The award-winning expert talks about the importance of creating the event you want and nailing down a big-day schedule.

By Sarah Schreiber

If you're in the thick of wedding planning, you've likely already discovered the importance of prioritizing a select few vendors or details. This priority list, of course, varies by couple. The same is true for the vendors who actually bring weddings to life—they have priority lists of their own. The difference? Theirs come backed with years of industry experience. To help you shape up your own big-day musts, we've tapped the biggest names in the wedding sphere—from planners and photographers to florists—to share their three wedding must-haves. Follow along with The Insider to learn which wedding-related details professionals can't live without.

When KT Merry stepped onto the wedding scene, luxury events looked a lot different than they do today. "At that time, weddings weren't what they are now—white banquet tables weren't something super desirable to a 19-year-old fresh out of photography school," she tells Martha Stewart Weddings. So, she fell into fashion photography, which she loved—after about five years, she met a colleague on shoot in Islamorada who would later become the first bride she'd photograph on her own. Her career quickly catapulted: She booked 30 weddings in her first year alone.

The lauded photographer now specializes in destination events, something that has taken her everywhere from Miami (where she lives) to the Maldives. Over the course of her global career, Merry has been part of just about every type of wedding under the sun and has learned to roll with all of the punches (accidentally stepping into water fountains—but remaining upright!—in full gear, included) that comes with her always-evolving profession. Ahead, Merry shares all of her wedding-day must-haves, from roomy schedules to flickering candlelight.

Related: The Insider: Celebrity Wedding Planner Mindy Weiss' Top Wedding Essentials

A wedding that is unapologetically you.

 Merry has seen the following scenario play out far too often: "People walk into planning these events with visions of what people tell them it should be like—and quickly forget what their real dreams are," she explains. Before they know it, couples are planning the wedding their parents want, and losing themselves along the way. "I completely understand this—I really do. You have to consider all of the family, friends, and guests' experiences, but it does break my heart a little bit when you see people give away all of that vision and all of that ownership."

Her takeaway? "I'm always urging couples to find a happy compromise. Have the big reception in your hometown where your family can invite 200 of their friends—but then have your own intimate thing where you get to wear, eat, and do what you want." If that means planning two celebrations, including the big affair near your home base and a smaller party at your bucket-list locale, go for it. You'll get to put on another dress and have the experience you've always wanted.

A roomy schedule.

There's nothing more critical than a well-planned wedding-day schedule, says Merry: "This can make or break a wedding day or a wedding weekend." That's why her biggest must-have is a schedule that allows for all of your wedding's moments (including the moments you can't account for). To craft on, she suggests talking through the big day with both your partner and your team of vendors early on, then designing the entire itinerary around the sunset (the ultimate portrait hour!).

The advantages of a schedule with breathing room are endless, she continues. "With a good schedule, not only are you going to be more relaxed, but you won't just be running from one thing to the next and feeling like you're on a press tour," she says. "You also then have time for life to happen—for a shoe to break. Or, maybe you just want to sit down and have a glass of Champagne."

A realistic family portrait list.

"We average two-and-a-half minutes per portrait. If you want 20 different portraits, do the math—it takes time," says Merry on the importance of managing expectations when it comes to finalizing your family portrait list. "Wrangling kids takes time. So, are you sure you want 20? Most of the time, couples walk away saying, 'My face hurts and I'm so tired,' because they just didn't know how time consuming it really is."

A reception bathed in real candlelight.

If Merry were designing her own wedding reception tomorrow, she'd light hers entirely with candles. Real candles, she stresses—not the artificial types, which "don't translate in photos"—assuming your venue will allow them. "When's the last time you went to dinner and ate at a table full of candles? Years and years ago, that was just the norm," she explains. "There's something so romantic about that good old-fashioned wax dripping."

Intentional bouquets and boutonnières.

Whatever your bouquet type—either petite and royal wedding-inspired ("I love those tiny lily of the valley bouquets—so timeless!") or large and flowing—Merry suggests being intentional and illustrative with your flower choice. "Do something unique—a unique varietal or a flower of significance," she says, since she notices that many of her bride "are underwhelmed" by their personal arrangements. "It's your one-and-only bouquet, so be really specific about your choices there. Really enunciate that to your florist so you're actually excited about having this thing your hand that you'll carry for a good portion of the day."

The same advice applies to grooms' boutonnières, she explains: "Adhering something to your lapel means that it's going to be in all of your photos. You need to make sure you like it—and that the size feels right. For what it's worth, I prefer petite boutonnières."

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