Get past grin and bear it: 8 wedding photographer secrets for less sucky family portraits

December 31 | Guest post by Mike Allebach

Photographer Mike Allebach has told you 12 things wedding photographers want to tell you, but can't. Now he's back to tell you how to make the dreaded family photo and portrait time less sucky.

All photos by Mike Allebach
All photos by Mike Allebach

"I can't wait to have the formal photos taken" said no wedding guest ever.

Sober, and with blood sugar crashing, I can't think of a better way than a formal photo session to torment family members who just want to get to the reception to party and eat.

I photograph offbeat, tattooed, and LGBT weddings — my couples do their own thing on the wedding day. I've been lucky enough to photograph some of the most non-traditional weddings with amazing couples, including three weddings at historic prisons. So you might find it odd that I am here to defend this very traditional element of wedding photography: the dreaded formal wedding portraits.

New wedding photographers first realize the gravity of formal family photos when they receive a call for memorial photos. The photos we take aren't only for albums or to hang in your home. We take photos of you with the people you love because it might be the last memory with them that is recorded. (…Most depressing wedding article ever, right? Stay with me, here!)

Since these photos can be important, here are a few insider secrets to make the formal photos run smoothly and stress-free…

family photos with the couple

1. Stop the "in case of divorce" hokey pokey

You put the bride in, take the bride out, bring the family together and shake them all… well, you get the picture. Simplify the formal photo time by keeping the wedding couple in all photos. This will cut the amount of time you need by two thirds!

2. Get a wrangler

Assign someone to wrangle stray family members. Typically a loudmouthed sibling is good for this job. Entice The Wrangler to do this job by letting them know that they're permitted to use coercion and loving insults to get and keep family members at the designated location.

3. Designate a place and time to meet

Decide with your photographer where you would like to have formal photos. If outdoors, decide on a back-up location in case of rain. Most importantly, communicate this with every wedding attendant and family member you want in the photos.

Photos by Mike Allebach.

4. Consider photographing family formals before the wedding

In many cases, the best way to get great formal photos quickly is before the wedding. Friends and family members are less antsy at this point.

5. Plan enough time for photos

If you hand your photographer a five-page shot list (not recommended), make sure you plan your wedding day schedule accordingly.

6. Let your photographer know about family feuds

If there are guests and family members who can't be in the same photo, that's okay too. Just let us know. Although I'd love to see grandma throat-punch someone, I'm guessing that would be a downer on a wedding day.

Michelle stopped by her grandma's nursing home before the wedding for this portrait.
Michelle stopped by her grandma's nursing home before the wedding for this portrait.

7. Make photos less formal

I love the "bar shot." You know the one where everyone squishes together and puts their arms around each other? Don't be afraid to ask your photographer for these kind of photos on the dance floor or during cocktail hour. This helps keep formal photo lists shorter. Many of my couples prefer these shots to more formal "Sunday best"-type photos. In fact, I always grab a "bar shot selfie" with my clients at the end of the night!

8. Relax and let us handle the rest

In the words of that movielet it go. Even with all the best plans, sometimes people sneak out or things don't go quite as planned. Professional photographers in the business will have tricks to get small dictators (aka two- and three-year-old children) to look at the camera. Negative reinforcement from parents only serves to stress out children. We're gonna do our best! We've got your back.

So, as you plan your wedding, make sure you set aside time to get photos with the people you love. It's important, and it doesn't have to suck as much as you might think.

What tips for getting making the most of formal portraits did we forget? Leave a comment and share YOUR secrets!

They ♥ OBB; we ♥ themThis post features Offbeat Vendors! Check out their vendor listing to see how they cater to Offbeat Brides:

Get your daily dose of Offbeat AWESOME

  1. As some one who is usually the wrangler/second shooter, a few more tips:

    Talk to everyone you are going to want formal shots with ahead of time. Be clear about when they are going to happen/where people should meet.

