Reimagining the Aesthetics and Logistics of Formal Family Wedding Portraits

January 2, 2019

By Anna Ambrosi

“We don’t want to spend too much time standing around taking group pictures.”

“We’ve been to weddings where we don’t see the couple for a good hour because they were kidnapped for group shots. Honestly, we don’t even care about those at all.”

“Why don’t we avoid the whole thing and just go with candid moments?”

Hands up if you have ever heard any of these types of comments from a client of yours. At the very beginning of my career, I could see their point: My clients wanted to enjoy the party as much as possible, not tick boxes on an endless shot list; there’s nothing wrong with that. But after a couple of years of business, I had begun to adopt a different point of view.

Some of those clients who wanted “just candid moments” were coming back to me after their wedding was over and asking for specific pictures with specific people in it, whether it was because someone in the family was pressuring them to or because they regretted not having them taken at the time.

I thought to myself that, being a professional, I should have advised them to the best of my knowledge and experience to take these formal portraits on the day of their wedding—after all, they were getting married just once in a lifetime (hopefully!). Even if they were asking me for a completely candid approach in my covering their day, I should have suggested that they consider everyone’s feelings and to save a few minutes during the day to have those shots taken, just in case.

My vision deeply changed after my own wedding in May 2016. Our wedding photographers were Dylan and Joanna from The Kitcheners (who were later picked as Rf 30 Rising Stars in 2017). Besides being wonderful human beings, they did a splendid job for us. While we have since been mesmerized by the stunning couple portraits and the endless list of wonderful candid moments they captured, the very first pictures we printed and shared were the few group shots of us with our close family and friends. Those are the pictures that are the dearest to us, and this made something click in my brain: If “we are the stories we tell ourselves”—as movie director Shekhar Kapur explained in his TED Talk back in 2009—maybe there’s another version of the “family formals” story that I could tell.

With these portraits, this is the story I want to tell: a unique moment in history in which two families, with all of their millions of stories and heritages, become one. Everything is set aside to make room to celebrate the one thing that connects us all: love. Nowadays in many places we’re not forced or expected to get married anymore, so willingly deciding to commit to one person for the rest of our lives is something I consider wonderfully bold. All of this deserves to be celebrated, and to me, there’s no better way than showing what this is all about: family. There’s nothing wrong in posing in front of a camera to celebrate that.

I began to research how I could have visually implemented a better way to take family formals at weddings. I soaked in inspiration from old family pictures and more recent fashion group shots. Annie Leibovitz and James Van Der Zee are among those who have been my unwitting influences. From these sources, I decided I needed to be more in control of light and use gear that was travel-ready, considering I shoot mainly destination weddings. I landed on the Profoto B1X with a 69-inch Elinchrom Rotalux Octa Softbox, which is powerful enough to cover a group of over ten people and is conveniently wireless.

I understood quite early that I needed to have the couple and the family fully on board to pose and take the time to get to the result I was aiming for, so I decided to offer these family formals as an add-on service to be purchased on top of the regular coverage. That would guarantee that the families who elected to participate knew what was coming and were completely on board.

I also needed to have at least one reference image to show my clients what kind of portrait I was going for. In February 2017, I invested a fair amount of money on a styled shoot with the idea of getting just one group shot out of it. So far, this has been the craziest thing I’ve done in my career, given that group shots didn’t really have a whole lot of credit to start with, that I was 9 months pregnant, and that I needed to ask all of my friends and friends of friends to pose for me. I needed different ages and I live in a foreign country, so it was not that easy.

Most of all, I really didn’t know if this would ever pay off. Two seasons later, though, and I’m happy to say that it did. My clients love this service and they often talk about the timeless feeling those images give them, which is the best reward to me indeed.

My Bullet-Proof Plan of Action

1. I ask my couples to send me a list of family formals they’d like to have, considering everyone who’s important to them and to their families, a couple of weeks before the wedding. On the big day, the bride and groom might be stressed out or overwhelmed and forget about someone important, but I’ll know the size of the groups and the amount of people involved in each one of them. Once I’m done taking photos of all of those “sensitive” to the couple, it’s easier for me to recognize them during the reception to get some nice candid photos of them as well.

2. I give the group photo list to one or two people who know the families well. They will be in charge of gathering the groups while I’m taking the pictures. This is key to me because sometimes guests are all over the place. Corralling them is made especially harder when a stranger (me!) is calling their names and trying to recognize them from a “faceless” list. Delegating makes this process much quicker.

3. I take the group pictures right after the ceremony. With the wedding formalities over with, they’ll be relaxed and ready to party, but they won’t be in the middle of the reception and hard to hunt down. Taking these photos before the reception means the bride and groom will be able to fully enjoy their party once we’re done, too.

Anna Ambrosi heads Bianco Photography, a studio offering luxury destination wedding photography (and soon videography) all over the world. She’s been invited to talk at many events about her approach to wedding photography and business.

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