HOW TO PLAN YOUR WEDDING DAY TIMELINE

Visualize and plan your wedding day timeline from the perspective of your photographer. Learn how to ask for what you want to see and feel in your photos.

Below you will find the 23 iconic moments that I feel best represent a full wedding day story. In each moment ask yourself what do you want to see and feel when you look at that photograph 5-10-25 years from now?

To get what you really truly want don’t just hire a pro and cross your fingers. Instead help your photographer see the real you so they can tell your story like a photojournalist. To tell someone’s story you’ve got to understand them. You have to find out what’s important to them. Only then can you capture in a way that is genuine and honest.

I wrote this article because I want you to have a great wedding experience. I want you to love the work your photographer does for you. My hope is that you will sit down together with your partner and your team and imagine your big day. So without further adieu I present to you:

1. IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS

Advice: By details, we mean artful photos of your dress, rings and flower bouquet. If you have hand-made items or family heirlooms make sure you point them out. Have a wedding invitation on hand so we can photograph your rings over your names for a lovely personal touch. If you’ve been wearing your rings have them cleaned & polished so they really shine. Even big bridal suites can get pretty messy so ask your crew to keep the living area free and clear of debris for photos.

A wedding dress photographed in front of a window with beautiful wrap around light.
Jessie’s wedding dress photographed in the same room she grew up in backlit by the window light.

Photographers: Make sure you bring that macro lens for the jewelry and don’t forget some Command Strips with hooks in case there’s no place to hang the dress. If the room is interesting shoot these photos wide and remember to shut the overhead lights off.

Time Needed: About 30 minutes for dress, rings, flowers and shoes if everything is ready to go when we arrive.

Wedding rings on their invitation
Showing the rings on your wedding invitation personalizes the photo.

2. GETTING READY PHOTOS

Advice: To help everyone look their best have everyone ready except the bride before the photographer arrives. From experience I can tell you that nothing can mess up your wedding day timeline more than hair and makeup running over so be sure to make it clear to your hair and makeup artists when they absolutely must be done by. Assuming you’ve had a test with the same artists this shouldn’t be an issue.

Be sure to point out gifts like robes, t-shirts and other details. Champagne and bourbon toasts need proper glassware so please no plastic cups! If you don’t want to buy them just let the hotel know how many you need. Personalized robes are a classic gift and look great in the lens.

Girls in robes getting ready for a wedding
Sarah and her posse celebrate their friendship at the South Shore Cultural Center. Having everyone kneeling in this photo creates a strong composition.

Photographers: Use your 50mm to get genuine candids and portraits. If the overhead lights are on turn them off and use your flash or the natural window light for drama, but not without checking with the makeup artists first. If the makeup artist is friendly get a few photos for their website too.

Time Needed: About 60 minutes

3. HOW TO WRITE A LOVE LETTER

Handwritten letters are not just a romantic touch but a super genuine way to express appreciation for one another. They’re easy to write once you know what you truly love and appreciate about your partner. If you’re struggling seek out a supportive friend or family member and ask them to help you sort it out over coffee while they take notes. For a nice extra touch get yourself an old school fountain pen and learn how to use it for the letter. The manual work of writing really sets the intention of what you have to say. Have your videographer record you reading the letters so your grandkids can listen 100 years from now.

Groom reading a letter from his bride.
Letters should focus on what you appreciate about one another so they make a great pre-wedding exercise. They should ideally be read right before the first look in an area where you have some personal space.

Photographers: Help create space for your couples to have a quiet moment to read their letters and sit with their feelings. Get a photo or two but just as important to know when to put the camera down.

Time Needed: 15 minutes of quiet time with each partner. A 2nd photographer becomes super useful at this point.

4. THE GQ GROOM

Advice: Most men don’t take as long as women to get ready but many struggle with bow ties and boutonnières so here’s a video on how to properly knot your bow tie and another on how to pin that boutonnière. After sharing these videos with your crew it’s a good idea to have a mini-workshop at your bachelor party so your boys don’t delay the wedding day timeline by getting themselves into a knot. Get it? : )

Groom figures out the bowtie on the first try keeping the wedding day timeline in check.
Vinnie gets his bowtie right on the first try at the Patrick Hailey Mansion. Having a good room for the boys with that awesome mirror helped, but the teamwork you see in the photo is a product of their friendships which is not something you can fake.

Photographers: Use window light for drama and open up that prime lens for a dreamy effect. Giving the groom something to fuss with like a knot, buttons, and cufflinks add editorial look to the shot. Don’t forget to notice if there are custom socks and shoes too!

