In this detailed article, I’ll guide you through how to plan your wedding day timeline yourself, with realistic estimates for every part of the day. When you want your wedding to be simple and intimate, it can be tough to plan out a wedding day timeline that really makes sense, and isn’t going to lag or feel too rushed.
I’ve been shooting intimate weddings for 6 years. In that time I’ve seen it all and have gotten to know a thing or two about what makes for a relaxed but still well-optimized timeline for your small wedding.
More wedding planning tips? Check out my ultimate resource linked below!
With the changed wedding world that 2020 brought, we have seen a rise in intimate weddings. I have photographed socially-distanced picnic weddings, weddings in forests and on the beach, and backyard celebrations that have never gone away!
Even as our world has opened back up, the trends toward intimate weddings are here to stay. Indeed, I was photographing small weddings before that was even a thing!
This article is intended for those relaxed, informal wedding celebrations that are becoming more popular now. Learn how to plan a timeline that makes sense for you, allows time for what you value while optimizing your investment into photography.
The importance of planning
If you choose me as your wedding photographer, I’ll work with you every step of the way to craft your timeline with your specific goals and vision in mind.
The timeline planning doc I use is editable and also collects other information to ensure the day goes as smoothly as possible, where both you and I can collaborate.
However, this guide is meant to be helpful whomever you choose as your photographer. That said, every photographer works differently, so please first and foremost check with your wedding photographer.
It also bears mentioning as a quick disclaimer that I am not a wedding planner. A photographer never takes the place of a wedding planner, and is highly recommended especially for intimate weddings.
However, not everyone has the inclination or budget to hire a planner, but if you have even the skimpiest of wedding funds, I do believe it’s money well spent, that will repay far more than you put in.
Pssst, planning to get hitched at San Francisco City Hall? I’ve a separate sample timeline especially for in-person civil ceremonies there.
How long to allow for each wedding day activity?
Now, remember that with the intimate, informal wedding days you may not have all of these events. They are for ideas only. Here’s what I’d love to see for every wedding – no matter how relaxed and unconventional.
A typical wedding can include any of the following, for example:
- Getting ready 45-60 min (or faux getting ready finishing touches only at the venue 20-25 mins)
- First look + romantic portraits (45 mins inc. set up)
- Wedding party photos (15-20 mins)
- Family photos (30 mins)
- Ceremony (20 mins, with delay getting started, need to allow 30 – 35 mins)
- Scene setting/décor/place settings (grabbing throughout the day for ceremony/reception spaces)
- Cocktail hour (60 mins +)
- ‘Grip and grins’ with guests (as directed)
- Grand entrance (5 mins)
- Toasts/speeches (recommend 3 speeches, 3 mins each. With breaks/overrun 15 mins)
- Sunset photos (20 mins)
- Dinner (60 mins+)
- Cake-cutting (5 mins)
- First dance & parent dances (5 mins + 5 mins)
- Open dancing (30 – 45 mins)
Our non- City Hall wedding photography services at Zoe Larkin Photography begin at 3 hours for weekday and off-season weddings, and 8 hours for peak-season weekend weddings.
Please read about why our minimums exist in the article linked below:
We cannot take on weddings that are less than 3 hours. We can occasionally take on weddings that are less than 8 hours on select dates when we’ve already booked an 8-hour wedding the other day of that weekend, or when it’s less than 2 months before the wedding date that you’re booking.
A note about intimate weddings (micro weddings, minimonies, elopements)
Many of my couples have very small weddings (anything from 0 – 20 guests). Apart from those couples that have zero guests, there is something that I need you to bear in mind.
With smaller weddings, often what is lost is the structure of the day that you might expect with larger, more traditional celebrations that are held at a typical wedding venue.
Crowds have a certain level of predictability that individuals don’t. And intimate weddings are more akin to a group of individuals than a crowd per se – meaning it can actually be harder to manage a smaller wedding crowd than a larger wedding of 100+ guests!
I have photographed countless weddings where there are just a handful of guests, but it is challenging to move people from one activity to the next. Someone disappears for a second, and now the ceremony is delayed until they return.
Guests are more emboldened to sneak in an impromptu photo shoot with you, the couple, any time they wish. All of this can have an impact on the timeline.
So, it’s important to bear in mind that sometimes having a wedding with a lower guest count might run counter to your expectations about being able to move through the day more quickly.
