With the Holidays having now gone by, maybe you received a camera as a gift and have now been dubbed the “family’s personal photographer”, or maybe you already own a camera, but your larger group shots have never turned out quite like you imagined they would. Well, in this article, we are going to break down some easy to remember rules for taking group shots!
It’s funny- when just starting out in photography, I think that most people are trying to figure out how to take that “perfect” portrait with a blurry background and soft dreamy lighting. I think that quite quickly, most people find that this is actually a very easy picture to take, and that taking good group shots is actually quite a bit harder. So, how can we take a group photograph so that it doesn’t look like our grandmother took it 10 years ago at high noon using a disposable camera? Well, there’s a few steps to doing that, and once you get them down, you’ll be well on your way to mastering the ever requested “family group photo.”
Step 1: Posing
Now, I’m not going to try to tell you how to pose people, because it will honestly vary significantly depending upon how many people are in the shot, and the look you’re going for. That said, just try your best to place people so that it makes sense, and the shot is well balanced. If the group is outside, make a quick check above everyone to make sure there won’t be any trees growing out of anyone’s head. Now, the more interesting and important part of posing a family photo is not the how but the where. You will want to pose your group so that there is some separation between them and the background. In other words, please don’t line everyone up in front of a wall as though you are taking a group mugshot. You are going to have to take the photo using a smaller aperture anyways, so don’t compound that effect by putting your group so close to a backdrop. You know what, this is starting to feel like it should be a new section, so let’s move on to step two.
Step 2: Aperture
The biggest mistake, and I mean BIGGEST, that new photographers make is overusing a wide aperture for a shallow depth of field. “But that’s my artistic choice!” Ok fine, BUT, having people out of focus on group shots is not an artistic choice, it’s a mistake. So, how can we make sure this doesn’t happen too often, because trust me, it WILL happen. You will need to do the seemingly impossible and close that aperture down to increase your depth of field. The reason for this is quite simple. In a group shot, there are multiple people standing at slightly different distances between each other and the camera. So, if person A is standing 10ft from the camera and person B is standing 10.5ft from the camera and person C is standing 11ft from the camera, 2 of the people are going to be slightly out of focus no matter who you focus on if your depth of field is too shallow. So close that aperture down a bit to increase your depth of field which will put everyone in the group within the margin of focus. Now I’m not saying you need to stop down to F11 for a group shot, but you certainly don’t want to be anywhere near F2. And don’t worry, you’ll still get that out of focus background as long as there is a nice distance from your subjects to your background, and a close enough distance from you to your subjects.
Step 3: Lighting
Lighting a group shot isn’t dissimilar to lighting a portrait in that you want to avoid harsh light or deep shadows hitting the subjects. You also want even light across the entire group, or, in other words, don’t put David in the sun and Matilda in the shade. Typically, you can find nice soft, even lighting in a shaded area. If you can schedule a time to take the picture, try to schedule the picture in the morning, or evening, when the sun is low, and the light is soft. As well, a cloudy, overcast day produces beautiful, evenly diffused light. You should try your best to avoid taking group shots in the middle of the day when the sun is bright and high in the sky, which will produce harsh shadows and unflattering light. If you must take a picture midday, look for some shade which will diffuse the harsh light. As well, watch out for people wearing hats which can cast a shadow onto their face depending upon the angle to the sun. When it comes to lighting for a group shot, it can be tempting to view the group as a whole but try to remember to look at each person individually, which is when you will catch little things like the shadow from a hat, or a small bright highlight that is hitting someone through the trees. Want that dreamy look for a group shot? When the sun is low and setting, put it behind your group and the golden light will wrap around your subjects creating a really nice effect. When doing this, you may need some artificial light to brighten your subjects’ faces.
