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Six Steps to Amazing Family Photos on the Wedding Day

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Family formal time is one of my favorite times of the whole wedding day. No, really it is! I love getting a picture of the bride with her Dad or making sure that the groom has a picture with his grandmother to keep forever. That’s why it’s always surprising to me when I hear a photographer say, “I hate family formals!” Today I want to talk about that because all I can think is…“then you must be doing it wrong!” :)

Family formals don’t have to be a chore for everyone involved, or boring in the worst possible sense of the word. These photographs are guaranteed to be at the top of the list in importance as the years pass, so you might as well make them memorable and enjoyable

Here’s how you can do just that!

When I think of our own wedding photographs there two that really mean the most to me and they’re both of Sean and me with our grandparents. Why, you may ask? Because when I look at them, I can feel the love shared between us. This image is of my grandmother as she walked me down the aisle and while it isn’t the most beautiful image, what I see is my grandmother standing by me and my scrunched nose makes me laugh since my grandfather taught me to make that face when I was a child!

In this simple photograph, I see two of the most important people in my life and I remember how much they mean to me.

 These are the responses we want our family formals to elicit. They should show the love the people feel for each other, bring out each individual’s personality and stir powerful emotions for years to come.

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That said, most of your subjects are used to firing-squad-style family formals and are going to give you mushy, emotional expressions automatically. So, there are a few things that you can do to help make your family formals more successful.

1) Put your subjects in a location that will set you up for success. 

The church altar tends to lend itself to stiff formal portraits. Go outside if you can, or find a spot near a window with nice natural lighting! For these particular photographs, you really need natural lighting because…

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2) …Your lighting equipment is intimidating and gets in your way! Large light stands and soft boxes, flashes firing – all of these things can make your subjects uncomfortable. We’ve found that the less you have going on, the better you’ll be able to connect with people. Another reason to forego flash is that often family members will only give you a really great, authentic moment for a second and you don’t want to be waiting on your flash to recycle when that happens.

3) Squeeze! 

A family group naturally looks more affectionate if the people in it are in close proximity to each other. Have everyone squeeze in tight and when they do it, ask them to get even closer. Tell them to lean and in put an arm around someone next to them. Tip: Guys should unbutton their jackets for this. Otherwise, it will gape in a funny way when they put their arms around those on either side of them.

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4) Get them to loosen up by whatever self-deprecating means necessary.

 I’m fairly certain that most of our couples have never heard anything so ridiculously southern as when I say, “love on your Mama!” Who cares? It makes them laugh and feel comfortable. And who is going to say “no” to me when a little self-deprecating humor, silliness and extra prodding are combined? 😉

Side note: tell your couples that if their family isn’t naturally lovey in front of the camera, but they want those photographs, there are a few things they can do to help. Tell them to kiss their Mom, squeeze their Dad and have fun with it. Their families will follow along, even if it’s just for a brief moment that you’re able to capture with lightning-fast shutter firing techniques!

5) You’ve got to ask for what you want. 

Most people are used to lining up and giving a fake smile for family portraits, so that’s exactly what they’re going to do for you. If you want them to act differently, you have to ask! Telling your groom to “love on his Mama” in a girly southern accent may not be your thing, but think of something ahead of time that will make your clients and their families feel comfortable and affectionate toward each other. 

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

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6) Don’t force it. 
This rule most often applies to grooms and Dads. If after all your gentle prodding and joking they’re still not going to break down and give each other a giant man-hug, that’s okay. Just let them do their thing and photograph what happens. It is their true selves that you’re wanting after all.

We hope you’ll be able to use the contents of this post to create an enjoyable experience and amazing family portraits for all of your future clients. Best of luck!

About Melanie McLellan
Melanie McLellan and her husband Sean are the Nashville wedding photographers behind McLellan Style. Their work has been featured by In Style: Celebrity Weddings, MSNBC: The Today Show, and other national media. In 2010, McLellan Style was recognized by the Adorama Learning Center in NYC as one of 10 top inspirational wedding photographers in the industry. Sean & Mel’s latest project is Kudize.net; a community of wedding photographers who actively work together to get more and better business by directly sharing qualified referrals. Got two minutes to find out how wedding photographers are building amazing referral based businesses? Click here to watch a two minute video that explains it all (and you can join for free!)
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!