We can't avoid taking pictures of groups. They are part of every company picnic, Sunday night family dinner, and school picture day. They are also the first pictures pulled out when everyone in hunched over the photo album, reminiscing about all the fond memories associated with family gatherings and nights out with friends. While they are a common part of our lives as people and artists, they can sometimes be stressful to pull off and difficult to do well. Here are seven tips to help you achieve the best possible results.
Find the light and the background before you start posing
If you are shooting on location (i.e.: not in a studio) the worst thing you can do is get fifteen people posed only to realize that you lined them up in front of a line of bright blue trashcans or the lighting is falling unevenly. In that moment, you know you are going to have to recompose the whole shot and you've just wasted everyone's time, including your own. Avoid the whole debacle by taking a couple of minutes beforehand to look at your location and the direction of your light. Compose your shot in your mind before you start assembling people into their proper places.
Holding the collective attention of a group of people isn't easy. Much like playing a group sport you are only as strong as your weakest player. In the case of a group picture, the weakest player is going to be the least patient person or the person with the shortest attention span. This is magnified when some or all of the people you are photographing are children. Having a plan and executing it as quickly as possible will keep people in their places and engaged with you and the camera. If you take too much time people will start to wander, both mentally and physically.
Part of this comes from planning around your light sources and the direction the light is traveling in and from, but you also have to take into account the shadows people create. As you pose people next to others, pay close attention to where their shadows fall. If their height and/or girth is causing the person next to them to fall into a dark spot, recompose. It's much easier to fix on location than it is to fix in post.
Talk loudly to make sure everyone can hear you over the static that often results from a collective body of people. Briefly explain what you are doing and why you are doing it but be concise and clear. Don't over complicate things by giving too much unnecessary information or confuse anyone by not giving enough. If your instructions involve multiple steps, give each step one at a time so no one gets confused. If you have different sets of instructions for different groups, address each one separately.
Take more than one shot
Never assume you got the shot without taking a backup. Things like blinks, clothed eyes, and funky expressions are a reality. Take a few photos in quick succession so you have more to choose from during the culling process. Taking multiple pictures with the same composition also gives you the option to pick as choose which elements you might from each photo in post. Sometimes there is no getting around a well-executed head swap on the one kid who decided to stick his tongue out in four of five shots. While it's always great to get the shot in camera, that isn't always realistic. I've done shoots where I have a picture of twenty people and five of them end up with a head from another photo in the series.
Bring an Assistant
If you can, bring someone with you to help. Particularly when photographing larger groups. Delegating tasks such as physically showing people their place while you look on from the photo's intended vantage point can make things run more quickly and much smoother. Even if it means asking someone who will be in the photograph to help and then placing them last, right before you start shooting, the process will be streamlined and help you avoid losing people's interest.
Keep Calm and Smile
You are the expert in this situation which means that your subjects are going to be looking to you for guidance on not only where they should be standing and looking, but also how they should be feeling and acting. Be a good example. Even if you are overwhelmed or unsure, don't like them see you sweat.
Additionally, smiling at your subjects and being in an overall good mood makes the people you are photographing more likely to smile and smile genuinely in the photographs you are taking. This is especially important in the case of children who can read a phony from a mile away and are going to be paying close attention to you. Try to enjoy it and realize that while the hectic shooting process is only temporary the photos will last for a lifetime.
I once heard large group photography explained in a surprisingly honest way. It's like herding a glaring of cats after a bath. While that mental image is hilarious, it's also a pretty honest portrayal of just how hectic group shoots can often be. Despite the chaos keep calm, plan ahead, be flexible when things aren't going quite how you had hoped, and smile! Be open to learning how this specific group of people operates and the special group dynamic that exists only when these people are gathered together in one place.
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