6-Step Strategy for Wedding Family Formal Photos

Family members, brides, and even photographers may cringe at the thought of this portion of the wedding day! For many weddings across the globe, formal family photos can result in a nightmare, a big mess, and unhappy people, and group photos that cannot be re-done!

Family Formals. Family members, brides, and even photographers may cringe at the thought of this portion of the wedding day! For many weddings across the globe, formal family photos can result in a nightmare, a big mess, and unhappy people, and group photos that cannot be re-done after the wedding day.

However, your family formal photos CAN be a great success! For the weddings I photograph, clients love the family photos and they ALWAYS end up in the wedding album. We have a great time, most people are looking happy, and it gets done quicker than expected.

Reasons for my Family Formals Strategy

My clients want to enjoy their time with others. This means that I do NOT ask the bride or groom on the wedding day to find the family members that they want in photos. Photographer, don’t ask your clients, “So, who do you want in your family photos?” That takes too much time, and it’s stressful to spend time finding people and pleading them to get their butt over to family photos! The last thing I want is to put pressure on my clients to take on this responsibility on the wedding day. Which leads me to the next point…

Often times you should designate someone who knows most family members who are needed, to find those individuals for the photographer. I think that this is a good idea but this still can be stressful if the photographer neglects to take advantage of the other tips I will mention. That “go-to” person is helpful but I do not think that the photographer should completely rely on that “go-to” person.

That being said..! Some photographers get their assistant or second shooter to help find those people to get them into that shot. I’ve experienced times where this also fails, and that is because that assistant or second shooter does not know who these people are! I have been that assistant myself! I love helping others, but sometimes a photographer’s assistant taking charge of this portion of the day is just inefficient. People don’t know who’s in charge, and that assistant doesn’t know these people. In order for people to follow directions, those directions need to be given by the photographer they need to pay attention to. The people are paying attention to the Lead photographer to lead and guide them to where they need to be, and when. When there are multiple individuals playing “boss” or giving directions to guests, guests get confused and confusion leads to headache. That’s no fun!

As a Lead Photographer I would rather that my second photographer or assistant pay attention to the little details of the group of people I am photographing at that moment. I love it when my assistant stays with me, fixes the ring-bearer’s tie really fast, or fixes the bride’s dress, and makes sure everybody looks perfect for this shot. If I have a second photographer, I would rather that person photograph wedding decor and hilarious candids during cocktail hour instead of running around trying to find people for photos. That being said, I as a Lead Photographer needs to be prepared. I admit I am not perfect, but ever since a couple years when I developed my own strategy for family formals and have seen success, I cannot go back with just “winging it” for these precious photos.

Warning! What you are about to read is my strategy that is only for those willing to choose which battle to fight. My method is something that takes a long time, a lot of communication, and paying attention to the people around you. You probably will think I am crazy. Well go ahead! But I tell you if my strategy means that it will result in:

-quick efficient family photos that will take 25 min or less. 20-25 minutes for large families, and 10 minutes for smaller families

-happy, comfortable people

-bride or groom not needing to hunt people down and getting distracted

-second photographer or assistant paying attention to straightening out ties, dresses, instead of wandering around finding people

-MORE time doing amazing portraits with the bride and groom!!!

-awesome family photos where family members will purchase prints from these shots

If all this….then I will gladly take the effort needed for all this! BUT! You must do ALL of this, not just a few things. Are you ready? The steps for the photographer are:

  1. get a list of all immediate family members that will be present for formal family photos no later than 1 week prior to the wedding.
  2. create your formals list, including sequence of groups!
  3. scope out your family formals location within one to two weeks prior to the wedding!
  4. communicate your location and timeframe – the timeline- to clients and vendors via email.  
  5. connect faces with names, and communicate the time and place to these family members on the wedding day
  6. make an announcement on the microphone right before the the start of the ceremony, if possible
  7. Make Awesome Family Photos!


Screenshot of the final images delivered to the client. NOTE: at least 5 frames were taken of each grouping/combination. For larger groups, I usually just keep one version of that set for final image delivery.

