How to Create the Perfect Photo Timeline for Your Wedding Day

Perhaps the most stressful and difficult part of planning a wedding is creating a perfect photo timeline for your wedding day.  The most frequently asked questions we receive from inquiring brides all center around timing: When should we start photos? How long will we need for photos? How long will a receiving line take? What is the expected length of our ceremony? When should we have our cocktail hour end? How long will dinner take?   And there is even more than that to consider!

If this list is already stressing you out, there is help, we promise!  Our number one suggestion for every bride is to hire an experienced event or wedding planner that is familiar with how to build a wedding timeline that flows well, incorporates all the elements of your day, and leaves you with some buffer time just in case.  When you hire a wedding planner, you not only offload some of the stress of planning your wedding timeline, but you are ensuring that important elements aren’t forgotten, your vendors are all on the same page, and most importantly that your best interests are taken to heart.

However, we know not everyone will make the decision to hire a wedding planner, therefore we have a few tips and suggestions for how to create the perfect photo timeline for your wedding day!  Please keep in mind that these are our suggestions based on not only our personal shooting style as photographers, but how we find most couples prefer their day to flow.  Some photographers work faster or slower than us, but this is what works for our couples 95% of the time.  For purposes of this blog post, we are focusing our suggestions on a traditional protestant or Catholic wedding day that has an afternoon ceremony followed by a reception.  If you are planning a non-traditional day or an event with multiple ceremonies or a special cultural event that is non-western, we will have a blog post coming soon for you!

bridal details to prepare for your wedding photographer


When we build wedding day photo timelines, we start with the ceremony start time, and go backwards from there.  Usually the ceremony time is decided early on in the wedding planning process, so it’s fairly fixed.  But if you still haven’t chosen your ceremony start time, start with sunset and go back from there!  And one quick note – if you do want a sunset ceremony, we recommend holding your ceremony an hour before the listed sunset time so you’re not saying “I do” in the dark.  The listed sunset time is literally when the sun goes down!  


Here’s a look at the elements of your day that you need to take into consideration as it pertains to your photo timeline:

Arrival & Exterior/Drone  | 30 Minutes

We will arrive and greet your friends and family that are present, and focus our time on photographing your venue or ceremony exterior.  If you have drone included and the weather is cooperative, we’ll capture some epic aerial footage!  **Not every wedding we photograph has drone included.


Bride & Groom Details | 45-60 Minutes

This is when we photograph your dress, shoes, rings, invitations, florals, etc.  While this may sound like a lot of time, curating details is surprisingly one of the more time consuming aspects of the day.  We’ll take candids of everyone getting ready as well.  Typically this is when final makeup is happening or sometimes lunch – don’t forget to eat!  If you’d like a photo of the girls in robes or matching getting ready outfits, we’ll need a little extra time for that.

plum and purple wedding invitation flat lay detail

 Getting Ready  | 30-40 Minutes

We ask all of our couples whether they have buttons or a zipper for this very reason – getting into a dress can take 10 mins or 45!  Brides are often surprised that this can take more time than they expected, and so we often build in extra time into your timeline here so that you’re not rushed.  And trust me, this is the ONE time of day you don’t want to race through things.  Enjoy these moments with your closest friends, take time for one last girls-only photo or portrait with your mom.  These are the photos you’ll be so glad you made time for.


Parent First Look & Bridal Party First Look  |  15 Minutes

Not every couple does this, but it’s becoming more and more common.  If you’d like to share a special moment with one or both of your parents after you are all dressed up, you’ll want to build in about 10-15 minutes into your wedding day timeline.  With a bridal party first look, you can do this either before your first look after you’re in your dress, or another fun way is to have a reveal with both the bride and groom TOGETHER right as the bridal party joins us for group photos.  It’s usually a fun moment that takes around 5 mins.


