How To Plan For Family Formal Portraits

Weddings have the unique ability to bring entire families together. This creates an incredible opportunity to document the people that are most important to you, often spanning multiple generations.  

However, let's be honest that not many people really enjoy taking large group portraits, no matter how much they want them.  Kids have short attention spans and don't like to look at cameras.  Adults want to move along to the cocktail hour.  The bigger the group, the more challenging to organize. All of this to say, formal family portraits can be a giant stress trap right in the middle of a wedding.

We want to share some of our best tips to plan around that and hopefully avoid that stress altogether, and to create a better experience for you and your family. You should be able to get the amazing and beautiful group portraits to capture your family legacy while also creating an atmosphere that is efficient with time and stress-free.  

1. Organize Your List Ahead Of Time

We send out a planning guide a month or two before the wedding and ask all of our couples to send us every combination they want during formal portrait time. There's no one-size-fits-all template here.  We have some weddings that might have five combinations, while others have thirty.  The key thing is that you don't want to be figuring out which people should be in which photo the day of your wedding.

We would also suggest that you pass along critical info ahead of time if there are sensitive factors with any of the portraits. We would hate to make mom and dad stand next to each other and smile nicely for every photo only to find out later that they are divorced and haven't talked to each other in years and were completely uncomfortable the whole time. We certainly don't want to stir up any drama that overshadows the beauty of the day. Every family has its quirks but when your photographer knows about those things ahead of time, it mitigates any chances of committing an avoidable faux pas.

Figure out the combinations, consult your family as needed, and then lock the list down! Family members will always find a way to come up with infinite other combinations for family portraits that they want on your wedding day, but we'd suggest that you stick to your planned list.  It's easy enough to capture other ad hoc family portraits during the cocktail hour or reception.  If a family member starts getting aggressive about the portrait they want that is not on the list then you can kindly let them know that the photographer will be able to grab other portraits during the cocktail hour or reception and will take care of them at a later time. 

Planning all of the combinations ahead of time will likely cut the time needed in half and get everyone on to the next event quicker.

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2. Understand How Much Time You Need

Formal portraits generally take between fifteen minutes to thirty minutes.  There will obviously be exceptions to that, but that's a good average.  The time needed is largely dependent on the number of combinations, and also the size of the combinations. A portrait with five people will be much quicker to organize than a portrait with fifty people.  Once you've completed the list of combinations you should be able to get a good ballpark for the time needed and plan it into your timeline accordingly.

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3. Decide When

The easiest time for formal portraits is right before or immediately after the ceremony.  This makes it simple to ensure that everyone you need will be there. Before the ceremony is great if there's enough time, and you're if already planning to do a First Look. The advantage of doing portraits before the ceremony is that nobody is missing out on another event such as the cocktail hour. If you're not doing a first look, or there just isn't enough time, then it's great to do them right after the ceremony is over while everyone is still together.

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4. Decide Where

Regarding location, consider lighting and logistics.  If it's an outdoor wedding and the time for formal portraits is Noon, it's probably not a great idea to stand out in an open field unless it happens to be a cloudy day.  Your photographer can usually find a good shaded spot that will look nice for everyone.  If you're having a church wedding and want some or all of the portraits in the church just make sure you talk to the church ahead of time to understand their rules.  They might have specific windows of time where portraits are allowed.

The second thing to consider for location is logistics.  There may be a beautiful spot near your venue that looks out over a valley or mountains, but if it's a big hike you probably don't want to force grandma to walk half a mile to get there!  We typically recommend finding a place within minimal walking distance from the ceremony site. If it's a hot summer day, we'd also recommend being very close to a place with shade or air conditioning to let family members stay cool while they're waiting their turn.

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5. Let Everyone Know The Plan Ahead Of Time

One of the best things you can do to further ensure that everyone is where they need to be at the right time is to email all of the people the week before the wedding and let them know the game plan.  All you need to do is let them know that they'll be part of family portraits and when and where they need to show up. Everyone does better when they know the plan and what's expected of them.

6. Designate "The Loud One"

Your photographer should own the list and get everyone looking their best to capture the photos, but they won't necessarily know who is who.  A great way to get everyone together quickly is to officially designate a confident and loud member of your family to help the photographer call out the combinations and bring the family together.  This is especially useful if anybody is missing from the immediate area.  

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7. Spread The Joy

Family portraits can be stressful, and we get that they might not be the most fun part of the wedding day. However, it's awesome to look back and have amazing pictures that capture your family legacy.  Plan the best you can to make it go smoothly and quickly, but once you're in the moment try to remember why these photos are important to you and your family.  If you choose to spread joy and enthusiasm your family and guests will usually follow suit. If people are uptight or spreading stress during this time you have the power to counter that by spreading joy or laughter.  Real emotion always shows through in photos so let your joy be contagious and have a great time!

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