For Photographers | Taking Successful Family Formals



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For Photographers

As a wedding photographer, I will admit that family formals on the wedding day are my least favorite part of the day. I think most photographers would agree with me on this. They are not exciting, they don’t fit with my style of candid pictures, and honestly, they aren’t fun. Wrangling 20+ people in a picture a handful of times can be exhausting, especially if people don’t listen. You have that occasional guest who wants to hide in the back of the picture because they don’t want to be in it in the first place. The guests don’t want to be there for pictures especially if it’s hot outside. People want get to happy hour and enjoy the party. No one cheers after the wedding and says, “Oh goodie! I get to stand in this hot sun and wait my turn to take my big group picture!” At least I’ve never experienced it! HA!

After 10 years in the industry, I have honed in on my family formals and am very successful at making this part of the day as quick and painless as possible. I can honestly say that I get complimented on this more on the wedding day than anything else I do. Aunts, uncles, parents, and grandparents alike tell me how easy I make these pictures; and the reason that is is that I do a lot of prep-work with my clients as well as educating them and setting expectations ahead of time. As a former middle school teacher, I joke that “Teacher Mandi” comes out when it comes to organizing the guests for the family formals.

I meet with my couples in person at my home 6ish weeks before the wedding to work on their wedding day timeline. I like doing this in person as it gives us a chance to discuss and work together. There are no chances for miscommunication and the clients feel a great level of comfort in getting to meet with me. We talk through the timeline, but I also discuss the family formals. I explain how I am going to group their extended families and show them the outline I will send them. I go through it all and set up expectations on how the pictures will go. We make sure that both mom’s know who needs to be there for pictures and spread the word before the wedding. We also make sure that the pastor/rabbi/priest knows ahead of time to make an announcement that all extended family stay for pictures after the ceremony. I make it very clear that if Aunt Lucy walks off to the bar or to go say hello to a friend she hasn’t seen in 15 years, she will miss the pictures. We do NOT wait for the people who were informed ahead of time and didn’t listen. It might sound harsh, but with the education I provide ahead of time, everyone who needs to be in the picture has been made aware. This day is about the bride and groom, and I will not waste their portrait time in order to add one person into the picture that didn’t stay where they were supposed to.

Having the outline I provide for the couple is key. I send it to them after the timeline meeting and have them fill it out and send it back to me no less than a week before the wedding. This has every possible grouping they might want. I have them include names of people in smaller groupings (10 or less) and provide last names for larger groupings.

The day of the wedding I do a handful of things to help the flow and pace of the pictures:
1) I talk to the officiant before the ceremony to make sure he/she knows to make the announcement. Even though they have talked to the couple ahead of time, I want to touch base as well. I always emphasize extended family. There’s a big difference between family and extended family.
2) After the ceremony, I almost immediately turn the couple back around towards the ceremony spot (or wherever we have decided to do family formals). We avoid the guests who want to give hugs and well wishes in order for us to start almost immediately. This is where I make up a lot of lost time that many photographers waste (not intentionally), but I can usually start family formals within 5-7 minutes after the ceremony has finished.
3) You cannot be timid when doing these pictures. Be loud and show the guests you mean business and have the confidence in yourself to get these pictures done efficiently and quickly. It is your job as the photographer to take charge and take the lead in organizing people. If you’re an introvert and this kind of stuff terrifies you, you have to get over that fear and take control. The worst thing that can happen is the photographer not take charge or have confidence in themselves to organize large groups of people. Time gets wasted if you let them organize themselves. It’s like herding cats!
4) I go from biggest to smallest and have the couple label these ahead of time using numbers. I have four extended family sets: MOB extended, FOB extended, MOG extended, and FOG extended. If one of these groupings is small, we sometimes combine for one larger picture of just the bride or groom’s side. I do not have listed individual family groups with say “Aunt Felicia and Uncle Joe”. If they want those pictures, they can ask at the reception. These kind of combos are what add to the time after the ceremony and take away from the couple portraits. The only time I allow for these kind of groupings is if the couple did a First Look. Once I have finished each group, I send them on their way to get out of my way.
5) I have an “on call” group for the next group of people. While I am organizing my current set, I am calling out names for the next group to be ready. It helps them be ready so that the second I’m done with the previous group, the next one is filing into the spot almost immediately.
6) It helps to use first names in the smaller groupings. Use the first names of mom and dad and brother and sister. It makes it more personal to them as well as helps organize them easier. People respond to their names more than if they hear “you over here” or “mom stand here.” This doesn’t mean you have to memorize the names (although I do), but if you have it on a sheet of paper, it’s easy to read off.
7) I pull people in and out of pictures quickly. I usually tell them to “hop” in and out of the pictures. People always laugh at me and sometimes people literally hop as a joke. It doesn’t make sense to create the same grouping over and over when you add or take away one person, so set up the whole immediate family and take out siblings and parents as needed. It helps with the flow.
8) Once the family is gone, we do the whole wedding party. If the couple did a First Look, this is done before the ceremony.

I usually can get through the family formals in 20 minutes or less. Having my second shooter there to help organize and take pictures helps big time as well. If the couple does a First Look before the ceremony, we do all immediate family combinations before the ceremony and only have the four large extended family groupings to do which takes less than 10 minutes. My goal is to give my clients as much time for their portraits or give them a chance to get to their reception quickly. They all greatly appreciate that!

And good news to you photographers- I am selling my outlines for you to purchase for just $10! If you are interested in getting my two family picture outline Word Documents, email me at and I can get it over to you! For an extra $5, you can also purchase my timeline that I fill out with all of my couples. It is very detailed with a lot of helpful information for you as well as the couple. You will be happy you purchased these items. With over ten years of experience in the industry, I have both of these documents perfected. I look forward to passing on my knowledge to you!


  1. tracy says:

    These are some seriously great tips, thank you for sharing! I love to see how other photographers work!

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