In the wedding photography community, I am a little bit of an odd beast.
I’m one of maybe a handful of photographers I know who cover couples’ weddings from beginning to end. I average around fourteen hours of coverage on wedding days, and I attend the rehearsal the night before to meet the family, iron out final details, and preview any technical challenges I might encounter if it is a new venue for me.
Shooting weddings all the way from the morning beauty routine to the last dance at the reception is a great way to tell the complete story of a wedding, and it also makes me a better partner for the couple. In better than nine out of ten of my weddings, my couples ask me to help arrange their itinerary for their wedding day because they understand how many I have been through and helped with.
It also gives me a chance to learn a lot of things about weddings. A lot. And I’ve often thought about making a list of some of the things I have seen work, or not work, on wedding days. Most couples are new to the wedding experience, or have only seen weddings from a different vantage point, so these things are not something they’ve ever had to consider. They are most often things I’ve seen slip through the cracks of wedding planning.
Some pertain to the day’s photography, but many do not. Some will produce some minor inconveniences or distraction, but most won’t cause a wedding day meltdown. But many will, if considered, help your wedding day go just a little bit smoother.
So…here’s my list, in no particular order:
Cody’s “One Hour” Advisory. The best advice I like to give couples is to leave one hour just prior to the ceremony to be done with everything and relax. My reason for this is twofold: it gives you wiggle room in case anything runs late (and things often do), and, more importantly, it helps you be more present in the moment and better enjoy and remember your ceremony.
Hugs and Kisses. Too often couples believe a receiving line will only take a few minutes. Not so. Everyone wants a hug or a handshake, or a pinch on the cheek and chance to say they remember you when “you were this big.” Sometimes they want all three. If you have a receiving line, plan for forty-five minutes to one hour at most average-sized weddings.
Hide and Seek. If you decide against a receiving line, avoid accidentally creating one by being too available right after the ceremony. Plan for an exit where you can move away from guests, like a room or a garden area where you are out of sight. I like to arrange this so I can take a few “just married” photos of the couple alone.
Making up is (sometimes) Hard to Do. Popular salons have multiple wedding parties coming in that day, and they have to juggle stylists and schedules to fit them all in. Try to set your salon time well in advance so that you are not last in line and scheduled last minute, or having to get your hair and makeup done at 6:00am.
Burnt Toast. Toasts are great. Well, most toasts are great. Some are greater than others. The best way I can illustrate this point is to share how I once witnessed a bridesmaid’s toast where she read—word for word—a four-page (front and back, college-ruled sheets) speech. After Page One guests were getting up for drinks. By Page Four they had tuned her out and returned to that murmuring crowd noise you usually hear over the DJ’s background music. Check ahead with everyone who plans to toast for this sort of thing. Also consider only having a couple of toasts. Less is more with toasts. It’s also never a good time to bring up prior girlfriends, boyfriends, arrest records, regretful tattoos, family feuds, first marriages, or explicit carnal knowledge of one or both of the newlyweds. And yes, I’ve witnessed all of those.
Location, Location, Location. Be careful about the number of times you have to pick up and move on your wedding day. Every time you and your party have to load up and move it costs you thirty minutes to an hour, and it all adds up to delays not planned for. If you plan photos here, then photos there, then salon here, and dressing there, and a reveal here…well, I think you understand. Try to not jam pack your day with too many location changes.
Get On the Bus. Now Get Off the Bus. Couples often hire a party bus or limousine to take them from the ceremony to the reception. They are great fun, honestly, and a cool way to celebrate with your closest friends right after you have tied the knot. Usually I follow them in my car and get some images at each of their stops, which brings me to my advice about busses and wedding parties: you will never be able to do more than one or two stops in a one or two hour bus ride time frame. Getting a wedding party off and back on a party bus is something like herding cats. Cats that have been drinking.
A couple of other things about a party bus: make sure you check it out, in person, beforehand for safety and comfort (one of my bridal parties boarded a bus with no A/C...in July), and make sure it’s clear who should or should not be on the bus. It avoids awkward moments if there are too many to fit, or Uncle Larry decides he wants to party with the young folks.