Buffer Time | 15 Minutes

Yes, we schedule in some buffer time!  This helps alleviate stress, and gives us time to get our couples set up for their first look.  Allowing yourself time in your photo timeline on your wedding day means we can play catch up if things are running behind.  Pro tip: If we are running on time, we can use this time for extra solo bride and groom photos!


first look at galena wedding


First Look & Bride & Groom Portraits | 45-60 Minutes

The moment you’ve been waiting for when you finally get to see each other!  Like stated above, we need a little bit of time to set you both in position for your first look.  We can photograph your first look and bride and groom photos in 30 minutes, however we prefer to have more time whenever possible.  30 minutes is the bare minimum.  These are THE most important photos that will be on your walls for years to come, and we want you to optimize your investment with us.  Setting aside enough time allows us to be creative and it also allows you to have some much needed time together alone!  Because weather is often a factor on wedding days, we recommend planning for 45+ mins of TOTAL bride & groom portrait time throughout your day, that way if it is rainy early on but clears up later, we can still have time to photograph you as a couple!  Please don’t overthink the “what if this happens?” scenario with weather!  We are accustomed to changing timelines on the fly.  Part of hiring a professional is that we are detailed and organized in advance, yet flexible and able to adapt to any situation on the wedding day.  You can trust us – we won’t be phased by a downpour!

More on first looks: 7 Reasons to Consider a First Look – and One Reason You Shouldn’t

Wedding Party Photos | 30 Minutes

This often depends on the size of the bridal party and how cooperative everyone is, however we can almost always finish bridal party photos in under 30 minutes.  We will photograph everyone together, just the groomsmen, just the bridesmaids, and individuals of each member with the bride/groom separately.  Our workflow for wedding party photos is efficient and we can move through these relatively quickly at one location.  We love when we have the opportunity to add a little extra time for some more creative bridal party group photos or another location – this adds some nice variety for you and your friends!

sugar grove bridal party photo


Family Portraits| 30-45 Minutes

We prefer photographing group family portraits before your ceremony whenever possible.  It is far easier to gather everyone at this time since they have one task – to be in a photograph!  If you choose to have your family portraits during cocktail hour, it’s usually a bit more challenging if we photograph photos nearby since people tend to wander and want to reconnect with friends and family.  Calculating time for family photos is challenging.  Every family is different in size and has needs specific to their family.

Based on our experience, we can photograph both immediate families and grandparents in under 30 minutes.  If you are including any extended family groupings, have a particularly large family, or have younger children age 2-6, we recommend planning for 45 minutes so it’s a stress free experience for everyone.  While family portraits usually aren’t the most enjoyable experience for everyone (I can’t think of one couple who has said they look forward to it!) they are inevitably some of THE most important photographs we will take.  Generation portraits matter.  We will guide you through a family photo list and help make sure this is efficient for everyone and results in beautiful portraits.

Learn more about creating the perfect Family Formals Photo List

Pre Ceremony Time | 30-45 Minutes

We recommend wrapping up all group photos no later than 30 minutes before your ceremony start time.  Particularly if you are photographing group photos at your ceremony location, which is common.  This allows you time to refresh, and time for your guests to arrive and be seated.  Many of our couples choose to extend this to 45 minutes, because yes, you’ll have guests starting to arrive!


Travel Time 

Don’t forget to build in any travel time into your wedding timeline!  Think about parking, traffic, and special events that might cause there to be a longer drive.  Driving in cars vs a party bus doesn’t typically change the travel time.  Always give yourself a few extra minutes for travel time.  We actually hit major traffic on my own wedding day on our way to the reception – this got us behind schedule big time!


Rapid Creek Cidery wedding ceremony

Ceremony | 30-60 Minutes

Most protestant ceremonies are around 30 minutes in length.  Catholic weddings with mass are typically 60 minutes, and those without are around 45 minutes.  We’ve found most non-religious weddings to be around 30 minutes as well.

Post Ceremony | 15+ Minutes

Guests will take anywhere from 10-15 minutes to exit your ceremony.  Some couples choose to dismiss guests row by row or hold a receiving line.  Of the two options, receiving lines take far longer.  Ask us for time frames since this is dependent on number of guests.


Reception Details | 20+ Minutes

We want to make sure we tell the full story of your day.  We LOVE when we have at least 20 minutes to photograph your beautiful reception details and decor.  We’ll ask your catering staff to clear out for a few minutes while we capture a shot of the empty reception room.  Usually we only need about 5 minutes of the room completely cleared to get the full room shot.  Then, we focus on smaller details and single tables and can work around other people easily.  If your ceremony and reception are in the same location, we often photograph these shots while the bridal party is in hiding prior to your ceremony.