Time Needed: About 15 minutes.

5. INTO THE DRESS

Advice: Know in advance who will help you into your dress. We like to show the friendship you have with your mom, sister or best friend while you’re busy getting buttoned up so don’t rush. After all the buttons are done exhale and hug it out. These moments can get emotionally charged so give yourselves a second afterwards. If you have a bouquet give yourself a deep inhale for some aroma therapy.

Bride being helped into dress by mom and aunt
Christa being helped into her dress by her mom and aunt at their Patrick Hailey Mansion wedding.

Photographers: Find or make a space in the bridal suite that is clutter-free. Use window lights if they’re available and shut those overheads off. Make sure you get close for hands and details like button hooks and lace. Don’t be afraid to step back and get a wide shot. People get up in being busy so look for chances to help them refocus on what’s important. If mother & daughter have a strong bond create a moment for them to embrace and just be together for a moment.

Time Needed: About 15 minutes.

Bride and her mother embracing
Christa and her mom Deanne. You can arrange them nicely but then step back and just let them be.

6. WHAT MAKES A GREAT PORTRAIT?

Advice: If you’ve put time and care into your wedding dress and your whole appearance you should give your photographer permission to rock a fashion portrait for you. Floor-to-ceiling windows are nice to have but there’s so many ways to get creative. Try swinging your dress if it moves nicely or even just ‘freezing’ hairspray can make the shot. The key is to make personal not posed.

Bride gets a hairspray portrait.
Hairspray portraits are gorgeous just don’t inhale too much or you’ll do your ceremony high.

Photographers: Arrive early or figure out some options before the big day. Have your plan but be ready to scrap it and think on your feet in case the wedding day timeline gets off the rails and you need to move.

Time Needed: About 15 minutes.

Bride in wedding dress in front of a beautiful floor to ceiling window.
Booking a big bridal suite can help but a good photographer can make something beautiful out of almost anything so don’t sweat it.

7. FIRST LOOK FOR DAD

Advice: If you’re close with your dad consider doing a first look for him. Some men are too good at being a supporter and best friend. We tend to forget we need time to have emotions too!

These scenes always slay me. I love when fathers come into the bridal suite, see their daughter all dressed in white and just totally lose their shit. Dads everywhere, tell your daughters how beautiful they are. Let them know you’ll always love them. Remember they need to hear you say these things not just show them.

Bride and her dad have a first look
I loved her first! Tom gives Caitlin some mad love and a blessing before heading over to City View Loft.

Photographers: Coach dad in the hallway to slow it down and really take in what’s happening. Then put your back to the window to capture his expression when he first sets eyes on his daughter dressed up in white. Use your 50 to make the hotel room soft so we can focus on what’s important.

Time Needed: About 10 minutes if dad is ready to go waiting in the hallway. More if there is a lot of crying.

8. FIRST LOOK WITH YOUR GROOM

First look photos rock. You get to share a private moment with your partner, shake off some pre-ceremony jitters and enjoy more time with your family and friends at cocktail hour. But while they look completely effortless, there’s a little more thought behind all those sweet, candid shots you’ve seen and love.

The last thing you want is to feel rushed on your wedding day. Doing a first look is supposed to calm your nerves and prompt happy feelings—not stress you out. Make sure your first look is even better than you imagined by planning the logistics in advance.

You’ll want a private moment together so don’t bring your wedding party with you. Choose a private spot so you can experience a personal moment with your partner. If you are camera shy have your photographer shoot your interaction from a distance using a long lens. They’ll be able to snap those close, intimate shots without crowding your space or making you feel nervous.

Bride and groom have their first look
Josh & Kerri have a little fun for their first look at County Line Orchard.

A first look definitely does not spoil the ceremony. You’ll be overwhelmed with emotion no matter what. It’s a whirlwind once guests arrive so having a few moments together before all of your family and friends surround you can be really special.

We did a first look and it was awesome! While I am a fan of tradition and the groom seeing the bride for the first time at the ceremony, this made more sense as we did photos beforehand (would have been too dark after) and I’m really happy we did.

— @Kerri

Photographers: Help your couple out by scouting a location beforehand. If it’s outdoors at high noon and harsh sun don’t sweat it. Just put your flash on fill mode and use your 85 to give them the room they need to be themselves.

Time Needed: About 15 to 30 minutes depending on how far the location is from the hotel. You don’t want to rush any part of the day but especially this one.

