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How to plan out family pictures at City Hall

family posing on staircase of sf city hall vogue style

Family pictures at City Hall weddings are an absolute essential! At City Hall we are more limited time-wise than regular weddings – we may only have 2 or 3 hours total. Your photographer will ask you in advance for a list of each family formal picture you would like. 

‘Family formals’, just to be clear, are the posed staring-into-the-camera type of pics. They may also be called ‘posed group shots’, ‘family pictures’, ‘formal portraits’, ‘group formals’, and many other terms.

Yes they are somewhat stiff, a little boring, but a necessary way of capturing everyone that made your day. 

If you have a large number of desired photos, it will take more time. 

It may even mean purchasing extra coverage and delaying your later plans. Either that, or the list will have to be cut on the day rather than carefully trimmed down to the essentials beforehand. 

How long do family pictures at City Hall take?

I allow 3 minutes per each desired picture (each grouping). I ask that you number each picture you’d like on your editable planning document.

The time is taken up:

  • wrangling people
  • making sure we have everyone’s attention
  • removing keys from pockets
  • putting down bags
  • adjusting hair & clothing
  • posing them
  • getting them into the right spot that fits the size group
  • aligning them correctly with the background.

I’ll then take dozens of photos of each grouping to ensure one with all eyes open, looking straight at the camera and with good facial expressions.

I repeat this process for the two cameras I have using different lenses for variety (full body horizontal/ waist up / full body vertical).

How many family groupings at City Hall would be too many?

One of the reasons I’ve written this post is because I see a some couples suggesting 15+ formal groupings for their family list. It’s essentially many permutations of the same core group. 

I would consider anything more than 10 groupings a long list, and there would be certain caveats where a long list is concerned. 

I would not say an outright ‘no’ to any reasonable requests my clients have. However a long list of every possible permutation of a group can be exhausting for your guests and the quickest way to wear out their patience!

I think where a lot of folks planning their list go wrong is thinking ‘why not?’ rather than ‘why do we need these other 10 shots of basically the same few family members?’

Where do we start creating our family formal list?

I encourage you to start with the basic list then only add in groupings that you really need, keeping in mind the 4 or 5 that will end up on an album spread or as a framed print. Ask yourself the following question when planning your list:

Are the people in this group included in another photo? If yes, does the other photo serve my needs or is this separate photo needed to serve a unique purpose?

Unless you have a specific purpose in mind, avoid repeating the same shots singly and again as a couple. Photographed either singly OR as a couple will generally serve your needs.

How many family formals should we aim for?

When I provide you with your customized wedding timeline I write this timeline assuming you’ll have up to 6 groupings for City Hall weddings with about 6 guests. 6 groupings would take 20 minutes.

I’m assuming up to 10 groupings for anything more than about 10 guests. 10 groupings takes half an hour.

(At least that’s what we’ll need to budget time-wise. If it’s done sooner, great! We’ll have more time for pictures of the two of you.)

I am very happy to photograph more groupings. However for this something else will either have to be cut down, or you will need more coverage. 

I’ll get us through efficiently and with a smile!

What’s the goal with the list?

The loved ones of your life should be captured in a select number of well-chosen and intentional groupings. To help with the pace of the day we’ll aim to get through them in about 20 mins or so. That is the time goal we’re aiming for with your family pictures at City Hall. 

For the more casual shots or groupings, you can always catch me at any point during the day and ask me to take a photo of you with particular individuals or groups, though you won’t necessarily be positioned in optimum light or good backgrounds. I often break out a flash to cut down on the amount of photographic noise.

family walking through City Hall for fun formal photos

My sample groupings list for family pictures at city hall

  1. Everyone present
  2. Bride* and groom with both sets of parents plus any siblings with their kids + partners
  3. Bride and groom with both sets of parents plus all siblings
  4. Bride and groom with bride’s parents
  5. Bride and groom with groom’s parents
  6. Special grouping (friends etc)


san francisco city hall Vietnamese family portraits on 3rd floor

Zoe’s Very Useful Tips!

Start with the biggest grouping first!


Do you want a photo of everyone that is in attendance at your ceremony? For the shot of everyone, we’ll do some more fun ones, like maybe walking arm in arm, jumping, striking a silly pose or all talking & laughing. You probably want more than just the very basic looking into the camera shots.

Biggest first

The shot of everyone is probably where we’ll start. Then we’ll work down the list into smaller and smaller groupings again for efficiency.

Elderly guests

We want to photograph any elderly relatives / people with limited mobility early on. Please let me know in advance if a guest has mobility restrictions.

Photo wranglers

For private ceremonies with 40+ people, please appoint one photo-wrangler from each side. Their job will be to round people up. Let them know their role in advance. I can hand them a printed copy of your photo list so they can spring into action. 

The importance of planning

Even with the best will in the world, guests’ patience will fray. Let’s plan out the list carefully beforehand for maximum efficiency that your family will think was totally effortless.

Consider doing the formals first

Depending on the flow of your day it can make sense to do the formals before the ceremony. I can advise on this on a case-by-case basis.

Be the calm at the eye of the storm!

I advise having you stay put then simply adding in folks around you. You will not step in and out of the frame. I advise both partners stay together for all pictures, except maybe the parent ones.


*I have used the words ‘bride and groom’ at times during this article when writing out ‘partner 1 / partner 2’ would have made the text clunky and hard to follow given the context. I use the term to mean ‘any marrier, for example the bride’. I avoid heteronormativity wherever possible, including my client onboarding & planning process.


family posing on 4th floor right before wedding ceremony

Creating your formal shotlist for your City Hall wedding

city hall

April 30, 2019


Lover of ice cream, killer of houseplants, Zoe is a San Francisco-dwelling love documentarian. Contact | Insta

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