No matter what type of photography you specialize in, sooner or later you’ll be asked to photograph a large group of people. You might be asked by a friend to photograph a class reunion, for example, or you might find yourself hired to shoot a corporate group. Perhaps it’ll be as informal as shooting your family and friends during a vacation. If you’re a wedding photographer you’re already doing group shots with every gig.
Before you snap away however, it’s best to remember some guidelines that apply to this particular style of photography. It involves more than simply lining everyone up and asking them to look into your lens. You’ll want to remember certain rules about lighting, lenses, and camera technique, and you’ll also want to be aware of how humans perceive relationships via body language.
What to Bring
Preparation as always will be key to making a great shot, and that means knowing what to bring to a group photo shoot. Of course you’ll have your gear bag containing camera, lighting, and lenses. In addition to these standard items, a step ladder might be the most important tool you can bring. A ladder will allow you to gain a few feet of altitude over your subjects which will help immensely in arranging your shot.
In fact the key to a great group shot is arranging the heads in a pleasing pattern. When you organize a group while shooting on level ground, the heads will appear bigger or smaller in relation to each other depending on the varying distance from your camera. You’ll also run into another problem if there’s so many people that it’s tough to make room for everyone. If it’s a tight squeeze, the people in back will present your camera frame with more heads than bodies, making for an awkward-looking shot.
A ladder helps solve these problems. Not only will it open up the space available so that you can stagger people front-to-back, but it also makes sure that the camera sees a body for every head. An added benefit is that everyone will be tilting their heads up which helps to tighten loose necks. A ladder is a necessity for shooting very large groups, although you can get away with standing on a car bumper or chair in a pinch.
Depending on the size of the group, you may also wish to bring a megaphone or PA system with a microphone. Obviously you won’t need it if there’s not more than 10-20 people. A larger group however can quickly get hard to manage if you can’t be heard. In addition to making communication easier, a megaphone also gives you a measure of authority that will give you undivided attention – always a good thing when dealing with a group.
Tips for Getting the Shot
Everyone knows that a wide-angle lens distorts the elements within the frame, sometimes to a great degree. You probably don’t want to see stretched-looking figures in your group photos, yet you may want to use a wide angle lens to help fit everyone into the frame. Many photographers will shoot with the intent to correct the distortion in post, but it’s always preferable to get as good an uncropped shot as possible.
Distance Yourself from the Group
The answer is to move further away from your group to diminish the distortion. You could also use a normal lens but space constraints may not allow this. You’ll have to compromise if shooting indoors within a limited area, which typically means using the widest lens you have and then trying to center the group away from the edges of your frame. Each situation will call for a unique approach.
Suggest Complementary Clothing
Positioning your group is important, but there is an important first step. If there is time beforehand, you’ll find that you can subtly improve the cohesive look of a group photo by asking the people to wear similar colors or styles of clothing. If one person sticks out due to their wardrobe, then the photo will draw attention to that person, rather than emphasizing the group. Avoiding contrasting fashions will make it much easier to attain a sense of uniformity.
Go Outdoors if Possible
Keep in mind that you’ll have to make different decisions about lighting depending on whether you’re indoors or outdoors. Both situations will make for good shooting but if you have a choice, going outside where the light is natural would probably be easier.
It depends also on the size of your group, but the main advantage of being outside is the abundant light. Indoors you’ll be working with a variety of light sources which may or may not be adequate for the shot. If you need to add a flash or other lights, your best bet is to position them directly beside your camera in order to avoid harsh shadows under eyebrows.
Arrange According to Relationships
When it’s time to arrange your people, consider first the relationships of those in the shot. For example, the most important people in a family shot tend to be the oldest, such as the grandparents or parents. One way to approach such a group would be to center the grandparents in the shot and then spread outwards according to parent-child relationships so as to keep a logical grouping. A stranger should be able to guess who is related to who by simply looking at the photo.
You want to avoid stacking your people, as this can bring too much visual importance to those on the top. A better way would be to arrange people side by side, with one row slightly behind the front row. This makes the elevation of the heads more equal. And by shooting from a ladder, you’ll have a favorable downward angle so that no one is towering over anyone else.
Similarly, if you’re shooting a corporate shot, again think of placing the most important (or senior) people at the center and then arranging outward from there. This helps provide a symbolic anchor for the shot and gives a sense of a cohesive, organized company structure.
There are no hard and fast rules, but with these guidelines you’ll be prepared to make a great group photo no matter what the situation is. Remember to keep it fun!