How To Survive Family Photo Time

Stephen Hughes wedding Photography - San Francisco Bay Area wedding photojournalism

It’s everyone’s least favorite part of the wedding day (including mine). The ceremony has just ended, but before everyone can go enjoy cocktail hour or grab some appetizers, you have to get through family photo time. Almost every couple wants to have at least a few pictures with their family on their wedding day, but the process of taking those photos can sometimes be stressful, aggravating, and tedious. It doesn’t have to be!

The key to making family photos quick and painless is organization. A little bit of preparation before the wedding day goes a long way toward ensuring that family photo time goes smoothly. Over the years I’ve been photographing weddings, I’ve discovered some simple things we can do to make family photo time a breeze. Here is the plan:

1. Make a list and check it twice.

This is probably the single most important thing you can do to ensure that things go smoothly on the big day. Without a list of what group-photos to take, it’s nearly impossible to know when we’re done, and there’s an excellent chance that family picture time will descend into utter chaos and pandemonium. OK, maybe it won’t be the end of the world, but trust me when I say that not having a list of family photos is asking for trouble.

It doesn’t matter if you make your list in a spreadsheet, Google Doc, or on the back of a bar napkin. The important thing is to make a list of all the family/group photos that are important to you, so that we can make sure we get all of them on the wedding day.

As you’re making your list, think about how to streamline the process and make the most efficient use of our limited time. You’ll probably want to start with the largest groups first, and send people off to enjoy cocktail hour if they’re not going to be in any of the remaining photos. If there are young children or elderly people in any of the shots, we’ll probably want to do those early on, so they’re not waiting around for too long.

For each grouping of people, you should list every person in the photo by name. This is important, because we don’t want there to be any ambiguity about who should (and shouldn’t) be in the shot. If the list contains vague descriptions like “all the Smiths”, we could end up wasting time on the wedding day trying to figure out who exactly that means. “What about your cousin Kate Smith’s fiancé? Should he be in the photo?” Who knows.

Here’s an example of a proper group listing for a single photo:

  • Group 1: Immediate family (both sides)
    • Jane Smith (Bride)
    • John Doe (Groom)
    • Sally Smith (MoB)
    • Tom Smith (FoB)
    • Mary Doe (MoG)
    • William Doe (FoG)

I know, it’s a little bit of homework for you, but it’s so much better to get this stuff figured out and written down in advance than trying to decipher a vague list, or to just come up with groupings on the fly in the midst of getting married. Don’t forget to email me a copy of your list. And remember: the shorter you make your list, the more time you’ll have to enjoy your own wedding!

2. Delegate!

Someone has to take control of family photo time and keep the line moving. I’m going to be busy taking the pictures, and you are going to be in nearly all the photos, so it’s not going to be either of us. If you’re working with a wedding planner or day-of coordinator, then they can sometimes help, but they probably won’t know who everyone is, so you’ll want to designate at least one guest (two is even better) to be the official “People Herder(s)”.

People Herder (also know as a “Family Wrangler”) is an extremely important job, and one that should be taken seriously. The People Herders should:

  • Have a printed copy of your photo list (see step 1) and a pen to check off each photo as we take them.
  • Know the names of most of the people in your family. This is why two herders are better than one, so you can (for example) have one from the groom’s side and one from the bride’s side.
  • Have a loud voice and not be shy about bossing people around.  If you have a sibling who is a preschool teacher or an army drill-sergeant, they would be a prime candidate.

I know it sounds a little silly, but it really is an important job and the person doing it needs to stay focused on getting through the list, so we can all get on with the day and move on to more fun activities.

3. Don’t let them escape!

Stephen Hughes wedding Photography - San Francisco Bay Area wedding photojournalism

The best time to do family photos is usually immediately after the ceremony when everyone is still in one place. Once people start dispersing, it can take ages to track them all down and bring them back to where we’re taking photos. It never hurts to let people know before hand that you want them to stick around after the ceremony for pictures.

You can also ask your officiant to make an announcement following the ceremony that “family of the bride and groom should stay close by for photos” or something to that effect. I’ll usually scout the venue and pick the best spot for family photos before the ceremony, so I can let the officiant know where to tell folks to go.

The important thing is to move quickly into family photo time following the ceremony so your family members don’t have time get scattered to the four corners of the earth and get up to who-knows-what.

4. Stick to the list.

Sometimes a family member (always with the best of intentions) will take it upon themselves to wrest control of family photo time from the People Herders and start free-styling. “Why don’t we get a shot with so-and-so?”, they’ll say. Soon they’re suggesting every imaginable combination of family members and the next thing you know it’s midnight and we’re still taking family photos in the cold dark of night. OK, maybe not that bad, but you get the idea. Once we start going off the script, there’s no telling where we’ll end up.

I am always unflinchingly polite to every guest I meet at the weddings I photograph, so I would never take it upon myself to tell a member of your family to pipe down and let us stick to the carefully planned list of photos that you prepared in step 1. However you, the bride or groom, would be well within your rights to politely explain that we have a plan and we’re sticking to it.  If anyone wants to take additional photo groupings that aren’t on the list, they are welcome to find me during the reception and I’ll be happy to take them at that time, but for right now we’re sticking to the photos on the list.

5. Shut down the paparazzi.

Now that everyone has a camera built in to their phone, everyone is a photographer, and I think that’s wonderful. But there’s a time and place for everything.

Occasionally during the family photo process, a relative of the bride and groom (let’s call him Uncle Bob) will creep up behind me and start taking photos over my shoulder. I wouldn’t mind except that it’s very noticeable when people in a photo are looking at two different cameras. Other times Uncle Bob will say after each photo is taken, “Wait! Now let me get one with my camera!” And suddenly we’re having to take every photo twice, which takes twice as long.

Uncle Bob can really slow things down, so it never hurts to remind him that:

  • You have hired a professional photographer, so there’s no need for him to take a second copy of each photo that I’m already taking.
  • You’ll send him a link to your online wedding photo gallery after the wedding, so he’ll have access to all my photos which he can download and post online if he wants.
  • Or if all else fails, you can simply point out that this is your wedding and he has to do whatever you say 😉

I know Uncle Bob means well and I don’t want to hurt his feelings, but I also have a job to do and he can sometimes get in the way. If you think you have an Uncle Bob in your family, it might not be a bad idea to reach out to him before the wedding and ask him to please leave his fancy new camera at home, or at least to leave the official family photos to the pros.

6. Relax. It’s always like this.

This final tip actually goes for the entire wedding day. It doesn’t matter if you have a perfectly organized photo list, you have recruited the most proactive People Herders of all time, and you’ve done everything I’ve recommended here. There’s always going to be a certain amount of chaos and disorganization that is simply inherent with large groups of people. Try to roll with it, and don’t let it get you down.

Birds fly, fish swim, and weddings run late. That’s just the way it is. Big groups of people are unruly and unpredictable, so unexpected hiccups will occur. Just take some deep breaths and try to remember that no wedding in history has ever gone completely according to plan. It’s going to be OK. Stay calm, keep smiling, and try to have fun with it. I’ve done this literally hundreds of times; we’ve got this.