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 receptions here are usually only three hours long (occasionally four hours, though rarely more).

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 weddings are significant occasions and for many of us represent a rare opportunity to get everyone together, so you and your family will likely 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 ahead of time 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. Few things slow group shots down more than when one person is missing and must be tracked down. One of my brides several years ago had a great idea of handing out "group photography tickets" at her rehearsal dinner to people who would be needed for these shots, with information on when and where they should be.
  • Encourage your family members and wedding party to be cooperative and (no pun intended) focused during this phase as the groups they are in are called up to be photographed. It's certainly understandable that they'll be happy and excited, ready to get the party started, but convey 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 appears out of place and unusual during posed group portraits.
  • Ask friends and family not to take pictures while we are doing the group shots. There is a common 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, which does happen occasionally but not enough to be a big concern). 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 directly at mine (some will be looking at me, others will be looking at the various other cameras). While this may not be readily apparent at the time, it's very obvious in the pictures, as people will clearly be looking in various different directions. 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.


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 10-20 minutes).

For weddings that take place at a venue like Southern Oaks in New Orleans, this is an easy choice, as they have a designated 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. Trinity Banquets & Receptions in Slidell is another venue that has a spacious room (which doubles as the bridal suite) that is perfect for group shots.

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. If you're not doing a first look, or are otherwise planning to do at least some group shots after the ceremony, be sure the venue is aware of this, as they might have plans to flip this space for the reception.

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. Some couples will also do extended family member groupings, with aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.

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 any unexpected on-the-fly 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 into the reception)... they might want a fairly abbreviated list of groupings, while perhaps parents or other family members have a few more shots in mind that they'd like to do. So it's best to have these conversations and make these decisions well before the wedding day.

Large Groups

Occasionally couples will ask for a few very large groups, such as a shot of the entire family, or maybe even every family member and friend in attendance!

For these larger groups, the space we have available to us may be 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 may be required, as finding a perfect available location at the hotel or venue that is large enough to accommodate such a large group and has a clean background simply might not be possible, plus precisely arranging and posing these groups with dozens of subjects would take an amount of time that most couples would not be amenable to. So, it will be a "we'll do the best we can" kind of situation.

The ability to do a very large everyone attending the wedding photo is highly dependent on the space and the number of guests we're hoping to get in the shot, and almost always requires shooting from an elevated position. In some cases, if the group is not too big, I might be able to capture this simply by standing on a chair and/or holding the camera up above my head. But for bigger guest counts, there are a handful of venues that have the potential to readily facilitate this kind of shot. For example, French Quarter hotels Hotel Mazarin and the Maison Dupuy both have courtyards that have inward-facing balconies. In the case of Hotel Mazarin, the balcony surrounds the courtyard and is a common area that I have complete access to, while at the Maison Dupuy, the balconies are for specific guest rooms, so arrangements would need to be made in advance to secure the reservation of the appropriate room.

I've also done this kind of shot on a few occasions on request from the couple when the wedding has a second line parade through the French Quarter and the reception is taking place on a second-floor venue that has a balcony. As the parade nears the venue, I quickly run ahead and make my way upstairs and out onto the balcony as the group gathers on the street below. Granted, given the noisy, chaotic nature of a situation like this (Bourbon Street, with a bunch of non-wedding bystanders milling around, a brass band playing, and a very limited amount of time before the street must be cleared of guests), it's all but impossible to get a perfectly clean shot that shows everyone, but it at least captures the essence of this portion of the day.