Non-traditional wedding timeline ideas

Non-traditional wedding timeline ideas

(Updated for 2024) Here’s what’s up: wedding days often feel like insanity. The schedules are tight, time is short, and many couples never get the chance to sit and eat, let alone greet their guests. If they do, it’s such a brief interaction it’s almost sad.

Traditional wedding timelines are garbage for actual human interaction.

But isn’t human interaction kind of the whole POINT of a wedding? Aren’t weddings all about celebrating the love between two people, and sharing that celebration with all the other people they love?

The people you invite to your wedding are SO important! They are the friends and family that shaped you into the person you are today. They’ve been there for you through everything. They’ve traveled from near and far to be there with you, and put their own lives on hold to celebrate your love story for one weekend. Let me get this straight: I LOVE weddings. Especially big weddings. And I LOVE the human interactions that happen at big weddings – the moments between old college friends, siblings, cousins, nieces, and grandparents. To me, the ideal wedding has around 100-200 people because those are all the important family and friends who have played big roles in your lives! That’s enough people to really FEEL like an epic party, but not so many that you won’t be able to say hi to them all. But let’s back-up a second. How ARE you going to say hi to them all?!

Regardless of the size of your wedding, spending time with your guests is probably a big priority to you. I got married in July 2019, and time with my guests was a huge priority for me! I was so excited to hang out with everyone! But spending quality time with both your guests AND your partner isn’t as easy at it might seem. The traditional wedding timeline is complicated, and frankly, kind of broken. But luckily, you don’t have to follow any rules. You can throw all your preconceived wedding notions out the window and have the party of your dreams. Here’s how to deconstruct your wedding day, create your own non-traditional timeline, and have WAY more fun with your guests (and each other!)

Reasons why the traditional wedding timeline sucks

Let’s start by analyzing the traditional wedding timeline.  Despite what many wedding planners, wedding websites, and what your mom says, THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG WAY TO PLAN A WEDDING! You are under no obligation to stick to a particular order of events. The day is yours for the taking. Take it apart and make it your own. Based off my experience photographing 300+ weddings in the last 15 years, the traditional American wedding looks something like this:

-Partners get ready separately and don’t see each other

-Guests arrive while one partner is hidden away

-A ceremony begins, the couple finally sees each other while walking down the aisle

-The ceremony is immediately followed by group photos of the family and wedding party

-The couple takes a few minutes of photos together. They are usually overwhelmed at this point and tired of being photographed.

-By this point, cocktail hour is over and it’s time for dinner.

-The couple either eats, or tries to talk to guests while they eat – usually they don’t have time for both

-Toasts begin

-The cake is cut

-First dances happen

-The dance floor opens and at this point, many of the guests begin to leave.

-Sometimes dancing doesn’t last that long, and the wedding is over in about 1 hour (or less) after dancing begins.

MANY couples follow this exact timeline. While there is nothing wrong with being traditional, there are some things that could be greatly improved upon! For example, there is hardly any time for a couple to be alone during this timeline! The two partners barely get to spend any quality time together, which means they also don’t get many photos of just the two of them alone together. Also, did you notice that the couple only has dinnertime to say hi to guests? And that they have to choose between sitting down and enjoying their meal together, or saying hi to people? It’s lose-lose. By the time they make it through all their activities, many of the older guests have started to depart and there has been little time to just relax and enjoy themselves.

How to add time back into your timeline

My goal is to empower couples to make their own decisions about their wedding day, without the pressures of the wedding industry, family, and society as a whole. I want my couples look back on their weddings with joy. I know things won’t always go perfectly, (perfection is unattainable!) but I want them to look back and feel like their wedding was an accurate reflection of themselves and their relationship, and that it was really, really, REALLY fun. All my life I’ve struggled with feeling like I’m not quite “good enough.” And when I’ve talked to my friends, I know they’ve struggled with it too! Throwing a wedding is SUCH a vulnerable thing to do! You are putting your heart and soul into an event that represents your relationship, and there are SO many opportunities for people to tell you what to do, what’s right, what’s wrong, and just judge the shit out of you. I want to help you feel like your wedding, and YOU, are enough. It’s okay to be yourself. It’s okay to do things differently. This is your chance to celebrate exactly who you are with the people you love most.

