How to plan formal family shot list for your intimate wedding

April 30, 2019
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What should I consider when planning out my formal portrait list?


There are plenty of resources out there about how to make your list of all the formal, posed group shots that you want.

You know the shots we’re talking about – couple with partner one’s parents, couple with partner one’s parents plus siblings, couple with siblings plus partners… you get the idea.

However, a lot of these resources will encourage you to take dozens of photos which will require an hour – maybe more! That isn’t going to be a great use of time or even necessary for most.

I’ve prepared this guide specifically for those planning an intimate, relaxed, non-traditional wedding. You might not have 10 hours of coverage or a guest list as long as your arm. But you still want formal portraits of your special people.

Before I dive in and share my list, a few things to point out!

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Your own list will likely be customized based on:

  • who you actually want pictures of

Horrible grammar, I know. Let’s say you have 50 guests at your wedding. Do you want every person to appear in a posed pic, or are you OK with candid ones of some? Maybe you only want formal pics of immediate family? Or immediate + extended family, but not so much friends who you see often? Or friends only but not extended family, who you invited out of politeness? That’s a decision only you can make!

  • your desire to even have a hundred different permutations of every imaginable grouping.

OK! Bride’s* immediate family with partners, then without partners, then with kids, then without kids, with groom, then repeat all the above with bride only… You can see how even a small subset of folks can quickly turn into a dozen photos, each of which takes time. Think about what you & the subjects of the photos might want the pics for. Would just one big pic suffice?

  • the time you can comfortably devote to getting all these photos

For timeline planning purposes, I allow 3 minutes per photo. The time is taken up wrangling people (while they choose that exact moment to take a bathroom break/ get something from their car/ grab a drink/ mysteriously disappear)! And posing them, putting purses down, removing keys from pockets, adjusting hair & clothing, etc. Your photographer will then take MANY photos of each grouping to ensure one with all eyes open and good expressions. I usually repeat this for the two cameras I have, using two lenses for variety and as a safety back-up.

  • the specific, unique dynamics of your wedding guest list

We don’t want anyone to feel excluded

We don’t want anyone to feel excluded, especially at a small, intimate wedding where the guest list is select and intentional. You may be doing more groupings if the guests at your wedding are from different areas of your life with little crossover, or if everyone wants individual pics with the newlyweds. If there are complex family politics such as divorced/ remarried parents where there is a chance of hurt feelings consider just one big group picture, rather than asking certain people to step out.

  • your priorities – extensive posed pictures vs. candid cocktail hour photos?

If you have only one photographer booked, there is a chance that the cocktail hour may have little to no coverage. Typically formal portraits take place during cocktail hour, right after the ceremony. Consider either adding a second photographer to cover guests mingling over passed apps & champers; or keeping the photo list small so that one photographer can cover both. Plus, your guests want to see you during cocktail hour, and surely you want to enjoy a little of that time, too?

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My sample posed groupings list and the rationale behind it



  1. Big group photo of everyone at the wedding
  2. Immediate families
  3. Siblings & siblings’ spouses & kids

Partner 1’s Family Photos

  1. Immediate family
  2. Grandparents
  3. Parents / stepparents
  4. Siblings

Partner 2’s Family Photos

  1. Immediate family
  2. Grandparents
  3. Parents / stepparents
  4. Siblings


  1. Couple with entire wedding party
  2. Partner 1 with their wedding party
  3. Partner 2 with their wedding party
  4. Partner 1 individual portraits with each member of wedding party
  5. Partner 2 individual portraits with each member of wedding party
  6. Other groups like college buddies, co-workers, hobby pals, etc.

My list above is a starting point that’s tailored to small weddings of fewer than 50 people, that I specialize in. In my experience intimate weddings usually don’t have a ring bearer/ flower girl and frequently there is no wedding party.

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Zoe’s Very Useful Tips!

Start with the biggest grouping first!

Biggest first 

Start with the biggest grouping first! Usually THE ONE WITH EVERYONE. Do this photo right after the ceremony while everyone is gathered together. The side that’s up next up is whoever has the bigger family, again biggest grouping first.

Elderly guests

That said, we want to photograph any elderly relatives / people with limited mobility early on so they don’t have to stand around waiting, and we can get them back to the party. Or of course, we move to them first and then resume the groupings.

Photo wranglers

We want to appoint one photo-wrangler from each side that knows who’s who and can round people up. Let them know their assignation in advance, and let them have a copy of your photo list so they can spring into action when required!

The importance of planning

Even with the best will in the world, guests’ patience will fray the longer the photo session goes on – and it doesn’t take long until we start to lose people, especially with rumbling tummies and forced separation from their drink! We are chasing genuine happy smiles!

Consider a first look to save time

A very effective use of time is to have a first look, then you can do all the wedding party & immediate family portraits right after your first look, before the ceremony. Plus you get more couples pictures too at your getting ready location, win-win!

Be the calm at the eye of the storm! 

I advise having you stay put then simply adding in folks around you. No stepping in and out for you and getting you centralized every time. I don’t tend to advise partner one and partner two separate for any pictures, unless that’s what you want.

Wedding party portraits need longer 

The wedding party portraits tend to need a little longer as we want to do some playful ones too, not just smiling-into-the-lens type shots like we will do for parents, grandparents, siblings etc. We may use different locations for more variety and fun.

Changing light means changing locations 

For most weddings, we’re doing about half an hour of posed portraits. In that time the light can change significantly (Welcome to sunny California!). I will ask you beforehand if it matters to you to have total uniformity in your photos, as sometimes it’s necessary to change locations part-way through. In which case, I’ll choose a shaded location.


And that concludes my guide to how to prepare your formal posed portraits, that I hope that this will be useful whoever you choose as your intimate wedding photographer! Interested in a photographer that loves and welcomes small weddings & elopements all over the Bay Area? You are SO welcome to receive my free resources and help you plan your not-so-traditional wedding!

*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. Read more about my commitment to marriage equality & diversity here.

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Zoe Larkin is a San Francisco-based wedding photographer & fine art graduate originally from London. She specializes in photographing intimate weddings for joyful, free-thinking couples all over California. Zoe creates raw, personal images that evoke a range of emotions, combining documentary photography with a stylized edge. Her work has been published on Offbeat Bride, Equally Wed, Catalyst Wed Co, Love Inc Mag among others. She adores simplicity, kindness & Earl Grey. She is passionate about providing a high level of service that goes above & beyond – and loves to help couples plan their wedding! Read more about Zoe here