#1 – Photographer, get a list of all immediate family members that will be present for formal family photos no later than 1 week prior to the wedding!!!!! As Early as Possible!

When couples first book with me, I tell them that the Pre-Wedding Questionnaire is absolutely necessary, and I need first and last names and their relations to the bride and groom. I tell them that ideally, just immediate family members are ideal for formal family photos, but if you are very close to any other family formals, I need to know those names. I tell them what I mean by “formal family photos” and I show them an example of this type of shot, with a nice background and quick posing, looking good. My couples get an automatic email from me requesting for this questionnaire to be filled out.

NOTE: This needs to be done prior to the wedding week. ***If this is done during wedding week, I swear 99% of the time the list gets into my email like the night before the wedding. For me, for my strategy to work successfully, I need this at least a couple weeks before the wedding or earlier. The night before the wedding, photographers need to spend their time preparing gear.

  • First & Last Names of Maid of Honor and Bridesmaids
  • First & Last Names of Best Man and Groomsmen
  • First and Last Names of Ring-bearers, Flowergirls and ages
  • Bride’s Family Members. Please list first & last names, and relationships, who need to be present for the formal family photos.
  • Groom’s Family Members. Please list first & last names, and relationships, who need to be present for the formal family photos.
  • Other Person (s) for Formal Photos:
  • Certain people that you may want photographs with later during reception (optional)
  • Any special family situations to be sensitive to? (i.e. disabilities, death, divorce)


Photographer, take note if there are any individuals, such as grandparents, if they are not very mobile or are in wheelchairs. Just to make sure, it doesn’t hurt asking the bride and groom this as you’re creating your list. Photographer, also take a mental note if your client is requesting aunts, uncles, cousins, and large groups!

#2 – Photographer, create your formals list!

The photographer should create the list and the order of when you take the photos. This is the most time consuming part, but is well-worth it! When this is done in a certain way, it will speed up your family formals process. Do NOT get your clients to do this for you. Unless, if you’re a bride and groom and you’re pretty sure your photographer won’t be doing this list, then you do your photographer a favor and make it for them.

I open a blank Word or Pages document, and copy and paste the list into the the blank document like so:

The Header will say:

photographer:  YOUR NAME         non-shooting assistant: NAME         second photographer: NAME

The next line will list the first and last names of maid of honor and bridesmaids, and then the best man and groomsmen

The next line will list the flower girls, and wedding party.

The next section will be two columns: a list of Bride’s family & relations, and then Groom’s Family & relations.

These lists above usually fit the top half of the paper, so that I can fold it and give a copy to my “go-to” person for the bride’s side of the family (highlighted for them), and another copy to the “go-to” person for the groom’s side of the family (highlighted). See this real example (names changed):

The section on the bottom half of the paper and often to the back side of the page, will be your sequence of groupings. Because you know the relations, you should be able to figure out where exactly they need to be standing in relation to the bride and groom. Spouses need to stay together. When it is just the immediate family, then you start by listing your bride’s name with her mom, then her dad.

  • bride, mom
  • bride, dad
  •     add mom
  • mom, bride, dad

Then you’ll type in who you’ll add into the next shot, which is exactly what you will be saying out loud on the wedding day. The next line will be the listing of the actual order. You’re doing the thinking now, ahead of time, in keeping the bride in the middle.

  • bride, mom
  • bride, dad
  •     add mom
  • mom, bride, dad
  •     add groom
  • dad, mom, bride, groom
  •     add bride’s siblings NAMES
  • sibling, dad, mom, bride, groom, sibling, sibling
  •     add sibling’s spouses/their kids (NAMES)
  • sibling/spouse/kid, dad, mom, bride, groom, sibling, sibling/spouse/kids
  • miscellaneous combinations

Order of Family Formal Photos with Divorced or Separated Spouses

This is often something I find out during the client consultations so that I avoid fights or unhappy people on the wedding day. If one of your client’s parents are divorced or separated and your clients tell you they don’t get along, then try to do a bride & groom First Look before the wedding, and do one part of the family photos with that family member prior to the ceremony. After the ceremony, then you’ll do a similar sequence but with the other family member.  This only works if the Photographer communicates this clearly (keep on reading).

