Before I became a wedding photographer, I was a wedding and event planner for a luxury hotel. It was an easy transition to becoming a wedding photographer, because there was nothing that scared me. OK, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s also true: Once you’ve done one wedding, you’ve done them all. This assumes that you’ve planned every detail extraordinarily, but it also means there is a general formula to the day and that it’s easy to start picking up on the patterns. My goal here is to share my expertise as both a wedding planner and wedding photographer to help you understand the flow of a traditional wedding day. Hopefully this will make it easier for you to plan your own wedding shot list!
1. Before the ceremony
This is your time to capture detail shots and the excitement leading up to the ceremony. You don’t need 500 images of the wedding party getting ready, so you can relax a bit and get to know the bridal party. Your second shooter or you should photograph details, like invitations, rings, flowers, dresses, the ceremony site, etc. Try to also network a bit with other event pros. Exchange business cards with hair and makeup artists and photograph them while they work. You can pass along these images after the wedding and tag the businesses in your social media posts.
In your wedding day questionnaire, ask the bride and groom if they plan on exchanging gifts with their wedding party, with each other, or with their parents. These are candid, emotional moments you don’t want to miss!
- The ceremony site
- Bridal hair and makeup
- Dresses, shoes, jewelry and other details
- The groom getting dressed
- Groomsmen accessories and details
- Gifts and the gift exchange
2. The first look
Some less traditional couples like to have a “first look” before the ceremony. This is a chance for them to spend a few minutes together before the ceremony and react to the moment alone. It can be overwhelming to have strong emotions with hundreds of people watching you. The first look is a more intimate and relaxing option to offer your couples. It also allows you as the photographer some time to capture emotional images, especially if you only have time set aside for creative shots after the ceremony.
Capture the couple with a longer focal length to give them a bit more privacy. The day goes by so fast that it’s important for them to have some perceived alone time to take in the day. Coach your couple to relax and be in the moment. They will appreciate your efforts and will remember this as a very special time during their day.
- The moments leading up to the reveal
- The bride and groom reactions as they see each other
3. The wedding ceremony
The ceremony is the most stressful part of the day because there are lots of once-in-a-lifetime moments and it typically goes by very quickly. This is the part of the day where you really want to master a flow. Unless your couple is doing something very different, there is a specific flow to every ceremony. Learning this flow allows you to anticipate exactly where you need to be during each part. For example, you can plan which lens to use and where to stand during the ring exchange and first kiss. You can also plan the points where you may have some down time to capture guest reactions. Get to know the wedding commissioners, ceremony officiants and churches in your area. They will let you know what they typically do to help you out: Some coach their couples to kiss twice so that the photographer has time to capture the kiss. Some move out of the way of the first kiss. Others have preferences and suggestions for different ceremony locations. They can be great resources.
Before the bride walks down the aisle, ask her to hold her bouquet low with the flowers tilted slightly forward. This makes your photos look better (less stem!) and ensures that she isn’t carrying the bouquet at an awkward height.
- Bride walking down the aisle
- Bride being handed off to the groom
- Ring exchange
- First kiss
- Bride and groom reactions
- First row/family reactions
4. Family photos
This is often a photographer’s least favorite part of the day because it can be chaotic and stressful. People go missing, the couple gets distracted with hugs and congratulations and if not timed correctly, it can cut into your time for beloved creative shots! However, it’s important to remember that weddings are one of the only times that extended families gather. For the couple, it may be the first and last time they see some of their family. The images you take here are lifelong legacies and heirlooms. The often end up being the most cherished images from the day.
Along with the wedding day timeline and details, ask the couple for a master list of their important family shots. Have them assign someone from the bridal party to assist you in gathering the relatives. This is better than having a second shooter do it because the bridal party likely knows the family.
- Everyone on the pre-planned list
- The bride’s entire family
- The groom’s entire family
- Groups of friends
- Groups of co-workers
Note: Sometimes you have to do each side of the family twice if there are divorced parents.
5. Creative photographs
Having 1.5 to 3 hours for creative imagery is great, depending on what you want to accomplish in this timeframe. Educating your clients about including time for delays and travel to and from different locations will help you stick to the schedule. If you like posed moments with lighting setups, if the couple wants loads of photographs with their wedding party, or if you have a long distance to travel between locations, consider scheduling as much time as possible. Use this time to push yourself and try something new! If you’ve been looking forward to testing out your new tilt-shift lens, playing with a Petzval, or experimenting with smoke bombs, now’s the time to do it. Plan how you will execute your vision well in advance so that you have a good sense of what you need to do to keep it safe and successful.
Bring snacks! Water bottles, granola bars (that don’t leave food in your teeth), and bananas are easy and always appreciated by the bridal party. They likely haven’t eaten all day!
- Bridal portrait
- Groom portrait
- Full wedding party with couple (formal and creative)
- Group A of wedding party with couple
- Group B of wedding party with couple
- Individual portraits of the wedding party
- Group A of wedding party with and without couple
- Group B of wedding party with and without couple
- The couple together (formal and creative)
- Aside from that, be yourself, be creative, and aim for as much variety as possible!
6. The reception
This part of the wedding day can be laid back and fun. Similar to the getting ready shots, you need to be alert and ready at all times, but there will be some time to relax a bit and wind down. This part of the day lends itself well to a documentary approach, since you are capturing moments as they happen. You also need to anticipate facial expressions, emotions, and actions of family and friends. Know your angles in order to capture hugs at the head table and tears at the podium during speeches. Be careful not to overshoot the speeches so that you can spend less time culling in post-processing. When the dancing begins, get ready to capture some beautiful and epic images! You will have to move around the dance floor and anticipate moments. It can be disappointing to miss a moment because someone’s head is tuned away from you.
Include dinner in your contract. Having that discussion ahead of time lets things flow smoothly on the wedding day. You’ve been working all day and you need a break, too! Nobody wants photographs of people in the middle of chewing, so you can sit down and relax. Just keep your eyes and ears open for special moments.
- Kids being adorable
- Parent reactions to speeches
- Bride and groom reactions to speeches
- First dance
- Dances with parents
- Games and traditions
That’s my wedding day flow, from details to dancing. I hope this helps you create your own complete wedding shot list so you can relax and capture those once-in-a-lifetime moments. Share your best pro wedding photography tips in the comments!
All photos by Ebony Logins