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How to: create a wedding timeline

Scott Moster - Image credit: Markus Gericke

Your wedding day may be the most important day of your life, but let's face it, it a stressful experience, choosing who to invite, which venue, which vendors to use, winter or summer, staying within budget...the list is endless, idyllically though, once the day arrives, you want to be able to just put all that stress behind you, hope that all your guests are having a good time and that your vendors are doing what you paid them for, basically, you want to forget about everyone else and make your big day about...well you. Now let's face it, there are no guarantees, there are a lot of moving pieces on your wedding day and things do go wrong, yet there is one tool you can provide, something that will not only, greatly, improve the chances of your day running smoothly, but that will help your guests and providers to be where they are needed, at all times; I am, of course, referring to the perfect wedding timeline. In this article, we are going to be taking an in-depth look at everything that needs to be taken into consideration, when putting together such a timeline.

Let's start with a story, last year, I was shooting a wedding at a very high-end, prestigious, wedding venue; it was a lovely day, the couple was absolutely delightful, there really were only two problems with this wedding, (1) their master of ceremonies had, I'm guessing, been rejected for a Top Billing audition and was now trying to make up for it by turning the wedding into her own one-woman-show and (2) the wedding planner, how can I put this delicately, well...she existed; we will refer to her as Meg, for the remainder of this article.

The ceremony had been scheduled to start at 16:00, by 16:20 though, the bride still hadn't arrived; this is a very standard thing at weddings, I expect it, you expect it, the only person, apparently, that had not expected it was Meg, who was whining to every person in earshot that "this does not happen on one of my weddings". I was fighting an impulse to ask her if this was then her first, but I was biting my lip...something I would be doing a lot that evening. The ceremony, ultimately, started at around 16:30, prompting Meg to try and make up this lost time by taking it away from the photographers; following us around, tapping on her watch a mere 3-minutes into the family photos, constantly, wasting more of our time by dragging us away for updates about how much more time we're going to need, with the MC following her around and nodding her head in unison. I could write an entire new article about these two, but I'm just going to skip forward to the climax where, to finally just appease her, we finished the couple shoot in under 15-minutes, making up the lost time and getting the couple to the reception on time; only for the MC to throw it all away by stretching her opening announcements to the length of over 30-minutes; okay, before you start asking, yes, there is a point to this story; in this article, we are going to be exploring what Meg could have done differently, to easily solve her problem.

The digest version of this answer: contiguously plans. If Meg had simply assumed that the bride would be, at least, 20-minutes late, as brides tend to be, and had simply worked this into her schedule from the get-go, then even with 'SA's Got Talent' taking place after every single speech, then the whole day would have fallen, basically, into place.

But let's delve deeper, I am going to compile a short list of all the major aspects that you need to take into account, when planning your perfect wedding timeline; yes, there are tons of other moving pieces, but if we were to look at this like a game of chess, these following aspects would be the pieces that determine the outcome, they are:

  • The starting time of the ceremony

  • The starting time of the couple shoot

  • The starting time of the reception

  • The starting time of the photographers and videographers

  • Sunset

  • The serving times of the starter and mains

  • The amount of hours for which the photographer and videographer have been booked

That's it, the seven most important aspects that will determine the success of your wedding day, and we are going to be looking at each of them, to help you plan around them and to ensure that your wedding day goes as smoothly as possible.