Bridesmaids Make It or Break It. Any good DJ will tell you that the first song or two after the couple’s first dance and parent dances will set the tone for the night. It is important to get the momentum going early. But, I would also add that the dance floor only remains as full as the bridesmaids make it. If your bridesmaids are off hanging out most of the evening, so will most of your guests. Also, people prefer dancing in darker environments. Maybe it’s because they dance as bad as me, I’m not sure. But, asking your venue to turn down the lights will help fill the floor as well.
Every Breath You Take. Guests watch the couple at the reception. Guests looking for the first opportunity to exit when the couple will not notice watch them like hawks. Each time you go outside, say for a smoke, or for selfies with someone, you will lose anywhere from four to ten guests. Multiply that number the later in the evening it gets.
At The Head of the Table. Before you put too much time, money, or effort into your head table, consider that it will be empty and unused for the rest of the night as soon as dinner is over. Also consider if it is eating up dance floor space or creating a need to “flip” the room from dinner to dancing. I like the increasingly popular Sweetheart table I see these days.
Bubble Space. I have lots of wedding ceremony images where the Best Man and Maid of Honor are so close I worry they are trying to photobomb the happy couple. Sometimes this is the fault of the officiant, or venue, or coordinator. Watch for this during rehearsal, and try to arrange your wedding party so that you, the couple, can be isolated in images during the ceremony. Bonus points if you can convince the officiant to step off to the side and not look like a creepy photobomber during the kiss.
On The Train. At rehearsal I always try to get a moment with the Maid of Honor to tell her how to best position the train and veil. Most of them think they should stretch the train and veil straight back from the bride as she faces the groom, similar to the way they position it when the bride is instead facing the minister. That’s great if you are trying to move the MOH a car length away from the bride, but not so great for pictures. The dress should sweep from behind the bride to her side toward the guests. If she is at the top of steps, like at an altar, it should fall down the steps toward the guest. This creates some dramatic lines in the dress for the best photos.
Veiled Threats. If you put on your veil at the salon, or any time before you walk down the aisle, be aware that, statistically speaking, most wedding day neck injuries happen when a bride forgets she has a veil on, sits on it, and then tries to move her head.
Be Revealing. Doing a Reveal before the ceremony is now way more popular than making the groom wait to see the bride for the first time at the ceremony. I like this for an obvious reason; it makes the day’s schedule much easier, as far as getting portraits done. You can move from the reveal to formals and have all the formals done prior to the ceremony. Yay! More party time! But I also have come to appreciate how intimate a reveal can be with just the couple involved, instead of an entire audience. It is often a very touching moment, and one I usually feel compelled to leave to the couple after I have taken an appropriate number of shots.
About That Dress. No matter what you do, no matter how well you bustle it up…at the end of the night the bottom edge of it will look like it was used as a mop for the dance floor. Essentially, it will be. Every drop that gets spilled by that semi-conscious cousin trying to impress the ladies with his best moves while wielding a beer is going to find its way to your dress end.
Also: bugs love tulle. Don’t ask me to explain it, or prove it, or even understand it. But, every time I’ve ever had a bride outdoors with any tulle…there have been bugs in it. Good photographers watch for it and edit it out if necessary, so it is nothing to sweat if you hire a good one. Unless you have an insect phobia.
Water Runs Downhill, and Down Dresses. Be aware that flowers in vases with water should be taken out a few minutes before they are held in formals. This allows water to drain from them before they decide to drain all over your dress or your bridesmaids’ dresses. Water drops and stains on dresses can be edited out of photos, but are not so easy to remove before a ceremony.
Let Them Eat Cupcakes. This is going to tick off an entire industry of bakers and decorators, but I like the growing trend I see of people opting for tasty cupcakes instead of elaborate cakes. I’ve noticed more couples going this route and using a small cake as the one they ceremoniously cut. It makes for fewer leftover plates of dry cake at the end of the night. Plus, it is much easier for me to eat a cupcake in one hand with a camera in the other, just in case that matters to you.
