Updated February 01, 2020 at 6:00 pm
You're getting married! Yay!!
Okay, now what? You've never been married before (or if you have, I imagine it's been awhile). What do people do? What should people not do? How long do things usually take? Are you forgetting something?
While I'm not a wedding planner or coordinator by any means (they make big bucks for a reason), I have gathered some insight from the 80+ weddings I've shot over the past couple years. From my experience, everything that a couple can plan in advance of the wedding day, instead of making last-minute decisions on the day-of, can reduce some stress on the day itself. That being said, I've also seen the importance of not being "married" to your plans, and being flexible on the day-of if (and usually when) things don't go as planned.
I do recommend you start by envisioning exactly how you want your special day to unfold (I guess this is tip "ground zero"). Use the power of manifestation, the law of attraction, whatever you want to call it - to create a vision of your perfect day. However specific you want to be is up to you. But you might ask yourself, what is happening during each 30 minutes? From there, you could even get more specific, if you want. You could write a list of moments to fit into your timeline, to give you an idea what's possible during each chunk of time. You get ready, you get married, and you party - but what does all of that look like? If you're more of a visual person (like I am), you could even create a Pinterest board with the moments that occur along your timeline (notice I use the term "moments" rather than "shots" - I'll explain a little more later).
In the end, remember that it's your special day. I believe strongly in letting go of fear to get what you want from the universe. Meditate, pray, talk to the universe or a higher power, take a walk in nature, experience the space of consciousness, be still, whatever the method you want to use to get yourself in a mindset where you can be bold, fearless, filling yourself with positive energy and love. Join hands with your partner, look into each others' eyes, and get excited! That's how I started my photography business (minus the looking into someone's eyes part) - I meditated, I prayed, I let go of all fear, I decided exactly what I wanted to do, and I did it. I wanted to capture people's love, in the most beautiful way possible, because love is the best thing there is!!! I bring nothing but positive energy to every wedding and shoot - I smile the entire time, and I'm overflowing with love as I capture people loving each other and living their lives to the fullest. You get to do this on your wedding day - you get to live your life to the fullest, joining officially with the love of your life, in the presence of your loving family and friends. Love on love on love!!!
I like to say that weddings are like snowflakes - no two are exactly alike, nor should they be. Your wedding is the unique celebration of your decision to join in union with your person. It's a testament to who you are - the colors, the decorations, the venue, the dress . . . everything tells your guests, and anyone who will look upon your wedding album in the years to come, who you are as a couple.\
So, above all else, be true to yourselves! Ultimately, as a photojournalist who focuses on the emotions of the day, I do suggest, when it comes down to it, that clients focus less on what they can get out of their wedding day - but how best to enjoy the beautiful day itself, and how best to make the day a celebration - because that is what will be captured and preserved for lifetimes to come. For example, rather than thinking, "I want this photo of me and my bridesmaids because I like this photo," be thinking to yourself, "What a fun moment - I think my bridesmaids and I would have so much fun doing this!" Make it about the moments - not the "shots" - if that makes sense! In the end, the photos are the documentation of the wonderful day that it is. The emotions will show in your images - so if you're stressed, the photos will show that!
To be helpful, I'm going to throw out some tips that I'd like to think may help you prepare and reduce some stress on the day. These tips are based on the times I've seen my clients' and their guests' happy, joyous emotions of a wedding day plummet into negativity, stress, and overwhelm. My only goal here is to help you avoid that where possible!
Months Before: Schedules
#1: Savoring Sunset
Don't schedule your ceremony time too close to sunset, if you are having an outdoor ceremony, and especially, if you want outdoor portraits after your ceremony. Check Google for the sunset time and date for your wedding day. In my opinion, sunset is best reserved for couple's photos, as a sneak-away during the reception, around 2-3 hours after the ceremony. Any sooner, and sunset cuts it too close for comfort - or sometimes, the sun sets before or just after the ceremony, which is not good for photos (remember - the sun sets extra early at winter weddings).
#2: HMUA Hour
Bride: Schedule your hair and make-up to be complete an entire hour before you want it to be complete. Give yourself a cushion for not if, but WHEN your hair and make-up takes longer than planned. This will eliminate so much stress on the day so that you can just relax (at least, relax more than you could if suddenly you have to make up an hour in your timeline and decide what things you aren't going to do now that everything is running super late! Agh!).
#3: Beautiful Bouquets
Make sure your florist will be bringing the bouquets and boutonnieres before your photographer's start time! Along with accessories and details, those are among the first items to be photographed while your hair and make-up is being finished!