9. WALL-WORTHY BRIDAL PARTY PHOTOS

Big groups used to scare me when I was first starting out. These days they’re just fun. Make a few debonair portraits and a few with the group cheering the couple. Volume is the key here the louder the better looking the photo is. Then try portraits of everyone pretending to be a character in a movie. For a more demure group simply turn to one another and say hello. That always produces a smile.

Wedding party happily sings a song to the bride
Jessie and her boys belt out Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (warning: opens Queen’s Youtube music video) at the Danada House

If you’re a city wedding find a loading dock or bridge to serve as a stage for your group. If you’re at a barn find a huge white or red door. Photographers don’t be afraid to play with your bridal party. Last summer we asked everyone to sing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody to the couple and it was truly awesome. I mean, who doesn’t know that song by heart?

Fun bridal party pano
Finding a loading dock or platform makes an amazing wall photo of you and your crew. Here Andrew and Sarah dip for a kiss at their South Shore Cultural Center wedding. This venue used to be an old country club and boasts the only crystal chandelier ballroom that’s right on the beach. Did you know Michelle and Barak Obama were married here?!

Photographers use your 35mm to help keep everyone in focus but never wider because shorter focal lengths will distort people in a very unflattering way. If there isn’t enough room let the couple know and move them somewhere else. In summer put harsh sunlight behind people so they’re not blinded and use your flash as the main light.

Time Needed: About 20 minutes

10. DON’T MISS THE FAMILY PORTRAITS

It’s a mistake to expect your planner or photographer to take care of your family portraits without your help.

The following is a recommendation we even have in our contract. Make a detailed list of every photo combination you want. Then print that list and give it to a designated photo wrangler – someone who knows your family members on sight and by name who can help gather them up. That list should look like this:

Photo 1. Mary, Sam, Couple, Alex, Susan.

Photo 2. Other people.

Photo 3. You get the idea.

I can’t stress enough to couples to have this list make in advance and to communicate with everyone on it where to be. Family portraits is the #1 moment that can delay your wedding day timeline. There are two people you don’t want to negotiate with on your wedding day. God and the chef at your venue. Both want your guests to be served hot meals.

Bridal party on steps at Chicago Palmer House Empire Room
The Chicago Palmer House Empire Room is a classic old world setting for a bridal party portrait. To light this one we used a MagBounce flash and a Cheetah stand for drama. If you’re interested in the history and architecture of this iconic Chicago landmark read this Chicago Tribune article.

Photographers:  If these photos are at church (or any other dark venue) you’ll need a 45″ umbrella on a stand. If the group goes to 3 levels deep you should have an assistant hold up your stand even higher than eight feet so the light reaches the back row. For some reason, churches always seem to have insanely harsh downlights at the pulpit so shoot fast to ‘turn off’ that weird yellow light and rely on your flash to paint your group beautifully.

If the photos are outside leave your flash on as fill. Even on soft days. This will keep the focus crisp and put catchlights in their eyes. Use your 35mm to get everyone in focus and don’t forget perfection instead focus on capturing the feels and the funny.

Time Needed: Depends on lots of factors like how many photos and if the people on the list that you made are nearby and listening to your manager.  Anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour.

Father and daughter have a smooch.
Affection is king for family photos so forget the rules and focus on love. Here Kenny and Jojo get a smooch at the Starline Factory Lofts.

11. PLAN YOUR CREATIVE PHOTOS

Most couples want to maximize time with their guests so be smart when planning locations for your creative photos. If you’re bouncing between hotel, park, church and reception venues be mindful of travel times. If your wedding is during the summer months remember that festivals like Lollapalooza literally shut-down Millennium Park so stay clear and keep your wedding day timeline on track.

Bride and groom laughing in front of Chicago Stock Exchange.
Laura & Mark having a laugh on LaSalle Street | Chicago Stock Exchange before heading off to their Room 1520 wedding.

Couples often choose downtown Chicago weddings for architecture. Our favorite spots are the Kinzie Street Bridge which is right next to Cassidy tire loading dock, The Chicago Stock Exchange (shown above), which is next to those gorgeous Roman columns in front of Union Station and the Bean at Millenium Park.

Bride and groom reclining on the grass
Josh & Keri chillin’ a bit before heading in for dancing at their County Line Orchard wedding.

The top of Michigan Avenue by the Wrigley building is popular and we’ve even done great photos on the CTA Brown Line platform at the Quincy stop. Just be sure to print out the CTA photo policy. Station managers are often not familiar with their own rules.