    Write a clear list of names & consider putting their relation in brackets (especially for relations like step parent). It can help avoid awkward misunderstandings.

    Be methodical in the order you write things down:
    Big group shots first,
    Then getting smaller as you go so that people can head out: this also makes it less likely someone will wander off before their photo.

    If there is a small # of people photo in a different place for a reason (such as age or mobility), share that reason with the photographer.

    Try and stay loose: it will help the other people in the photo relax. You (hopefully) know how good your photographer is: exude that confidence and it will rub off.

    If formal portraits are important to you, make sure you ask to see several (from different weddings) from your photographer: they tend to be too bland to make it into portfolios but they are a skill set of their own.

    4 agree
  2. If at all possible, it's also great to ask for a specific list of names and in what combinations you'd like to shoot the photos. That way, you just have to work with your Wrangler to call off names. It goes very very quickly and smoothly that way.

    1 agrees
  3. Another thing that worked well for us was to include a list of "couple not required" formal shots. For example, my mother-in-law wanted a picture with her two brothers, and my mom wanted a picture with a cousin who would be in from out of town. My brother-in-law wanted a picture with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter. And so forth. My husband and I weren't required for these shots, so our photographer's assistant snuck us away to do some extra couple's shots while the rest of the family stayed back in the main hall. It was great — we got to have some really nice "alone" pictures, and the family was able to do some zany stuff that I only found out about when we got some of the pictures back. (The guys giving the teddy bear "groom" a noogie, for example, or having a "Ministry of Silly Walks" contest.)

    3 agree
    • Oops! Forgot to tag the "notify me of follow-up comments" button. Just doing that now. Nothing to see here — move along…

      1 agrees
  4. I always make as much time before the Bride arrives to at least get the Groom's family all photographed with and without the Groom. If there is time I will also shoot some of the Bride's family portraits as individuals, couples or as a group without the Bride or Groom.

  5. Oh, yes! Formals are so important, yet need not be painful. My trick is to break them up throughout the day… as soon as the Bride is ready, we do her family and her girls and her alone. Then I find the Groom and do the same. After the wedding, boom! Just bigger groupings, the Bridal Party and B&G alone. A minimal list helps keep it fast and fun.

    60% of formals taken never go in the album or get purchased! Oddly, the images the couple/bridal magazines don't tell us to get are the ones that end up important… like Dad with his 9 siblings and living parents!

    1 agrees
  6. I also have found – just giving a disclaimer to the entire wedding party and bride/groom – if we are on a time crunch – they have to know we don't have time to "visit" – if we have 30 minutes or less to get group pictures AND couples' pics done – it is best to just run away from everyone and get pictures done…and the great thing about YOUR wedding day IS that you can make enough time for everything to happen as it needs to!

    For example: this last wedding i captured – i knew we were running LOW on sunlight. Matter of fact it was almost gone. The ceremony ran late and I told the entire party to simply come down the aisle and walk RIGHT OUTSIDE for pictures. No family pictures at all til we were done with the brides' requests of the outdoorsy stuff. 😉 This worked exceptionally well because i told the entire party on both sides.. AND the venue coordinators! AND we still had barely enough light for the couples' photos in the frigid temps – then resumed group pictures inside the warm chapel. 🙂

    The more you communicate the better! <3 🙂
    Happy wedding-ing!

    1 agrees
  7. I second the "start with a big group and work your way smaller.". We did the big family picture first so most of the cousins and aunts and uncles could wander away after they were done, leaving immediate family for last. Also the bridesmaids and groomsman did individual shots with the second shooter while the brideandgroom were stuck with family.

    2 agree

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No-drama comment policy

Part of what makes the Offbeat Empire different is our commitment to civil, constructive commenting. Make sure you're familiar with our no-drama comment policy.

Biz owners & wedding bloggers

Please just use your real name in your comment, not your business name or blog title. Our comments are not the place to pimp your website. If you want to promote your stuff on Offbeat Bride, join us as an advertiser instead.