Michael Caswell Photography

Formal Group Photographs at Weddings

The topic of formal group pictures comes up very often in my initial consultations with brides, grooms, and couples. Usually, the context is that they want to make sure we don't spend an excessively long time on these photos, mainly because they are worried about missing too much of their reception, which is certainly an understandable concern. This is especially the case with New Orleans weddings, as usually receptions are only three hours long.

On one or two occasions I've had a couple who have said they strictly wanted photojournalistic event coverage with literally no traditional formal group shots at all. But the vast majority of my couples do feel that these pictures are important, and I agree. No, these will not be the most fun shots of the day, nor your favorite ones, but you and your family will appreciate having these photographs.

How Long Will They Take?

That's the big question that every couple wants to know the answer to. It will vary based on the desired groups that you want to shoot, but the short answer, about 20-30 minutes is typical for the standard assortment of family and wedding party groups. Here are a few helpful hints for ensuring that these pictures go as quickly as possible:

  • Make sure family and wedding party members know when and where these pictures will be done, and stress the importance of being punctual (if these pictures are being done before the ceremony) or that they don't wander off after the ceremony until the group shots are completed.
  • Encourage your family members and wedding party to be cooperative during this phase as the groups they are in are called up to be photographed. It's certainly understandable that they'll all be happy and excited, ready to get the party started, but stress to them that the faster we get these pictures finished, the sooner they can go have fun at the reception!
  • Similarly, talking during the formals (unless we are specifically trying to capture an alternative candid/celebratory type of group shot) can result in mouths being in contorted into an appearance that may look fine during reception candid shots, but looks out of place during posed group portraits.
  • Ask guests not to take pictures while we are doing the group shots. There is a misconception that the camera flashes from guests interfere with the professional photographer's equipment, which is generally not the case (unless their flash just happens to go off at the exact moment that I shoot). The more common problem is that the people in the group I am photographing, with several cameras aimed at them, will not all be looking at mine. While this may not be readily apparent at the time, it's very obvious in the pictures. As a result, if there are guests shooting alongside me and I notice that this is happening, I will either need to explain to each group the importance of only looking at my camera, or pause and wait for the guests to finish before I can get my shot. When we are trying to expeditiously finish a few dozen group shots, these extra 10-20 seconds for each grouping add up.

Location

Because every event is different, the answer is going to vary depending the circumstances of your wedding. So, for the sake of discussion, I'll instead give examples and general information to give you some food for thought in planning this portion of the day.

When the ceremony is taking place at a church, more often than not that will be where we do the group pictures. There are exceptions to this though. Some churches do not allow photos after the ceremony, though most do permit us to shoot as long as we are expedient (typically about 15-20 minutes).

For weddings that take place at a venue like Southern Oaks Plantation in New Orleans, this is an easy choice, as they have a dedicated photography room. As soon as the ceremony is finished, the couple, their immediate family, and the wedding party are ushered into this area, which has its own bar and food. For particularly large groups, we can move outside and shoot on the front steps of the plantation.

There are other venues that have similar areas that are set aside for formal group shots, but for those that do not, usually the spot where the ceremony took place is what we will use. The only thing that will sometimes complicate this plan is if you are doing a first look and are doing all of the group shots before the ceremony, as the florist and other decor staff may be busy setting this area up. So, if you would like to do pre-ceremony pictures there, discuss this with the venue and other vendors to determine whether or not it will be available for us to use about an hour to an hour and a half before the ceremony.

And certainly feel free to discuss with me and your venue any concerns you have over where to do the formals, as it's better to work through these issues beforehand rather than on the wedding day.

Formal Group Shot List

It's a good idea to create a list of the group shots you would like captured. Alternatively, you can leave it to me to get my standard assortment of family and wedding party groupings.

The question of who to include in these shots is often asked. Typically, it's immediate family, grandparents, and the wedding party (bridesmaids and/or groomsmen, ushers, flower girl, ring bearer, etc.). Spouses of siblings (and their children) will often also be included in the family pictures.

Occasionally some couples will also do extended family member groupings, with aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. For these larger groups, the space we have available to us may become a constraining factor. Even if we have a large room or outdoor area to work with, arranging several dozen people in one very long single line is not ideal. Instead, the preference is to arrange them in two or three rows.

If the venue has a wide set of steps, that area could possibly be used for this. Other options are to have some of the younger gentlemen take a knee in the front, or to utilize chairs if available. If the group features some taller family members, we can sometimes do two rows standing, with the taller people in the back row. Another possibility is to break these into smaller groupings, shooting various branches of the family separately as opposed to one huge group. Regardless, if there will be extended family groups, this is usually going to be a facet of your wedding photography where a degree of compromise is required, as precisely arranging and posing these groups with dozens of subjects would take an amount of time that most couples would not be amenable to.

I recommend that couples discuss in advance with each other and with their families what groupings will be done. My goal is to make my couples' wedding photography as stress-free as I possibly can, and this includes happily accommodating unexpected additions to our group shots. But I've also observed this to sometimes be a source of stress for the couple (who are anxious to get to the reception), so it's best to make these decisions well before the wedding day.