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Whether you’re an amateur or professional photographer, whether you usually photograph people, products, landscapes or insects, the time will come when you will be asked to photograph a large group of people.
Of course large is a relative term. If you are used to photographing couples or taking individual portraits, large could mean a group of five people. In general, I consider large to be a group of seven or more.
The festive season is fast approaching, and this is the time of year when you are most likely to be asked to photograph large groups. During this season, families tend to congregate in one place, some travelling far and wide for the privilege of togetherness. Sports teams, dance clubs and social groups start winding down for the holiday season, and love to have an annual or seasonal record of their group.
Wedding and school photographers are the true experts in group photography. I am neither of those; I’m a family and children’s photographer, and I don’t mind admitting that I’m a one-trick pony.
However, over the past few months and for one reason or another, I have been asked to photograph an increasing number of large groups. Sometimes the lessons we need to learn find us, and it has been said that we best teach what we most need to learn. With that in mind, I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way, both through my own trial and error, and through tips for photographing large groups, passed on to me from other photographers.
You won’t always have the luxury of being able to choose your location – sometimes you’ll be stuck with your aunt’s backyard, or some other less-than-ideal spot. If you have the luxury of choice, look to open spaces and uncluttered backgrounds.
There are two reasons why simplicity is even more important with a group shot than with any other kind of portraiture.
When it comes to locations, my personal favourites are parks, gardens and beaches. The colours of nature never seem to clash or compete with your subjects. If you’re in a rural setting, and trees and grass are not your thing, look for hay bales, rustic sheds and timber fences. If you prefer an urban feel, seek out the unadorned walls and steps of old buildings and churches, or the clean lines of modern architecture.
The images below illustrate the different moods that you can create with background. Although the playground shot is a little busy, it conveys colour and fun.
These images show how you can create a different look to the same grouping, simply by changing your shooting position.
Soft, even, light is imperative when photographing a group. If you can choose the time of day to shoot, opt for early morning or late afternoon to early evening, when the light is gentle and warm.
If you’re stuck shooting in the middle of the day, avoid harsh shadows by shooting in open shade such as beneath the canopy of a large tree, or in the shadow of a building. Importantly, make sure the light falls evenly on your group, and that there are no patches of sun on anyone.
If you are photographing a small group, and you want to get creative with poses and shooting angles, you probably won’t need a tripod. While they go a long way towards preventing blurry images caused by camera shake, I personally find them restrictive.
However, when photographing a large group, you’ll probably want to keep your subjects in one position while you fire off lots of similar shots. A tripod has the benefit not only of preventing camera shake, but allowing you to take a number of shots at the same angle and focal length. So, when you discover that your perfect image is marred by one person blinking or doing something weird with their mouth, it’s easy to take spare parts from the other images and transpose them in Photoshop (do a head-swap).
Lens and aperture preference are always controversial. To photograph a large group, I’d recommend playing it safe and using a 50mm lens. Depending on the depth of your group arrangement, stick with an aperture of f/9 or higher to ensure that everyone is sharp, and always do a test shot first.
To avoid distortion when using a lens that is 50mm or below, make sure you leave plenty of space between the people at either side of the group, and the edge of the frame. No one will thank you for making them look wider than they are (which is what a wide-angle will do to the people on the edges)!
While we’re on the subject, it’s a good idea to leave some space around your group to allow for different cropping ratios.
If your subjects are huddled close together on a level surface, chances are the people at the back will only be visible from the eyes up in the final images.
You can easily remedy this by placing them on a graduated surface. A flight of steps is ideal, or a sloping lawn, a playground slide, the branch of a tree – anywhere that you can stagger the height of the heads to make sure everyone can be clearly seen without sitting in a dead-straight row.
If you happen to be stuck with a flat surface, use chairs for a formal arrangement. Place some people standing behind the chairs, some seated on the chairs, and some sitting on the ground in front. The ground is a good spot for younger children, who get fidgety if asked to sit still for too long.
For something a little different, find a vantage point that allows you to look down on the group. This might be a balcony, a ladder, or a chair.
I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent in Lightroom cleaning up little noses (and big ones), fixing smudged eyeliner and removing lint from clothing.
While you are preparing your set-up, ask the women in the group to reapply their lipstick and check their hair and makeup.
Immediately before you start shooting, ask the adults in your group to check their partners’ and children’s faces and clothing, paying special attention to noses, teeth and eyebrows. Have a packet of tissues and wet wipes handy. If you feel uncomfortable asking this, think of all the hours you’ll save post-processing.
Once you have your group positioned, work quickly. Fire off a test shot for exposure, focus, and depth of field. When checking the image on your screen, enlarge it to the maximum size and make sure everyone from the front row to the back is in focus. Adjust your aperture if necessary. When photographing smaller groups, you can get creative with depth of field by focussing on some individuals and allowing others to soften, but that’s a whole other story. With a large group, everyone should be in focus.
With your camera’s drive mode set to continuous shooting, ask everyone in the group to close their eyes and open them on the count of three. Fire multiple shots on the count of three, and then repeat the process a few times to ensure you have at least one great image.
As to obtaining an image with everyone’s eyes open, the jury is still out as to the best method. What works for me is to set the camera’s drive mode to continuous shooting, and ask everyone in the group to close their eyes and open them on the count of three. I fire multiple shots on the count of three, and then repeat the process a few times to ensure I have at least one great image.
When you are satisfied with what you’ve captured, you can break the group down into individual families and other groupings, and have some fun with it. Ditch the tripod and get creative with posing and shooting positions. Avoid meltdowns by photographing families with the youngest children first, and use common sense when it comes to mixing children with water, pets, and climbable objects.
What kind of groups have you photographed? What are your tips for photographing groups? What did you do right, and where did it go wrong?