If you cannot do a first look, or if you must have all your family formals done after the ceremony, then just create a sequence where you’ll start with one parent, and then end your groupings with the other parent so that they don’t have to mingle together much.

One thing to take into consideration is grandparents, and kids. If there are grandparents or anyone also with disabilities that will need to be photographed as soon as possible, then I’ll do these first.

Order of Family Formals with Large Groups of Family Members

Remember when I said to take note if you need large groups of people? If your client *absolutely needs* really nice photos with all of those people with a nice background/setting (as opposed to be gathered on the dance floor) then start with these large groups. When people outside of the immediate family are needed, and you know you’re gonna deal with more than a dozen people in a group, then you’ll start with these big groups, and then subtract people to get a smaller grouping as you continue. Here’s an example of this sequence, with the last names substituted with fake names (fruits! because I love fruit!) Each title name in bold (Apple’s, Oranges’ etc) are last names of families.

In this case, I did not get a list of these people in all these family groups because there were a lot, but those people knew who they were because I told them on the wedding day! Ideally, you’ll want the names, but on the wedding day I just told everyone in the families to stand with “their people” (like husband with your wife; parent with your kids etc.) Here is the example of family formals done for the sample grouping sequence above!

By now, you’re probably thinking I am crazy because this is a lot more than you expected. But I tell you, when you spend the 15-30 minutes typing out this game plan, you’re doing a huge favor to your clients and wedding guests. Photographer, you’re getting familiar with names of these unique individuals, and people will be absolutely blown away that you’re paying attention to them, and they will listen and do everything you say!

If you have family members that want to have fun and be goofy, then that’s OK too! The more direction that people have, the more that people will love the photographer and have fun in the process.


I often do not need to have my clients check my sequence, more so because if they look at it they will be overwhelmed.  As long as I have the first and last names, relations, and special situations, the sequence is common sense and it doesn’t need to be checked by the bride or groom. However, if you have a client who is Type A and very planner-oriented, then I recommend asking them if they’d like to see it first. They either will say, “Yes, please!” or “No, we trust you!”


#3 – Photographer, scope out your family formals location within one to two weeks prior to the wedding!

Photographer, look at your timeline and figure out what time the majority of your family formals will be happening. Email or call the venue to schedule a visit just to scope out some locations. Scope out your locations during the approximate time of day when you’ll be taking most of these family photos so that you can see where your shade or light is, and so you can check your settings in your camera, and environment settings too!

Your family formals location depends on:

  • how “mobile” the individuals are. If any individuals have a disability, illness, sensitivity to sun, are in a wheelchair, make sure your spot is easy to access, in complete shade, and in a location that they don’t have to spend a lot of energy walking to, etc. The footing should be flat and easy to walk on. Sometimes, it’s easier to do these formals at the ceremony location, such as inside the church (but make sure these people know this!) 
  • where the best light or shade is. Don’t place people under bright harsh sun, avoid shadows under eyes. Ideally, groups should be in total shade, in even exposure, and not be facing the sun. I have to admit that I’ve been thrown into a loop once before where my plan like this couldn’t happen for multiple reasons, and it really sucks. 
  • Where the cocktail hour is. The greater the “distance” or “separation” your family formals location is away from the cocktail hour patio, the easier it will be for family members to stay close and ready for your direction. 
  • where your bride/groom and wedding party/family members will go immediately after the processional. Usually the wedding planner at the venue will tell you they go to a designated spot around the grounds or inside the facility. (If you find out that they go inside a room at the facility, then find a way out from that room TO your family formals spot where they will NOT come in contact with many guests, and just go straight to a nice quiet spot that you’ll pick.)
  • the background. If you can, avoid fire extinguishers, signs, cars, or distractions in your background. My dream family formals is when there’s a clean background with foliage or a field in the distance. 
Perfect example of a family photo done during midday, during harsh sunlight. I picked this spot for the most shade, and also because there was more perspective with the trail and foliage in the distance.