Temple for performing arts Des Moines wedding venue


Cocktail Hour & Reception | Varies 

Most cocktail hours last at least an hour.  Unsure about having a cocktail hour? Check out this blog post about the pros and cons.  Make sure you also build time for your guests to transition to your seats after cocktail hour.  The general flow of your reception is largely within the control of your venue coordinator, catering, and DJ.  We are there to capture everything as it happens!  Most weddings include introductions and announcement of the couple, a welcome or blessing, followed by dinner.  You’ll want to include time for toasts (a good guess here is around 5-10 mins per toast), cake cutting (this is quick and we can do this literally ANY time you want), and dancing!  We recommend that you have toasts either before dinner is served, or at the very end.  Eating is noisy and people typically would like to chat with friends.  If you are having your toasts filmed, you will not want this background noise.

Here’s a common wedding reception timeline:

  • Cocktail hour  60 minutes
  • Guests seated 15 minutes (you’ll line up for your entrance, and DJ will likely chat with you briefly)
  • Grand entrance,  cake cutting, welcome & blessing  15 minutes
  • Dinner 45-60 minutes
  • Toasts 15-20 minutes  (let individuals toasting know time constraints!)
  • Special dances 15 minutes (first dance, with parent dances following)
  • Dance floor open!

sunset wedding photos

Sunset Photos | 15+ Minutes

If there is one part of the day our couples love most, this is it!  Your wedding day will fly by so incredibly fast.  Taking a moment to step away, take it all in, and bask in that newlywed glow is  a special moment for each couple.  You’re finally actually married!  We cannot recommend a brief sunset portrait time ENOUGH.  Not only do our couples love having this little escape during their reception, these are often some of their most favorite photos of the entire day.  We will keep an eye on the sky, however you can also check the sunset time here.  We usually do sunset portraits around 30 mins before the listed time, but it always depends on clouds and weather.


The Exit | 5 Minutes

We’re about to let you in on a secret: most of our exit photos are not taken at the end of the night!  We actually have most couples do a faux exit before we leave with a few friends and bridal party members, that way we still have some fun photos of you, but you don’t need to end your night early or extend coverage.  It’s a win-win for you!  Alternatively, you may want to consider an exit immediately following your ceremony since that ensures lot of participation from your guests.  Either option works!

Eastbank wedding reception sparkler exit



Night Photos | 10 Minutes

We know not every couple wants to leave their reception again for night shots, however they can be so fun!  If your venue has cool lighting or interesting architecture, or you just want to do something different, this is a great way to end the night.  If you’d like creative night photos, just let us know.  Typically we get everything set up after your open dancing begins, and then we’ll come let you know when we’re ready.  You won’t miss hardly anything!

night wedding photos at the tea room in Des Moines


That’s everything!  Well…it’s not everything. We realize we haven’t covered one aspect of your wedding day timeline that occurs before we arrive.  Of all the things that get a wedding day timeline off track, other than just plain old people being late, the number one biggest culprit is hair and makeup.  This is not usually the fault of the stylist, but instead because there either aren’t enough stylists reserved for the size of the bridal party or the start time wasn’t planned early enough.  We cannot stress this enough: start your hair and makeup early. And do not have the bride go last.  Yes, it means your hair and makeup is “freshest” if you go last, but you can also have a final touch up right before your stylist leaves.  Your entire day will run behind if we are waiting for you to finish hair and makeup in order to get into your dress.


Allow Us to Help

When we sit down together to create the photo timeline for your wedding day, there are SO many things to take into consideration.  We understand that even going through this list can feel overwhelming to some people.  Don’t worry – we are here to help so you don’t have to guess!  When each JWP couple books their wedding with us, we ALWAYS help you with your timeline, and work closely with planners to ensure everything runs smoothly.  We send a very thorough questionnaire that asks questions, then we customize according to your preferences.  Each wedding day photo timeline is unique because each couple has its own priorities.


If you’d like more information about wedding day timelines, be sure to join our email list, where you’ll receive our wedding timeline guide, full of sample timelines for a variety of wedding days.  Having an early catholic ceremony? Skipping a first look? Does your ceremony space need to flip before your reception begins?  We cover all of that in our wedding timeline solutions guide! 


How to Create the Perfect Wedding Timeline for Photography



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