Front and Center, Please and Thank You. Sometimes the smallest of things can make a world of difference in your wedding images. Case in point: how the couples come down the aisle in the procession. This is another reason I try to attend rehearsal, so that I can offer this coaching. If the bridesmaids and groomsmen enter separately and then come together, I like to impress on them that it looks best if they meet dead center of the aisle as soon as physically possible, and then try to maintain that center-of-the-aisle position as they walk toward the front. If they enter together, I ask them to walk directly to the center as soon as possible. It’s not the end of the world if they don’t, but those processional shots look much better if they do that rather than cut the corner around the last row of chairs or pews.
Bonus tip: this also helps us photographers crop out or avoid that guest who is leaning out into the aisle with their cell phone to take a shot. But, let’s not get into all that here.
(Don’t) Show Me the Money. Another rare thing I offer couples is that I don’t expect final payment until the wedding or rehearsal. I can do it, and I don’t like being one of those photographers that comes with a lot of rules. And I’ve never been stiffed, ever. There are also other vendors, usually the DJ, for instance, that get their payment that day also, and so I often offer this tidbit to couples: make someone else your money person that day. If there are vendors to pay on your wedding day, let someone else deal with that so that you can best enjoy your day and not have any awkward moments. Make the checks out in advance, put them in labeled envelopes, and hand them to someone you trust to take care of them. Bonus points to tipping off your vendors ahead of time so that they know to not come to you at the end of the night.
“Okay, Cut Off My shirt.” These are the directions I once heard a bridesmaid give another bridesmaid when she realized she had on a sweatshirt instead of a buttoned shirt and had already had her hair and makeup done.
Battle of the Bulge. During formals I usually make an announcement: please leave cell phones, sunglasses, drinks, and small weapons in the chairs. Sometimes, they listen.
Other tidbits to help the photography be an easier part of your day:
- Have all family and the wedding party arrive at the same, not staggered times, because the flow is unpredictable from one to the other. Things stall out if wedding party shots go well and the family is still not there.
- Assign someone who knows everyone to help the photographer.
- Ask your photographer to help with the day’s itinerary (especially if he is with you all day…he is experienced and will likely be the ONLY vendor with you the entire day).
- Get to know your photographer.
- Ask the wedding party to moderate the drinking before photos.
- Ask the Mother of the Bride to be in her dress before she helps you into your dress.
- Work with your photographer and DJ on your entrance. I like to coach the wedding party on where to do their entrance antics so that I can get images of them when they enter. Also, one of the most chaotic times, and the most difficult times to obtain and hold the wedding party’s attention is when they’ve just come off the bus and you are lining them up for their entrance. By then they have had a few, are excited and nervous about their toast, and possibly hungry. Or thirsty. Or really need to find a restroom. Please give your DJ and photographer just a minute’s attention and it will be over before you know it.
- Make rings (his and hers) and flowers available to the photographer as soon as possible so that they are not scrambling for those images later in the day.
- Consider having a nice hanger for your dress for images of the dress before you get into it.
- If you are doing hair and makeup in a hotel room or suite, and you think you want a more artistic look to images during that time instead of a realistic or photojournalism style, ask your bridesmaids to help by keeping their bags, food, beauty products, and etc. in areas away from you and maybe not so willy-nilly around the room.
- Depending on how many images you want of the groom while he gets ready with his friends, it is always great if they are getting ready at the same place, or very near you. At the same hotel or venue is great. At home while you are at the hotel or venue will work great once they make that teleportation machine a reality. Option two: I sometimes stage shots of the groom getting into his tie and jacket and his boutonniere at the venue if I have to, but I like getting shots of some of the camaraderie if possible.
- Your DJ and photographer usually try to work as partners and make sure the shooter is in position for cake cutting, dances, etc. But, just to be sure, pause a moment to make sure they are ready to go.
- Guys: top button on the jacket only, and hands in front, left hand clasped over right. Or right over left. It kind of falls into that same debate category as which way to put the roll of toilet paper on. Either way, just agree to all do the same.
That’s it! Or at least all I can think of and can take from my notes I have scrawled while taking that picture Aunt Mae requested with all of her cousins at the reception. If you have advice you would like to add to this, please…feel free to email me at email@example.com. I’d love to hear it and share it.
And thanks for all the time you took if you actually read all of this list.