Photography Lighting Setups During the Wedding Family Formals

wedding photography lighting tips

It’s that part of the day… the wedding family formals, where you have to (quickly) gather the bride and groom’s family members and take a few memorable photos of everyone together. This is where your skills and confidence as a photographer comes in handy – especially when it comes to photography lighting. Because lighting is unpredictable, you must be prepared for any type of condition during this part of the wedding day. With multiple people together (their attention spans fading…), how can you create the perfect light to quickly capture these images? In her second post of her Wedding Lighting Masterclass, ShootDotEdit Customer, Leeann Marie, Wedding Photographers will share her wedding photography lighting tips to help you shoot confidently through the family formals.

Leeann Marie, Wedding Photographers Headshot

One of the leading wedding photographers in Pittsburgh, Leeann Marie has created an exclusive brand that is family focused for the cosmopolitan bride. She’s a national speaker for WPPI, has been in business for 9 years, and has a background in Industrial Engineering giving her a unique perspective on photography and business. She relies heavily on systems in her business to accomplish all of her goals, and has been a ShootDotEdit happy photographer for seven years. She lives in the city of Pittsburgh with her husband and daughter. She loves looking out her back window into the firefly-lit woods, and enjoying a night out for sushi and drinks with friends. Learn more about Leeann on her website and Instagram account!


Welcome to the Wedding Lighting Masterclass! This is the first article in the series, which I hope will help you to learn some valuable techniques for perfectly managing and lighting the different photography scenarios that you will be faced with on a wedding day.

A few notes about this course:

FAST IS BEST: I truly believe that “Fast Is Best”, which is (obviously) why I love ShootDotEdit 🙂 But really, one of the key valuable principles that I bring to my brides and grooms each wedding day is an experience that is organized, hassle-free, and yet still beautifully lit and happy.

Keeping my lighting scenarios as fast as possible allows me to move between scenarios quickly, while still creating beautiful photography for my couples. I do use natural light as a photographer, but I’m not afraid of flash in the least, and work with tools and an arsenal of mental notes (lots of them that are described in this course!) to help me move between situations quickly and flawlessly.

THERE ARE OPTIONS: In the photography-world, there are a million ways to light one simple scene. The methods outlined in this course are my personal preferences, and I encourage you to try them and then modify if necessary to fit your photography style and client needs.


WHERE YOU LIVE MATTERS: I work in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is an area subject to rain on summer days, snow in April, and 80 degree sunny days in November. I’m faced with varying conditions every single wedding (what photographer isn’t!?), and have to adjust all of the time.

For each piece of this master course, I have set out to identify my most common and most challenging situations that I have faced throughout my career as a photographer. Again, if you are looking to create a wedding photography experience that is efficient, but also way above and beyond what your couple’s ‘photographer friends’ can do – I think you are in the right place.

Try some of these photography lighting tips. Study them. Modify them. Copy them. It’s all up to you – I hope you find all of these examples and ideas helpful on your wedding photography journey.

Now… on to the good stuff!


In my first part of the wedding photography lighting series, I covered bridal details and preparations, and how I light them in a variety of situations. Today, I will be talking about a second important piece of the wedding day photography – Family Portraits.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself “I think she skipped a big part of the wedding day: The Ceremony”, and you are right. However, for my wedding ceremonies, I am often inside of churches or outdoors in naturally-lit spaces where flash photography is not allowed (except for processionals). For this reason, I have bypassed this part of the day for the specific wedding photography lighting master series.

Back to family portraits: my approach to this part of the day is to keep the entire group happy and organized. I come into the portrait time with an extensive photography list that I have discussed with the bride and groom prior to the wedding day. I work from the largest groups to the smallest groups, catering to grandparents and children first. I always show that I have a wedding family portraits list and that I am checking things off, and speak clearly and loudly for everyone to hear me.

Related: Discover 36 wedding day disaster stories from pro photographers, and the solutions to conquer them, with our free guide!

In addition, for my posing, I choose to keep the ‘formal photos’ (which are typically large groups inside of the church) more formal with lines and tiers of people, and then I ask smaller groups (bride + mom, bride + dad) to take photos in a more ‘casual’ setting typically outdoors.

For wedding photography lighting equipment, I have listed a few scenarios below, but I am traveling with two speedlights and MagMod gear or my Profoto B2 with softbox if additional light is needed. I set up my equipment for these formal family portraits prior to the ceremony start time, so we can go straight into portraits following the ceremony. Many of the churches I work in have time constraints on when we must be out of the building, so being prepared to start immediately is important in my area.


Church weddings are typical for my area, and I’m often working at new churches every wedding season. There are a few more ‘common’ ones, where I know exactly what my settings will be, but I do often find myself in new spaces for family photos.

When I first arrive at a church, I scope out the surrounding area of the building and find a nice, easy-to-walk-to location with great light and some open shade. This is where I’ll do the ‘breakdown’ of family photos later, and I want it to be easy to get to from the church doors, especially if there are grandparents or children in the groups. I never like to have family photos at a ‘travel location’, simply because it’s logistically a lot of people to organize above and beyond the bridal party.

Once I have this location, I enter the church and set up my photography lighting gear. I usually choose two simple speedlights with MagMod modifiers on Cheetah Stands, since it’s simple and easy to move, come family portrait-time. I keep these with my gear all set up and ready to go (although sometimes I use them for the ceremony as well).

To start this series, let me give you an idea of what some of the churches I work in look like. These are two of the larger and more popular venues in my area, and although lots of churches are smaller, I still approach the family portrait time in the same manner as I will describe below.

wedding photography church

indoor church wedding photography

Related: How can a wedding photography post production company help you create consistent images for your clients after the wedding day? Find out here!

Scenario #1

Scenario: Family photos inside of the church.