Here are some activities recommended for your intimate wedding:
Allow time to set up your livestream!
If you’re planning a professional wedding livestream, you’ll need to allow time to set that up.
What does ‘getting ready’ look like?
I’ll capture the finishing touches, whether it’s a groom slipping on his jacket and adjusting his watch, or a close friend helping a bride with her earrings while she has a quick sip of champagne.
To save time, you’ll already be dressed in your wedding attire prior to the photographer’s arrival time. This way, getting ready is more focused around capturing you at your best, including some solo portraits and potentially the two of you exchanging letters, cards or love-notes.
If you don’t want the extra time of transiting from the hotel to the ceremony location, you can do ‘getting ready’ touches in the ceremony location.
These days, many couples get ready together at home. This can make for some very sweet images. With more informal celebrations becoming the norm with less pomp, I highly recommend considering this as a fun and modern option! (saves a lot of time too!)
Time allotted: 30 minutes per partner (if getting ready in different locations, you’ll need to allow travel time, or consider hiring a second photographer). If getting ready together, 30 mins total.
Quick and dirty option: We can do a few very quick photos prior to the first look or prior to ceremony. Basically just both of you recreating the getting ready, I normally say something like ‘adjust your tie and look at me like I’m a mirror’!
Even the simplest wedding likely has a few touches you’ll want to capture on camera for posterity. This adds a touch of variety as well as sentimentality to your finished wedding gallery.
The most obvious details are a wedding bouquet, pocket-square & tie, bridal jewelry and engagement rings, wedding invitation, or shoes. But anything you’d like photographed and styled is a ‘detail’.
For a curated flatlay with props and styling aids, we need to be somewhere non-windy and let me tell you, it takes a long time. This is not something that most of my couples are ever interested in, so I don’t have that much experience with it. Pro tip: if this is important to you, search ‘fine art wedding photographer’, who will specialize in exactly this.
I tend to keep it very minimal with the details, and I like them to be in your hand or on you rather than styled on a board. Example, if you want photos of your ring, I’d prefer to see that bad boy on your finger, cradling your partner’s face!
Time allotted: 30 minutes+, depending on the amount of items you’d like photographed and what styling is required.
Quick and dirty option: I’ll just take photos of the important details naturally and as they occur throughout the day.
This is the moment when both partners see each other for the first time. Doing a first look in private alleviates nerves and allows couples to have a quiet moment without the eyes of friends and family.
For a full blog post all about what a first look might involve and why you should have one, check out this detailed article:
The ‘traditional’ first look in a hetero-normative sense goes like this: The groom will be positioned facing away from where the bride will enter. The photographer will tell him where to stand and give instructions.
Then the bride will be brought out and given instructions to tap the groom in the shoulder, at which point the groom will turn around. The look on his face, and the interactions that take place organically after that point, are captured.
So, with that said – please know that your first look does not have to follow this typical structure. You can also go back to back and feel each other’s presence before you see each other. Or you could be dropped off by car or led to where your partner is, and the natural moments captured (so it’s not as staged).
As you can probably tell from the logistics required, it can be a little time-consuming in the set up. One person (me) has to get two people to a particular spot without seeing each other, plus each person on what to do and when to do it.
And don’t forget, after you’ve had a moment together, we will go immediately into a photo session. For some couples, this ends up being the main photo session as it’s guaranteed time together with no interruptions.
Time allotted: A first look followed by a couples’ photo session ideally should be 45 mins – 1 hour.
Quick and dirty option: If your first look required less staging (and you don’t want a full photo session immediately following) we can do this in 25 minutes. Of course the photos will be fewer, but they’ll still be beautiful and joy-filled!
This may end up being a buffer time, and it’s likely when your guests will arrive and find their places.
You will likely oversee a set-up process if you have decor as a part of your informal wedding. I have some affordable ideas linked below if you’re short on ideas!
During this portion of the day, there’s likely to be quite a lot going on, plus you’ve got the nerves of the actual ceremony just minutes away.
So, allow yourself some time to welcome guests (if you have them) in a relaxed manner and do what you need to do to set up. If you have a friend/helper, they will ask you how you want it set up and where everything is. Happens at every wedding!
Time allotted: This one really varies depending on what set-up is required and how many guests you have, if any! Sometimes guests are helping out, which reduced the time. Other times, you may be waiting for guests to arrive. If you’re doing it all yourself, that may also take time!