#4 – Photographer, communicate your location and timeframe – the timeline- to clients and vendors via email.

Once you have found your ideal location, then put that into the wedding day timeline, and then email your timeline to your clients, the venue, officiant, planner, DJ, florist, etc. This should happen within a week or two before the wedding if possible. I want these vendors to know, even the florist. For example, if the your location is at the arbor full of florals that need to be moved to the reception, then the florist needs to be aware of this, and you better get your family formals done as soon as possible. Or, IF you are doing formals prior to the ceremony, the florist should have all the boutonnières and bouquets ready prior to this time.

When I first arrive, I like to introduce myself to the DJ, band, wedding coordinator, etc. Often times I have them take a peek at my timeline, or sometimes the DJ or venue coordinator will want to review the timeline to make sure we’re on the same page.

#5 – Photographer, connect faces with names, and communicate the time and place to these family members!

It’s so important to meet family members prior to the family formals, and communicate to them. As I’m walking to areas of the wedding, such as the getting ready location, or when I’m there in the bridal suite and I meet family members who are on my list, then I tell them how great it is to meet them and that now I have a face to a name. I tell them that we need him/her to come to X location at X time (or immediately after the ceremony) for quick family formals. I also show them my list (the top half) and say, “I also need these people, so if you see them could you tell them?”

Often times, we’ll figure out right there who in the wedding party knows these family members, and show them my list. I also tell them that I have this crazy order or sequence that makes things go fast. I tell them they only really need to pay attention to the people needed on the top half. Once they or other people see that I have a specific order or sequence, they can look at it if they’re anal, but at least they know I have these groupings in mind. This is SO HELPFUL because then I don’t get any guests or people yelling at me to get certain combinations. Having my sequence makes family members aware that these combinations are included.

When I see the boutonnieres and corsages being passed out to family members before the ceremony, I also see this as another opportunity to communicate the time and place for family formals. They often appreciate it!


#6 – Photographer, make an announcement on the microphone right before the the start of the ceremony, if possible!

This is the most awkward part for me! If it’s a church ceremony or if I already have met everybody on my list, then I don’t do this. HOWEVER, it doesn’t hurt to remind people, and especially if you’ve got large groups of people and cousins that you have no clue who they are, then ask the officiant if you can make an announcement really quick. This is done when most of everyone is seated, and everyone is in suspense waiting for something to happen. This is the only time when I want to grab the spotlight!

wedding guests waiting at ceremony location at Bunnell Farm in Litchfield, CT

I don’t want the officiant to make the announcement for me, because I want the guests to connect this direction to the photographer role. The officiants are always happy to hand over the mic briefly to me! This is what I say (humbly): “Hi everyone, my name is Ling, and I’m Sarah and Nate’s photographer, obviously (!) and I need these people to meet us under the big willow tree out front immediately after the ceremony” and I read off the names, and say “thank you!”. People often chuckle because I come across as friendly, shy, and cutely awkward!

#7 – Make Awesome Family Photos!

Watch as people congregate to your area. As a photographer it’s important to NOT feel overwhelmed with family members. 99% of the time these family members are present. I start with my first sequence and I will literally speak what I have on my list. It’s important to stay in this order so you can get done efficiently! Most of the time, I know who these people are, and because I have done this many times, I know generally who to add in. Sometimes, that “go-to” person for those family members is really great at getting those family members close by and ready. Those family members are nearby, but maybe they’re in a conversation with someone and isn’t paying attention. That’s the benefit of the “go-to” person.

The sequence or list helps when I get a brain fart and need to refer to it. I do not have my assistants take charge in this. Many photographers may disagree and think that somebody should direct, while the photographer takes the photos. But I find it to be more effective when the Lead Photographer captures the attention of the people being photographed at all times.

Once the bride (or groom’s) side of the family is complete, I will ask the bride (or groom) if there are any other combinations that we should do before dismissing the family members. Often times, I will try to make sure to get photos of each parent with the bride or groom’s siblings. Or, just get a quick photo with the bride and any nieces or nephews at the opportune time when they’re happy.



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