1. The Ceremony, the couple shoot and sunset

Ivan and Nandi de Bruin, Cavalli Estate. Image credit: Natasha Louw

When starting to determine your timeline, the ceremony is the first aspect that you always need to consider, the starting point, the formality around which the whole day will be planned. So, what is the perfect time to start a ceremony, you may be wondering? There is a strange phenomenon in the wedding industry, in which many couples getting married in the summer months, want to start their ceremonies super early, while those getting married in winter, want to leave theirs as late as possible; now although there are ways to accommodate both of these, which I will be explaining soon, I'm going to state that this phenomenon should be avoided. Let's start with your average summer wedding, during this time, the sun sets a lot later and that should be taken into account when choosing your starting time. If we are to assume that the length of an average ceremony is 30 - 45 minutes, plus an additional five for the signing of the registry (yes, I know the registry doesn't really take that long), then the perfect time to schedule the ceremony is...16:00 (sorry, was humming dramatic music in my head while typing that); now I know what you're thinking, if the ceremony is going to end at around 16:50, that is still way too early to start taking photos, due to harsh light conditions, and you'll be right, but luckily, we have Meg to learn from that in all likelihood, a 16:00 ceremony won't be starting until at least 16:20 (let's say 16:30 to be safe) and by, secretly, taking that into account, things can now move along peacefully until 17:45, when the bridal party photos are set to begin. So, what if the ceremony actually does start on time? Remember, that the perfect timeline should be formulated around worst case scenarios, therefore, if the ceremony actually does start at 16:00 - score for you, go enjoy that extra time with your family and friends, my point is, it's much better running ahead of schedule than behind.

Now, let's look at your average winter wedding; I'm going to sum this up in one line: move everything back with 90 minutes, that's it, where your average summer wedding's ceremony will, 'start' at 16:00, your average winter wedding's should be 'starting' at 14:30, easy. If you are doing an autumn wedding, then 60-minutes earlier should suffice.

And then, lastly, we're going to be looking at morning weddings; by my own definition, morning weddings is any wedding with the ceremony scheduled to start before noon. Now, I'm just going to come out and say it: from a photography perspective, morning weddings are tricky.

The first question I always get about morning weddings is when the best time will be to do the couple shoot photos, if the ceremony is scheduled for around 10:00 or 11:00 am? There are several ways to look at this, firstly, is your wedding taking place in the winter? If it is, the chances increase of you simply being lucky and hitting a cloudy day; if that is the case, then the time of the couple shoot becomes somewhat flexible as it cancels out the harsh light, which every, natural-light, photographer is afraid of. How do you plan for that, you may be asking? The truth is, just like rain on your wedding day, you can't, and therefore we need to devise another contingency plan. So let's look back at the phenomena, I mentioned earlier, because I'm about to touch on those too. Option 1: do the couple shoot before the ceremony, and before you think I have completely lost my mind, nopes, this is a thing; it's growing popular and it is beautiful! By doing this, you can not only beat the harsh light by doing your couple photos earlier, but you are actually making the first look just about the two of you, you don't have to share it, you don't have to feel nervous about a 100+ pairs of eyes on you and, most importantly, you don't have to hold in any emotions, but I'm going off script again. The second option, if you're strong on the tradition that the groom cannot see the bride before the ceremony, then this option is more suited and that's doing the couple, and bridal party, shoot after the reception. I think that it's a safe assumption that the reception to a morning wedding will end at around 17:00, and if that is the case, then doing your photos after the reception works out perfectly, not only will you be getting better light, but there is the added bonus that you'll never have to spend any time away from your friends and family. Oh, side note here, if you are having a normal, summer, wedding and wish to start your ceremony early, this can still work for you too, simply start your reception earlier, start the speeches, let your guests get into the swing of things, and then at around 17:30, go out and do your photos, you'll be back before they even noticed you were missing.

