Wedding Tips

How to take the best wedding family photos 

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and Ryan
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The ONE thing that causes the most stress on a wedding day

That was the original title of this post. While it might seem a bit dramatic, it’s not much of an exaggeration. As wedding photographers, we have a lot of tips we share with our couples on how to avoid unnecessary stress on their wedding day. Planning well for their wedding family photos is a huge part of that! In this post, I go deep into why family photos can cause a lot of stress, and how to avoid it – while still getting beautiful wedding family photos! It’s detailed, but it’s worth it. I promise.

Wedding family photos: A photographer’s perspective

First things first. As you read this post, keep in mind that this is from our perspective as wedding photographers. We see a lot on a wedding day. And we notice consistencies from wedding to wedding. This is not to say that there aren’t other things that can cause stress, but we have noticed, time and time again, that family photos tend to cause the couple a lot of stress. And it has a trickle effect. 

Now, this is not just the perspective of a wedding photographer. This is the perspective of a wedding photographer who truly, deeply cares about her couples having a stress-free wedding day. And I do everything I can to contribute to that. We talk about each part of the day ahead of time. We work with you to plan your photography timeline, and talk about every detail. This way, you don’t have to worry about a single thing on your wedding day. 

That is why I am passionate about sharing our wedding day experiences. I aim to share, from a true and honest perspective, what goes well and what doesn’t. Most of our couples have never done this before. So if you don’t hear about it firsthand, you don’t know until it’s happening. That’s what we’re here for! The good thing is, there are ways to prevent these things from causing stress on your wedding day! But it won’t happen if we don’t plan for it.  

What about wedding family photos causes stress?

Families can be notorious for causing stress, even in the early days of planning. But we’re not talking about the aunt with all the opinions. Or the drama of a seating chart. 

No matter how cooperative (or less cooperative) and drama-free (or drama-full) your family members are, we have witnessed family photos cause undue stress on a wedding day again, and again and again. 

We always have our couples give us a family photography list before the wedding. It lists every person by name, every combination, and we try to have them organize it in a way that makes the most sense. But we’re realizing that this doesn’t cut it. 

Ryan holding the coveted ‘list’ on a wedding day

Don’t get me wrong, it helps a ton. A list is a million times better than no list. A list is non-negotiable. Unless you have two family members, we need the list to make sure we get every combination that is important to you. It’s hard for us (and you) to remember which combination we already did or didn’t do. Did we get mom? Did we get mom and dad together? We need the list. We use the list. Ryan calls out names, and checks them off. And it works for getting every photo we need. 

But it doesn’t always work in the way we want it to. It doesn’t always prevent stress. The chaos. The time delays. 

The Time

There are a handful of reasons the wedding family portrait time causes the most stress. Usually it’s a combination of these reasons. 

If I had to sum it up: The list is too long. 

Don’t take this the wrong way. This doesn’t mean I want to exclude family members who are important to you to include. But oftentimes, the number of combinations takes up a lot more time than expected. We’ll see the same combinations with just the bride, then the couple together. And similar combinations with just the groom, and then the couple together. Then remove Aunt Jane. And then add Aunt Jane and her boyfriend Joe. And then add grandma. Then take out the cousins. And take out grandma, and take out spouses. Then the groom steps out. Does this already sound confusing and exhausting? 

Now, imagine this in person. A bride in her wedding dress moving in and out for photos. Several family members in one photo, but then stepping out, but then needing to stay close so they can come back in for another photo. All of this happening in a room filled with the loud buzz of people talking. Including the people who can’t hear you calling their name. Or outside, where they spread out farther. And still can’t hear you calling their name. One family member wanders away. You have to ask someone else to chase them down because we don’t know who they are. A few family members here and there come up to you asking if they can leave. You (or we) have to refer to the list to see if they’re in any other combinations. 

Point being, no matter how organized your list is and no matter how much your family members are trying to pay attention, this feels chaotic.

A large number of combinations, with a lot of people moving in and out of the photos will always feel chaotic.   