There are many ways to deconstruct your wedding timeline and give yourself more of what you need; whether it’s quiet time with your partner, or more social time with your guests. The key is to follow your heart and do what feels right to you! Here are 14 ways to put more time back into your day!

1) Be intentional about how your start your wedding day

One idea that I LOVE is starting the day with some intentional time alone together. Spend the night together, (you’ll both sleep better if you do!) cuddle in the morning, then go for a walk while drinking your coffee and reading love letters to each other. Or start the day by doing one of your all-time favorite activities together – whether its going for a run, cooking, doing yoga, or heck, even birdwatching (that’s what we did!). Your wedding doesn’t have to begin with a hangover, makeup artists in your face, bridesmaids running around and groomsmen drinking heavily while watching sports. Unless you want it to of course. But consider that you have options! You can start the day intentionally together, and THEN separate to be with your respective sets of wild friends and families while you get ready.

"I kinda want to let the day happen as it happens. I don't want to force it."

- Hilde, getting married in Ireland March 2024

2) Do a first look

I need to do an entire blog post about first looks – but I’ll give you the nitty gritty here. A first look is what it’s called when a couple decides to see each other for the first time in their wedding outfits in a private setting BEFORE their ceremony. It’s not an over-the-top event. It’s not staged. It’s just a quiet moment between two people, with a photographer (and maybe videographer) hiding in the bushes to capture the emotions as they happen naturally. First looks take SOOOO much stress out of a wedding day. They are the number one thing that makes a wedding day easier for everyone involved. WHY?

It will give you more time with your guests.

When you do a first look, you can take ALL the family and wedding party pictures before your ceremony! Which means you can spend your cocktail hour actually drinking cocktails and hanging with your guests!

You get to spend more time together!

If you don’t have a ceremony until the late afternoon or early evening, you essentially spend the entire day apart from the person you love most in the entire world! When you do a first look earlier, you have a much longer shared wedding experience together!

It will calm your nerves a LOT.

The big day can be stressful, but as soon as you see your future partner, everything else sort of melts away and you can just enjoy the day together. My couples always tell me that they feel SO much better after they are with each other. It allows them to focus on what matters and not sweat the small stuff so much!

It makes your whole timeline easier.

When you do a first look, it usually means that you and your family/friends end up being ready earlier in the day. You get the formal photos out of the way sooner, and that leaves extra time to take breaks away from it all, hang out together, center yourselves, and really enjoy the moments as they happen! Instead of having to cram everything into 4 or 5 hours, the whole day opens up for fun and possibilities! On top of that, it gives your photographer WAY more time to take the most incredible photos possible. If you do decide on a first look, I’ll work with you and your partner to set it up in a private area with good lighting on the day of the wedding itself. It usually works best to pick a place at the last minute, since lighting and weather have a BIG impact on how the photos will look – more so than just the physical location.

It gives you the opportunity to exchange gifts or vows in private

A first look is a great time to give your partner a special wedding gift, letter, or even read your vows alone together. It can be so much more than just revealing your outfits - it can be a time to reflect alone before all the chaos of your party.

"I would feel more comfortable and real seeing her with just the two of us at first. I like public speaking, but not being the center of attention. The intimacy of it is important."

-Steve, married in Oregon Sept 2023

3) Get ready together

We don’t live in the middle ages any more. Your partner has probably seen you naked already. And if you value quality time over short, “big” moments, sometimes it’s more fun just to get ready alone together! Instead of a first look, you can have lot of quiet, intimate moments helping each other into your wedding garments and laughing to yourselves. If you are introverted, and getting ready with a bunch of friends/family stresses you out, skip it! Just get ready alone with your partner instead. Why not? It’s your wedding and you can do what you want.

"The vibe is a warm, connected, unfussy, true gathering. That idea that weddings can be an intersection of two people and all the groups that dont know each other. A way for those people to connect but also for it to be about us."

-Rachel, getting married in Oregon Aug 2024

4) Take group photos earlier in the day

Group photos are INCREDIBLY important. But they are also a drag. No one enjoys taking them, but everyone enjoys having them and printing them, haha. So, get it out of the way early, ideally before the wedding begins and before guests arrive! This works best if you do a first look. The sooner you get them done, the sooner you can have relaxing, unstructured conversation and party time with your guests! Added bonus! If you take all the group photos earlier, that leaves your cocktail hour open for AMAZING candid photos! In order to get good candid shots of you and your guests, there actually has to be time in your wedding day where people are mingling with you! Cocktail hour is ideal for this. Once people sit down for dinner, candids look wayyy more boring and people tend to smile less, only talk to the people next to them, have food in their mouths, or simply don’t want to be bothered by a camera.

