I love wedding day family formals!

I really do.

Getting those images for our couples and their families is one of my favorite parts of the wedding. That’s why it’s surprising to me that over the years I think the one thing I’ve heard from photographers more than anything else is “I hate the family formals!”

I wanted to address that — to the bride and to the photographer — because all I can think is:

“Then you must be doing it wrong!” =)

Family formals don’t have to be boring or a chore for everyone involved.

Not only that, but of all the photographs from a wedding day, they’re almost guaranteed to be at the top of the list in importance as the years pass on so you might as well make them enjoyable and memorable.

This post is dedicated to helping you do just that.

When I think about our own wedding photography, there are two that really stand out and mean the most to me and they are both of Sean and I with our grandparents.

Why do they mean so much?

Because when I look at them I see how much Sean’s grandparents love him and I can feel the bond in their little family.

The photo of my grandmother and me is from when she walked me down the aisle; and while it isn’t a particularly beautiful image, what I see is my grandmother by my side and the slight scrunch to my nose that has happened for a moment every time I laugh since my grandfather taught me to make that face when I was one. I see two of the most important people in my life through this simple photograph and I remember how I feel about them.

These are the things we want to bring out in our family formals.

They should be about showing the love these people feel for each other, making their personalities apparent and evoking powerful emotions from them every time they look at those images for years to come. But because most people are used to just lining up and won’t automatically offer the good mushy emotional stuff, there are a few things you as the photographer and you as the bride can do to help make this happen.

1. Choose a location that will help you succeed.

Standing in front of the altar tends to lend itself to stiff photos. Try to get outside if you can, or at least to a place with nice natural lighting.

Why natural light? Well that’s because:

2. Your lighting equipment is scary and cumbersome.

I know there are some who will disagree with me on this point, but what we have found is that large lights and flashes going off – all of that can make your subjects uneasy.

In our experience, having as little going on as possible will help you connect the best. Another reason for not using flash is because often times family members will only give you what you’re looking for for a second and you don’t want to be waiting for your flash to recycle when that happens.

Obviously there are certain scenarios in which natural light is just not available and of course, in that case you do your best with what you have but, when at all possible, keep the amount of gear looming in your subjects faces to a minimum.

3. Squeeze in tight!

On the most basic level, a family grouping is always going to look more natural and affectionate if the people in it are in the closest proximity possible to each other. Tell everyone to get closer and when they do it, tell them to get closer still. Have everyone put an arm around someone next to them and then tell them to lean in.

Side tip: Have the guys unbutton their jackets for this. When they put their arms around a person on each side of them, it will gape in a funny way otherwise.

4. Do what you’ve got to do to loosen them up.

Sean and I shoot a lot of weddings out of state and Nashville is a pretty eclectic town in general with people from all over so for our couples who are not from around here, I’m pretty sure they’ve never heard anything so obnoxiously Southern as me saying “love on your mamma now!” Who cares? It makes them laugh and loosens them up and when self-deprecating humor, silliness, and a little extra prodding are combined, who’s going to say no to me? ;0)

Brides (and grooms too, for that matter) – if your family isn’t naturally lovey-dovey in front of the camera, but you want those photographs, help your photographer out! Squeeze your dad, kiss your mom, laugh and have fun with it and your family will follow suit – even if it’s just for a split second that your photographer can capture with machine gun shutter firing techniques. =)

5. If you want the love, you’ve got to ask for the love.

Most people are going to do what they’re accustomed to doing in family portraits: face forward and smile a fake smile. If you want something different, you have to ask for it. Telling someone to love on their mamma in a girlie southern accent may not be your thing, but come up with something ahead of time to help make your clients and their families feel comfortable and affectionate toward each other.

We find that using words and phrases like “squeeze”, “nuzzle”, “give her a kiss”, “look at her but don’t cry now!” etc. are effective cues to get people going.