I’m going to pause here to make a few comments, before you start to feel like family photos are impossible. I write this not to discourage you from family photos. Family is very, very, very important to Ryan and I. We know that it is a huge deal for all of your family members to be gathered together in one place, dressed up, celebrating you. As photographers, we often feel like a part of your family on your wedding day. We interact with them, joke around with them, talk about what a beautiful wedding it is, and take many candid photos of them. We want, more than anything, for you to have the photos that are important to you. 

I tried to make this post as real as possible. I want you to be in our shoes, and in our couples’ shoes, before your wedding day actually gets here. We will set up the stress of the family photos so we can offer the best solutions. So stick with me please! There are solutions, and no matter how chaotic family photos feel, we treat your family like they are ours, and we do our best to get them done as efficiently as possible. 

Here’s why setting your family photos up for success is so important:

The Trickle Effect

Having a long list of family combinations that includes a large number of people tends to have what I am calling the trickle effect. 

If you do not do a first look with your spouse on your wedding day, all of your portraits will come after your family photos (just one reason we highly recommend first looks!). We typically do family portraits right after your ceremony, while everyone is gathered together in one spot. After that, we schedule time for wedding party photos and your couples photos. 

If family photos feel more stressful than you were anticipating, you’re now going into your wedding party photos and couples photos feeling the lingering stress. We want you to feel relaxed throughout your entire day – it’s your time to celebrate after all! But we especially want you to feel relaxed during your pictures. You will love your photos even more when you know you were fully present with your new spouse, when you know you enjoyed them. You will look naturally joyful and relaxed when you are relaxed. 

Worst case scenario, family photos take longer than anticipated, and we’re running very low on time. We have to squeeze some of the most important photos of the day into a very small window. Now, we can take a lot of photos in a small amount of time. And we’ll never relay the time crunch onto our couples. But when this happens, we have noticed our couples become visibly stressed. They might suddenly feel like they’re missing out on cocktail hour, or feel like their guests are waiting for them to get dinner started. This is the portrait time we want you to enjoy the most, and it’s what suffers the most if family photos take longer than planned for. 

How to get the best wedding family photos: The Solutions

Okay, deep breath! Let it out. We got through the worst part. 

There are several solutions, and we are here to walk you through all of them. 

Solution 1: TIME!!

Time on a wedding day is your friend and your worst enemy. You’ve heard it already: your wedding day will go fast! That’s why we want you to be able to soak it all in, be fully present, and enjoy every moment. 

The very first solution to the “family photo trickle effect” is to give it more time. 

We recently had a wedding where our couple did want to include much of their extended family in the formal photos. The number of combinations was kept to a minimum, but the groups were fairly large (getting large groups to stand in a line together takes more time than you might think). The photos took about an hour. BUT we still had about two hours available after that to travel to the reception venue, take wedding party photos, and take relaxed couples photos. And they got to enjoy some of their cocktail hour. It can all happen, but the time needs to be there. 

We customize our photography timelines for our couples, based on their individual needs. We’ll talk through how big your family is, and how many people you want to include in your photos. We’ll tell you how much time we need for that. Please, please, please don’t let anyone but your photographer tell you how much time you need for family photos (or photos in general, for that matter). Every photographer works a little differently. Things can change based on location (set-up and lighting requirements), or if there is any walking or driving time between locations. Only your photographer will know how much time that will take. 

If you have a large family, if you want to include your extended family, and if you’ve gone through your list to verify that every combination you have is important, then all we need is enough time. Enough time for the family photos, enough time for wedding party photos, and enough time for your couples photos. 

Sometimes venues will provide couples with timelines that shorten the cocktail hour time. But if all of your photos are to happen during the cocktail hour, this is your photography time. This is your one opportunity to get the photos in! If your timeline includes a cocktail hour that is an hour, and family photos unexpectedly take 40 minutes, that leaves you with 10 minutes for wedding party photos and 10 minutes for couples photos (Ideally, we schedule 25 minutes for wedding party photos and 45 minutes minimum for couples photos, not including travel time).

