As someone who does a lot of family and child photos, one of the most rewarding but also the most challenging scenarios I encounter, is that of classic group portraits. You know, the one where you’ve got the whole family together and the kids all dressed up and it’s the first time in three years that the everyone was able to get in one place for a picture. Someone is fussing over an un-tucked shirt, another is texting his buddy, the kids are crying, and grandma and grandpa are patiently smiling away because they’ve been down this road many times before.
It’s a tricky situation to be sure. While every family is unique and there is no one single method that will work for every situation, there are a few tips and tricks you can use to pose the whole gang. Get everyone to chill out long enough so you can get the type of frame-worthy shot that may end up as a giant print on the wall or above a fireplace mantle.
Put the crowd at ease
As a photographer, it can be tempting to get right down to business at the beginning of a photo shoot. You want to show everyone how serious you are about your work, and start barking orders to all parties involved. “Okay Grandma, you sit down over there. Now uncle Jimmy, you go here. And you…what’s your name? Claudia? Can you do me a big favor and get your hands out of your pockets?”
The feeling of authority and power that can creep in when wielding your expensive gear and big lenses can be as intoxicating as it is nerve-wracking. But unfortunately, it’s not the best way to get the shots you want.
It’s easy to get so caught up in the idea of getting the perfect picture that you forget about the people whose photos you are taking. You don’t know what happened before they arrived at the session. They are probably a little trepidatious regarding what is about to take place with this photographer and all the fancy cameras and lenses.
The adults are likely on pins and needles because they have invested time, energy, and possibly a lot of money into the ensuing photo session and they just want things to go right. The last thing they need is more stress from a photographer (who can’t even remember their names) telling them where to sit, stand, and look.
Take it slow – talk to them first
To solve this problem, I like to spend five or 10 minutes at the beginning of a family or group portrait session not shouting orders or even getting my camera out, but talking with everyone and getting to know them a bit. And for goodness sakes, learn their names!
Learn some other things too. Where do they work? What do they enjoy doing in their spare time? What movies do the kids like? Sure it will add some time to your shoot, and yes I realize the sun is going down soon and you need to get moving. But if you really want to up your game when it comes to family and group portraits try taking some time to get to know the family or group.
They will feel more at ease and want to work with you. Then when you need Claudia to get her hands out of her pockets you can call her by her correct name (Olivia, to be exact) and give her the Vulcan Salute with a wry grin because you just found out that she, like you, is really into Star Trek.
Focus on the kids
While not all group photos involve children, many of them do and in those situations, it’s vitally important to make sure you prioritize the little ones over the grownups. Not that you don’t care about the adults, but they are much more compliant when it comes to following directions and working with you. Kids are another matter entirely, which is why it’s so important to get them on your side early on and then pay extra attention to them during the photo shoot.
I usually make this clear to the grown-ups too, and blatantly tell them that I expect them to smile, hold a pose, etc., because all my attention is going to be aimed at the little ones. I often start by showing my camera to the children and letting them hold some of my gear. This can be especially useful if you are using longer lenses like a 70-200mm that might feel kind of intimidating to them. The process helps acclimatize them to you as a photographer, dispel some of the nervousness that often results during a session, and usually makes the kids more open to following instructions.
I also like to joke around with the kids, ask them about their favorite movies, toys, video games, and TV shows even if I have no idea what they’re talking about. (If someone can explain the difference between Peppa the Pig and Spongebob Squarepants I’d sure like to know. Cartoons these days make no sense at all to me.) This makes the kids let their guard down and smile while also putting the parents at ease, and believe me, if the kids are stressed the parents sure will be also. But if little Timmy and Alice are having fun, you can bet mom and dad are too.
Tips for posing
Astute readers will note that by this point I have said almost nothing that relates to the title of this article, which is ostensibly about posing people for group portraits. That’s because posing isn’t really the point here. If you show up with your Canon 5dMark III and 85mm f/1.2 lens and expect to take frame-worthy shots simply by going through a checklist of poses, you’re going to have a hard time.
Portrait photography is built on the foundation of a good professional relationship between you and your subjects. Taking the time to develop this at the outset is critical to getting good images when you start clicking away with your camera. However, when it is time to actually take pictures here are some tips to keep in mind.
Do the must-have shots first
Get the must-have shots done first. These are the ones where you need the whole group in the picture, including the kids, and you need everyone to be at their best and brightest. If it’s a generational picture, put the eldest members (i.e. Grandma and Grandpa) in the middle, sitting down if possible. Surround them with kids. Put the little ones on their laps with any tweens and teens standing next to them. On the sides of the picture place the middle generation, or the children of the grandparents.
As you start taking pictures talk with the people, crack jokes, ask them to say odd things to get them laughing (e.g. “On the count of three everybody say Pepperoni and Pickles!”). In the process, you will not only get the little ones to produce genuine smiles, but the adults usually will too.
Keep it comfortable
Throughout the session, whether there are kids or not, you want your subjects to be comfortable with you and with each other so don’t make them do things that feel awkward or unusual. If you’re working with adults, have them stand up with their hands around their loved ones. (Position hands on backs, not wrapped around waists, or else you end up with floating fingers that look unflattering and unusual).
Use the scenery for seating or to stagger the heights of your subjects in order to get more interesting pictures. If women are on the edge of the frame (outer edge of the group) have them put one hand on their hip with the elbow out.
Another tip is to put the tallest person in the center and go down in height from there, but pay attention to relationships too. You’ll notice in the group photo above that the two men are on the edge instead of the middle, which creates a somewhat concave shape to the portrait.
That was an intentional choice on my part since the two young women are daughters of the couple sitting on the bench. I deliberately chose to break a posing rule because I wanted to emphasize the relationships present in the picture, which is something you need to keep in mind when posing for group photos.
In terms of raw technical details, know that you need a decently fast shutter speed to freeze motion. So even if your group is standing relatively still I recommend using a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second to minimize blur that often happens due to moving hands or blowing breezes.
As a general rule, I like to shoot at f/4 or smaller (remember that larger f-numbers mean smaller apertures) to get a wider depth of field. Shooting at f/2.8 might give you a nice blurry background, but it could also mean someone in the group will be out of focus due to a shallow depth of field. Finally, off-camera speedlights can be a great way to compensate for harsh or dim lighting and help eliminate shadows on faces.
One final tip that comes in handy when doing group sessions is to have a shot list prepared with their actual names if possible instead of just placeholder pronouns like Mom, Grandpa, Little Sister, etc. You don’t want to get back to your computer and realize you forgot a crucial shot because you were too focused on getting the hand placements correct.
I hope some of these tips are useful for you, and I’m eager to know what techniques you have found to be helpful in your own shooting too. Leave your thoughts in the comment section below, and may you live long and prosper.