Equipment + Technique:  As mentioned previously, I will set up two speedlights off-camera. My gear for this setup includes (2) Cheetah Stands, (2) Nikon SB-700 speedlights, (2) PocketWizard Flex TT5 Transceivers, (2) MagMod MagSpheres, (1) Pocketward FlexMini on camera, Nikon D750. I may also use CTO or ½ CTO gels if the space is exceptionally tungsten color.

Before I turn on any flash photography, I set my camera into Manual mode and my aperture to somewhere between f/5.6 and f/8 (depending on how big the largest group of people will be). I then choose an ISO that is usually <1600 ISO, and a shutter speed that gives me a reading at 2 stops below ambient light. In a usual church, that may fall somewhere around f/5.6, ISO 1600, 1/200 sec. If the aisle will allow (and I feel like people follow direction with me standing far back and can hear me), then I like to shoot these on a 70-200 lens for the compression. If not, and there is a smaller aisle or less attention-span :), then I will shoot with a 24-70mm. That choice depends a lot on the crowd, believe it or not!

Related: How can you use off camera flash photography to shoot through any wedding lighting scenario?

Once I have my ambient light set, then I can turn on both of the flashes and set them to equal power that will light my subjects nicely. This usually is somewhere around 1/16 power for each of them. I also make sure to set up my groupings with some space between the group and the back wall to allow for shadows to fall off from the flash. The off-camera flashes are set directly beside me in the aisle or pews (again, space-dependent), and I can shoot away!

‘Fast Is Best’ Time Estimate: 5 minutes: to set up lights prior to ceremony, 5 minutes for setup and light testing prior to shooting.

Lighting Diagram:

wedding photography lighting setup


wedding family formals

Nikon D750, 56mm, f/4.5, 1/100 sec, ISO 1600

family formal wedding photos

Nikon D750, 52mm, f/5.0, 1/80 sec, ISO 2000

wedding formal family portraits

Nikon D750, 70mm, f/5.0, 1/250sec, ISO 320

Scenario #2

Scenario: Family photos outside of the church.

Equipment + Technique:  After I photograph all the family groupings on my wedding family portraits list inside of the church (which usually includes the large groups), I take the immediate family outdoors to the spot that I scoped out prior to the ceremony. In this space, I photograph the rest of my family photos, which includes the smaller groupings (bride + dad, groom + mom).

Again, in this space, I am looking for a nice potentially open-shade area with simple background. If there is no easy shade, then I will find an area with a simple background and rim lighting from the sun.

On overcast days, or if I am generally finding that I have a lot of shadows, I will use fill light, which I cover in a scenario below.

‘Fast Is Best’ Time Estimate: 5 minutes – shooting natural light photography, and working through family photo list.

Lighting Diagram:

photography lighting diagram


wedding photos family portraits

Nikon D750, 122mm, f/28, 1/250sec, ISO 1600

outdoor wedding photography

Nikon D750, 86mm, f/3.2, 1/2500 sec, ISO 2000

[whoops, didn’t change from inside, but that’s OK! I’m moving quickly and on a great camera for ISO capabilities and noise reduction.]

family wedding photos

Nikon D750, 140mm, f/4.0, 1/500sec, ISO 500

Scenario #3

Scenario: Family photos outside in open shade.

Equipment + Technique:  An easy, easy way to create great outdoor wedding family photography is to find a place with a simple background and a reflective surface! In the photos below, we chose a downtown location (sidewalks are reflective!) with a clean background and good contrast.


Get Pro Lighting and Posing Tips

It was incredibly easy to photograph these family photos, because the sidewalk directed the light up into their faces without the need for any additional off-camera flashes. They were in open shade, and I was standing in the sun. I usually position my subjects close to the sun/shade line to really take advantage of that beautiful natural light.

‘Fast Is Best’ Time Estimate: 2 minutes – just find a nice, clean, open shade spot that has a reflective surface!

**Caution** Be careful on the colors that are reflecting up onto your subjects naturally. Grass is slightly reflective, but it also creates a green skin cast. One time I photographed with a red church nearby and…. Yeah. Not so pretty. Pay attention to the color of that reflective light!

Lighting Diagram:

wedding photography lighting setup diagram


wedding portraits

ISO 200, 140mm, f/2.8, 1/640 sec

lighting wedding formals

ISO 160, 70mm, f/3.5, 1/320 sec

Scenario #4

Scenario: Family photos outside in shade with fill light needed.

Equipment + Technique:  Working outdoors is usually pretty nice and easy, but what if you’re faced with a cloudy day (hello, shadows!) or a shady spot that’s just not reflecting pretty natural light onto your subjects? For this, I will set up a fill flash with my Profoto B2 on sunny days to provide nice, strong fill flash on my subjects. I also use this because I like for the backgrounds to remain contrasty and natural instead of blown out in the editing process to accommodate for dark skin.

Since the daylight can be powerful, I choose to use my ProfotoB2 with a softbox or large umbrella for these portraits. You could also try with your speedlights if they have enough power with your ambient settings.

‘Fast Is Best’ Time Estimate: 10 minutes – setup large light, test + calibrate settings.

Lighting Diagram:

lighting wedding photography


formal family portrait photography

ISO 160, 102mm, f/6.3, 1/125 sec

I hope these photography lighting scenarios give you a good idea on how to approach family portrait lighting in a quick and easy way. There can always be difficult circumstances thrown your way on a wedding day, but with family portraits it’s important to look for clean background, simple light, and make sure all your groups stay happy throughout the process!


With the knowledge of how to properly light in any location, you can use light to create photography your clients will love every time. What are other key photography lighting tips you need to succeed during your wedding shoots? Our free Lighting Guide for Wedding Photographers shares how to quickly identify light in any scenario and use it to create images you desire. Download it today!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *