The topic of how to plan around lighting on the wedding day is the biggest question I go through with each of my brides and grooms. Without good planning, you might run out of daylight time for photos. If you’re hiring me or a similar photographer, it’s probably because you love natural light candids and portraits! This guide will help you get the best light for the possible photos on your wedding day.

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First of all, this guide assumes you’re doing a first look before the ceremony. While not all of my couples do this, it does make photo-taking much easier and less stressful for everyone involved – so I highly encourage it!

To begin making your timeline, let’s start with the sunset time. It’s important to be aware of this time and work backwards from there. For example, let’s start with a September sunset time: 7:15 PM. Let’s say you set your ceremony for 6 PM. That way, the light will be pretty whether you’re getting married outdoors or in a room with window light. Guests will get to cocktail hour by about 6:30 PM, before they’re too hungry. If your ceremony is at 6 PM, you’re going to need to be hidden by 5:30 PM and not taking photos out in the open, because guests will be starting to arrive!

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Usually I try to take three sets of photos before the ceremony: first look and couple portraits, wedding party, and immediate family (parents and siblings). So remember, the couple needs to be tucked away by 5:30 PM before the 6 PM ceremony starts. I would schedule the first look and couple photos for 4 PM, the wedding party photos for 4:30 PM, and the immediate family photos for 5 PM. This is usually more than enough time, allowing for cushions in case someone is missing or delayed. If we finish early, I will take more photos of the couple until 5:30 PM, or if it’s very hot or cold, we might head inside and I’ll just take candids and prep for the ceremony!

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Since we’re doing the first look at 4PM (two hours before the ceremony), it’s best if I arrive for getting ready photos at 3 PM. That way I have time to photograph both wedding party groups, the dresses, rings, invitations, and other details. This helps to set the stage for the day visually and lets you memorialize these little details that might fade in your memory if they’re not documented!

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So far, we have:
3 PM – Photographer arrives, getting ready and detail photos
4 PM – First look photos
4:30 PM – Wedding party photos
5 PM – Immediate family photos
5:30 PM – Head inside before the ceremony
6 PM – Ceremony!

This way, when the ceremony ends at 6:30 PM, we’re already nearly done with photos. Immediately following the ceremony is a great time to (optionally) ask in advance for your extended families and/or grandparents to hang back for a photo while everyone else heads to cocktail hour or the reception. These larger group photos can take a 10-15 minutes since there can be a lot of people to arrange. Then the wedding party, all the family, and even the couple are free to go enjoy cocktail hour with their guests!

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Besides the extended family photos, the only other outdoor portraits I’d take after the ceremony would be 5-10 minutes of sunset portraits at 7:15 PM. After the couple mingles at cocktail hour for 30 minutes or so, I like to bring them back outside for just a few more portraits, since the lighting is the most magical at this time of day. Then they’re back to go join the start of the reception, to eat dinner, and then to dance the night away!

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So the rest of the timeline is:

6:30 PM – any extended family photos, cocktail hour begins
7:10 PM – 5-10 minutes of sunset portraits with couple
7:30 PM – Reception begins
TBD – Photographer leaves after dinner, all reception events (speeches, special dances, etc), and 45+ minutes of open dancing

I always encourage couples to use more of my hours of coverage earlier in the day rather than later. It’s super fun to have documentation of open dancing for 45-60 minutes, but after that, the photos get repetitive.

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After photographing dozens of weddings, I’ve also noticed that receptions very often get delayed. Speeches go long because people really love the couple, dinner can be late occasionally depending on uncontrollable factors, etc.  It’s good to keep your photographer for at least 30 minutes longer than you think you’ll need them for. Usually 7-8 hours is the ideal time for me to document the day’s story! If we’re coming up to the time end of the scheduled photo coverage and something big is about happen, I might check in with the couple to see if they’d like to add another half hour. That way they can make a decision quickly, without worrying about me missing something big!

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Below is the full wedding timeline, with an adjustable sunset time of 7:15 PM. I hope this helps your planning process! Thanks for reading!

Sample wedding timeline:
3 PM – Photographer arrives, getting ready and detail photos
4 PM – First look photos
4:30 PM – Wedding party photos
5 PM – Immediate family photos
5:30 PM – Head inside before the ceremony
6 PM – Ceremony
6:30 PM – Any extended family photos, cocktail hour begins
7:10 PM – 5-10 minutes of sunset portraits with couple
7:30 PM – Reception begins
TBD – Photographer leaves after dinner, all reception events, and 45+ minutes of free dancing, usually 10 PM or 11 PM

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