to stage an exit with sparklers. Run through a few times for the photos, then get back inside and party!
  • If you’re having a real exit, be sure to schedule it at least 15 minutes before the end of your photography coverage. It can take some time to gather and organize all your guests into a sparkler tunnel.

Did you love this post? Looking for more wedding planning tips? Then you’ll love these other blog posts of mine:

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ULTIMATE wedding day timeline

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Wedding days can be stressful, but they don't have to be. One of the number one causes of wedding day stress is a disorganized, tight timeline. In this guide, I'm sharing a sample wedding day timeline I use to craft all my brides' wedding day timelines, as well as diving into some pro tips only a photographer might know.

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