Taking Large Group Formal Pictures | Wedding Photography

posted in Photography Blog

Taking Large Group Formal Pictures | Wedding Photography

Large Family Pictures Lighting Setup after the Ceremony

Let’s face it – these pictures are not the most fun to do and rarely will they show up in a photographers portfolio. That said, they are an important part of what a wedding photographer does. This is also not to be confused with the more playful bridal party photos. However, they are very important to the family and for the sake of posterity – many weddings are the only time this particular group of people will be together. Weddings often bring together extended family and several generations and it’s highly likely that your client will want some of these large group family portraits. So I want to offer some tips.

First of all let me start with what no to do. Often times these pictures occur immediately following the ceremony – which often times is in a church (although that’s changing and is now closer to 50/50 in our book) – in any event, they are often indoors. Especially here in the Midwest. Indoors usually means a lack of natural light, and while shooting the ceremony at f/1.4 – f/2.8 may be fine, that shallow depth of field is the enemy when it comes to taking photos of a large group. So you will want to avoid shooting with fast apertures. This brings me to the first tip.

Lighting – Tips

As I sated in the paragraph above – we are likely dealing with low light levels and we need to be shooting around f/5.6 – that means we really need to add light. As any photographer knows, the smaller the light source the harsher the shadows – and harsh shadows are not flattering. That’s why we use two light stands with two umbrellas for our formal wedding photography. If you are in a reception hall you could probably get away with bouncing the flash off the ceiling – that is assuming it’s white and relatively low. On camera flash is great, but it can’t do everything. Getting the flash(es) off the camera is what begins to separate the professional wedding photographers from the semi-pros or amateurs.

For our setup, we want to be light and as portable as possible. When we set out to buy our wedding photography kit, we didn’t want to mess with extra large battery packs or have any reliance on finding an outlet or dragging studio strobes to a wedding. That’s why I was so excited when I discovered the Promaster DuoLight 250. These things use a nice big rechargeable battery, get several hundred flashes per charge, are not too big to carry around all day, and recycle extremely quickly. In essence, they are small portable studio strobes. Sure, we use speedlights for much of the day, but for the formals, they simply don’t put out enough light and don’t recycle fast enough. The last thing you want to do while shooting a group is snap a photo and then say, “okay everyone, hang on, let’s do another, in 5 , 4, 3, 2, ” as you wait for you flash to recycle.


Additionally, we set one of our flashes to 1.5x the strength of the other – this allows nice lighting without being flat. A little more power means the light has direction and the other becomes more a fill. Don’t be afraid to shoot your formal portraits at ISO800 or even ISO1600 – this will allow your flash gear to recycle quicker – and with a pro camera and good light – the photos won’t have any discernible grain issues.

I mention this again in the next paragraph, but I cannot stress enough that is important to shoot formals in manual flash. Don’t be afraid – the distance from lights to subject is set – so once you have your ISO, F-Stop, and shutter set, every photo should be the same. You can back up, move forward, zoom in or zoom out and it won’t matter.

group-wedding-shots-lighting-setup formal-wedding-photo-family-lighting

Composition – Tips

This is a no brainer, but it is important. If you have steps, for example on the altar, use them as they make life much easier. In a big group photo it’s often better to have two rows than a single long row of people. If a row of people gets too long then you have to shoot wide which puts you at risk of distorting the people on the ends. If you can, only use the center 2/3 of the frame – and crop later. If you are shooting a pro camera you likely have over 20 megapixels, so cropping is not an issue and you will avoid any distortion. If you have the space, don’t be afraid to back up and shoot with a longer lens so that distortion is even less of an issue. For the formals my go to lens is the 24-105mm Canon – this allows me to quickly accommodate groups of varying sizes. It’s constant aperture is a huge plus too because I am shooting with manual flash. There is no reason to use TTL in formals because the distance from lights to subjects is fixed.

Hopefully you have enough light to shoot at f/5.6 or thereabout. So what is your focus point. If you have two rows of people always focus on the front row (unless you know your lens has front/back focusing issues). Also, the bride/groom will just about always be in the front row, so focus on them. Obviously, if you are going to have anyone be slightly out of focus, it ought not be the bride/groom.


Assistance – Tips

Throughout the wedding day, we always use two shooters, and Jamie and I are taking lots of pictures independently of one another. However, during the formals, Jamie and I have very different jobs. While I am taking pictures of the current group, Jamie is using the shot-list (prepared by our clients) to round up the next group. She is telling Grandma that she will be in the next photo. Often times we are doing the formals as cocktail hour is starting, so we want them to go as quickly and smoothly as possible. Having an assistant who is not taking pictures and simply facilitating has worked great for us.

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  1. Thanks for the great tips! What Tx are you using? Promaster sells one, but it looks like it would work with other brands, i.e. Pocket Wizard. Thanks again!

  2. Sorry for the confusion, I’m new to off camera flash. Yes, I meant triggers. So you’re using the Yongnuo on your camera to trigger and the built in radio receivers in the promasters? Great setup and seems very reasonable in price for what you get! Thanks!

    • Actually, the Duolights from Promaster each come with a trigger (but one of the supplied triggers will fire both Promaster Duolights). So when I am using the Promasters I simply use the trigger that came with them. — However, if I’m using Canon Speedlites, then I use my Yongnuo triggers. Hope that helps.

  3. what is your umberella size ? I have to shoot a wedding inside evening, lighting is not great, so im thinking about buying this set up or renting one similar, as I am an amateur only do family weddings and such.

  4. Great Tips thank you. Im just learning to use flash my question is how far (feet) do I need to set my off camera flash from the people? What power should I set my flash to? Also one last question how can I avoid shadows caused by each other ?

    • the distance to the people varies on the size of the group – because of shadows. with a large group, you’ll want the umbrellas closer to your camera so that there are not shadows on faces. a super safe place to start, is just placing the flashes 3-4 feet left and right of your camera, and just make one of the flashes 25% brighter than the other so you have some depth.

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