2. The starting time of the reception/ the serving times of the starter and mains

Markuskraal, photo credit: Natasha Louw

So let's move onto the question I get almost just as often, how much time do you need after the ceremony to take pictures? If you turn this question around, the question is actually, for what time can they schedule the reception. Especially for the caterers, this is a very important question, and it's here where we try to understand, why Meg was, so desperately, trying to get her schedule back on track. Remember, these caterers have been given set times for when the different courses should be ready, and we're not talking about a party of five sitting in a restaurant, they are, on average, being asked to serve anything between a 100 - 300 guests, who all need their food served at more or less the same time. If the starters were supposed to be served at 18:00 and the couple doesn't enter the reception until 18:20, we are putting the unnecessary burden on them of having to keep warm a 100+ meals, not an easy undertaking. So let's answer the question, and different photographers will give different answers, some asking for up to 3-hours to take photos; if they tell you that, you tell them, "Markus says, you are a tool". A wedding is not a photo shoot people, yes, the photos are vital, but you don't want to look back on your day, one of the biggest days of your lives, and just remember you posing for photos. How much time is needed? An hour and 20-minutes, that's it; 15-minutes for family portraits, 20-minutes for the bridal party and 45-minutes for the couple shoot. Of course, we are doing a worst case scenario timeline, so we will therefore be adding an additional 15-minutes to this on the timeline (and, of course, additional travelling time, should that be a requirement) giving the photographers no excuse to delay the reception. Now, that all said, I'm going to go off script again, real quick; we didn't mention family photos at all in the previous section and, often enough, they are one of the biggest reasons that photographers fall behind schedule, something that should be so easily avoidable, but often isn't. I mentioned that Meg's couple were lovely people and, luckily, they were one of the few who followed our advice when we requested a full list of family photos and sent it to us before the wedding. This is important, we cannot be expected to try and figure out the combinations for ourselves, because we do not know your family unit, are all your parents still alive? Possibly divorced? How many siblings do you have? How many cousins? Do you even want the cousins in the photos? This list will take you 20-minutes to compile before the day, and can easily save you 20-minutes on the day, so ask yourself, will you rather lose 20-minutes when you have months available to do so, or lose it when you have only 90-minutes? Just as important, have the minister (or MC) ask the families to stay behind for the photos, we cannot spend time looking for people when we are trying to complete this in 15-minutes.

Okay, back to the relevant category, and we're briefly going to run through all the possible ways that the different courses may affect your timeline.

Starters: believe it or not, but starters isn't really a necessity, many couples choose to simply add a bread table to the canapes or pre-drinks and use that as a substitute; heck, some are going so far as to switch out the wedding cake for a, literal, cheese cake, cutting that during the canapes and ticking that off their list before the reception too. Benefits of this, it's cheaper, it saves a lot of time and, frankly, who doesn't love cheese and bread? (For dietary supplements, ask your caterers for advice). Honestly, this is what I recommend all couples do. So, let's assume you went with my idea, where does the reception start? On your average, summer wedding, with the reception scheduled to start at 19:00, the MC should start ushering the guests into the hall at no later than 18:35, this should leave enough time for the guests to find their seats and pour the champagne, before the couple enters at 19:00; another idea that I am a huge fan of, assuming the couple is going for a traditional wedding cake, is them cutting it during their entry, this not only get's it out of the way, but also avoids the need of having to get all the guests seated again, to see you doing it later. The couple can take their seats directly after this, get welcomed by the MC and the toasts or speeches can start straight away. Why is this so great? Because it gets the speeches out of the way; I know I'm going to make myself unpopular again by saying this, but this is what your guests wants, whether you're hosting a wedding, a work function or the freaking Academy Awards, most the guests are dreading the speeches and just want them over and done with, so that they can start dancing and enjoying the celebration. But let's move on, if you prefer the 3-course route and still serve starters at the reception, it's still a pretty straight forward change, remember that this will have no impact on what time the reception starts, the couples should still enter the reception at 18:00 or 19:00, whatever time you decided on, the MC should still welcome them and do the general announcements (these he can also do before the couple enter), once the MC has finished his bit, the waiters can start serving the starters, please add 30 minutes to the schedule to accommodate this, as well as an addition 10-minutes for all the guests to get seated and calmed down again. For the purposes of a quality wedding video, please do not continue the speeches, until the starters have been cleared. If you don't want the 30-minute delay on your schedule, simply have the guests enter earlier, serve their starters and keep the couple's for them, until after they have entered.