Weeks Before: Kits & Lists
#4: Bride's Bag
Bride: Put together an "emergency kit" and put your maid of honor in charge of it (or sister / close friend):
Safety pins, tissues, extra lipstick / make-up / eyelashes / eyelash glue, small mirror, bobby pins, band-aids, double-sided tape, and if it's summer, especially, a small water bottle and small battery-powered fan (cell phone fans are great) - and anything else the bride might need at any point during the day.
When the dress strap breaks, the tears stream down, the lipstick comes off after the champagne toast first thing, the hair gets blown who-knows-how by the wind, the veil falls off, the shoes cut your heels and toes, the dress won't stay in place, and you're sweating and dehydrated - at least you'll be prepared!!!
Note: I forgot to mention - I use "bride" and "groom" in this post, as usual, but I do have experience shooting same-sex weddings! For LQBTQ couples, some things won't apply to you - just take what you want and leave the rest!
#5: Family Formals, Part One
I'll address this more in detail after the ceremony down below, but first, once you get your RSVPs, do make a list of all the family portraits you want for each side of the family (this is the one case where, yes, it is about the photos - but we can make it a more enjoyable experience for all involved by preparing thoroughly!). After making your lists, pick two able and willing people (one from each side of the family) to whom you'll give that list for your wedding day, so that they can assist. Note: Pick people with authoritative personalities, who don't mind barking orders to get things done! In my experience, this can be the least fun, most stressful part of the day, so planning is essential to help it go as smoothly and as quickly as possible!
#6: Pinterest Picks
Are you pinning for all of those other special moments that you want to be sure to incorporate into your day? That's awesome!
But, I have seen boards get out of hand without realistic expectations of what's possible. Don't bring a board with 100 photos on it and say, "It's okay if we don't do all of these - I just want a few." That means having to scroll through and making last-minute decisions on your wedding day. Want to know my overall mantra to take away from this entire post? The less last-minute wedding day decisions, the better!
Re-organize your Pinterest board into the following categories (and add me as a collaborator!):
Bridal Prep, Groom Prep, Ceremony, Family Portraits, Wedding Party Portraits (only fully dressed - pajama pics go into the Prep category), Couple's Portraits, Reception, and Night Photos
You may not have pins (or plans) for all these categories - but for the rest, it's best to have them as organized as possible, in the order of your wedding day. And, schedule at least three to five minutes for every moment you've saved (I'm calling them moments, rather than shots).. So, that means you should to pick only your favorites, the ones you know you want to do, 100%. Lastly, share the board (or moments list) with your maid of honor, sister, or someone who can look at it to tell you what's next, and when. I don't like to stop shooting to look at boards and lists myself; I don't want to miss the first look with Dad, or some other very important moment - plus, if /i'm directing your day, I'm not capturing the authentic you - so it's best put someone else in charge of your board or list, if you have one. That can be the same person that you put in charge of your family photo list, if you want (they're called 'maids for a reason, right?).
Day-Of: Getting Ready
#7: Ready Rooms
Make sure each “getting ready” location / hotel room stays clean and tidy. Otherwise, either your photos will be full of clutter, your photographer will spend time cleaning instead of taking photos, or they will only use a zoomed in lens to avoid it all, skipping the wider shots to avoid all those plastic bags!
#8: Accessible Accessories
Get all of your special bride/groom details / accessories that you want photographed out on one table, chair, couch or corner of the floor.
Bride: wedding rings, invitation, bouquet, shoes, jewelry, perfume, veil, special trinkets [old, new, borrowed, blue], groom's note, gifts, garter, goblet, anything special that you want photographed.
Groom: wedding rings (whoever has the rings, just be sure to keep them together, and yeah, put your engagement ring in there, too), boutonniere, cologne, tie, flask / shot glass, shoes, gifts, cuff-links, pocket napkin, bride's note, anything special that you want photographed.
#9: Rockin' Robes
If the bride, bridal party and/or mother of the bride are going to be wearing embroidered robes, fun socks, matching pajamas, etc. for the "getting ready" portion of the day - or for the groom's side, special socks or super hero undershirts, etc. - be sure that everyone is wearing them before the photographer arrives, unless you want that to be photographed as a gift-opening session (which is also fun!). It's also a good idea to have just one person in charge of bringing all of the robes, etc. to ensure that no one forgets theirs (someone who is definitely going to be there, like the bride)!
#10: Boutonnieres, Baby
Groom: Designate someone to put boutonnieres on the groomsmen (and you) who has practiced or has learned how and knows exactly where to attach them. For the groom's boutonniere, it can be a really nice moment for mom to do this after she sees you completely ready for the first time! (And be sure to let your photographer capture it!)
