How to Photograph a Wedding: Have a Gameplan

This is the third installment of a three-part series on preparing to shoot your first wedding. The first step is figuring out the important shots to take when shooting a wedding. The second step is scouting out the location prior to the wedding.

The final step in preparing for your first wedding is reviewing the timeline and putting together your own game plan. This is the most important thing you can do to prepare yourself to photograph a wedding.

When it comes to the timeline, you need to know what is expected to happen and when. You know how the saying goes…if you fail to plan…you plan to fail.

Same thing goes for the wedding…if there is no timeline…its gonna be a tough day for you. Do everything you can to get a timeline from the bride in advance. It will save you a lot of headaches and missed shots on the day. As a last resort, call the caterer or reception venue and ask them to send you the timeline. It may not be complete, but it's a starting point.

The timeline is absolutely critical to understand. Will there be natural light after the ceremony? How much time is allocated for family and romantic portraits? When will you have time to squeeze in a dinner break? Will there be time after the bride is ready for a few bridal portraits? For example you might find that while the bride and groom expects you to take 45 different type of group portraits, they may have only allowed 30 minutes from the end of the ceremony until you are supposed to be done with all family portraits and romantic portraits. Yet, after the ceremony it actually takes 15 minutes for them to get back to the alter and sign the marriage certificate, much less hunt down key family members which have wandered off. The bride and groom are not professional wedding planners, so they have no idea how long things take. It’s your job to advise them on this, especially when it comes to portraits. Allow for plenty of time, and if they want a lot of family portraits and a lot of romantic portraits, perhaps extending the cocktail hour by 15 minutes will give you the extra time needed. It’s all about planning.

Photography Gameplan

Your game plan is separate from the timeline, as it is fully focused on the photography of the day. You should have a really good sense of your game plan already, from the site visit. However, now you need to refine it and fill in the missing spots. Let’s say you selected 4 great spots for the romantic portraits, but as it turns out, there’s only going to be about 10 minutes allocated-so consider your top 1-2 spots and know that you’ll start at one and get to the second one if time allows. Perhaps the bride and groom have rented a classic car and want some photos taken with it-are you going to do these right outside the church, or would the reception venue make a better spot for these shots? Don’t wait until the moment comes to decide these things-it might be too late and you’ll have missed your opportunity.

What are the Couple's Preferences?

Does the couple want coverage of the guys getting ready? If so, how can you make sure you don’t miss anything important happening with the bride? It is very simple to plan for 10 minutes with the guys if they are in the same hotel, but if they are getting ready at a different location, will you have enough time to get over there? Then do you go back to the bride or head to the ceremony location? Each has it’s advantages-with the bride, you can use some extra time for those bridal portraits, bride with her mom, that sort of thing. On the other hand, going to the church early with the guys allows you to capture the architectural details of the building, the groomsmen hanging out on the church steps, greeting guests, pew decor, a grandmother getting her corsage pinned on, etc. By having a game plan, you’ll know exactly what you are going to cover and where. You’ll have predetermined what the priority shots are.

Reception Details Requires Planning

Another important factor in putting together your plan is how you will capture all those reception details if you are busy with portraits during cocktail hour. Sometimes all it takes is slipping into the banquet room prior to the ceremony and asking the head waiter to be sure and keep the doors closed so you can get some shots in before the guests are seated. If you have a second shooter or assistant, asking them to cover those shots while you are with the couple is a good plan. If I am shooting a wedding by myself, I always try to complete the portraits about 10 minutes or so before the doors to the banquet room are opened, and then I skip the cocktail hour and dash in to the banquet room to get shots of the centerpieces, menu cards, head table and so forth. If the entire event is held at one location, I will often slip in to the reception room prior to the ceremony to get a couple of details while things are quiet. As a last resort, I will try to find a table that guests haven’t been seated at yet to try to create those classic detail shots before the table has been messed up.


However you decide to approach it, the point is you have a plan, and you made some critical decisions prior to the moment when everything is happening all at once. You will be much more relaxed and in control of your day. And by being well prepared, you will be more open to creative moments as they unfold, because you’ll already be prepared to cover the basics.

I always, always always study the timeline prior to the wedding, ask the bride questions in advance of the day and have an understanding of what is most important for that particular wedding. For some weddings, the real focus is on the people, while other weddings might be focused more on the design and decor. Knowing what is going to happen and what is important to the bride will help you make the most of this opportunity.

Lastly, know that most wedding photographers (even those with 10 years’ experience) still get butterflies before a wedding. It’s a big responsibility. The bride and groom have put their trust in you to capture one of the most important days of their lives.

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