How to do good group photos

My posting about shooting group portraits has been one of the most-viewed on this blog, and this week's story about, um, "changes" to the new Israeli Cabinet gives me the chance to talk about one of the most important aspects of any group photo.


Isn't that the whole purpose of getting everyone together and telling them to stand up straight? You want to see their faces.

So in this photo of the new cabinet, there are at least seven people who are blocked by other people standing in front of them. If this was done for a gaggle of photographers, then there isn't much that any individual shooter can do about that. But if this was, say, an official handout photo shot by one person (which is not unusual) then the photographer should have remembered to say nine very important words that should be shouted out before the shutter is pressed on any group shot..


I say this every time I have a gathering of more than just a handful of people. In every crowd you've got somebody who is maybe a little shy, or isn't quite in to the whole participation thing, and I very commonly have to say "I can see you there in the blue dress hiding behind that tall bald guy! C'mon out!" or words to that effect. People also don't seem to understand that even though they can see you with just one eye, you can't make them out when they're covered up by that danged bald guy. So if you can, scan your group quickly with both of your eyes before you bring the camera up to your face, and adjust people as necessary.

Of course one way to get around this is to get up high, as I mentioned before. If you don't have a stepladder with you (and I ALWAYS have one with me) you can use the natural high and low spots of wherever you are to aide you. Stairways are great for this.

Along those lines, here's a useful tip:


Washington is, of course, great for this. So many cool and grand buildings. But almost any city or town has nice buildings with oodles of texture and style. Look for ways to enmesh your subjects in to that texture.

A natural tendency seems to be to want to line up against the wall as though your subjects are a group of rebels about to be eliminated by a firing squad, or maybe they've just got a lot of experience standing around in police line-ups. So pull them away from the wall, get them to sit or relax and have fun and you'll end up with a nicer portrait.

Speaking of relaxing,


This is one my dad taught me. He's an enthusiastic amateur, and where he picked this up I don't know but it has saved me many times.

If you're making your subjects stand there and grin for more than a few seconds they're gonna get pretty tired. Very soon, smiles start to look artificial and strained. A great way around this is to have everyone close their eyes, relax their facial muscles, and then you can shoot them on the count of three right after they open them again.

One trick I do to get a nice burst of smiles and laughter from groups is to go ahead and shoot a photo while they have their eyes closed. People hear the camera and are usually pretty surprised and amused that I've done this, and the next frame is often filled with very fresh and upbeat expressions.


It's darned awkward to stare in to a lens for your portrait. So, people look around and the intent of the group shot gets diluted. Very often, I try to make my subjects pay attention to me by clever banter (I think it's clever, anyway) or by physical gestures that get them to watch what I'm doing. This doesn't mean I make a buffoon of myself, but I merely rely on the fact that people watch objects that are moving and making noise. It's the reason people stare at the TV when you're trying to call them in to dinner. If I change my position a bit and try to keep the crowd entertained, they're focused on me and I can slip behind the lens very easily for the shot.

For this picture I was sprawled out, in a suit, on the wet pavement trying to get their reflection in the puddle. Most of the wedding party was so surprised that they paid attention and it made a fine photo.


Journalists are taught (if they have good teachers) that they should always ask at the end of an interview, "Is there anything I haven't asked that you can tell me or that you want to tell me?" The same holds true with pictures. I ask people all the time, "How would YOU like to be photographed?" And very often this ends up producing the best photos of a session.

If your subjects are doing something they want to do, chances are they are going to put a lot more energy and emotion in to it than if I'm just giving them orders about how to behave or pose. So don't be afraid to encourage even the stuffiest of stuffed suits if they've always wanted to do something wild and crazy, because you never know if they'll say yes. When they do, you're gonna get a picture that you both love.


Gary said...

Hey, I've been reading your blog for a while, but am posting for the first time.

I very much appreciate this posting--particularly the parts about sprawling on the ground to get that reflection and the before/after pics with the eyes closed. Funny trick!

I also appreciate your info on the RadioPoppers--found you through, and you offer some good insider tips that David hasn't gotten into.

Thanks for sharing with us all!

Thomas said...

Thanks, Gary. The close-yer-eyes thing really does help people relax and reboot their faces. Hope it works for you!

If there are ever any specific areas of photography or lighting you'd like to know about, please feel free to ask.


Gary said...

I had an opportunity to try the eyes closed thing today, interestingly, for a quick group shot at work. Perhaps my group was completely humorless, or didn't notice the click, or maybe my timing wasn't quite on, but I didn't seem to get any reaction. :( And, at first I forgot I was on 100 ISO, and with bouncing the flash, my recycle time was a bit of a show-stopper on that (i.e. I clicked with eyes closed, got to 3 and clicked again with eyes open, but got a dark exposure b/c the flash hadn't recycled). When I realized that, I bumped up to 400 to make sure I wasn't pushing to full or near full power, and did a bit better from then on!

Thanks again.