Wedding family photos are an essential part of every wedding day. They are so important to your finished wedding gallery, documenting your family members in a formal, intentional and lasting way. Their significance is only increased with time.

To define our terms, group formals are when everyone looks at the camera and smiles. They are also known as ‘family formals’, ‘formal group portraits’, ‘group photo session’, etc.

When working with Zoe Larkin Photography (or any experienced wedding photographer), it is required to provide your customized list in advance. Your photographer needs to take a look over it in advance of the wedding to ensure you’re on the right track and the time estimate and expectations are realistic.

So please be sure to provide your list to us at least 1-2 weeks before the wedding day. The earlier, the better.

While we provide resources like this article to help you out, ultimately you must figure out which family groupings are important to you. Each family is unique, so the groupings are different for every wedding.

My most important piece of advice is to stick to the essentials. The biggest trap that people fall into is trying to get 20 groupings, thinking this is what they need. Let’s dive into more about why that is…

How to take your formal group photos at your wedding

How many family formals should we do?

We aim to obtain no more than 8 groupings for City Hall weddings, and up to 12 for larger, more traditional weddings with large families

Please understand that this is my professional, expert opinion that’s been borne out from over 400 weddings personally photographed.

It’s simply not possible to stand there and stay smiling through dozens of groupings which takes an hour or more, sadly. Couples always think it’ll be easy, but have ended up destroyed (OK, mild hyperbole) or at least very uncomfortable by the end of it. Even for small, intimate weddings which are our specialty.

Family formals can often be unexpectedly difficult and stressful for the marrying couple, even with the best photography team to keep things fun and moving along.

We keep the session as efficient and minimal as possible for everyone’s sanity – not least the couple’s, as you’re the only people in every photo!

The fact is that most couples simply don’t know how hard it is not only fake-smiling but also organizing people while they’re wandering off, wanting to eat, drink and enjoy themselves, and/ or become uncooperative after a while.

The time allocated and assumed on the timeline for most larger weddings is half an hour.

While more than half an hour of group formal time is certainly possible, it take more time out of your wedding day and most likely QUICKLY wear out you – and everyone else’s – patience. 

Ask yourselves if doing endless group photos is really what you want to spend time doing on your wedding day? Or would you rather spend the time having fun, catching up with your guests, savoring the real moments and enjoying your partner?

How long does it take to do family photos?

I allow 3 minutes per each desired grouping. A typical session lasts about 25 minutes, with a 5-minute buffer time making about half an hour.

If you’re curious to know why it takes so long, here it is. You asked! The time is taken up:

  • Wrangling people, ensuring people are present and correct. Wrangling is the most stressful and time-consuming part of the experience.
  • Removing keys and bulging items from pockets
  • Putting down bags, masks, phones, coats etc
  • Adjusting everyone’s hair and clothing (can be time-consuming in a windy location)
  • Getting everyone into the right area that fits the size group
  • Assembling chairs if a large group
  • Aligning the group correctly with the background
  • Moving them so everyone’s face is visible to the camera
  • Positioning everyone to turn in toward the couple
  • Adjusting hand/ arm positioning
  • Getting everyone’s attention (even longer for children)
  • Taking upwards of 12 photos per camera to ensure one frame with eyes open/ looking straight at camera/ flattering facial expressions
  • Repeating the process for different lenses and orientations
  • Allow time for more fun/in-between moments to capture more natural shots

Lastly, I wouldn’t take any photos that aren’t worthy of the brand I’ve taken years to build, so the 3-minute estimate per grouping is set as a must-have. Sure, it might go faster for particularly compliant groups, but the time guidance exists for a reason.

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How do we start creating our basic family formal photo list?

I encourage you to start with the basic wedding family photo list (below) then only add in groupings that you really need.

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?

Could I get a more casual version of these photos another time, if it’s more just a snapshot?

Also, unless you have a specific purpose in mind, I advise repeating the same shots singly and again as a couple.

