Shooting group portraits

Looking at the December 2007 issue of Vanity Fair, I was pleased to see that Annie Leibovitz didn't shrink from the challenge of shooting a giant group photo of the American patrons of the Tate Modern Museum. Way to go, Annie! You're gonna do just fine in this biz.

In my own humble corner of the world, I'm shooting group shots all the time. These range from family clusters with just a handful of members to large assemblies that show off every person invited to a wedding. (As a rule, I try to keep these bigger crowds to fewer than 125 people; beyond that it gets harder to be creative.) But it seems that I use some of the same guidelines that Annie does. Of course, I can only guess at how she puts these together, because I'm too shy to call her, but here's a few tricks I do:

1) Mix it up. And down.

Putting people at different heights and in different positions can add a great deal of texture to a group photo. I joke with my clients that I try very hard to NOT make their photos look like "the debate team in the high school yearbook." They laugh because it's pretty much an archetype: a bunch of people lined up in a row looking awkward. Sometimes it's two rows. Doesn't matter. You don't get any sense from that image of who's naughty and who's nice, who the funny guy is and which girl is most likely to succeed.

By having some people sit, some stand, some lean, a maybe a couple people interacting with each other, you create a relaxed scene that has the potential of saying a lot more about the personalities and characters of the people in your photo. After all, those powerful memory-triggers that are activated when we see a photo of some old friend usually come faster and more powerfully when photo shows that person being him- or herself.

Mixing it up and down also serves another useful purpose. And that is to..

2) Create depth.

Photography is inherently a two-dimensional medium. Whether you're looking at a print on a wall, or illuminated pixels on your computer screen, you're basically seeing a flat surface. Why magnify that limitation by creating a police lineup? In the image above, even though the subjects are all basically standing in one plane, I've created a pleasing front-to-back sense of depth by moving off-axis. Do all that you can to spread out your action and take the viewer's eye from place to place in the image. You have to watch your depth of field if you spread them out too much, but if you're working with the light you can pull it off.

One big issue that I run in to all the time is that a lot of people just aren't very comfortable being photographed. This is where I think Annie has it easy sometimes. Sure you can get Scarlett Johansson and Lucy Liu and 14 other Hollywood Lolitas to hit dramatic poses for you to produce a dynamite photograph: that's what those people are paid to do! They practice doing it all the time! Whereas for those of us in the real world, we are often dealing with people who are having their picture taken because they've been told to show up and behave. So how do you get people to soften up and stop worrying about how ridiculous they think they look?

3) Get your subjects to do something.

If you can get your peoples' minds off the fact that they are your subjects and distract them in to think they're having fun, you're going to get a better picture. One very natural and easy way to do this is to have them walk around. I have the whole group walk maybe 50-60 yards away from me, and then turn around and all come back. I tell them to talk to each other, joke around, shake off any tension they have. Shooting with my 70-200mm zoom, I can generally fill up the frame with the crowd and widen out as they get closer to me. After a few attempts at this technique, you'll figure out some ways to get people moving in a more coordinated fashion. As your people loosen up a bit, they will be more likely to look pleasant and comfortable if you do have to tell them to look up at you for a second. And they'll look up at you because you have elected to;

4) Get some height over the crowd.

I carry a 3-step ladder in my trunk all the time, and I have it ready whenever I need to work with a group. Gaining some height serves several useful functions.
  • - It lets you see everyone in the photo. If you're at eye-level with a crowd, somebody is going to get blocked by someone else's head. I tell my groups, "If you can't see me, I can't see you."
  • - It helps to get rid of double chins and frowns. If people have to look up, it pulls the skin on their face a little tighter, and tends to keep them from being able to mope.
  • - It lets you shout instructions to the group, and puts you in a position of authority. Think of yourself as a band leader, and get everyone marching to your rhythm. You might only have 1-2 minutes to hold everyone's attention, so make it count.
  • - It usually helps your composition by cleaning up the background a bit.
If you're up high, there's one last guideline that's very helpful..

5) Put the sun behind them.

You'll see in most of these images that old Sol is striking everyone on the back of the head and shoulders. That's a great way to separate everyone out from the background. If you need, you can generally get away with just a bit of fill light on their faces from a couple of small strobes. Perhaps even more helpful, it avoids the issue of having a viewfinder-full of squinting, uncomfortable people staring up at the brightest part of the sky. If they don't have to squint, they can smile. And they'll feel better about you, because you haven't blinded them. So don't be afraid to shoot in to the sun, or at least get it off to the side.