Bride and groom at top of Michigan Ave in front of Wrigley Building
Julia & Steve had a first look at the Hotel Palomar which gave them the time to get this top of Michigan Avenue ‘stop time’ portrait. For this one you’ll need a tripod. Set your camera to 100 ISO, f16, and 1/40th or slower then put it on a 10 sec delay.

More and more couples are asking for pre-wedding photoshoots and we think this is super smart. These are photo sessions done ahead of your wedding day and give you and your photographer all the time in the world to get that perfect blue-hour portrait in front of the Chicago Theatre, or time to run up to the Sears Tower Observation Deck. If you don’t want to ruin your dress you can find a cheap version on eBay.

Time Needed: Anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour or longer depending on your appetite for portraits. If you’re keen on getting back to the party prioritize by having just one must-have location and leave the others as nice-to-have so you don’t screw up your wedding day timeline.

12. HERE COMES THE BRIDE | PARTNER

Few of us like to be the center of attention so it makes sense that we want to race through these moments. Consider slowing it down as you come up the aisle to take it all in. If someone is giving you away ask them to shake hands and hug it out at the pulpit as if they were in slow motion so the photographer can capture every awesome moment.

Missy Holas & Chris Rudolph Married At Salvage One
Missy Holas & Chris Rudolph of the TV series Spouse House were married at Salvage One in May. Read the Chicago Tribune follow-up story here. To see more of their wedding click here.

Photographers should do these photos with a long lens so they can stay clear of the movement. Lots of churches have rules regarding flash. Whatever the boundaries are please don’t blind the clergy and give them plenty of space to work. Couples can help their photographer by getting the rules in writing before their big day.

Once we are at the ceremony the photographer is no longer on a time needed basis. The rest of the day is run by others including your officiant, planner and the venue manager.

13. CAPTURE THE CEREMONY

Photographers should capture key moments like readings and blessings but also the feelings you had during your ceremony by moving off to an angle to get your facial expressions. Then go wide for a scene pano for the couple. If it’s a big church or you want a balcony shot you should consider hiring a second photographer so the primary can stay in the center aisle position.

Bride and groom under a big apple tree at County Line Orchard.
Wide scene pano of Josh & Keri’s County Line Orchard wedding. Next up is the kiss so get ready.

14. YOU MAY KISS YOUR PARTNER

You know what to do here. All we want for you is to love the moment and don’t rush. When you walk out of your ceremony remember to move in slow motion so you don’t run over your photographer! We find that that our older couples who’ve really put in the work of relationships really love to soak in this moment. We’ve seen first kisses that should have waited until they got to their room : )

Gay wedding kiss
Jason and Daniel seal it with a kiss on the roof at Lacuna Lofts in Pilsen.

15. MAKE IT LEGAL

It’s a great idea to take 15 minutes at the reception hall to rest and recharge. Most have a private room and will serve you some appetizers so you’re not starving during cocktail hour.  If there are reception details that are important to you definitely tell your photographer. Centerpiece decorations, gifts, welcome signs, and flowers all make a personal touch. Travel themes are trending now. One couple I know is making each table decoration a different country with only the capital city shown on the seating chart.

Couple signs their wedding certificate
Andrew and Caitlin sign their wedding certificate during cocktail hour at City View Lofts.

Photographers: Arrange your couple as shown and sit down on the floor in front of the table they are using for the certificate signing with your 16mm lens. The idea is to make the viewer feel as though they are there at that moment.

16. COCKTAIL HOUR

If you did a first look and got your creative photos done before the ceremony you should have plenty of time to mingle and hug your guests during cocktail hour without delaying your wedding day timeline. People generally don’t like having their photos taken while they’re eating, drinking or smoking so photographers should take it easy knowing they’ll catch them later on the dance floor.

Groom helps bride down the steps into their cocktail hour
Phil helps Jessie down the steps to mingle with their guests during cocktail hour at their Danada House wedding.

There are exceptions to the rule however. I’ve followed couples around mingling with their guests during their cocktail hour and got some amazing photos. Photographers remember that emotion trumps everything so ask your couples who they’re looking forward to seeing the most and stay close to them to get that shot.

Bride and her brother hugging
Put your 35 on be there to capture the hugs at cocktail hour. Each one of these photos are worth their weight in gold.

17. MAKE A GREAT ENTRANCE

Make your entrance photos photogenic by deciding in-advance what path people should walk into the room and where on the dance floor each duo can pause and do their jig. It pays to do this during the rehearsal so you don’t screw up your wedding day timeline.

