Take Better Family Formals, Get Better Wedding Clients

Take Better Family Formals, Get Better Wedding Clients

You don’t need another image of the bride’s shoes, the groom’s bow tie, or some other “detail” photo to repost all over your Pinterest album. Really, you don’t. That’s not the photo that will make you the hero of the wedding day, or even keep you in the conversation for the rest of the evening.

Want more wedding referrals from your clients? Want a better relationship with your current wedding clients? Want to actually shoot a photo that counts for something? Good. Focus on your technique and approach to formal family photos.

It’s the wedding day. Per the usual, I’m tired and sweating my way through the schedule, trying to keep a brave face and smile for my clients. The ceremony is over, and now it’s time to photograph the family formals.

Admittedly, it’s a high-stress moment for an event photographer. I’m standing in front of 40 strangers, attempting to keep their attention and direct placement. Lights are going up (thank you, assistant!) and the clock is ticking. They want a cocktail. The flower girl is wailing. We’re missing a cousin! It seems like the end of the world.

I’m stressed? Consider that my bride and groom are trying to look happy while all of the family drama for the day is now on display. Not an easy situation to navigate, but it’s not brain surgery either.

I will come back to this in a minute, but first a short detour.

I rarely show family photos on my website. You’d be hard pressed to find one in my ‘best-of’ wedding portfolio that I share with clients. After all, weddings are different now than they were even 10 years ago. Credit digital cameras, or blame them, you take your pick. Clients want details, right? They want fun shots, right?

Even though I don’t actively promote these images, every potential bride asks me how I prefer to handle family photos, and takes a good, long look at the family images included in our sample albums. Why? The times are a changin’, but they ain’t changin’ that fast.  Your bride and groom still want family photos. Their parents want the family photos, as do the grandparents and extended family.

They want them because family members are going to pass away at any moment. They aren’t going to TELL you this, but that’s the underlying reason. Sure, everyone is there to celebrate the occasion, but that’s the reception. That’s not this. This is going up on the wall for the next 50 years, and for good reason.

I’m not trying to be a downer, I promise. I’ve learned this sad truth directly from my brides. Things change. People go. The family photos stay. It’s something we, as photographers, need to discuss.

Last wedding season, I had a bride call me shortly after we photographed her wedding…just a few days after, in fact. She asked if we could rush a print to her. She needed the print, like, yesterday. She sounded upset, so I immediately asked if we had inadvertently missed someone or forgot a photo, etc. I thought we screwed up. I wanted to make it right, if I could. I totally mis-read the situation.

Mom had passed. It was a struggle for her to get to the wedding, but she made it. Now she was gone. They needed to send a nice photo to the funeral home.

They had a bunch of snapshots at home. They needed our photo.

A few weeks later, we photographed a different wedding. The bride pulled me aside that morning, away from the hustle and noise of the wedding preparations. She asked if I could make a special point to photograph her grandmother during the day. That’s normally someone we are going to keep track of anyway, but she asked if we could provide extra things: close-ups of her reaction as the bride came down the aisle, extra prep images, maybe extra dance photos, but special emphasis on extra family combinations involving Grandma during the formals. We took all the photos she requested, making extra time to capture Grandma with the cousins, babies, aunts, etc.

Her grandmother passed shortly after the wedding ceremony. The family formals were needed.

On a personal note, the last photos I ever took of my grandmother were from a session I surprised her with at the last moment. She was kind of upset that I had tricked her into sitting for portraits – mostly because she was wearing this velour track suit thing and she didn’t feel dressed up -- but I didn’t care. We had fun. I talked with her about raising my father, and family vacations when he was a child. The session went well. I had a few really nice images. I was happy. She told me the photos made her look old, asked me to Photoshop a bunch of wrinkles. I was happy she even knew about Photoshop.

She died unexpectedly early this year. She wanted to be cremated. For the visitation, my father asked me to display one of my prints, so everyone had a chance to see her smile once more.

We have a bunch of snapshots. We need your photo.

It’s easy for photographers to realize the moment we chose to photograph is long gone. Hit the shutter, off it goes into the aether.

This isn’t something your wedding client is thinking about on the wedding day.

On a serious-but-less-serious-note, it won’t ruin the wedding day if you devote a few more brain cells to family photos and a few less to your detail shots of the place settings and centerpieces. That stuff will still be there in 10 minutes.

Here’s how we handle family portraits on the wedding day. It makes for a smooth transition between the ceremony and reception, and your preparation will help keep everyone sane and happy.