Main course: if there is one thing that most tend to forget about in their timelines, it is the main course; oh not adding it, it's obviously there, they just neglect adding time for guests to actually eat it. So, I'm going to make this one very easy, if your wedding has more than 60 guests, please put aside 70-minutes for the main course to be served or dished, eaten, cleared and to get your guests seated again. If your guests are more than 120, please add more time to this, because this is where the schedules usually go out the window. This should, idyllically, take place directly after the speeches have been concluded. Another useful photography tip here, if you want table photos taken, please ask your MC to announce that all tables should remain seated until called upon, and then photograph each table right before they dish up. You can likely kiss your table photos goodbye, if you do not follow this rule.

Desert: this one is easy and should have no impact on your schedule, whatsoever. To achieve this, it should only be served after the bouquet and garter has been tossed and you can breathe a sigh-of-relief, knowing that your photographer has captured every important moment, within his or her timeline, ensuring that you won't have a huge overtime bill waiting for you after your honeymoon. If you have a fancy desert table that you would like photographed, the caterers can and should start setting this up right after the main course, leaving ample time for the photographer to shoot it, without it being disturbed by guests.

3. The starting time of the photographers and videographers/ for how many hours they have been booked

Markus Gericke, Megan Procter, Natasha Louw, Simon and Joanique Swartz. Photo credit: Ruan Labuschagne

We have spoken a lot already about photographers/videographers and what their needs are for those perfect shots, but let's delve even deeper and look at their impact on your day, because this is a major one. So one of the first things one should be looking at when booking your photographer and videographer is what you want captured and how many hours will you require for them to so so. Most photographers and videographers offer different packages with different hours, these can range from 2-hour packages to 12-hour packages.

Let's look at photos first; for most people, not everyone, but most, the wedding photos do usually still get priority over the video and is one of the things most couples are willing to spend 5-digit numbers on. You are going to want everything captured, every tiny detail that was put into the reception hall, the bride getting her makeup done...everything up until the throwing of the bouquet and garter; here's some good news for you though: there is really no reason that this cannot be done within an 8-hour time slot. Videographers sometimes have it even easier, many couples really just have them there for the ceremony, speeches and first dance; maybe a few shots before the ceremony, but when on a tight budget, I find that many are quite content with only having the photographer capture this. Of course, if your budget does allow it, I will still recommend booking the videographer for the same amount of hours, as the photographer, but if not, I find a 6-hour package will suffice.

So how do we break those packages up? Another thing to look at, does your package include one or two photographers/videographers (for the sake of me not wanting to type out both each time, I'm just going to call them "ographers" when I am referring to both (this will also be a great a great challenge for my OCD when it comes to's staring at me already). Also, know the difference between an assistant and a second ographer (wow, I hate this), because that is a popular loop hole that confuses many clients. If your package only says 'ographer and assistant' ask whether the assistant will be there to take photos or only to carry the ographer's bag around, so to say. If two ographers are included, this makes things easier; both will likely start at the reception hall and take pictures of all the decor; it is vital that the hall has to be completed, flowers included, by the time that the ographers get there. All venue personal and decor people should please vacate the hall, while these photos are being taken, as to not show up in the background of the photos. 30-minutes should be added to the schedule for the ographers to sufficiently cover everything decor related. From here, they move on to the bride and groom preparation. A few useful time saving tips: if at all possible, please get ready at the venue or as close as humanly possible; remember that as soon as we arrive, our time starts ticking off and every minute we spend on the road is a minute we are not shooting your weddings; secondly, send exact locations to where you are, to the ographers. Do not expect us to always rely on Google maps, especially when that only takes us to the gate of the venue and there is about 50 rooms you could be getting ready in. At the very least, please just give us your room numbers, you'll be surprised how many couples forget.

