Updated June 24, 2020 at 1:10 pm
While I'm not a wedding planner or coordinator by any means, I have gathered some insight from the 80+ weddings I've shot over the past couple years. From my experience, the more that a couple can plan in advance of the wedding day, instead of making last-minute decisions on the special day itself, the better. To be helpful, I'm going to throw out some tips that may help you prepare, based on my experience. These are coming from a photographer who prefers to capture everything as it unfolds no matter what happens - so just take what you want, and leave the rest! I'm going to enjoy your wedding no matter what and it's such an honor to capture it for you!
Happy Wedding Planning!
Months Before: Schedules
#1: Savoring Sunset
I would recommend that you don't schedule your ceremony time too close to sunset, if you are having an outdoor ceremony, and if you want outdoor portraits after your ceremony. My advice is to 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
As a photojournalist, I prefer to capture the day as it unfolds, but I am also totally down to capture your Pinterest faves! But be careful about bringing a Pinterest a board with 100 photos on it and saying, "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. The less last-minute wedding day decisions, the better!
If you have a large Pinterest board of must-haves, 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 what you do, 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.
Day-Of: Getting Ready
#7: Ready Rooms
It helps to make sure each “getting ready” location / hotel room stays clean and tidy, to avoid getting all of that mess in your wedding day photos.
#8: Accessible Accessories
I recommend getting all of your special bride/groom details / accessories that you want photographed out before your photographer arrives. Here are the details we often photograph:
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. - it's best to 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, Babe
Groom: I recommend designating someone to put boutonnieres on the groomsmen (and you) who has practiced or has learned how 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!
#11: Seeing Somebody
Bride: For any "first looks" (bridesmaids, dad, other family members, etc), I suggest letting the photographer get into position beforehand. It also helps not to tell the person it is a "first look," which can make them feel like they are on stage.
#12: Important Items
Bride: A last-item checklist is always helpful! Veil? Rings? Moms' corsages? Bouquets? This moment is the height of emotion, just before the ceremony, or before your note session / first look with your spouse-to-be, when important details can sometimes be forgotten.
Couple's First Look
#13: More Moments
If you want lots of couple's and wedding party photos, I recommend considering seeing each other - just the two of you, for a private moment - before the ceremony. This can save you stress after the ceremony during what is sometimes only 45 minutes for all of your family, wedding party and couple's photos (but I do also recommend a golden hour couple's sneak-away - but more on that later).
#14: Sweet Smiles
For the ceremony, it's good to 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, perhaps 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.
#15: Friendly Faces
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.
Side note: Regardless of how the kiss is captured, many couples are also opting for an "unplugged ceremony" overall, to protect their professional photography investment. If you decide to go this route, it's helpful to have a sign that encourages your guests to enjoy this moment with you, and it's also good to 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).
#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, I recommend having your officiant announce that, too. When it's not announced, guests tend to think those bubbles or petals are just party favors, and they sometimes don't use them for their intended purpose.
#17: Family Formals, Part Two
I recommend having your officiant announce for family members to watch your exit and follow to where you are for family photos, while the rest of the guests go to cocktail hour to wait for your entrance. 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 can 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!
I suggest allotting each photo about two-to-three minutes to set up and capture, depending on the number of family members in the photo. With many family members, you might need to extend your cocktail hour (but here are 30 Wedding Reception Games & Activities Your Guests Will Love).
#18: Exciting Entrances
For the reception grand entrance, it's fun to have the DJ/MC introduce your wedding party in a creative way and have them do a fun pose when they enter or on the dance floor. And the couple can do the same! The guests and wedding party will have a blast as the party 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. I recommend creating a "sneak-away" slot in your reception timeline prior to sunset on your special day (check Google for your sunset time). 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: Hey, Homies!
If you plan to visit with your guests at their tables after the golden hour session and/or during dinner, I recommend letting your photographer when you plan to start, since they eat at the same time as the couple but don't want to miss any of the action. If you want an actual portrait (looking at the camera and smiling) with each table, 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. And again, be sure to allow 3-5 minutes per table and schedule your dinner time accordingly (and it's good to let your guests's know this is a brief visit, and that you'll have more time to visit with them more later).
Note: 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!
#21: Tricky Tosses
If you plan to do a bouquet / garter toss, I have some tips to ensure that you get the most out of it! Bride: For the bouquet toss, I recommend doing 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, it's so much fun to 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 to 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), be sure to 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, CA), there are also light-up balloons or glow sticks that you can use as alternative grand exit options. And, halfway through the exit - a dip kiss makes for a great photo!
At the end of the day, 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!