  • If you want to shoot natural light, that’s great. Make sure you have a back up location identified, as the sun is going to move during the ceremony.
  • Using a flash or off-camera setup? Find five minutes to assemble the rig before the ceremony begins. Hide it in the corner. Don’t waste time fussing with the rig when you should be taking photos.
  • Get a list of the family photos you need before the wedding day. Don’t shoot from the hip. Make a list. Put it in your phone. Have first names, and call people by their first names. Smile. Ask them to stand where you need them.
  • When the list changes on the fly, at the request of other guests and not your bride or groom, find a polite way to say “No.” I always explain that the bride has provided us with a list of photos she would like. After those photos are completed we are happy to take extras, if time allows. If we run out of time, I announce to everyone that we can take any group photo they could possible conjure during the reception. Smile. Move on.
  • Understand that your bokeh-licous f1.2 setting is not going to fly for these photos. Be reasonable. Make sure the back row is in focus, too. After all, they are part of the family.
  • We aren’t all Annie L., so don’t beat yourself into a pulp if you have to resort to the old standby lineup-type image. Sometimes it’s all you might get from a certain crowd, especially when you are just getting started.


Let me hear some ideas. How do you handle sensitive wedding situations like these? How do you handle formal family photos?


Aaron Ottis's picture

Aaron is a photographer living in the Midwestern United States.

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Very good points. Family formal portraits are the high stress moments for me at every wedding. Keeping a calm demeanor is the very tough but it must be done.

Manny, I'm with you on that. It doesn't matter how many times you photograph a wedding, there's always something that tweaks the family formals. I find that extra preparation helps me work quickly. I'm a big proponent of a carrying the list for these images.

Although these type of shots are not what most photographers get exited about doing, it's so true, they're just plain important and might as well be done as good as anything else in a wedding, maybe better. Only one month after I photographed a wedding a few years back, the groom's brother (and best man), only 25 years old was killed in a traffic accident. Those family pictures that he was in were the only real shots that the family had of him.I always remind myself of this while trying to coordinate a group of distracted family members, and wishing we could move on to the "good stuff".

James, thank you for sharing the story. The faster the industry moves with "better" trends and techniques, the more often we all need to step back and see the big picture. Family formals certainly aren't the most glamorous, but they are really important.

This part of the day I joke is where you really "Earn your pay". Communication with the group is key. I always remind the family that I want to see their personalities shine a bit and not be stiff and static. My Gear will be prepped prior and exposure is secured with assistant.

Then I break it down like this:
I gather the family together and once I have their attention I explain the exact process and sequence of shots:

A. Whole group master shot
B. Just the parents (each set) with B & G then add siblings
C. Her side of family
D. His side of family
E. Then send the masses to cocktail hour
F. Bridal Party then they go to cocktail hour
G. Bride and groom portraits then they join cocktail hour

In a perfect scenario this should take no more then 30 min max to get the formals nailed before getting artistic with the B & G for another 15 min or so.

Oh yeah I try to use those "tasty cocktails" as constant motivation to keep the large group in the mood.

Chris, that's a good list and it sounds like a solid method, too. Sometimes we have extras like B+G and grandparents, or B+G and siblings without parents. I like your idea of doing the big group shot early in the sequence. We try to capture the largest family shot first, then work to the smaller groups. We usually put the grandparents early in the list, too. It keeps them from having to move too much, especially if mobility is an issue.

I couldn't agree with you more!

Family photos are the hardest part of the wedding day and they aren't even portfolio makers. It's a good selling point for some clients during the consultation.

Last weekend I did a wedding were the atomic family was so large there were literally 70 people in one shot. If I had tried this on my first few years of doing weddings I would have cracked under the pressure. Eight years later It still takes time to coordinate everyone and make sure all of those heads are visible, eyes are open and people are smiling.

People get really impatient after a minute or two so you have to keep them entertained while you get everyone in place with playful banter/jokes. I usually have people make funny faces while I do lighting test shots just to keep them interested and the time goes by quicker.

This is a very important point. I have realized the same a couple of times. It doesn't only go for weddings, though. You never know when someone will pass, and the value of good images of them really comes in retrospect. Thanks for reminding me - I have a project that I have postponed - this made me realize I need to get it done when I still can.

Great article! Very informative and helpful. The author's description of the "family pose" process is dead on and hilarious. Good tips and advice. One of the shots I took of a kid for baseball was ran in the paper in an obit. He died in a horrible and accidental way and my pic was the latest taken of him. That made me realize the pictures I'm taking are memories for the families I photograph.