Photographed either singly OR as a couple will generally serve your needs. Usually, both partners are present for all group photos, with the exception of maybe solos with each parent.

advice on getting your formal posed group photos on wedding day

My sample groupings list – family photos (25-30 mins)

  1. Bride* and groom with both sets of parents plus any siblings with their kids + partners.
  2. Bride and groom with bride’s parents
  3. Bride and groom with groom’s parents
  4. Bride with mom
  5. Bride with dad
  6. Groom with mom
  7. Groom with dad
  8. A grouping that’s important to you (e.g. siblings)
  9. A grouping that’s important to you (e.g. grandparents)

Please add people’s NAMES to your list as well if possible. There will be a much better response if I can shout out ‘OK, we need Maria, Eric, Jennifer and Daniel!’ Rather than ‘We need the bride’s aunt, uncle and two cousins’ which they may not respond to, as oftentimes it doesn’t register.

My sample groupings list – wedding party (20 – 25 mins)

  1. Bride and groom with entire wedding party
  2. Bride with her wedding party
  3. Groom with his wedding party
  4. Time permitting and if you value this: individual portraits of bride or groom with each wedding party member.

There’s no need to add wedding party pictures to your family portrait list.

The wedding party will typically have its own time in the schedule, usually right after the first look and lasting about 15 – 30 minutes depending on the size of group and desired photos. For example, if you’d like individual photos with each member of the wedding party plus either the bride or groom, this will take considerably longer!

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If you aren’t having a first look the wedding party portion may have to be condensed. It would have to fit in sometime between the end of the ceremony and the end of the cocktail hour, before the reception gets underway, so there isn’t as much time as if you front-load your day.

family group photos at san francisco city hall

Group photos at San Francisco City Hall weddings

At City Hall we are more limited time-wise than for regular weddings. The entire coverage time with your photographer may only be 2 hours, instead of the usual 8 hours.

For City Hall weddings, I budget for up to around 6 groupings, given a guest count of around 6 guests for civil ceremonies and around 50 for private ceremonies.

6 groupings takes about 20 minutes. That will be what’s assumed on the timeline I’ll draw up for you.

If you want to do more than 6-8 groupings, that can be done, but something else from your coverage would need to be trimmed down or removed.

It’s possible that more coverage time will need to be added on, which is available in half-hour increments. It can be added on a game-day decision, depending on how fast we get through your groupings.

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big group photos of all guest at wedding - how to get your family wedding photos completed efficiently!

Tips for efficient, stress-free formal photos at your wedding

Avoid many permutations of the same group

It’s better to get the bigget groups of everyone important to you rather than asking this and that person to step out.

Photos of ‘all guests present’ take longer

Do you want a photo of everyone that is in attendance? We’re happy to do this. Just make sure you let me know and I’ll build the 15 minutes that it takes into the timeline. For larger groups of more than about 20 people, it takes time to gather everyone, make sure they’re all ready for the photo, find a suitable location, set up rows of chairs if needed and ensure that everyone can be seen in the photo. Usually this is best done in environments where there is a slope or set of stairs so everyone is visible.

At City Hall, it requires a special wide-angle lens that I would bring along specifically, so this must be notified well in advance.

Do the biggest grouping first

Start with the biggest family grouping first, typically the one with both sides that includes all parents, siblings, and siblings’ partners. Then we pare down from there.

Start with elderly or mobility-impaired guests

We need to photograph any elderly relatives and people with limited mobility early on. Please let me know in advance so I can make sure pictures with them are up first, or there is somewhere for them to sit.

Appoint photo wranglers in advance

Please appoint one photo-wrangler or helper from each side who knows who’s who. Typically someone who can shout and grab people! Let them know their role in advance, and please give them a copy of your photo list. Make sure they know the timeline and that there will be a certain moment when the photographer may approach them to help round up folks needed for every photo. It helps if they can take a moment to introduce themselves to the photographer so the photographer can approach them to remind them it’s their time to shine!