6. Don’t force it.

This applies most often for grooms and their dads especially. If, after all your joking and gentle prodding and cueing, they are still just not going to give each other a big giant man-hug, that’s ok. Encourage them to do their thing and photograph the results. It is true personality that you’re wanting after all.

We hope this post will get you well on your way to amazing family portraits and an enjoyable wedding day experience for all. Best of luck!


  1. Abbie Kressner on February 17, 2012 at 9:27 am

    Great post! Loving’ the love in the photos! :)

  2. Krista Dial on February 17, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    This are SOOO gorgeous! :) Love the tips too!

  3. David Powell on February 18, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Great tips, all. You guys really are the best there is!

  4. Mel on February 19, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    Thanks so much you guys! :)

  5. Michelle Stone on February 19, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    These are some of the best family formals I’ve seen! I am so not a posed type when it comes to family formals but felt like I needed to/had to do that and you just blew that whole idea out of the water for me. Thank you so much!!!

  6. Liz ~ elizabeth&jane photography on February 20, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Love all of these. Great tips!!

  7. Kelly Lambert on April 14, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    These are the most gorgeous wedding images I’ve ever seen! Brought tears to my eyes! Thank you!

  8. Autumn Wilson on April 14, 2012 at 10:10 pm

    Love this! Thank you so much for posting! I am definitely going to try a more relaxed approach to family portraits from now on! :)

  9. Wendy Cunningham on April 16, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    Super helpful post! Thanks for sharing! Like Michelle said in the comments, I have always attempted family formals as the stiff posed shots at the alter. I am so happy that you pointed out another way. I suddenly feel liberated! HAHA

  10. Sabrina on April 16, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    This may be the most amazing post EVER. It’s not that I hate family formals, I just want them to be more fun! And just a few tips from you has totally changed my perspective on how to make those happen!! THANK YOU!

  11. Dana Goodson on April 16, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    Great post! This is definitely helpful and I will be applying at it my next wedding. Thanks!

  12. Sean McLellan on April 17, 2012 at 1:05 am

    Michelle – Thank you very much! So happy to have been able to be of help :)

  13. Sean McLellan on April 17, 2012 at 1:06 am

    Liz & Autumn – we really appreciate the kind words!

  14. Sean McLellan on April 17, 2012 at 1:08 am

    Kelly, that’s a huge compliment — equally huge thank you for telling us :) Wendy – would love to see what you end up doing next time! Sabrina — also another huge compliment!! So happy to have helped out!

  15. Sean McLellan on April 17, 2012 at 1:09 am

    Dana — best of luck, shoot us a link to the blog post if you end up posting anything from it! And thank you for your comment

  16. Chris Masson on April 18, 2012 at 9:48 am

    Well done, y’all! I’m lovin’ on ya! (Did I say that right?)

  17. lori yohe on April 18, 2012 at 11:11 am

    great post!!!! awesome tips and lovely photos.

  18. […] For more info on how choosing a great location for family formals can make all the difference, read this: 6 Steps to Amazing Family Formals on the Wedding Day. […]

  19. KentClark1 on February 17, 2015 at 4:05 pm

    These were some great tips. I think that the best one is to choose a place that will help you succeed. It is important that the lighting is good and all of the people in the photo are cooperating. If those conditions aren’t met, it could make your job quite difficult. http://www.maijakarinphotography.com/family/

  20. UNofficial Photography by Leslie Georgiadis on June 18, 2016 at 6:27 am

    Love this SO MUCH . . . fairly new to wedding photography and I love the tips & find some VERY reaffirming (I agree on equipment & it is great to hear the same from someone at your level!) THANK YOU!

    • Mel McLellan on June 23, 2016 at 10:10 am

      Thank you so much, Leslie! Glad you found it helpful! :)

  21. Ivo on June 18, 2021 at 12:10 pm

    Perfectly professional and very touchy momentums captured…

  22. Ivo on June 18, 2021 at 12:10 pm

    Perfectly professional and very touchy momentums captured…

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