Great article! Very valid points!

I agree that family photos should be done at weddings. These, however, are not top quality. A number of people, including the Bride & Groom are "square" to the camera and some of the subjects are holding their hands in the very unflattering "fig-leaf pose". If you are going to do them, do them right.

Wilfred, thanks for the critique. As a stylistic point, I intentionally place the bride and groom square to the camera in many of these situations. The approach I'm taking is less about the technical aspect of controlling and perfecting every single body angle, and more about quickly creating an environment that allows the group to relax and fall together in a more natural way. I do understand this doesn't appeal to all, but it is something that works well for me. I'd rather capture the smiles and laughs. Re: the fig leaf pose... that was the joke with that particular image, and thus the laughing. He looked goofy, and everyone knew it.

It's also my experience that to get any decent group shots while the scene is chaotic is really like herding a dozen little kittens. Nothing ever goes as planned. So getting a less than flattering pose is just going to be it.

Uggg. I've been stressing over this lately. I hate the family group shots. This article was food for thought thought. Could you follow it up with a more "how to" version with more lighting techniques and posing ideas? That would be more helpful. Especially using natural light since I don't use strobes.

Blake, sounds like something that we could do. I'll work on it.

I don't shoot weddings but for my own wedding, I made a written list of images I absolutely wanted to have and had a friend being the go between for the photographer and the guests. That way I had someone wrangling people for the photographer and he got some amazing images. Other than those shots, I left what he captured up to him and I love love love my wedding images.

Isn't this the truth. I'm constantly reminded by my photographer partner that those family group shots are the bread and butter shots and what keeps getting her more referrals. Art shots are nice, but group shots brings in the business.

Not related to a tragic event after a wedding, but a tragic event after a senior photo session. Last summer, I worked at a photographic production service (www.photoproduction.com best printing service in West Virginia) One day, we got a rush order from a photographer who needed senior portraits printed ASAP. After he came to pick them up, he informed us that the senior he had photographed during the senior session had been struck and killed by a train just a week later. Photos can go a long way and mean a lot to different people.

For group shoots I like to get up high I have brought a 6" stepladder I put my of camera light farther way to try to even up front to back row light. Inside even bouncing off of back wall give more distance for even front to back row light. Then I shoot a number of shoots and use photoshop layers to get as many of the faces facing forward.
I have also seen where a least one photographer group families as pods with a little space between each pod. I have not gotten that coordinated. Finally thought is be creative but also respectful. My wedding photographer had mother of the bride stack next to the father groom and vice vs. he said "because he like to mix things up." Well this will mix up my family up in the future and I don't have correct picture and my dad has since passed.

When I first started shooting weddings, I had absolutely no idea how to do formals aside from watching the photographers I second shot for. It would take me up until the very last minute and then a few to get all the combinations. Then I began doing exactly what you listed. It's nice to know I'm not missing anything! It now takes me 15 minutes or less thanks to good communication and a list of combinations with first names. Makes a WORLD of difference and leaves the church staff baffled each time I leave with extra time to spare ;)

Good article. I was explaining to our new assistant on Saturday that while I'm not a big fan of "chimping" the screen after every shot, I do chimp and and quickly check focus on at least one shot out every family combo. It's easier to correct a mistake right then rather than having to re-assmeble the group. It saves me a couple time a year.

We get a family shot list from the bride 4-6 weeks prior to the day. We ask the couple to email or call each member of the family they want in the pictures prior to the wedding day to insure that nobody bolts after the ceremony. We also ask that someone from each family be assigned to help round up those we need. Lastly, after our entire list is completed, we ask the bride if there are any other photos she would like before we move on.

Thanks for the reminder of how important these pictures are.

Great points made, I'm literally BRAND new to wedding photography, I thought my best shots would be when I got creative with the couple, I found myself feeling most proud of the formals. There was more character in the images than meets the eye, and its with the older generation of guests that turn the images into a great spectacle! Also, I have just had a nosey at your site, great work, your the type of photographer I aim to emulate! I look forward to your insights and knowledge sharing!

Great post. Thanks! I like the idea of setting up lighting before hand and setting it to the back. I find myself rushing to set it up after the ceremony and using up time to do so. What type of lighting setup do you use? If in the church I use my flashpoint 360 camera left with a shoot through umbrella with a speedlight on camera for fill..... thoughts?