How to organise group photographs on your alternative wedding day

You have more control than you think over how to organise the group shots on your alternative wedding day. Forget about tradition, and what you think you should do. Step back and think about what photographs you actually want to look back on after the wedding day.

A group shot from Emma & Ian’s wedding in the Sky Lounge on top of the Vermont Hotel, looking out over Newcastle and Gateshead

I approach a wedding day from a documentary point of view and I am assuming you don’t want a photographer to be standing on a step ladder shouting at your wedding guests for hours on end. This is my advice after shooting dozens and dozens of alternative weddings all over the North East of England.

Decide when and where to take your group shots

The first thing to do is to speak to your photographer about when during the day to schedule your group shots. My advice is usually to take the shots directly after the wedding ceremony. This is the only time that you can guarantee that all of the guests are together in one location at the same time. Once guests start to drift away from the ceremony location off to the venue location anything can happen. Cars breakdown. People get lost. Uncle Colin takes a detour to the shops to buy some fags. Auntie Ethel gets her son, who is the best man, to drive her home to take her shoes. Grandad nips up to his hotel room and falls asleep in a chair. That then leads to long delays or having to change all the other timings of the day on the fly to fit in a group shot later.

If you can’t have the group shots directly after the ceremony, then ensure that you communicate the timing of your group shots to all of your guests in advance either via an e-mail or through social media, or on a sign at the venue. Then remind everyone again straight after the ceremony.

 Rachel and Chris’ wedding took place on a dry day at Judges at Kirklevington which made organising the group photos very straightforward

Rachel and Chris’ wedding took place on a dry day at Judges at Kirklevington which made organising the group photos very straightforward

Work out your timeline

When it comes to timelines I schedule five minutes per group shot and recommend six group shots for a total of thirty minutes. This seems like a lot of time but it might include 10 minutes of setting up a big group shot, and 2 minutes each for smaller family groupings. It also reflects the added time of marshalling large groups of people between shots which gets harder and harder the more shots you do. I’ve photographed 20+ group shots at weddings before and I’ve found the guests get bored and wander off to the bar or the loo and children get restless and start acting up.

 Group photos at weddings don’t have to be serious…you can have some fun too, as we did at Beth and Lee’s wedding at As You Like It in Newcastle

Group photos at weddings don’t have to be serious…you can have some fun too, as we did at Beth and Lee’s wedding at As You Like It in Newcastle

Limit the overall number of group shots

Most couples I work with have around 6 to 8 group shots and this takes around 30 to 40 minutes to photograph. Sometimes less, if the groupings are small, sometimes more if the groupings are large. Remember that the more group photos you schedule, the less time you and your guest will have to do other things on your wedding day, such as drink and have a laugh. This is also less time for your photographer to capture those natural, candid moments.

 Noor and Callum’s wedding took place on a rainy day, so we used the interior of the church to get some lovely group shots with a nice backdrop

Noor and Callum’s wedding took place on a rainy day, so we used the interior of the church to get some lovely group shots with a nice backdrop

Plan in advance

I send out a ‘wedding day details’ questionnaire to all of my couples 4 to 6 weeks before the wedding, and one of the questions is how many group photographs you require and the names of all the people in each photograph. This helps me hit the ground running when it comes to the wedding day.

The other thing you can do in advance is assign a gobby, ahem confident, wedding guest to help your photographer co-ordinate the group shots. Ideally this should be someone who knows both sides of the family and can run off and grab people for each shot. While the photographer shoots that group photograph, they can be getting everyone together ready for the next one.

Finally, if you have any potentially sensitive issues surrounding particular family members it’s worth bringing them up with your photographer in advance. Typically this could include divorced parents who don’t want to be in each others group photo, or relatives with disabilities meaning they are unsteady on their feet and unable to stand for long durations. If you flag them up early you and your photographer can agree a plan an avoid a scene on the day.

 I have absolutely no idea what is going on in this group shot at Zoe and Ed’s farm wedding in Yorkshire!

I have absolutely no idea what is going on in this group shot at Zoe and Ed’s farm wedding in Yorkshire!

Listen to your photographer when choosing a backdrop for your group photos

Looping back to the first point in this blog; if you are having your group photographs directly after the ceremony it’s likely to be in the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky. This is a tricky lighting situation for a photographer so they might suggest turning everyone so that their back is to the obvious view, but it means that they don’t have harsh pools of shadow in their eyes (panda eyes) or are squinting into the sun with scrunched up faces. I always scout out any wedding venue I haven’t visited before so that I can suggest the best places for group shots. I’m generally looking for spots where there is flattering shade, rather than harsh sunlight, such as under a large tree or in the shadow of a large building.

Scouting the venue means that I can also have a plan B in my back pocket if the weather is so bad that you can’t go outdoors for the group shots. Grand staircases are great for larger group shots, but I’ve utilised fireplaces and even large blank walls as backdrops for group shots on wet and windy days.

 While most couples want sun and blue skies on their wedding day, most photographers pray for cloudy grey skies and soft light. That’s what I got at Zoe and Liam’s wedding at Whitworth Hall in Durham.

While most couples want sun and blue skies on their wedding day, most photographers pray for cloudy grey skies and soft light. That’s what I got at Zoe and Liam’s wedding at Whitworth Hall in Durham.

You don’t have to have group shots at your wedding

I have photographed numerous weddings where the couple chose not to have any group shots at all. The advantages to this approach are many. You can let the day flow more naturally, without halting proceedings for pre-arranged events. You and your guests have more time together to laugh, drink and chat. Your photographer can use all of this extra time to get more spontaneous and authentic candid photographs of the day. You’ll almost certainly be less stressed, and so will your guests.

 You’ll have more time for candid shots such as this if you don’t set time aside for group photos. Rachel and Lucy had only a handful of group shots and no couples portraits at their wedding at the Old Barn, South Causey Inn in Durham.

You’ll have more time for candid shots such as this if you don’t set time aside for group photos. Rachel and Lucy had only a handful of group shots and no couples portraits at their wedding at the Old Barn, South Causey Inn in Durham.

If you do decide to have no group photographs, the only advice I would give is to have a chat about it with your older relatives. Your parents or grandparents may be expecting a more formal, traditional style of photography with lots of staged group shots, and they may be upset after the wedding day if they don’t get those images. Even worse, they could try to hijack your photographer on the day and try to organise group shots on the spot, which almost never works out well. Best get those expectations set early on so everyone knows what to expect.

 With the best will in the world, you’re not going to get a formal group shot with a dozen kids under six. At Julia and Darren’s wedding I let them do their own thing!

With the best will in the world, you’re not going to get a formal group shot with a dozen kids under six. At Julia and Darren’s wedding I let them do their own thing!

I hope that you have enjoyed reading my advice on organising the group shots at your wedding and that it’s given you some food for thought. If you’d like to read more of my advice on organising your alternative wedding day, take a look at my ULTIMATE GUIDE TO CHOOSING YOUR PERFECT ALTERNATIVE NORTH EAST WEDDING VENUE or 4 IDEAS FOR PLANNING YOUR WEDDING SPEECHES.

 Tada! There you have my thoughts and ideas for organising group shots at your alternative wedding. Be like Yoko and Stuart and do your own thing!

Tada! There you have my thoughts and ideas for organising group shots at your alternative wedding. Be like Yoko and Stuart and do your own thing!