#11: Seeing Somebody
Bride: For any "first looks" (bridesmaids, dad, other family members, etc), let the photographer get into position before you let them in the room. It also helps not to tell the person it is a "first look," which can make them feel like they are on stage. It should be as natural and organic a moment as possible for it to be enjoyed!
#12: Important Items
Bride: Last item checklist! Veil? Rings? Moms' corsages? Bouquet? This moment is the height of emotion, just before the ceremony or before your note session / first look with your spouse-to-be. Task your trusty maid of honor or someone with the job of making sure you have everything you'll need for the day - and she's got the emergency kit / bride's bag ready to go, right?
Couple's First Look
#13: More Moments
If you want plenty of couple's and wedding party photos, consider the idea of seeing each other - just the two of you, for a private moment - before the ceremony. This will save you stress after the ceremony during what is sometimes only 45 minutes for what is supposed to be all of your family, wedding party and couple's photos (but I do also recommend a golden hour couple's sneak-away - more on that later).
If you aren't doing a first look, you can skip this one. If you are doing a first look - take your time, and enjoy it! Your guests aren't waiting for you yet! You can carve out all the time you want here. It will be one of the only times you have all day just for the two of you (and, well, yeah, your photographer - believe me, I'm honored!). So, have an amazing time together!
For this moment especially, I highly recommend for you to trust your photographer to put the groom in the best location for what the lighting will be on his face as he sees bride for the first time. Some couples visit their venue on a different day and time or look at a Pinterest photo with a completely different lighting scenario than what will actually be the case for your first look on your wedding day. As professional photographers, we are trained in the art of light - it's what makes or breaks a photograph. We have to nail it. So, whether you want to do the walk up from behind, the holding hands around a door or a tree, backs together, whatever it is - you should let your photographer be the one to put you in the right spot, and trust that they know what they are doing in that moment (if you ask your photographer to visit the venue on a different day and time, again = different light!). You might think you see a pretty background, but, keep in mind, we'll be focusing on your faces for this moment, not the background (which will likely be blurry any way as we hone in to focus on that tear rolling down his cheek - we can all hope, right?).
And after the first look, we can go all over for awesome photos with pretty backgrounds, and then get your wedding party for more awesome photos, before it all begins!
#14: Sweet Smiles
For the ceremony, remind or have your day-of coordinator remind your wedding party members to look up and smile as they walk down the aisle (it's a wedding, not a funeral!), as well as to take their time, and not rush down the aisle too quickly. If you have flower girls who are nervous, have someone give them a fun little flower-throwing-coaching session to get them excited. It can be nerve-wracking for anyone to be in the spotlight, and I see a lot of concerned faces, young and old, instead of smiles, when people are walking down the aisle (or in the case of flower girls and ring bearers, actual tears) - so it's nice to remind everyone to just have a good time, and no pressure! It's an exciting moment!
#15: Friendly Faces
This tip is more for your post-wedding-day experience as you look back on your photos. Some couples like the idea of having the kiss captured so that you can see your guests in the background. If you want the kiss captured this way, I suggest having your officiant announce it at the beginning so guests know not to hold their phones in front of their faces during that moment, and instead congratulate you with their clapping hands and smiling faces.
Regardless of how the kiss is captured, many couples are opting for an "unplugged ceremony" overall, to protect their professional photography investment. If you decide to go this route, be sure to have a sign that encourages your guests to enjoy this moment with you and leave the photography to your professionally-hired photographer, and be sure to also have your officiant announce it at the start of your ceremony as a reminder as well (here are 14 ways to announce an unplugged ceremony as well as 17 unplugged wedding sign ideas). This will prevent anyone's cell phone from blocking the official photographer's shot of the groom seeing the bride for the first time, etc. Professional photographers do their best to take angles that will help them blend in unseen while still getting the shots - and sometimes guests just aren't aware that their cell phones are in the way, or of how they are impacting your investment.
#16: Blowing Bubbles
If you plan to have your guests blow bubbles or throw anything into the air to celebrate your kiss and ceremony exit, be sure to have your officiant to announce that, too. When it's not announced, guests tend to think those bubbles or petals are just party favors, and they don't use them for their intended purpose.
#17: Family Formals, Part Two
After the celebration of the ceremony quickly comes the part of the day that can be the most stressful, by far. But if you're prepared, you won't have to make any last-minute decisions here. Know exactly where you are exiting to after the ceremony. Have your officiant announce for family members to watch your exit and follow to where you are for photos, while the rest of the guests go to cocktail hour to wait for your entrance (you don't want to have to have someone to get your family members from cocktail hour, wasting precious portrait time). If you've followed Tip #2, you've created and given two lists of your desired family portraits, in order of when you want to take each photo, to your designated, authoritative "Family Portraits Coordinators". Knowing who your family members are, they are there to get the family ready for each portrait and call the next members up when each portrait is finished. This will help you get through this part as quickly as possible so you can then do those fun wedding party and couple's photos!