As a rule of thumb and including buffer time, I’d say 30 – 45 minutes at the very least.
Quick and dirty option: If you have very minimal set-up and no decor and no preference of where the ceremony takes place, this can be done in however long it takes to walk there.
This is one for you to discuss with your officiant, but most intimate wedding ceremonies run about 20 minutes. The only time I’ve seen ceremonies go long is with such a relaxed vibe, sometimes family members will want to say a few words, so let them have their moment to congratulate you.
Please note: religious/ cultural ceremonies often take much longer. For example, ceremonies from the Jewish, Hindu and Catholic traditions can run 1 hour+. Cultural ceremonies (for example, from certain African and Asian traditions) can likewise run more than 1 hour.
The 20-minute rule of thumb applies to American/ Western/ secular and nontraditional ceremonies.
Time allotted: 30 minutes should allow for both late-running and a ceremony that goes long. I would also advise having a buffer time right before the ceremony, as this is when timelines most commonly start to go awry.
Quick and dirty option: If you have zero set-up and a very short micro-ceremony, this can be done in as little as 10 – 15 minutes. Remember, the ceremony at City Hall is only 4 minutes long, so I’m used to working quickly! Of course, the pictures are going to be far fewer and less varied with less time to be creative but it’s your call.
After the ceremony, there’s going to be a ton of hugs, congratulations, tears, laughs – basically the best stuff for a photographer to capture! This is absolute gold and I’d never advise cutting this short.
Time allotted: 10 minutes is long enough for everyone to express their blessings and happiness.
Quick and dirty option: If you have no guests, take a minute and we’re good to go! Also if you do want to move things along, you can have your photographer announce that it’s time for the next activity (usually the posed group photos) immediately after the ceremony.
Posed group photos
This is a part of the day that can trip you up if you don’t know what to expect. I have a detailed article that gives a breakdown of how long you can expect posed family photos to take linked below.
You will need to give your photographer a list of all the groupings you’d like in advance. Start with the largest group first, or those that are less able to stand. If you have more than 10 or so guests, it helps to appoint a photo wrangler!
Time allotted: For a small wedding group, I’d suggest no more than 6 groupings at the most. For larger weddings (20+ guests) 8 – 10 groups is the upper limit I’d advise. Allow 3 minutes per each desired grouping, plus extra time for a possible large group photo of everybody present. This puts us at 30-45 minutes for family photos.
Quick and dirty option: If posed photos aren’t your thing, do one photo of everyone present. That way you’re formally capturing all your guests without wearing out their patience or taking time out of your day. This part of the day can be a real slog for all concerned, so if there’s anything that you could cut, this would be it.
However of course some couples really want the staged photos while everyone’s gathered together. Consider doing just three photos – everyone present, partner 1’s side and partner 2’s side. Again, this will depend very much on family dynamics and your priorities.
This is the time of the day we’ll capture images you’ll cherish forever and put on your walls! Therefore, I wouldn’t advise cutting this down unless you are absolutely sure you don’t want many photos or much variety from your newlywed portraits. For these photos, we’ll change up the pace and energy a little bit.
It’s up to you how many locations you would like, or what makes sense in terms of your venue. One location is absolutely fine, or choose a second one for more variety. Even with one location, I pride myself on finding cool, hidden areas as I’m used to working in unconventional venues where I need to get creative! By ‘location’, I mean two distinct areas that are either a drive or a walk from one other.
This travel time contains time when we are not taking photos, just walking/ driving. Each location contains multiple walkable backdrops to choose from.
Time allotted: An optimal photo session means 45 minutes per location, plus driving time. It takes a while to settle in, get comfortable, and warm up! (for my cheat-sheet guide how to avoid awkward wedding photos, check out the article linked below!)
During this time, I’m reading you and figuring out what poses and prompts elicit the best reactions. My goal is to create photos that look like you, so it takes a little time to tap into the natural chemistry of each unique couple I work with.
Below is another article about the principles behind posing, for you to bear in mind as we go through the session. It definitely helps to be prepared!
Quick and dirty option: Definitely stick to one location, if possible the same location as your ceremony. We can walk a little way so there’s a bit more variety. A good photographer will be able to see the potential with any area at all, as what really makes for great photos is light.