The exact amount of time you need for family photos is heavily dependent on the size of your family and who you include. But in general, family portraits with immediate family members only (parents, siblings, grandparents) takes us about 20-25 minutes. Family portraits that include extended family (large groups or a lot of combinations) can take upwards of 40 minutes to an hour. 

The important thing is, check with your photographer on how much time to allot for each set of photos. Give yourself that time between your ceremony and your arrival to cocktail hour/dinner. And give yourself a buffer. In my opinion, it’s better to give your guests a longer cocktail hour(s) than to have them sitting at their tables waiting for dinner to start while we rush to get in the photos. 

Solution 2: Who to Include

We highly recommend only including immediate family members in your formal family portraits (parents, siblings, children if you have any, grandparents). 

Then, if you do want to get group shots of extended family (we’re all for it!), we recommend doing those during cocktail hour or the reception. It’s pretty easy for the DJ to make an announcement, or for one family member to round up the rest of the family members during this time. We’ll pick a good spot, and then we’ll come find you (the couple) once everyone is gathered. It’s a great way to include more family members, without causing extra stress or eating up time. 

(Another popular option for including extended family and other wedding guests is doing a photo dash during your reception. This happens immediately after your entrance into dinner. The DJ will play a song or two, announce the dash, and the couple will run around to take a photo with each table. We always love how these photos turn out!)

We also recommend including the couple in most of the combinations. You are all family now, afterall! Of course we will take photos of just the bride and her mom, as an example, but we find that most of our couples use the photos that include both of them the most. This will eliminate the need to move the bride in and out of several combinations, which can be time consuming. 

Solution 3: Your Combinations

The last paragraph above also applies to this solution. 

If you do want to include extended family in your formal portraits, we recommend keeping the number of combinations to as much of a minimum as possible. 

A long list of combinations includes a lot of shuffling around (refer back to my real-life scenario of calling family members in and out of photos). I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve had a family member disappear after one photo, only to be needed in a few more combinations down the list. 

If you include extended family members, I recommend doing one large group shot of that particular side of the family. Please account for time here (it can take about 5-7 minutes to get a 20-person group lined up for a photo). But that way, you are including your family members, getting the photo of everyone together, but minimizing the movement. They’ll be happier getting off to the cocktail hour sooner too! 

A few key suggestions here:

  • Start with grandparents
  • Then start with kids
  • Then start with large groups
  • End with small groups (immediate family)
  • Order your list as efficiently as possible (less moving in and out for the couple, letting large groups leave right away, etc.)

Solution 4: The First Look!

Okay, this doesn’t resolve all family photo issues, but I still think it’s important to mention here.

I cannot properly express how valuable a first look is on your wedding day. Aside from having a private, emotional moment with your bride/groom, it literally does wonders for your day and your timeline. You’ll take some of your most important photos first. When you’re fresh and relaxed. We’ll have more time for your couples and wedding party photos – and they’ll be done before your ceremony!

We can often do immediate family photos right before your ceremony. And then if you do want to include some extended family photos after your ceremony, that’s all you have to do. You’ll get to go enjoy your cocktail hour, mingle with your guests and enjoy your entire celebration.

We strongly believe that doing a first look creates the most relaxed, stress-free wedding timeline.

A final note on family photos

If you only take one thing from this blog post, let it be this: For whatever you want to fit in on your wedding day, plan plenty of time for it. Then add in some buffer time. If you want to include a lot of family, be realistic about the time it will take – buffer time is your best friend!

We absolutely love our couples. Which means their families are important to us. We will never say no to any family photos our couples want to get. We love them so much that we strongly dislike seeing them stressed on their wedding day. Our goal is to educate our couples on what works for wedding photography and what doesn’t, based on our firsthand experiences. You deserve the happiest day of your life to actually be the happiest day of your life. 

If you have any questions about our experience with family photos on a wedding day, or any part of the wedding photography timeline, please don’t hesitate to contact me here!

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