"Years from now, we can flip through our photos and it's just pictures of friends and family having a good time. It's not structured, it's random photo of people we like having a good time together."

-Claire, getting married in Oregon Sept 2024

5) Greet your guests instead of hiding!

This is one of my favorite wedding tips. I’ve learned that traditional timelines focus on big, showy moments, prioritizing those over quality time. If you dream about having big moments at your wedding, that’s totally fine! But remember that big moments come at a cost, and that cost is usually quality time spent with guests/each other.

Imagine this: if you identify as a bride or as someone who wants to hide before the ceremony, you have to waste all that precious pre-ceremony time being sequestered into a corner so people don’t see you before your big reveal. Then you pop out for the ceremony, everyone says “oooooh” and it’s done in a blink. INSTEAD, what if you didn’t hide? What if you and your partner got to hug each guest as they arrived? They would appreciate the beauty of your wedding outfit up close instead of from afar. Your friends would shower you with affection and compliments. You could sip on your favorite beverage while welcoming people to your wedding. Yes, you might skip the “big” moment, but no matter what, people are going to smiling and crying when you walk down the aisle a few minutes later, regardless of whether they’ve seen you already or not! Big moments aren’t as important as you might think.

"We're more into the celebrating and the party part of the wedding, less into celebrating within tradition."

-Anna, getting married in Oregon Sept 2024

6) Change up your ceremony timing

Traditional weddings start with a ceremony. It’s almost always first. But why? Why start the party with the most nerve-wracking thing that involves standing up in front of people and public speaking? What if you worked your way up to it instead? It’s your wedding! You can have a pre-cocktail hour and greet your guests first if you want, like I suggested above. Or you can have your ceremony after your meal in the evening! You could even have a sunrise ceremony privately with 10 people and have a big reception later in the day with all your guests! The options are endless. Brainstorm what feels fun to you, and then inform your guests what to expect when you send out your invites or make your website.

"Both of us are intimidated of how vulnerable it is to stand up in front of any amount of people - and have that ceremony. For me, I know it will feel really emotional and intimate and special. I want to balance that with how much we can handle, and how many people will be involved so it feels comfortable and safe and not stressful."

-Dorothy, getting married in Washington, June 2024

7) Cut costs on things, not on time

A lot of venues offer affordable 4-5 hour packages, but it comes at the cost of rushing through your entire wedding. It’s better to book a venue for an entire day, or even entire weekend, and then cut costs on the physical STUFF that you have at the wedding. Think about it, the stuff won’t matter in 10 years. You’ll look back and say, “Oh that was soooo 2019.” But the time you had dancing with your friends, having deep talks with your grandma, and spending a few quiet moments with your partner soaking it all in will matter. Not to be morbid, but I can’t tell you have many times a friend or family member has passed away right after a wedding. Time and people matters more than things. Give yourself more time and the day will be so much more enjoyable.

"We don't want our wedding to be stressful. Just close family, and pretty laid back. We can be there and enjoy each others presence and hang out. We want it to be simple, and put money into the things we care about."

-Sophie, married in Oregon Nov 2023

8) Budget extra time for transitions

It’s nice to be optimistic about how the day is going to go. But weddings almost never stay on schedule. Things run late, stuff goes wrong, people wander off, and you have to herd cats, etc etc. Save yourself a headache later and budget aggressive amounts of extra time into every transition. If you don’t end up needing it, that will be extra time to take a breather, sit down, or just enjoy being present. And if you DO need it, your day will still stay on track and you will still get to spend the time you want with the people you love.

"We want our wedding to be intimate, like a dinner party but with some dancing and dinner toasts. Really just intimate and close-knit. Not super traditional either, a little different. Not the traditional wedding dances. We don't want to have a DJ - just a playlist of our favorite songs. We are keeping the vibe flowy and chill. No announcements. More of an organic dinner party with a ceremony and vows."