You can cut the time down to even 20 minutes, but we would want to make sure that we’re getting that full 20 minutes to get unrushed, beautiful portraits of you.
If you’re already had a solid couples’ photo session before the ceremony, we can for sure cut this down. But please know that for most weddings, this part of the day coincides with pre-sunset time when the light is the most stunning.
The earlier couples’ session was likely around high-noon when the sun was overhead and not as flattering, so if anything, the later-in-the-day romantics session is the most important one.
Wedding receptions can be anything you want them to be. Above is a COVID wedding reception!
If you’re have just a ceremony with a very minimal reception, I would capture just the first 20 minutes of a sit-down meal – before the food comes.
Or you might be planning a traditional wedding reception, when the program of events could include any of the following:
- Scene setting/décor/place settings
- The space while empty
- Photos of the couple (portrait session)
- Grand entrance
- ‘Grip and grins’ with guests
- Formal guest photos
- Table visits (candid/posed)
- Cheersing, toasts/speeches
- Food as it comes out
- First dance & parent dances
- Open dancing
We don’t take photos of guests eating, so it’s worth assessing whether there are post-meal events that are worth capturing, or if the first 20 – 45 mins of the event are enough to get the main events – toasts, cake-cutting, decor, candids and final informal posed groupings.
Time allotted: 20 minutes if you just want candid photography of ‘cheersing champagne’, or folks sitting in the restaurant, or the start of the picnic. If you are having speeches or toasts however, that is going to take longer, perhaps up to 45 minutes depending on how many are speaking. Please encourage your family members to time their prepared speeches and keep to no more than 3 minutes each as per your preferences.
Quick and dirty option: Coverage of the ‘cheersing’ only! Food set up always takes much longer, so if you want to incorporate a beverage of your choice only (and then eat without a photographer present), that can be a good idea.
For more day-of tips, check out the article linked below.
A bad timeline vs. good timeline in action!
The easiest way to illustrate this is with an example – maybe you’ll be able to spot the errors by now, but I will also explain them in depth.
The gist of a successful wedding plan is making sure there’s enough time for what you value. This is different for everyone, but there are some general rules of thumb.
First off, allow more time than you think for what I call ‘changing activities’. Example of a timeline with enough buffer, and one without.
|3.00 – 3.20||Wedding ceremony|
|3.20 – 3.30||Group photos|
|3.30 – 4.00||Newlywed photo session|
Um, this is completely unrealistic! Instead of the above, I’d suggest something like the timeline below. This is a bit of an extreme example (like, you probably wouldn’t need to allow quite this much of a buffer time in most cases) but hopefully it illustrates my point nicely.
Here are the mistakes with this timeline.
- There’s no time before the ceremony for getting ready, details, first look and set-up time. Now, that’s personal preference if you don’t want any coverage of that. However, the nerves and anticipation can make for some awesome shots.
- It takes time for everyone to arrive and then walk to the exact ceremony location. And with small weddings, you want to be sure that everyone’s there before you begin, and there’s always that one late person!
- If you’re not using a planner, you’ll be the point person for the set up process, even if you’re not technically doing the work. There will be stuff – bags, food, décor, things left in the car, folks unsure where things are. It’s realistic to allow a little time for this, so it’s a pleasure not a stress!
- The pre-ceremony photos can be really beautiful – the looks on everyone’s faces as they wait for you to arrive. Those nerves showing through just minutes before you say ‘I do’. Savor those moments!
- You may or may not want to do a first look – personally, photographers love them! As we discussed above, it takes a fair bit of coordination.
- The allocated ceremony time should always be more than the expected run time by about 50%. This is a buffer in case of late-running, or in case any family member decides to share a few ‘quick’ words. This happens frequently with smaller weddings – it’s so relaxed and everyone knows each other!
- After the ceremony, your family will want to congratulate you and cry and hug and just, well… have a moment! Just allow yourself to be present in this moment. It makes for awesome (and very emotional) photos too. I mean, really. What an awful thing to have to shut down because we’ve got to rush to the next thing!
- Only 10 minutes was allocated to the group photos, which we know isn’t enough unless this couple only wanted 3 photos total.
- Right after the group shots, there is a hidden task that takes longer than you think. And I don’t know if any couples ever think about this beforehand. That’s saying goodbye to the guests before our photo session! Usually there will be a plan for them to follow, but even so, expect a flurry of last-minute questions and well-wishes to attend to. Which is all lovely, and it’s nice to give them the time they deserve without rushing.
