March 11, 2011

Wedding Day Timelines :: How to Plan

There’s a joke that wedding photographers experience two seasons: wedding season and booking season. Right now, I’m in the midst of booking season. I’ve been meeting 2012 couples left and right! When a couple is getting ready to book me, I find that they always have the same question: How many hours of photography do we need for our day?

More than anything else, I get emails from couples needing help with their wedding day timeline. Though that’s not my specialty (a D.O.C. would offer better advice), I always try to get clients to think of their timelines in terms of photography. Photography is, after all, why they’re talking to me in the first place! Through these conversations about timelines and–often–during my initial meeting with new clients, I always tell them to think of their timeline and their photography in four parts: getting ready, ceremony, portraits, and reception.

Ideally, I like to be present for each of those things. They each represent a completely different set of emotions and, together, they create a complete story of your day. So, in this post, I’m going to try and explain what has worked best for me and for the dozens of couples that I’ve photographed over the past several years.

1. Getting Ready

When people ask me my favorite part of a wedding day, I’m usually quick to mention the hours leading up to the ceremony. For me–someone who loves to capture the genuine emotions of my client–there is no other time when the anxiety, excitement, nervousness, and joy are more palpable. Whether it’s the bride’s mom seeing her in her dress for the first time, the Maid of Honor fluffing the bride’s veil, or all of the bridesmaids lacing the back of the bride’s corset, every single moment is joyful.

Also, for someone who is about to spend 8-11 hours shooting photographs, this allows me some time to warm up. It’s a little like stretching before a workout. Instead of coming in and having to rush to prepare for the ceremony, being with a couple while they’re getting ready allows me plenty of time to introduce myself as the photographer, meet some of the wedding party, and–most importantly–understand the feel of the day and the people participating in the day. It gives me time to breathe before the really hard work–the ceremony and the portraits–begin.

Usually, I’m never with a couple more than 2-3 hours before a wedding begins. Often, I only get to spend an hour with the bride (and the groom) while they get their hair and make-up done, get dressed and hang out with their loved ones. An hour is usually plenty of time! Most of that time is spent with the bride and her girls because–let’s face it–they’re cuter. However, when a couple is smart enough to have the men getting ready in a nearby hotel room, it is very easy for me to run over and spend 10-15 minutes with the guys (and then they kick me out so they can drink their beer and watch their baseball game).

2. Ceremony

The ceremony is the climax of the day. And, for me, it’s the most stressful. Unlike other parts of a wedding day, the ceremony can’t be recreated–we can’t rewind and start over. So, that is the time of day when a photographer really needs to be on their toes.

However, in many ways, the ceremony is the easiest part of planning. Aside from telling me a few details and figuring out whether the ceremony site has any restrictions for photographers, we have to do very little planning. I show up. I shoot everything. I’m always there the whole time. It’s a no-brainer.

3. Portraits

90% of my job at a wedding is to be a photojournalist. I follow a couple around, and I document their day without interfering. However, every wedding day has a portrait session. This is the time of day when everyone agrees that–regardless of how much you want to start drinking–we need to take photographs. The portrait session is the part of the day we’ll need to talk about the most before your wedding. It’s the part of the day where I’ll ask a lot of questions.

First, we have to decide when we’ll be doing portraits. Traditionally, portraits have been done between the ceremony and the reception. More and more, though, couples are doing things differently. There are some photography things to consider: lighting (usually right before sunset is best) and location (can we please take your portraits outside?). We also need to think about how your wedding day is structured. Are you getting married and having your reception at the same location? If so, we probably won’t have much time between the ceremony and reception. How much of a break do you have between the ceremony and cocktail hour? Do you want to attend your own cocktail hour? How long is it going to take to travel from the ceremony to the reception site? All of these things matter.

When time is tight between the ceremony and reception or when it is going to be dark after the ceremony, I usually try to get couples to do a first look. That way, we can get all of the portraits out of the way before the wedding begins. You can read how I feel about first looks here.

Next, we have to talk about who will be photographed during this time. Portrait sessions usually include families, the wedding party and–of course–the bride and groom. I always like to shoot the photos with the most people first. So, we’ll shoot your family (with a camera, unless they’re really misbehaving) right after the ceremony. If we plan to travel for portraits–hitting up several locations for some variety–that usually happens after the family photos have already been taken. That way, just the wedding party comes on the trolly or bus. With family photos, I suggest limiting it to no more than a dozen combinations (maybe 6 for each side of the family), and we need to make sure to have a written list of those combinations. This helps things run more efficiently. It’s best to allow 20-30 minutes for family photographs.

Finally, we get to the fun stuff (oh, c’mon, family photos aren’t that exciting). Time for wedding party photos and pictures of the bride and groom! This is where I shine. Depending on the size of your wedding party and the number of wedding portraits you want, I usually request 30-45 minutes minimum. The more time I have, the more creative we can be. The more photos we take, the more you will like. I’ve had weddings were we spent 2 hours driving around the city and shooting portraits, and–almost always–those are my favorite weddings to shoot. The bottom line is this: When we don’t feel rushed, I work better and you look happier. Period.

4. Reception

The reception starts and everyone–including me–breathes a sigh of relief. It’s time to party! It’s time to shake off all those nerves that have been bothering you all day!

The reception is also always the part of the day where I tell my clients to cut time. I almost never, ever stay until the end of a reception. Actually, I’ve only done it three times in all these years. I want to make sure that your photographs represent your entire wedding day. That means that I need to make sure that I’m at the reception to catch the introductions, toasts, cake cutting, dances and any other events that are happening. (It’s also extremely helpful if I have 15-20 minutes in the reception room before any of your guests enter. That allows me to take plenty of detail shots while everything is still fresh!) After that, I only need to capture 30-45 minutes of open dance floor time before I can go with confidence, knowing that I’ve represented the complete story of your wedding day.

Of course, every wedding day is different. Every couple wants different things. However, this is advice that I always give my clients, and I’ve found that it has served us all well over the years. Hopefully, this will help you think about how many hours of photography you really need, how you should structure your wedding timeline and how you can ensure the best possible wedding photos!