-Britt, married in Oregon April 2023

9) Consider a receiving line

I have mixed feelings about receiving lines, but they can be a great way to say hi to all the people at your wedding. Instead of walking off from your ceremony and being alone somewhere, you can line up and greet all your guests as they exit their seats! This makes for a ton of great candids of you hugging people. The benefits: seeing everyone. The drawbacks: if you have a lot of guests (over 100), this can take a longggggg time and people get antsy waiting. It’s great for smaller weddings!

"We want the people we care about there who we love the most. We want it to be a celebration of happiness. We want it to be joyful."

-Leah, getting married in Oregon, June 2024

10) Learn the importance of cocktail hour

Cocktail hour is an overlooked in-between time on wedding days. Many couples skip it so they can take photos, especially because it usually takes place between the ceremony and reception. But cocktail hour is so much more than a transition or time-filler. It’s some of the BEST quality time you’ll get to spend with your guests all day. During cocktail hour, you are free to walk around and chat with everyone in a leisurely way, while eating and drinking! How fun and chill is that!? So, why limit your wedding to one cocktail hour? How about a pre-ceremony cocktail hour too? And a late night cocktail hour? As long as you have some snacks or apps to go along with it, feel free to keep those mingling, drinking hours going. People LOVE late night drunk snacks at weddings

"We both would love to enjoy cocktail hour. So logistically it would be better to do some photos before the ceremony."

-Carly, married in Washington July 2023

11) How different meal styles impact your timeline

There are a lot of options when it comes to your wedding meal, and those options play into the amount and quality of time you’ll have with your guests while eating! Here are a few common approaches:


Usually cheaper, and easier. BUT it means that the people who go through first will be done eating by the time your last guests even START eating. There will be a line. There will be hungry people jealous of other tables who went first. It’s not very communal. People have to stand up to get their food. There’s not a sense of everyone eating together. But, if you eat first, you can walk around to tables later and say hi while they are still eating, which is nice.

Family Style:

More expensive, but more communal. This is my favorite. People are sharing food in common dishes with the people around them. They are passing dishes and having more conversations. They can stay seated. Dishes come out in courses so the meal is more relaxed. Everyone gets to eat at once and everyone is pretty happy. They also get to serve themselves the portions they want of the items they want. Downside is that it’s harder to eat really fast and say hi to tables.You can still try in between courses though.


Servers bring out individual plated meals to each person. You have to have a lot of servers for this, and it’s usually the most expensive option. Also, if you don’t have enough servers, sometimes people have to wait awhile to get their food. Still, no one has to get up. The meal can be coursed and last a long time. It feels fancy and communal. But people also have less options about what is on their plate. So they have less control and aren’t always as happy. It also has the downside that it’s harder to eat really fast and say hi to tables (except time between courses).

Food trucks:

These are casual and fun! Some people will be standing and ordering at the trucks, some will be chatting, some will be sitting down and eating. It’s not a communal meal feeling, more like a picnic or casual hang out. Benefits: this is usually cheaper, has a casual vibe, and it’s easy to walk around and talk to people. Drawbacks: if you have a lot of people it takes foreverrrrrrr to order/make all the food. It’s definitely better for small weddings. If you have a big wedding, consider more than one food truck.

Food stations:

This is a relatively new idea I’ve seen and love! Instead of one big buffet, you have food stations with different types of food located all around the space. Guests can grab a burger from one side of the room, and a cute little salad from a different place. When food stations open, it allows many people to get food at once, while mingling. Food stations are great if you want a lounge vibe for your wedding. Instead of a formal dinner with formal seating, a lounge with food stations means that guests will sit anywhere (tables, couches, high-tops) and nibble on different food options as they continue to converse with people around the room. It’s more casual but can be a great option if you want to keep the vibes relaxed and don’t like assigned seating.

"We want our wedding to be outside as much as possible, have good food, and maximize time with people."

-Laura, married in Oregon Sept 2023

12) Skip traditions (or do them out of order)

In case you can’t tell my overall message here: your wedding is yours to do what you want with! So if you hate dancing, you can totally pass on a first dance in front of everyone. You can also skip toasts if you are worried your friends might roast you or your dad might talk for 30 minutes straight. You don’t need a cake. You can have pie, or donuts, or cheese instead, (or nothing!) If you think that bouquet tosses are torture devices created to make your single friends feel bad about themselves, you can skip those too! It’s your day. Just because your mom wants to do it, or your sister did it, or your DJ says you need to do it, doesn’t mean it fits into your day. Skip all the stuff that feels wrong to you. And gladly accept all the traditions that excite you! Or make your own traditions!