- Next up is the photo session, which as we know is not long enough to create the sorts of photos you see in wedding photographers’ portfolios. We’ll start with the basics then move onto the natural, fun ones! You won’t regret spending 10 more minutes of beautiful memories, but you will regret opening your gallery and not having as many as you wanted once the day’s done.
If your entire wedding day coverage is only an hour or two, consider that you’re only going to get around 50 – 100 photos. And they’re going to be rushed, because the photographer is desperately trying to force guests to change activity. Obviously, this is not a good use of our creative energy.
A natural and effective timeline just flows – no-one has to bark orders and you and your guests to stop what they’re doing and quickly get to the next activity!
Sample wedding timeline for an intimate wedding
Please note – these were for COVID weddings, and nowadays even small weddings are usually taking place in wedding venues once again.
Version 1 – longer day with maximum time
|1.00 – 2.15||Getting ready (separately) & details photos|
|2.15 – 2.30||Travel to ceremony location (5 minute drive)|
|2.45 – 3.15||First look with mini couples’ session|
|3.25 – 3.45||Meet guests at designated meeting point, gather everyone and walk to ceremony location|
|3.45 – 4.15||Set up ceremony site & photos of space|
|4.30 – 4.45||Candid photos as guests take their places and couple gets ready to walk down aisle|
|5.00 – 5.30||Wedding ceremony (20 mins)|
|5.30 – 5.45||Candid congratulations & hugs! Champagne/ nibbles served.|
|6.00 – 6.30||Posed group photos|
|6.30 – 6.45||Take a breather and travel to portrait location|
|6.45 – 7.30||Newlywed photo session|
|7.30 onwards||Dinner plans|
As you can see, plenty of buffer time and breathing room. This is a day that will flow naturally. And if things get done a little sooner than expected, great! Ultimately you’ll have more time with your guests which is a great thing! Even with a small wedding, it would surprise you how little time you have just to chat to everyone – really the only time to do this is during a meal (which you can choose to have coverage for, or not!)
With any extra time we find ourselves with, we could also get a little extra creative for the photo session! I’ll bust out my string lights, prism, throw in extra locations and more poses – all the stuff that I want to do but rarely ever have the opportunity, when we’re always hustling for the shot!
Version 2 – short event to fit into 3 hours of photography time
This sample timeline below is an actual timeline I used for a recent wedding that took place in July 2020. So I can attest that it worked perfectly!
The couple did not use a professional wedding planner, but had a friend essential take the role of planner (and she was great at it!). Also, the bride was super organized. So, this packed schedule may not work for all weddings, but if you’re pretty Type-A, this will be very achievable.
|4.30 – 4.50||First look at ceremony location|
|4.50 – 5.05||Getting ready & details|
|5.05 – 5.15||Final preparations for ceremony|
|5.15 – 5.45||Wedding ceremony (20 mins)|
|5.45 – 6.05||Candid congratulations & hugs! Champagne served.|
|6.05 – 6.40||Posed group photos|
|6.40 – 7.30||Newlywed sunset photo session|
Ideal time of day for an intimate wedding
Ideally, we will want to finish up the photography about 60 – 90 minutes before the listed sunset time. That posted time is when the sun disappears below the horizon at sea level. It’s highly likely that the sunset time will be earlier due to not only altitude, but the surrounding trees, mountains or buildings.
Add to this the chance that fog, cloud, rain and other wedding conditions can cause darkness to fall much earlier than the posted time.
And even with the best-laid plans, weddings have a tendency not to run on time. Timelines can slip, brides or family members are often late, the weather can be unpredicitable, unexpected events happen. While it’s never an issue for me to stay longer if you want to purchase extra coverage, this won’t be an option if we’ve run out of light. So you may need to cut something out of the coverage entirely.
To wrap up
That just about concludes my timeline planning guide for your intimate downsized wedding! I hope these tips for creating your small wedding timeline were helpful. Remember, always seek planning help from your photographer and/ or wedding planner. They can really help you create the plan that’s right for you given the specifics of your celebration and what you prioritize in terms of both the experience and the photos.
If you’re looking for a photographer for your intimate wedding in the San Francisco Bay Area or anywhere in Northern California, I’d love to hear from you. Learn more about what I offer at the link below.