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Wedding Wisdom: Planning Your Family Formals Shot List on your Wedding Day

May 22, 2017

“Wedding Wisdom” is part of a series in which I discuss various topics related to weddings to benefit soon to be married couples! Today’s post features advice on how to plan your family formals shot list as you begin thinking about your wedding photography. Enjoy!

Title image for Family Formals Shot List blog post with dusty blue bridesmaid dress and soft floral bouquet

I hear it almost every time I begin walking through the wedding day timeline with a couple.

“Emily, it is really important to us that we don’t hold our guests up while taking pictures after the ceremony.”

Usually they then refer back to a wedding they’ve attended where the family photos took an hour…or more! Can I just say that I whole heartedly agree? I would never, EVER want to keep wedding guests waiting this long. Trust me – I understand that everyone is ready to relax and celebrate!

With that, it’s important to remember that the family formals are a crucial part of your wedding day gallery. It’s one of the only times where all of your family and friends will be in one place…AND all dressed up nicely! You want this documented because it’s not every day you get the opportunity for great photos. Because of this, the formal photos deserve some advance thought and attention. With some careful planning and consideration, it is possible to get some really nice portraits in the least amount of time possible. So today, I’m going to share with you about how to make the most of your family formals on your big day!

1. Keep Your Formal Photo List Short

Your photographer will probably ask you for your list of family formals in advance.  My first piece of advice is to try and keep that list fairly abbreviated.  I tell my couples to try and keep the list to 10-12 groupings at most.  Remember, with each grouping you are not only having to call names, but oftentimes you’re having to send someone to hunt people down if they’ve run off despite your best efforts.  The photographer also will need to arrange and pose people so that everyone looks their best.  Sometimes this can take up to ten minutes per photo depending on the number of people in the image.  You can see how fast the time can add up!  So, keep your formal list short and concise in order to avoid family formals taking too long.

Family formal taken behind wedding venue

This is a family portrait taken of one of my past brides (and now friends), her groom, and his family behind the wedding venue.  No one at this wedding could take a bad photo, seriously!  I love how his parents are holding hands, and the family on the bride’s left looks connected and relaxed.

2. Bride and Groom In All Formal Photos

I also recommend that the bride and groom be included in every photo taken with family and friends after the ceremony to avoid too much repetition. You may want photos of just you and your immediate family apart from your spouse, or maybe you with your parents – and this is completely understandable.  However, these photos are best taken before the ceremony in order to maximize the family formals timeframe.

3. Location, Location, Location

It is very important that you decide in advance where you’d like your family formals to be taken so that your photographer can be made aware.  Traditionally, the formal photos are taken at the “altar”, whether that’s inside (like a chapel or church, or even a loft space or barn) or outside.  If you opt to have your photos taken indoors in a spot with low light such as a church, your photographer may need to take some time to set up lighting.  For example, I like to set up two light stands with umbrellas for soft and even exposure.  However, if you want to maintain a natural light look for the family formals, you’ll want to talk with your photographer about a nicely lit spot outside, which will largely depend on the time of day.

Family Formal Photograph taken outside the church with natural light

This is a family portrait taken before the ceremony with the bride and her family. Notice the natural light in the photograph. I love that the background showed off the architecture of the church where the couple was married!


Family Formal taken inside church with flash

Here is an example of a family formal photo from the same wedding taken inside the church at the altar using flash to make sure everyone is properly lit.  It is a totally different look, but still looks beautiful!

4. Communicate and Delegate

I am always a firm believer in over-communication…and this includes planning your family formals!  One way you can prepare your family and friends is to send the list of formals and the location to the people who will be in them.  Emailing is a cost effective way to manage this communication.  Or, for your out-of-town family and friends, you could include a nicely printed note and list in their hotel welcome baskets.  And of course, ask your officiant to reiterate at the end of the ceremony that family will need to stay for photos.

Family formal portrait taken inside with natural light

This photo was taken indoors at a venue that had tons of window light. This is probably my favorite look for portraits!

Photo of bride and groom with officiant using flash

Sometimes due to the timing of a wedding flash is necessary. That’s okay! This photo is an example of a formal portrait taken at the altar using flash. The wedding was in the fall after DST and I had already discussed the ceremony timing with the bride, who was okay with the idea of flash inside. I actually love using flash, and I think it adds a modern and vibrant look to photos!

5. Think About The Order

Think beforehand about the order of photos when you’re planning your list.  Elderly individuals will want to go ahead and get to the reception space, sit, and have something to drink.  Young children will have parents with them who are eager to bring them to a spot where they can eat, run, and not have to be so still.   This is why I highly recommend any photos with elderly people and small children be taken first.  Your family will love you for this move!

Another point of consideration is any divorces or family feuds.  You’ll want to let your photographer know about these situations in advance but also try to avoid any potentially awkward situations when you’re planning out the order of your family formals.

6. Stay Focused

It is highly possible that you will have family and friends approaching you for photos while you’re in the midst of going down your formal list, even if they weren’t on the list you made.  This is normal and understandable!  Everyone wants a photo with the bride and groom because you’re the stars of the day!  When this happens at a wedding I’m photographing, I always like to remind them that I will be there for the rest of the night and can take that photo during the reception when there will be plenty of “down time.”  Just about 99% of the time this satisfies the person asking for a photo so that we can move on with the list!

On that same note, lots of couples really like the idea of a photo with all of their guests.  I love this idea too!  However, it’s best to do this at the reception.  For one thing, everyone is a bit more relaxed, meaning you get a photo that is FUN with everyone cheering!  Also, everyone is in one place AND for any stragglers, your DJ will be able to help round them up.  Be sure to let your photographer know that you want this photo in advance, too!


Photo of all guests at a wedding reception

This reception venue had a balcony that I was able to scramble up in order to get this awesome photo of all of the guests partying together!


BONUS – Sample Family Formals Shot List


If you’re absolutely stumped, I’ve provided helpful starter list below for planning your family formal shot list.  Feel free to take and use this as a template and re-arrange/substitute as needed!


Bride and Groom with Officiant

Bride and Groom with Bride’s Parents

Bride and Groom with Bride’s Siblings

Bride and Groom with Bride’s Parents and Siblings

Bride and Groom with Bride’s Parents, Siblings, and Extended Family

Bride and Groom with Bride’s Parents and Groom’s Parents

Bride and Groom with Groom’s Parents

Bride and Groom with Groom’s Siblings

Bride and Groom with Groom’s Parents and Siblings

Bride and Groom with Groom’s Parents, Siblings, and Extended Family

Bride and Groom with Bride’s Parents and Siblings, Groom’s Parents and Siblings, Both Extended Families

Bride’s Parents Alone

Groom’s Parents Alone


Family formals can be a stressful and often time consuming part of planning your wedding.  However, it will definitely pay off to put some thought and effort into the family formals shot list on your wedding day!  By using the advice provided in this post and the provided family formals shot list, you’ll be able to get all of the photos of your loved ones that you’re wanting in the least amount of time possible.  So get those formal photos planned, send the list to your wedding photographer, and then kick back knowing you’re now on top of your wedding planning game!

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