Family Portraits at Weddings

One of the best things about weddings is that they're events that bring people from all different spheres of your life together.  Your immediate family, aunts, uncles and cousins, friends from your childhood, college friends, co-workers...  The only other event that draws people out of the woodworks like this are funerals, and c'mon, weddings are way more fun than funerals.  Because this is a rare occasion where everyone comes together, we understand that the group family and friend photos are a really important part of your wedding photography.  Many potential clients ask if we do this, and the answer is a big resounding "YES!"  Yes, we are documentary photographers and so we don't pose anything other than the portrait portion, but of course we know you have to have these group photos and so we are happy to take them.  We just don't showcase them in our portfolio because we want to emphasize the documentary side of our style.  On that note, I wanted to breakdown how we go about doing the group photos.

One month before each wedding, I always check in with my couples to tie up loose ends, and this includes asking them to send me a portrait shot list with all of the different group combinations of people.  Depending on how we've scheduled their day, I give them limits on the number of different combinations.  For example, if they have 15 minutes before the ceremony for small individual family photos (the bride with her mom, bride with her sister), I know I can do about 8-10 different combinations so I let them know that.  On the other hand, if they have 30 minutes after the ceremony for larger group photos, I'll let them know that I can do about 15 different combinations.  When possible, I try to have my clients restrict their group photo session to about 30 minutes because I've discovered that after that, guests get antsy and want to start partying.

By asking for a portrait shot list ahead of time, my couples have time to figure out their exact combinations, let significant family members review their choices and add their input, and the best part is, they don't have to think about it on their wedding day.  They don't have to wonder if they're missing someone, if they are getting all of the right combinations....  They can just leave all of the coordinating and positioning to Adm and me.  Working off of a list helps to organize my job which makes things go smoothly and efficiently.  Once I've received the portrait list (about a week before the wedding), I look it over and reorganize it so that I start with the older and disabled people (if there are any), and then I start with the largest group combinations.  This way, I can eliminate people as I go along which is much easier than tracking people down.  With my trusty list and trusting clients who can sip on champagne and snack on appetizers in between coordinating moments of their group photos, we manage to make the group portrait session flow quickly and painlessly.

As for the actual taking of the group pictures, I always try to keep them simple and natural.  Whenever possible, I use solid backdrops such as lots of greenery or a clean wall.  Other times, if there's a cool tree around I might use that to frame my groups.  The farther I bring my subjects away from the backdrop, the more the backdrop just blurs to a neutral color.  My thinking behind this is that with group photos, you want the people and their faces to be the center of the frame and so you don't need a busy backdrop competing with all of the faces in the photos.  I often suggest doing the photos outside, and when it's sunny out, I always put the sun behind my subjects.  This not only provides nice backlight, but it also ensure that my subjects are not squinting into the sun and making strange faces.

wedding at the carneros inn in napa, california

Wedding at Balboa park in San Diego, California.

Of course, there are times (oh, let's say, high noon) when I can't get that perfect backlight, and so in that situation, I try to look for areas with open shade.  When that's not available either or if my clients have a particular backdrop they want to use but that makes them look all shadowy, then I have to pop in a little bit of flash to even out the shadows on their faces.

family portrait from a wedding at Stonetree Golf Club in Novato, California

Often, when my couples get married in a church, they want to do photos up by the altar.  Nine times out of 10 when this is the case, we have to light the photos, which again is really easy to do.  Adm usually sets up the lights while I'm coordinating the first few shots.

wedding at St. Cecilia Catholic Church in San Francisco

While I'm taking the group photos, Adm is there to help in all different ways.  He's another set of eyes that watches for things like sunglasses, drinks in hand, purses, kleenexes...  He's there to take these things away which help clean up the photos a bit.  He also sets up my next combination so that people can easily move in and move out so we're not losing a lot of time in between taking pictures.  With all of this on his plate, Adm still manages to look around him and take some candid photos of people who are waiting in the wings.  Here are some of my favorites that Adm has made behind my back while I'm taking the more formal photos:


So, there you have it.  That's our breakdown of how we do the family photos.  The only other thing I might add is that for large group pictures, we often go in Photoshop during the post-processing and will replace faces if we have to.  Someone with their eyes closed or their mouth mid-speech in a group photo will kill the rest of the picture.  Thanks to the motor drive in digital cameras these days we can fire off a lot of frames very quickly so that we are sure to have at least one good face for everyone in the photo.  I hope this post is helpful for current brides and grooms and maybe some photographers out there as well.