Do a first look to save time

An effective use of wedding day time is to have a first look, then you can do all the wedding party & immediate family portraits right after your first look. Plus bonus couples pictures, as the first look leads into this.

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We can do more casual group shots at other times during the day

For example, I sometimes have couples that want some friend photos for example during cocktail hour, during table visits, or on the dancefloor. Be sure to supply me with these groupings too, so I can get the less formal/ nice-to-have ones outside of the formal, must-get session.

Cocktail hour is the only opportunity we get for the photos of extended family or friend groupings if these are desired. That’s because these folks will only arrive just prior to the ceremony. If they are there early, let me know because we want to get as many of these done as possible. However….

Don’t put photos off until cocktail hour (or times when all the guests are present)

Sometimes, couples want to do photos later in the day, or at times when all the wedding guests are present. This will typically be during cocktail hour, or post-ceremony at any rate.

I don’t recommend this.

Formal group photos are much more easily done when there are no other guests on-site, just the folks required for those photos. (Typically immediate family and wedding party).

It would take longer to wrangle a particular group from a crowd of 150 guests all chatting, eating, hitting the bar, mingling, using the restroom, and so on.

The timings that have been used in this guide assume I can get the group’s undivided attention to get through it all efficiently. This isn’t always possible when we are dealing with situations where there are dozens of other people present, and/ or folks needed for photos are obtaining food and in ‘party mode’ – rather than taking part in a dedicated photo session in which the photographer is in full control.

It’s distracting to have people wandering around and behind me while we’re taking photos, and the eyelines of the subjects in the photos will inevitably stray rather than staring firmly into my camera lens, no matter how many times I ask people to look only at the camera.

Cocktail hour is an extremely busy and pressed time for photographers. During this time, I usually need to get photos of:

  • Candids of people mingling (this is the only time people are standing and mixing)
  • The reception space the minute I get word that it’s been set up. Sometimes, I just have to keep checking and be ready
  • Extended family/ friend groupings of anyone who wasn’t present pre-ceremony during the dedicated session
  • During certain times of year and in certain venues with dense tree cover, the sunset romantics also need to be done during this time.

Trying to also do photos that could have been done immediately after your first look is a recipe for stress or a ‘something’s gotta give’ type situation.

Be the calm at the eye of the storm!

I advise having you stay put then simply adding in folks around you. Once you’re positioned, you will not move from your spots. Everyone else simply clusters in around you. Hence why we need the helpers who can call people up by name.

We may need to change location due to changing lighting conditions

The light can change significantly in half an hour. We may have to change locations part-way through which I will advise on. If you’d like the exact same backdrop for all photos, let me know.

Understand the importance of planning your list

Even with the best will in the world, guests’ patience will fray. With careful planning and maximum efficiency, your family will think it was totally effortless.

Thanks for reading my guide! Big family? Unruly bunch? If you’re looking for a San Francisco Bay Area wedding photographer that can get your through the family formal photos efficiently and with a smile, look no further! With a little planning, family group photos at your wedding will be a cakewalk =)

*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.

Use it to mean ‘any marrier, for example the bride’. I avoid heteronormativity wherever possible, including my client onboarding & planning process. 

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How to create a family photo list for your wedding day! It's hard to know where to begin with compiling a list of all the groupings you want. Your photographer will ask you for this list in advance, so it's another thing to plan before the wedding day. If you don't know where to start, let me help you! This complete guide will take you through how to start with a simple, basic list for creating your family groupings. #bayareawedding #weddingphotography #weddingplanning | Zoe Larkin Photography

Zoe Larkin

I’m Zoe, a wedding photographer based in San Francisco! My style is candid, capturing authentic moments for my couples all over the Bay Area and Northern California. Creating content is my passion! Follow along the blog and Insta!

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How to create your family wedding photos shot list – the easy way

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