Even for the most experienced photographer, photographing groups can be a humbling experience. The key is to create a picture that works on both an individual and a group level. Depending on the number of people involved, this will necessitate a great deal of forethought and more than a little luck. Here are several pointers for photographers who are brave enough to take on the group portrait.
First, consider the big picture.
What are you trying to say with your picture and who are you photographing? These are good questions to ask before every portrait session, but they’re particularly relevant when working with a group. Photographing a group of attorneys, for example, would necessitate a different method than photographing a bridal party.
Choosing a location is the first step in this process. Your sitters are framed by their surroundings, both literally and figuratively. A place may often act as if it were a member of your community, offering visual clues as to what brought your subjects together. A nondescript spot, on the other hand, may help draw attention to the people in your photograph.
Take a different approach
For many working photographers, having complete artistic control of where they film is a rare privilege. However, when setting up your shot, you should pay careful attention to certain specifics. Any photograph’s lighting will make or break it.
Ambient lighting can be a significant challenge for photographers working in cramped spaces. Many corporate offices have fluorescent lights that create horrible colour casts and are just bright enough to prevent people from falling asleep at their desks.
Where necessary, mark ineffective light sources and use your own photography and video equipment to ensure reliable lighting. Otherwise, consider taking a field trip to build your portrait outside of the office.
Make a joke
When the camera shutter is shot, portraits live or die based on the sitter’s mood. Everyone is different when it comes to being in front of the camera, and it’s your duty as the photographer to build an atmosphere where your sitter can get over any pre-shoot nerves.
Working with only one sitter can be challenging enough, but with parties, you’ll be handling at least two distinct personalities. Talking is one way to get you to loosen up.
It’s always a good idea to take a few minutes before shooting to relax and have a fast cup of tea or coffee. This is also a great way to ensure that everyone involved in the shoot is on the same page.
Allow your subjects to enjoy themselves. Your photos will benefit from it.
Maintaining a lively conversation may seem obvious, but it will help to divert everyone’s attention away from the fact that they are being photographed.
During an uncomfortable silence, it’s easy to find a group photo shot in a clinical manner. Although time constraints or the sheer number of sitters you’re working with can make it difficult to get to know everybody, do your best to lighten the mood and put everyone at ease.
Taking a group portrait of several people apart from one another and wide open is usually not the best way.
Down, down, down!
Contrary to what we’ve all been told, the first thing ninety-nine out of a hundred audiences look at in a portrait isn’t bokeh, but faces. You want to make the most of your super-fast prime lens and let the bokeh flow, right? Nobody cares how smooth your backdrop is if one of your sitters’ eyes is out of sight, believe me. Stop down long enough to ensure that everyone in your portrait is in view at the same time.
This does not imply that you must fire your groups at f/22. Simply paying attention to how everybody in your picture is placed in relation to each other will help you a lot. You can keep everyone sharp when aiming on the small side if you keep their faces in the same general plane.
Although you should be aware of what your sitters are wearing, you don’t have to insist that they all match—unless they want to.
Use Your Style Wisely
The more people in a portrait, the more styling becomes significant. This is a personal choice; dressing a party for a high-fashion editorial is not the same as dressing a family for a holiday card.
Similarly, depending on the type of shoot you’re doing, the amount of influence you have over what your subjects wear can vary. In general, neutral colours are the best bet for portraits where the focus is on the people being portrayed.
If you’re not careful, bright colours can clash, distract, or, worst of all, contaminate skin tones. A well-thought-out style can help to bring your group together and create a more harmonious picture.
Studying the work of portrait painters is one of the best ways to learn how to pose groups. Washington Irving and His Literary Friends at Sunnyside, by Christian Schussele, oil on canvas, 1864.
Consider yourself a painter.
There were portrait paintings before there were portrait pictures. Group portraiture has a long tradition that predates the advent of photography. In their compositions, Renaissance painters were meticulous, creating conventions that are still used today.
Do you want a little more drama in your life? Throughout the 17th century, Baroque painters poured it on with dramatic poses and strategic lighting. Throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, portraiture will continue to develop. Make your own portrait background from the beginning to the present.
There are numerous books and online resources available to help you learn about portraiture’s history. And, while painting formed the model, photography should not be overlooked. Examine how some of your favourite photographers have approached group portraits.
Finally, there are few things that can energise an artist more than visiting a gallery and seeing past works in person. Spend a day at your local museum, soaking up the creative spirit of your forefathers if possible.
It can take a few tries, depending on the subjects, to get a picture where everyone is on the same page.
And more for good measure.
The Holy Grail of group portraits is capturing a picture that pleases all of the sitters. Someone would inevitably blink. And there was someone else. And it’s back to the first person. Allow yourself the luxury of a few more shots for each look than you think you’ll like.
Consider shooting tethered to a monitor or tablet on larger productions so that an assistant can have an additional pair of eyes on your shots in real time to spot any issues. When photographing large crowds, shooting tethered makes it much easier to scan for anomalies than looking at your camera’s relatively small rear LCD or EVF. For more vlogging and photography tips and guides, visit lensmatrics.com.