Let your party know cartwheels are not mandatory. A 1970s disco hip bump or a slow and elegant dance turn is enough to make the photo memorable. That said if you’ve got a theme to your wedding then by all means rock whatever props you’ve got!

Photographers should be ready for action by having your flash on top of your camera ready to light up unexpected backflips and somersaults if you have to. Then notice what you can bounce light off of. That little swivel mechanism on your flash is there for a reason!

Missy Holas Chris Rudolph make an entrance at their wedding reception.
Having a 2nd photographer to capture different and interesting perspectives can pay off. This one was about the feeling as they entered their reception at their Salvage One wedding.

18. CAKE IS A VERB

If you have a special cake topper let us know. If you plan to smash or just feed one another just move slowly so we can capture the fun. Generally one partner holds the knife while the other steadies their hand. The cake should be wheeled onto the dance floor not tucked into a corner where we can’t get the shot. When you’re done have a cake kiss for the camera too!

Bride and groom enjoy their wedding cake.
Eryn and Ken get down with their chocolate wedding cake from Portillo’s. To see their Starline Factory wedding click here.

19. MAKE YOUR SPEECHES CLASSY

Make these photos memorable and beautiful to look at by asking your family to speak straight from the heart or have index cards both of which look way better than photos of someone reading off of their phone. Have them stand next to you with the mic, or on the dance floor so that they command attention.

Groom cries as he listens to speech by his best friend.
Kenny is a Chicago cop and his best friend and partner gave a speech. There was nothing ordinary about the story or the feelings that night. It takes work to pay attention to everything you see and everything you hear but it pays off.

Photographers: Make sure you capture the couple’s reactions to the speeches. After all you’re there to capture feeling not just describe what was happening.

20. FIRST DANCE PHOTOS

I have a theory that couples who take dance lessons together stay together because learning how is a team-building exercise. Ask us if you want a recommendation for a good teacher. Even if you don’t take lessons try to resist the urge to chat while dancing. Instead, just enjoy the movement and the moment. Your photos will look more graceful without moving mouths.

Father and daughter dance at her wedding
Kerri dancing and having a blast with her dad at the reception.

Photographers: To get that fairy tale two-light look even in the darkest venues have one flash on your camera as the main and a slave flash in the corner of the room pointed towards the dance floor. Then use your 85mm for the intimate portraits and your 35mm for those fast dance moves with the dress swinging. Remember to put your back to a wall or the band so you can show their family behind them.

21. EVERYONE DANCES

Now it’s time to party and this is where a great DJ can make all the difference. Photographers should be on the floor with a wide lens and a flash bender for an up-close look, then step off the dance floor and stand on a chair to change the angle if it gets to packed to move.

Couple having fun on the dance floor at their wedding
Our couple gets down and funky to the sounds of DJ Walt – Do You Have Charizma

 

22. BOUQUET & GARTER

If you’re down for these shenanigans or other ones just make sure they’re on your wedding day timeline so the planner and DJ know and they tell your photographer in-advance so they can move their lights into position. Photographers put your zoom on for this one so you can go wide for the toss and long for the catch.

Groom ready to toss the garter
Nick rocks a Mr. Bean face for the garter toss at Jessica & Nick’s lovely Room 1520 wedding.

23. A SEXY GOOD NIGHT PORTRAIT

If we have a city rooftop or skyline we love sneaking way with the couple for a few minutes to do a final romantic low-key portrait. If the party is too good to leave that’s ok too we’ll take one of the creatives from earlier in the wedding day timeline for the album grand-finale.

Gorgeous Chicago skyline night portrait of a beautiful gay couple at their wedding
Daniel and Jason have a last look at the Chicago skyline on the roof at Lacuna Lofts.

A word to photographers who work by the hour. Make sure you let your couples know if you charge overtime long before the wedding day. If you see the wedding day timeline is running later than planned bring it up early so there’s nothing to figure out during the party.

CONCLUSION

A little extra planning and communication can make you a smooth operator on your big day and keep your wedding day timeline on track. If you found this article helpful please let me know and share it with others especially your creative team. Remember, teamwork makes the dream work.

Congratulations on finding love and taking your commitment to the next level. May you live long and prosper.

Jake Miller is a family portrait and wedding photographer. His photo studio Friends First has a social mission to end domestic violence therefore 2.5% of all artwork proceeds are donated to the Chicago Women’s Network.