Ah, the group portrait. Nothing quite creates chaos like trying to arrange a big group of people into one image. The bigger the group, the more complex the set-up. Yet, group portraits are often great ways to capture memories, and are a good sub-genre for photographers to master. While posing a group is certainly more challenging than setting up an individual portrait, there are a few dos and don’ts to make the entire process run a bit smoother.
1. Don’t align faces on the same level
Lining the group up in two or more lines isn’t just boring, it can also make groups feel less cohesive (with the exception of traditional sports team shots). Instead, arrange the group so that the faces are at different heights. Depending on the height of your subjects, this can often be a challenge. Arranging the group on a set of stairs can help, along with having some subjects seated.
2. Try imagining a triangle instead of a grid
The rule of thirds doesn’t apply to group photos. Instead of imaging that tic tac toe grid across the image, imagine a triangle, with the widest portion of the triangle towards the bottom of the frame. If you fit all the faces inside that triangle, they’ll look like a cohesive group, and you’ll also avoid lining them up on the same level. Using the triangle as a composition guideline also helps small groups look more intimate and cohesive.
3. Make sure everyone is visible
It’s easy for someone to get lost in the scheme of things. Check all the faces before you shoot and ensure they’re clearly visible. If not, adjust so everyone’s entire face is in the shot. A missing person or partially covered face can quickly ruin what would otherwise be a great shot. You should be able to see everyone’s eyes, but avoid having faces partially covered too.
4. Don’t spread them too far apart
While empty space certainly has a place in photography, it’s not ideal for group portraits. Putting one member off to the side makes them look (and perhaps feel) excluded. Have them get in close. You’ll probably have to remind them several times that they should ignore their personal bubble just for the photos.
5. Mix it up
There’s a lot going on in a group portrait, but paying attention to all the little details will really help your shot sing. Mix up heights, colors and skin tones. Are the only two people wearing green standing right next to each other? Move them around. Are all the tall people towards one side? Mix them up. Is the family segregated by gender? Move people around a bit. Mixing up those little details, again, helps to create more of a cohesive feel.
6. Think patterns
While you’re mixing it up, look for potential patterns too. Patterns add interest to an image and that can work well for groups. Arrange by the color of their apparel, their height, or some other feature. You can also mix up their individual poses to make a pattern by alternating between sitting and kneeling, for example.
7. Don’t forget individual portrait tips
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Just because you’re arranging a group doesn’t mean the individual portrait tips go out the window. Work to keep the subjects relaxed. Suggest posing tips to the group as a whole like tilting their bodies away from the camera a bit, or individually, such as fixing double chins. Look at the group as a whole. People on the ends may look better with an arm out at an angle, while that may not work for those in the middle.
8. Try giving them an action instead
Group photo looking stiff and boring? Or have little ones that don’t sit still? Instead of trying to arrange a perfect pose, give them an action to do. For example, when taking a family photo, ask all the kids to surprise mom and dad with a big group hug. Ask them to run, walk, or jump. By giving them an action, you’re not only creating a good pose without actually posing, but also capturing a more natural expression.
9. Match the pose to your depth of field
Make sure the pose matches your depth of field. A narrow depth of field only works in group portraits when everyone is the same distance from the camera, otherwise they won’t all be in sharp focus. (Though sometimes, some members are intentionally blurred, like in a shot of the kids with mom and dad kissing in the background.) If your group isn’t all the same distance from the camera, use a narrower aperture, like an f/11. That narrow aperture can be tricky indoors, so you’ll need to use a slower shutter speed, or head outside if you can’t lower the shutter speed without blurring one or more of the people in the image. If you’re not sure about your aperture setting, take a photo and check on the LCD screen, making sure to zoom in so you can see the sharpness.
10. Don’t forget to adjust
Not everyone can sit still for long periods and listen to directions. If there are kids in the group, plan accordingly. Arrange all the adults first, then get the kids in and shoot quickly. Often, groups with kids work better if you give them an action instead of a more traditional pose. Keep in mind it goes the other way too. Don’t put grandma in an uncomfortable position, or leave her on her feet for too long either.
11. Be the boss
A group photo session is 90% arranging the group and 10% actually taking pictures. You’ll need to swallow any feelings of shyness and direct people into the pose. Be sure to make your voice loud and clear. You’re the boss, for the time being anyways. Sometimes though, it’s best for the boss to “hire” a manager for large groups. As the photographer, you probably don’t know everyone’s name. It’s often a good idea to ask for help from someone that knows everyone. This works great for weddings, when there are typically multiple family photos that need to be taken.
Group photos are challenging. A successful group shot usually involves a lot more time setting up the shot than actually taking it. But, with a few tips like not putting faces on the same level and looking for patterns, you can wind up with a photo that captures a feeling of cohesiveness without so much chaos. Remember to incorporate individual posing tips too, and speak up to keep the group moving.
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