With bride and groom preparation, there are several options; an important thing to remember, whether it's the first or second shooter taking pictures of the groom, beforehand, their time will be wasted spending more than one hour with the men and even that is pushing it. Yes, I know it's the groom's day too, but, realistically, there really isn't all that much to do. The average groom shoot requires the following shots:

  • Accessories: shoes, socks, tie/bow tie, belt, cologne, cuff-links, watch

  • Groom putting on said accessories

  • Shots with the groom and groomsmen

  • Shots with the groom and groomsmen enjoying beer, whiskey or cigars

  • Shots with the groom and his parents (if applicable)

Everyone involved in these photos should be showered and ready by the time the ographers get there, preferably, already dressed in their shirts and pants. It is also not uncommon that this shoot will be scheduled hours before the ceremony, the ographers will get their shots, the men can undress again once the ographers have left and get dressed again, at a time that is practical for them. This is called a 'mock dress-up' and takes a great deal of pressure off the ographers, knowing that these shots have been taken. Then we get to the bride, her schedule is a bit strict and there are many aspects to take into consideration, for instance, is the bride wearing a lace or zip up dress; lace dresses can easily take 15-minutes longer to put on than zip-ups. Idyllically though, the bride should start getting dressed 40-minutes before the ographers are scheduled to leave for the ceremony, please note that the bridesmaids should all be ready and dressed by then. Hair and makeup artists should also be made well aware of this, as they will need to work out their schedules in accordance to this. The 40-minute gap should cover the following shots (please note that all dress and accessory shots should be done before this point):

  • The bride getting dressed; the ographer will start capturing the moment as soon as the...essentials...are covered and the bridesmaids start working on the brides laces or zip.

  • The bride putting on all accessories, including shoes, bracelets/necklaces, earrings, perfume and the garter (the garter can be taken off again after the photo and put on again much later); the bridesmaids and bride's mother should be implemented into these photos, with each bridesmaid helping with something different.

  • The bride putting on her veil.

  • Portrait shots of the bride with her bouquet.

  • Group shots with the bride and her bridesmaid.

  • The bride's father, when first seeing his daughter.

  • Group shots with the bride and her parents.

Following this, it is vital that the brides gives sufficient time for the ographers to not only travel to the ceremony, but also to setup and test their light. If you arrive at the ceremony only seconds after your ographers, your final product could very well be impacted by their lack of setup time. Now we have already discussed, in some detail, about what the time requirements are between the ceremony and speeches, so let's jump way ahead, close to the end of the night, after the main course has been cleared and the couple is about to open the dance floor; if we are sticking to the summer schedule, this should happen around 21:05 (if the couple did not cut the cake during their entrance, they should do this first). This is where the amount of hours that you booked the ographers for, really comes into play. How important is the social photos to you? Many couples are happy for their ographers to leave right after the formalities and trusting that their guests will be capturing a surplus of social photos anyway, if this is you, an 8-hour package should cover this. If social photos are very important to you, then a 10-hour package is usually better suited, or simply booking the ographers for one extra hour; this package will also give you more flexibility about what time to do your final formalities. But let's look back at the 8-hour option; the formalities that most couples do want captured are: the first dance, the father daughter dance, the cutting of the cake and the bouquet and garter; the 'shoe game' has slowly become a popular formality, as well, but if added, should rather be done during the speeches. So let's look at the rest, I have mentioned already that the cake cutting should have happened, before the dance floor is opened, so we can skip over that and start with the opening dance. This usually takes about 4-minutes, usually the DJ will play two more songs after this, allowing the guests to join in, before emptying the dance floor again, for the father and daughter dance, or the throwing of the bouquet an garter. It is important that the DJ is made aware of this and that he cuts the music after the two additional songs have been played, as this is the part where the schedule, usually, get's tight and couples start switching off. These additional formalities should usually be done back-to-back, with the dance floor reopening as soon as they have concluded. Most ographers will usually hang around for two more songs after this and then depart. If you have selected a longer package, some photographers might sneak you away from the party to take a 'night shot' before saying their goodbyes.

Although there are, of course, other aspects that need to be taken into consideration, the aspects we have just discussed are the mitigating factors that will determine the success of your big day. They are the stone pillars that determine the times of everyone else and, if scheduled correctly, can help make your wedding day as stress free as possible.

Written by: Markus Gericke

Photos: Markus Gericke, Natasha Louw and Ruan Labuschagne

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