How to time your wedding day for photography? | A how-to for brides and couples

One of the most common questions I get from couples is how to plan their wedding day for the best photos. This can be a tricky question to answer as there are several things to consider. Ultimately, the question comes down to your priorities. Our job as photographers are to capture your day no matter how it unfolds. This post is designed to help you consider the question from the perspective of photography and planning.

So without further adieu, let’s get started!

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What is golden hour?

Golden hour is a term used in photography to define the hour when the sun is low in the sky and produces a soft, golden glow just before and after sunset/sunrise. I like to tell clients that this is generally 45 minutes before and up to 15 minutes after sunset (the opposite for sunrise). The term usually refers to sunset (because who wants to get up for photos that early!). Whereas sunrise photos produce more of the “softness”, sunset photos have more of a “golden” feel.

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What time is sunset?

First thing to do, is google what time sunset is on your wedding day at your location. This will give you pretty good idea of when it will get dark. There can be a little bit of a soft glow after sunset especially during summer. During the winter months, however, after the sun goes down, you have about 10 minutes before it’s too dark to shoot outside. So figure out what time sunset will be.

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Location. Location. Location.

Are you getting married on the top of a mountain? At the base of a waterfall? At a country club with sprawling golf courses? On the coast? The next thing to consider is where the sun will set in relation to your wedding and reception spaces. If you’re getting married in a valley, you might lose light a lot earlier than you expected. Or maybe your venue faces west and the setting sun will be blinding. Ask your venue coordinator where the sun sets in relation to the property. Visit your venue approximately 1-1.5 hours before sunset and pay attention to the light. How long are the shadows? Is the property covered in sun? Sunset in a particular location may be at 8 pm, but there might be a huge barn blocking the sun starting at 7 pm.

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What’s most important?

Are getting the magical golden hour photos on your wedding day THE most important thing to you and your fiance? Maybe you’re more interested in getting to your guests and the par-tay. Or family photos are your priority. Have conversations with your fiance about what you’re most excited about on your wedding day. This is YOUR day and a once in a lifetime experience, make sure that you’re getting what you want out of the day. As photographers, we have a list of must-have shots running in our heads. Bride & Groom portraits are a part of that. However, if you only want to spend 10-15 minutes on photos before getting to lawn games and your cocktail hour, then let your photographer know that.

Caveat: it IS important to get portraits of you and your newly betrothed, but knowing whether or not you want to spend 30 minutes on portraits that are perfectly synced with golden hour or 10 minutes of quick portraits no matter the lighting is something to consider. Your photographer will always advocate for the best lighting and timing for photos, and thus, I will cover some alternatives and solutions below.

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Logistics.

How many family photos do you have? Are you doing a first look? Are you having a summer wedding complete with croquet, cornhole and an outdoor cocktail hour? When planning a timeline for your wedding day, consider how much time each section of the day will take up. I find that post-ceremony photos (including family) take about 45 min-1 hour. I tell clients to consider that each family pairing will take ~2-5 minutes depending on the size. Photos of the full bridal party take ~20 minutes. Bride & Groom portraits take ~15-30 minutes. Will you be doing a first look? If so, some of these portraits can be done beforehand (bridal parties, full bridal party, and some Bride & Groom shots). If not, make sure that you have an hour after your ceremony while the sun is still up for photos.

What are your guests doing after the ceremony? If you’re having an outdoor cocktail hour, make sure to leave plenty of time between your ceremony and sunset so that you can enjoy part of that.

I realize that this section can feel like A LOT and one thing to remember is that you don’t have to have all of the answers right away. If you’re feeling pressured to make a decision about a ceremony time, a good rule is to have your ceremony approximately 2 hours before sunset. If you’re having an extended outdoor cocktail hour, then push that up to 3 hours.

BUT WAIT?! I want sunset portraits of me and my new spouse AND I want to play lawn games.

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Solutions for tricky timelines

There are so many aspects of your day that need to be considered in the planning process. I want to offer some ideas to help create “flow” so that your day is smooth and stress-free.

First Look

If you’re stressed about time after your ceremony, have a huge family, a large bridal party or just want to get to your reception ASAP, consider having a first look. A “first look” is a coordinated reveal of you and your partner on your wedding day prior to the ceremony. This moment can be private, sweet and allow for an intimate moment with your partner before the festivities begin. Having a first look also allows for you to take care of portraits before the ceremony. I’ve shot weddings where we did ALL of the photos (family, bridal party and portraits) beforehand.

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Sunset photos

Let’s say you REALLY want sunset shots, but sunset is at 8:15 pm and your ceremony is at 5:30 pm. That time in between your ceremony and sunset accounts for playing all of the cornhole you’d like, but portraits at 6:30 pm won’t have the same feel as sunset photos at 8:00 pm. Plan to take 10-20 minutes at 8:00 pm for sunset shots! The bulk of portraits can be done after your ceremony (or before if you have a first look). However, your photographer can alert you when it’s time to steal away from the reception for a few sunset photos. My couples who choose to do this LOVE it, because frankly, it allows them to have another private moment and break away from the excitement for few minutes. <3

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Bride & Groom session

If you’re day is just REALLY packed or your venue doesn’t have the scenery or the light that you want, plan a post-wedding bride & groom session. Maybe it’s the next day. Maybe it’s a few weeks after your wedding. Similar to an engagement session, a Bride & Groom session takes the wedding day stress out of the equation. Location, light, and timing can all be coordinated in your favor!

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Backup plan

No matter what, have a backup plan. When you visit your venue, look for shady spots close to buildings. Take a look inside at available natural light or attractive backdrops. This advice is for inclement weather on your wedding day (god forbid!) or for winter weddings where sunset is at 5:05 pm or it’s just too windy and cold to get outside. We can always hope for the best, but make sure that you look for alternative indoor spaces for photos or nice spots close by that would make for nice photos with an umbrella in hand.

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I could probably go on about this for a while trying to condense ALL of the things I’ve learned and experienced over the years. However, this is my “quick” rundown of how to plan for wedding photography on your big day. If you have other suggestions, advice or questions that would add to this post, please leave them in the comments below!

Thank you for stopping by and until next time…

~Ashley

  1. Viggo Crowe says:

    I love your advice to google when the golden hour is in your area so that the pictures look great. My sister is getting married this fall and she doesn’t have a photographer on board yet. She needs to look around the area for someone that really matches her style so that she loves the pictures.

    • Ashley Warren says:

      Totally! Where is she getting married? I think it’s so important to find someone that really fits your style and personality. It makes the images really come to life AND you feel more comfortable around your photographer as well. If I can help answer questions, I’m here to help 🙂

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