Group portrait scenarios can pop up anywhere—at a wedding, a sporting event, or casual backyard barbeque. While a group portrait may sound simple, when you put several people into one image, it’s anything but easy. When you’re cramming several people into the shot, there are several things that have to work together to make it a great image. So what’s the difference between a ho-hum snapshot and a great group portrait? Here are seven key elements to taking a great group portrait.
Sharp, clear faces.
Perhaps this one is a given—but it’s also harder to pull off than you may think. A great portrait needs sharp eyes; a great group portrait needs several sharp eyes. Getting the eyes sharp in a portrait of a single person is a matter of using single point autofocus. But how do you focus when there are multiple people in the image? If you have a nice family photo, focus on where the people are touching—this depends a bit on your pose. If you are taking a more formal portrait, with people sitting in rows, focus on a face that’s partially into the photo, not in the front row.
Another important aspect to get sharp faces is to use a depth of field that allows all the faces to be in focus. Depending on your aperture and your distance from the subject, there’s a limited range of distance from that focal point that will remain sharp. Aperture plays a big role in depth of field—a narrower aperture, or a larger f-number, will keep more of the shot, or more of those faces sharp. If you have a group pose that has layers—like rows—you’ll need to use a narrower aperture, ideally f/11 or more. But if you have a close knit group photo, for example a small family where all of the faces are the same distance from the camera, you can use a smaller aperture.
Distance also plays a role—the farther away you are from the subjects, the wider that range of sharpness will be. For example, if you are shooting at f/5.6 from five feet away, you can move ten feet away and get more of the shot sharp, even without changing your aperture.
A great pose.
There are hundreds of ways to fit multiple people into one image, but that doesn’t mean all of them are necessarily great. Good group poses will shoot all of the faces. The pose should also be flattering to each individual—that means using individual posing tips like creating angles with the arms and tilting the body away from the camera. Once everyone is assembled, fine tune the smaller details—like asking individuals to put their chin up more if you see a double chin.
Ideally, the pose also shouldn’t be very deep, so you can maintain a sharp shot, but that’s not always possible with larger groups. Smaller groups can easily be posed in a single row; while larger groups require rows to fit every face into the photo.
Setting up a group shot can be pretty time consuming; often, after all that setup, the group is not necessarily in the best mood. It’s the photographer’s job to lighten the mood a bit. When it comes to family portraits, this can mean giving the group an action, like having them walk while holding hands, or asking the kids to surprise mom and dad from behind. With larger groups, keep the mood lighthearted by being firm, but not bossy as you arrange the group. It also never hurts to throw in a joke or an unusual phrase just as you are ready to take the shot.
Every great photo needs great light, and group shots are no exception. The light source needs to be large enough to light up the entire group, so it falls across everyone evenly. A single hot shoe or pop up flash will only work with smaller groups. For larger groups with multiple rows, you’ll need a studio light set or multiple hot shoe flashes used off camera. If you don’t have that kind of gear, try taking big group shot outside.
Take care with outdoor group shots though. Don’t arrange the group so they are facing into the sun, or they’ll squint. Placing the sun behind the group is fine if you are able to use fill flash. Ideally, you can shoot on a cloudy day, or find an area of shade that offers enough shade for the whole group.
The right perspective.
Perspective can make a big difference for group shots. For smaller groups, the ideal perspective is to shoot from the subject’s eye level. That may mean kneeling if you are taking a photo of kids together, or if your pose has the group lower to the ground. But the best poses often have faces on different levels, so what do you do then? Try positioning yourself at a halfway height, then check to make sure you’re not looking up the nose of the tallest person in the shot.
For larger groups, getting up high can make the difference between getting everyone in the shot, and leaving some people out. If you’re trying to shoot all the guests at a wedding, you’ll have to get up high to fit them all in. Bring a ladder to climb on, or scope out the location for ways to shoot higher, like balconies and staircases.
In a great group photo, the people actually look like a group. For family photos, that means everyone is together, and no one is left standing off to the side by themselves. The most intimate family photos have everyone packed in and touching—like a big group hug, or holding hands. Of course, if you are taking an office group photo, you don’t want everyone holding hands. For business or sports team settings, you can create cohesiveness by coordinating everyone’s attire (which is of course already done for you for a sports team). You can also create cohesiveness by using a pose that keeps everyone close, just not quite to the extreme of the group hug family photo.
Similar to capturing a group that looks cohesive, the best group photos also capture the group dynamic. Is the group funny, happy, professional? Find out what makes that group stick together, and work to use that in your photo in some way. A family photo session for a group that loves to joke around can incorporate a practical joke, and you can snap their expressions. For families with active kids, having the kids do a sneak attack on mom and dad can work well. A great group dynamic is a result of a number of different things working together, including the pose and expressions. You could even use props—like a soccer ball for a sports team or active family—to help recreate that group dynamic in a photograph.
Taking a great group photo is challenging. The best group shots will have all the faces visible and sharp, with genuine expressions and a solid pose. Great lighting and perspective is key to any good photo, and cohesiveness and group dynamic certainly comes into play for group shots as well.
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