Mastering the Group Portrait

by richard on October 28, 2010

familygroup 300x197 Mastering the Group Portrait
Recently I did a blog about taking a portrait of an individual. So what would we do differently if we were shooting a group? Many of the key elements hold true, but there are some subtle differences. I have listed the summary first, with some details to follow:

Summary

Find a location with some nice soft light
Identify a simple background that is big enough to hold your group
When setting up your camera, be aware that you will need a larger depth of field than you might for a single person portrait. Set all this up before posing your subjects
Hold the camera still!
Engage your subjects, and be aware that with a larger group it will be harder to get everyone cooperating at the same time
Take plenty of shots

Light

Once again, light is the most important element to consider. Look for a location that gives you indirect light that will also be consistent across the group – you don’t want some people in the dark, and some in the light. Reflected light works for this type of portrait as well (see diagram), or position your group under a big tree or verandah. If you are in an open area, try to have the sun behind the subjects, ideally just off to one side, and think about using some fill flash to reduce the shadows on faces.
portrait sketch 300x200 Mastering the Group Portrait
group monsanto 300x206 Mastering the Group Portrait
(In an open setting, have the sun behind the subjects, and use some fill flash. Note the subjects are lower than the camera, and the background was important to identify location)

Composition

Groups are tougher to compose, because you have more elements to worry about, and need a bigger area to work with. If you have people “layered” you may lose some faces behind others. It often works to get some elevation above your subjects – via a ladder, balcony etc, or placing the subjects on lower ground to you. This allows the camera to “see” more faces in the group.
As mentioned earlier, you want what ever lighting conditions you have to be even across the group, otherwise some people will appear too dark or too light in relation to the group. If you’re under a tree, be aware that gaps in the foliage can create “hotspots” that will be too bright on a subject’s face. Consider your background – do you want it to be a part of the picture (such as a scenic location), or do you want it to be simple so that the people are the main focus. In larger groups you may have to compromise from your ideal.
wedding group2 300x205 Mastering the Group Portrait
(getting up on a balcony makes it easy to see all of the subjects, but you have to project your voice! – oops one person with glasses on!)

Camera set up

With a single subject, I encouraged you to use ‘portrait mode’ on your point and shoot, or to select a low aperture number in Aperture Priority mode. With a larger group, you want to make sure all of the subjects are in focus, and if you have them staggered, you will need to select an aperture up around f8. Double check to make sure your shutter speed is high enough (above 1/60th) to reduce the effects of any camera shake. If you have to, you can increase the iso setting but unless you have a really good camera, try not to go above 400, or the noise will become noticeable.
If you are shooting with the sun behind your subjects, you may have to consider compensating the exposure, as the camera may take into account a very bright sky, while the faces will effectively be in shadow. A couple of test shots whilst setting up will help determine this. If you have good reflected light, or the background is not bright sky, you should be ok to leave the flash off, but consider using fill flash (many point and shoots have this flash option, or if you can dial down the flash strength) to lift any shadows on faces.
Depending on the size of the group, you may have to use a little of your wide angle capability, but limit this as much as you can by getting further back from your subjects. Remember, when you first start up your camera, it will typically default to its wide-angle setting. If it is too wide, the subjects on either end are likely to be distorted.
group shot3 300x200 Mastering the Group Portrait
(large depth of field important with a scattered group – image courtesy of Pete at pawpaw)

Posing

Typically a group shot should reflect togetherness and happiness, so make sure there isn’t a person on the end standing on their own, separated from the group. Don’t be afraid to tell people to bunch up, and step behind someone’s shoulder. You really need to build a rapport with a group, and engage them so they are looking at you (and the camera) when you want them to be. Talk to them the whole time you are setting up. Tell them you are taking a number of shots to make sure you get a good one, and keep an eye out for those who are distracted, or not looking at the camera. Ask those who are wearing sunglasses to remove them.

Planning

As with a single person portrait, work out all these steps before asking your subjects to pose and smile. It’s a lot harder to have 10 people looking good at the same time versus one, so limit the time you are asking them to hold still and smile, as some people lose interest more quickly than others.

Take a few practice shots while people are finalizing their positions so you are comfortable with your settings. Remember to hold the camera as still as you can!

Above all, have fun with it, and do what you can to get your subjects looking natural and happy – it will make for better shots!
wedding group 300x200 Mastering the Group Portrait

Richard Jagger works as a professional photographer and writer, as well as a painter. He has had two solo photographic exhibitions, and one joint painting exhibition. His first novel, the techno-thriller entitled “The Cure” is now available via Amazon in paperback or E book versions

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