None of these photos are by Annie Liebovitz, by the way. You think I WANT to get sued??


Erwin Stok said...

I have to make some groups shots next saturday and your item was very helpfull. Did you used strobes on the last picture? I mean de photo of the bride and groom and all the guests.

Erwin Stok.

Thomas said...

On that last photo of the big group I did not use anything other than sunlight. Sometimes I do fire a couple strobes, but here I just metered for the faces while the sun was hitting everyone from behind. That way, you get a nice "crest" of light on people's head and shoulders so that they separate, visually, from the person behind them. You lose some detail in hair highlights, but it's much better than having everyone squint if they're facing the sun.

Kim de Groote said...

First of all thanksx for the info very helpfull.
I have one question: My old photography teacher told me that if you are shooting a portrait with natural light falling through a window for instance you should stand in front of the window and have your subject face you. Does this work with groups as well? I have to make a group portrait very soon, but probably indoors.

Thanks for the info.

Thomas said...

Hello, Kim —

From my standpoint, your photography teacher could not have given you a less interesting technique for shooting a portrait, although I suppose it is a somewhat reliable one. Generally, light falling straight on to someone's face from the same position the camera is at will be very flat and dull light. If you think of famous portraits you've seen, either in photography or painting, the light is almost always falling on the subject from one side rather than straight on. Also, because the intensity of light falls off so quickly as it gets further from the source (here, your window) you might find that behind your subject everything gets pretty dark pretty quick. One pet peeve of mine is pictures where the people are floating in a sea of blackness.

What I might have instructed instead is that you have your subject stand by the window while you stand along the wall near the window and let all of the window light fall on your subject instead of you blocking some of it with your body.

As to doing a larger group portrait with window light, all I can say is that you might be able to pull it off, but it would help if your windows were very large. If you have even a couple rows of people, which could be the case even if you have only 4 or 5 subjects, you need a certain amount of depth of field to have everyone in focus, so you need to have a fair amount of light. If you're shooting a group by your average kitchen window, you're probably going to have some people out of focus if they're not all on the same plane (as they might be if they were standing in a police lineup.) So any extra light that you can bring to the setup in that situation is going to help you out. With some cameras you can set your ISO quite high to gain some extra depth of field, but many cameras don't perform very well when you do that (you get digital noise, or if you're shooting film you get grainier images with high speed films) and that's not always very appealing in a portrait.

Mistress said...

I am having a heck of a time with group shots and I am not sure why. I've copped out and kept it on auto focus and the middle person will be in focus while anyone closer or further back will be out of focus. It's frustrating. Show I be using a different lens, different setting...? I just don't know where to start!

Susan Staus said...

I love your pictures! What settings do u put your camera on to get everyone in focus? I have a problem of getting everyone in focus and it really bugs me.

Thomas said...

Hi, Susan — Every situation is a bit different, but there are a couple things you can do to improve your chances of getting people in focus, and these al tend to work hand-in-hand.
1st) Because no one is moving (in theory, anyway) you don't have to use a very fast shutter speed. I take it down to maybe 1/125th. The main benefit of this is that it allows me to..
2nd) Stop down the lens to increase your depth of field. Once you get past the median f-stop on your lens (usually around f/8) you pick up a lot of depth. Going to f/11 or f/16 can increase the range, front to back, of objects that are in focus, so depending on where you were standing that might mean that everything from 10 feet away to 30 feet away was pretty crisp. But at f/4, you might only have a few inches of depth of field, so the folks in the back row will be blurry.
3rd) Put a little distance between you and the group. If you're only five feet away, you don't have as big a range of subjects that can potentially be in focus. But if you're 15 feet away, your focusing your lens more toward the "infinity" direction of the dial, and subjects have a smaller distance away from each other, proportionally, than they do when you're close. Look at the focus dial on your lens.. There's a lot of space between where you have to focus between, say, 1 foot away and 3 feet away, but you have to turn the dial a lot less to change the focus from 10 feet away to 40 feet. There's lots of interesting physics and optics behind why this is so, and I won't go in to that. But overall, if you can move back away from the group a bit you'll find it easier to get more people in focus.
I hope that helps.