Step 4: Angle
As a photographer, it can be really fun to play with different angles when taking pictures, and when taking a group shot there really isn’t too much that you can mess up because it is a pretty straightforward picture. That said, I have to tell you, a group shot horror story that recently happened to my family. It was the day of my sister’s wedding and the photographer gathered the wedding party for group shots. It was around mid-day so the photographer found a nice grouping of trees that provided shade as well as a nice backdrop. There was only one problem- the photographer stood on a hill while the wedding party was at the bottom of the hill by the trees. In your mind, you might be thinking “so what?”. Well, because the photographer was “shooting downhill”, the perspective created the illusion that every person in the wedding party was about 4 feet tall!! This is definitely a mistake that I would NOT want to make, especially while photographing a wedding, but these things happen, and that’s why I’m sharing it with you, so that the next time you are taking a group shot, or any picture, you will take a moment to think about the angle from you to the subject and how that might impact your final image.
Step 5: Framing
The biggest mistake that I see with regards to framing a group photograph is missing limbs, particularly severed feet! I totally understand why, you are looking at all the faces and making sure everyone is looking and smiling and you completely forget about the rest of the person! Now, a close crop on a group shot can look really nice, and it is definitely a picture that you should take, but if you are taking the picture from further away so that you can see everyone standing in their surroundings, DON’T CUT OFF THEIR FEET! Other than that, go wild with framing! Take close ups, try some with the group standing, some with them sitting, but remember to always check your frame to make sure you aren’t slicing and dicing limbs in the process ;)
- Lens choice.
Try to avoid wide angle lenses which will distort the outer edges of the photo more than the center. If you need to use a wide angle lens to fit the group in the shot, try your best to avoid having anyone near the edges of the frame. Other than that, your lens choice will largely be dictated on the amount of space that you have and the size of the group. In general, however, you will most likely be using your everyday lenses for group shots. If you are finding a “normal” 50mm lens to be too telephoto, I would recommend a good quality 35mm lens such as:
- Multiple images
Group photos can be hard to retake. If you are at a party and get everyone together for a picture, make the opportunity count because people will not want to leave their conversations a second time due to a mistake that was made when the picture was taken. Because of this, you will want to take multiple pictures for multiple reasons. One reason is to make sure you will have a picture where no one is blinking. Another reason is that you may want to bracket your exposures if you aren’t exactly sure what the best exposure will be when it gets to the editing process.
Finally, I think one of the most important reasons to take a few pictures would be to take a “safety” picture for your depth of field. For example, maybe you feel like you might be cutting it close with too thin of a depth of field, but everything seems to look ok through your cameras viewfinder. You still take one safety picture with your aperture closed down one more stop just in case. When you get home and see your pictures on your computer screen, you can now see that some of the subjects are slightly out of focus, and your safety picture saved you! This has saved more than one of my group shots in the past when I was pushing my depth of field a bit too thin for the group size or pose.
- Be vocal about where the group should look
In the age of smart phones, even if a group shot is being organized for you to take, people will inevitably pull out their phones to take their own pictures. For some reason, people can’t help themselves and will want to look at all the different cameras/phones. You NEED to make sure that everyone is only looking at you. Group shots look very weird when the group is looking at different cameras. In fact, I think people are relieved when the photographer says clearly “DO NOT LOOK ANYWHERE ELSE EXCEPT FOR AT MY LENS”. This takes the pressure off the people in the photo who are feeling pressured to look at Aunt Rachel or Uncle Adam who are trying to take their own pictures.
Group shots really aren’t that difficult if you take the above considerations in mind. The trick is to think about them differently than portraits. I think people run into problems when they apply a portrait photography mindset to group shots - shallow depth of field, ease of repeatability, focusing on the group as whole, and not also individually. A trick that I use to help change my mindset when photographing is attaching a new mindset to a new lens. For example, if I am taking a bunch of portraits with an 85mm lens, but I’m about to switch to some group shots, I will make a point to change my mindset as I change my lens. This is always a good time to slow down and take a little moment to reset your brain.
So that’s all for this article, I hope it helped! If you have some other helpful advice that I’ve missed, be sure to leave it as a comment!