"We want to have a big party that just happens to be a wedding."

-Chris, married in Oregon April 2023

13) Exits are overrated

Guess what? You don’t have to have a big fancy exit. Big moments with sparklers can be fun… and also horrifying! If running through a tunnel of fire that’s being waved around by drunk people doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, you can skip that charade. Or have bubbles or streamers instead. But you know what is MORE fun? Slowly enjoying a long night catching up with friends and family. Instead of doing a formal exit, consider hanging out late and just reveling in the wedding as it slows to the end. Still want some epic photos? Consider having guests blow bubbles or throw environmentally-friendly confetti at you as you walk back down the aisle after your ceremony! Those make for AMAZING photos and you don’t have to sacrifice any time to take them. OR, if you want to do an exit, go for it, and then schedule an after-party where you can meet guests and continue your night! Just give yourself a little time in between so everyone can clean up, freshen up, and the two of you can take a breather in-between. You can make your wedding extravaganza last into the wee hours of the morning if you want! Or you can call it a night early if you are exhausted from socializing. You do you boo!

"Overall, we dont care about having the "perfect" wedding. All I hope is that the day can be a fun, relaxed and loving time to make memories with friends and family. Life is short and that's really all that matters to us."

-Julia, married in Oregon June 2023

14) Ask yourself, “do I really need a wedding party?”

Wedding parties are SO fun. Until they’re not. I had something close to 10 bridesmaids at my wedding, and its my number one wedding regret. If I could do it all over again I would ditch the wedding party all together. I spent countless hours agonizing over which friends to pick, what they would wear, and who my husband would choose for his side. He felt pressure to pick a lot of people because I did. He felt overwhelmed by deciding which friends made the cut. Five years into our marriage, some people in our wedding party aren’t even our friends anymore. I always felt like I HAD to do the wedding party thing because it was such a popular tradition I had seen at so many weddings. But now I am seeing smaller wedding parties, and lots of couples who skip it entirely. Less people in your wedding party means less chaos surrounding you during the day. It also means less group photos and less stress about other people’s outfits. Ask yourself, do I really need to put this formal label on this relationship? Or can I just invite a few friends to get ready with me, and casually take friend photos throughout the night? Does this actually bring me joy? Or am I doing it because everyone else does it? Having a smaller wedding party (or none at all) is a great way to save time and stress on your wedding day.

"We don't want to have a long or exhausting or boring ceremony, we want to maximize fun socializing time. Minimize the boring parts. We want it to feel like more of a party that happens to have small ceremony at the beginning."

-Claire, getting married Sept 2024 in Oregon


A sample non-traditional wedding timeline

Now that you’re brimming with ideas, here’s an examples of how a deconstructed timeline might look!

8am – wake up with your partner, have breakfast together and go for a walk to start the day.

10am – split up and get ready with your respective friends and family

12pm - don’t forget to eat a delicious lunch!

2pm – do a first look, read your vows alone in private, and take photos alone together!

3pm – take some group photos with your family and friends

3:30pm – pre-ceremony cocktail hour, greet guests as they arrive!

4:30pm – ceremony

5pm – take a moment alone together, maybe get a few more couples portraits since you are married now!

5:30pm – 2nd shorter cocktail hour with apps and snacks!

6pm – family style dinner!

7:15pm – sneak out for some sunset photos and to appreciate the venue you are at!

7:30pm – toasts

8pm – dessert

8:15pm – first dances

8:30pm – open dancing and hanging out!

10:00pm – late night snacks!

11:00pm – music off, head to the after party or do an exit.

I hope this helps give you an idea of how much freedom you have with your wedding day timeline! And I hope it empowers you to create a wedding day as unique as your relationship! If you end up working with me, I’ll be there every step of the way to craft a personalized wedding timeline that prioritizes what matters most to you. Because I know everyone is a little different, and no two weddings are the same!

Wanna read more about my wedding photography? You can check out my pricing and info page here!  Or you can browse through more weddings on my blog! Got questions? Want to know more? I’ve love to hear from you! Feel free to contact me anytime!

Feel free to check out some blog posts about my favorite Pacific Northwest wedding venues below!