Wedding Day Timings

February 22, 2016

Wedding Day Timings, the clock on St Paul's Cathedral

Wedding Day Timings

Wedding day timings can be hard to imagine and plan for, especially as you’re doing all this for the first (and hopefully only) time. A wedding day schedule needs both exact timings and rough estimates, and with luck it will all run smoothly. Here is my take on your wedding day itinerary which I hope will be a useful rough guide. These thoughts mostly apply to English civil or church weddings, but I do, of course, cover weddings of all faiths and cultures. Jewish weddings have their own momentum, and after the chuppah it’s pretty much non-stop until everyone leaves at precisely midnight.

1.  What time does the photography start?

For almost all weddings I start shooting bridal preps about 1.5 hours before the bride is due to leave for the ceremony. It’s enough time for a sequence of hair and make up photos. I especially love photographing details like jewellery being put on, shoes, perfume and the dress being buttoned up. A thought – a dress with many many buttons will take many many minutes to do up. My associate photographer will usually be with the groom, and will usually be with him an hour or so before he leaves for the ceremony venue. We love to capture ties being tied, cuff-links being cuffed, and boutonnières being pinned.

We can make time to shoot some portraits of the bride or groom with bridesmaids and groomsmen respectively, and with mums and dads too. This only takes five minutes or so, but everyone must be completely ready at least fifteen minutes before they are due to leave, as we need to leave for the ceremony before they do. If these portraits are important, then extra time should be allowed, and perhaps even an earlier start.

Wedding day timings for bridal prep

2. How long does a wedding ceremony last?

A wedding ceremony is another moveable feast but can be nailed down fairly accurately within certain limits.

A typical civil ceremony is about 20 minutes, with extra time added if there are readings or musical interludes.

A Church of England wedding ceremony is about 45 minutes long, with two hymns, two readings and a modest sermon. There may be a choir, soloist, organist or musicians whose timing needs considering, and a theatrical vicar can extend the sermon dramatically. A Roman Catholic wedding ceremony is also about 40 minutes, with extra time needed for a full Mass, which can end up pushing 90 minutes. Generally speaking, in my experience the higher the church, the longer the wedding ceremony, with more hymns and prayers, and with the organist and choir given more time to show off their stuff.

A Jewish wedding ceremony is about an hour under the chuppah, again with extra time given for the Cantor if there is one. Don’t forget to allow time for the Tish and the Bedekken, both of which take place before the wedding ceremony, especially if there are large numbers of family members to be organised.

At all weddings in the UK the signing of the register is a legal requirement and is fairly swiftly completed with two or four witnesses in about ten minutes. I must just say that there is no reason in law why this part of the ceremony cannot be photographed, but officiants will often prevent photography, citing data protection, civil/human rights or The Law as justification, all of which is nonsense. That’s a whole other topic for another time.


3. How long should I leave between the end of the ceremony and sitting down for the Wedding Breakfast?

For wedding day timings, in my humble opinion, 1.5 to 2 hours from the start of the drinks reception to being called to sit down is ideal. Less than 1.5 hours and there can be a feeling of being rushed, especially as we will usually have to fit in shooting some family groups (in a nice way!) and creating some beautiful calm portraits of the couple. (More on this in the next section.) Ideally there should be enough time for everyone to have a drink, eat some canapés and mingle and chat. Any longer than two hours and people will have run out of things to say, start getting drunk and be feeling grumpy that they haven’t been fed yet. Bear in mind that many guests may have skipped a meal to travel and be at the wedding ceremony, and will be getting peckish to say the least.

4. How long does it take to do the family group shots?

Group shots or family formals are, for many couples and their guests, the least looked forward to part of the wedding day. Almost every wedding guest I speak to has some horror story about photographers who shout at guests, blow whistles and snap their fingers to get everyone in line. Oh, and they keep everybody waiting. Well, you’ll be pleased to know that we don’t do any of that. My set of nine groups takes 15 minutes, max. Here they are:

Bride and bridesmaids
Bride, groom, bridesmaids and best man
Bride, groom, bridesmaids and best man and ushers
Bride, groom, bridesmaids, best man and all parents
Bride, groom and all parents
Bride, groom and bride’s parents
Bride, groom and bride’s parents and bride’s immediate family
Bride, groom and groom’s parents
Bride, groom and groom’s parents and groom’s immediate family

We just need a capable bridesmaid or, dare I say it, a useful best man to help gather the right family members. As a bonus, we’ll have a cheery time doing them. The down time is usually while waiting for guests to come back from the loo/checking in at reception/feeding babies, with the poor photographer getting it in the neck for keeping everyone hanging around.