Remember to give each photo about two-to-three minutes to set up and capture, depending on the number of family members in the photo. Keep your list to a size that can actually be accomplished in the allotted time (30 photos is the entire hour!), or, extend your cocktail hour, with plenty of games and entertainment (here are 30 Wedding Reception Games & Activities Your Guests Will Love).
#18: Exciting Entrances
This tip is just for fun! For the reception grand entrance, have the DJ/MC introduce your wedding party in a fun way and have them do a fun pose when they enter or on the dance floor. And the couple should do the same! Make sure your photographer is aware of where that fun pose will take place (right after entering? Or on the dance floor?). This will get you the most epic grand entrance photos - but most importantly, the guests and wedding party will have a blast as the party finally kicks off!
#19: Sneak-Away Session
Golden hour is the BEST time of day for photos, in my opinion - 45 to 30 minutes before sunset. So, I recommend creating a "sneak-away" slot in your reception timeline prior to sunset on your special day (check Google for your sunset time; as I mentioned, I don't recommend having your ceremony end close to sunset, because if the ceremony runs late for reasons beyond your control, you'll miss your natural light portrait window entirely). Be sure you inform your MC so he/she can keep your guests entertained during that time. Some couples time it to coincide with dinner; guests who finish eating before your return can do Photo Booth, sign guest book, other entertainment, etc. Or, some couples have it occur just after open dancing begins, or even after open dancing, for earlier weddings.
#20: Hello, Homies
If you plan to visit with your guests at their tables after the golden hour session and/or during dinner, tell your photographer when you plan to start. If you want an actual portrait (looking at the camera and smiling) with each table, also let your photographer know ahead of time, so they can (1) equip the wide angle lens and (2) be prepared to work around the guests with cell phones. Lastly, be sure to allow at least 3-5 minutes per table and schedule your dinner time accordingly (and make sure your guests understand this is a brief visit, and that you'll have more time to visit with them more later).
Some couples like to get a large photo with every guest in attendance rather than try to get photos of everyone at their tables. If you would like to have a large photo with all of your guests, have your DJ announce it. Allow about 10 minutes for the photographer to get every one into position. This is great to do just before open dancing - so everyone is all ready up on the dance floor and ready to party!
(Having a photo booth is also a great way to get photos of your guests. If you have a photo booth, make sure your DJ makes frequent reminders for the guests to jump in! Then your photographer can just keep focusing on you, the couple.)
Whatever you decide you want in terms of guest photos, just be sure to let your photographer know what your hopes and expectations are. Some couples don't want or need professional photos of guests filling up their wedding album, since every one has cell phones these days (and they'll be using them), or since there will be a photo booth. Other couples, however, are disappointed if they don't get as many professional photos of guests as possible. So, communicating with your photographer on this one is key!
#21: Tricky Tosses
If you plan to do a bouquet / garter toss, this is another tip to ensure that you love your photos! Bride: For the bouquet toss, do a “fake-out” toss first for your photographer to capture a good photo of you about to throw, then the real toss, so they can focus on capturing the catch. Groom: To mix it up for the garter toss, hide a dinner napkin in your pocket and throw that first, so the photographer can capture a good photo of you throwing (the guys both hate and love this - fun stuff), then, do the real garter toss.
#22: Special Sparklers
If you stage a sparkler grand exit (most are staged, since couples don't want to pay for HOURS of dancing photos, but they DO want a cool exit photo), buy “wedding sparklers” rather than 4th of July or other sparklers - the wrong kind of sparkler will burn out too quickly and create too much fire and smoke. If your venue doesn't allow sparklers (as in El Dorado County where I live), there are also light-up balloons or glow sticks that you can use as alternative grand exit options. And, halfway through the exit - dip kiss!
Wow. You actually read all that! Kudos to you. No joke - I'm ready for bed, myself.
I just seriously want to hand it to all you couples who actually do this thing. I think it's beyond amazing that you've found the love of your life, and now here you are, putting together the biggest (and most expensive) party EVER to celebrate what really matters - your love for each other. So, at the end of the day, no, it doesn't matter if you forget the family photo list, or if you don't follow any one else's tips or advice. It is your day, and as long as the two of you enjoy it - that's what it's all about.
I'm just beyond honored and blown away to get to capture it for you!
As always . . . Happy Wedding Planning!