I usually get these group shots done after about 20 minutes into the afternoon drinks reception, having given the bride and groom time to grab a well-earned drink and mingle with some of their guests first. I rarely shoot groups at the church, as I prefer to let the newly-weds receive their guest’s congratulations there, which makes for lovely photographs.

Wedding day timings for formal group shots

5. How long do you need for the couple’s portraits?

Couple’s portraits are 15 – 20 minutes of breathing time for the bride and groom. It’s often the first time the couple have been alone together on their wedding day, and it can be a very welcome bit of time out for them. I don’t allow any guests to accompany us for this part of the day, the bride and groom are mine, all mine. This is time for just us and the couple, time for some gentle portraits of the couple being, well, a couple, just married. I don’t mind giving some gentle direction, but mostly it’s just us photographing them being just them. We love to have 15-20 minutes for this time together, long enough to relax and get some beautiful images, not too long to keep the couple away from their guests.

So after we’ve done the family formals, we give the couple another 15 minutes of mingling, then we’ll suggest getting the couple’s portraits done. We may have time in the summer for some photos later on during the golden hour, as the sun sets and the light glows warmly. We can plan for this at our pre-wedding meeting, but a bit of flexibility is called for – the exact moment for the photos may be just as that yummy dessert is served!

Relaxed couple's portraits because there is enough time on their wedding day

6. The Receiving Line

I could just say Don’t Do It! but I shouldn’t really, it’s not my day. There can be some good photos taken during a receiving line, but as a story-teller I only need a few, not of every single person hugging the entire bridal party. Anyway – how long does a receiving line take? Well, a fairly long piece of string suddenly comes to mind. It can be a nightmare for wedding day timings. It depends on many things: how many guests filing past, how fast they file, how many are doing the receiving in the bridal party, how chatty everyone is, how warm/cold/wet it is, and whether there is a good master of ceremonies bravely attempting to keep things moving.

Receiving lines take approximately 30-45 minutes per 100 guests. If there is only the couple receiving, then it’s more likely to pass more quickly. If it’s the couple, both mums and dads, grandparents, best man, chief bridesmaid and the cook, it’ll take a tad longer. I’ve seen couples abandon receiving lines after an hour with no end in sight.

A calmer approach might be for the couple to wander round the tables between courses to chat to their guests. The couple can do this together or separately (so can the mums and dads) and it’s photogenic, it’s fun and it takes up no extra time!

7. How long does the Wedding Breakfast take?

A typical meal time for most caterers and venues is two hours, from serving the starter to clearing the dessert. This is for a three course meal, and assumes that the speeches take place after the meal with coffee and champagne. If the speeches are between courses then things get very unpredictable, and you play havoc with the poor chefs and their cooking timings. If speeches are to be made between courses, then prior liaison between the speakers and the kitchen is essential. Which brings me on to

8 How long are the speeches?

If I knew that I’d have won a few bets by now! I’d say short enough to still be engaging, and long enough to say what needs to be said, from the heart, with humour, compassion and love.

Father of the bride's speech for wedding day timing

9 How long is the other stuff?

Other stuff includes travel times between all venues, especially critical for the bride at the start of the day. Allow for horse-drawn carriages, holiday traffic, road works, sports events, summer holidays, wet weather, Christmas shoppers…

Hair and make up trials should be realistically timed. Bear in mind the numbers of people needing hair and make up and build in some extra wiggle room. For some reason make up always takes longer on wedding days than in trials. If there is an hour to go and the bride is only just starting her make up, it’s going to end in tears.

Despite it being a tradition that the bride should keep her groom waiting for their wedding ceremony, many officiants do not like lateness at all. It can affect their subsequent appointments, and in extreme cases they will not wait. It will have a knock on effect on the wedding day running order for the rest of the day. Also your guests will have arrived in good time only to be kept waiting for the big moment that they are so looking forward to.

Being a bit of a foodie, my personal clock on a wedding day starts with the chef and works backwards. Everything I do is geared to having the couple sitting down at the exact moment the chef is expecting to start serving his delicious food. Wedding food is expensive as well as tasty, and it would be a crime to have it spoil. It’s worth mentioning that it can take a while for older guests to be gathered and seated.


I hope this Wedding Day Timings post has been useful. Do let me know if I’ve missed something crucial and any nice comments are most welcome.

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