Every photographer will, at some point, have to take a photograph of a group of people. Even if you specialize in landscapes or product photography it’s inevitable: you’ll be at a party or a family reunion and, as the only one there that won’t botch the photo, you’ll be asked to take a shot of the group. Most of my group shots happen at weddings (and can range from 3 people to 300 people) but sometimes I’m hired to do business teams or families as well. With some practice I think my skill at producing a frame-worthy group portrait has become better, and these are the things I have learned along the way.
First, any group shot is better than no shot at all.
Most people are not as discerning as you are and are just happy that you can see their face in the photo. Group shots are often a compromise resulting from too little time to set it up, too little space to put everyone, and uneven light over a large and weirdly shaped subject. So take the shot! Do the best with what you have and learn how to overcome the restrictions of time, space, and light.
This may seem obvious, but use your voice to direct people where to go.
The people in the group can’t see what you can and are trusting you to make them look good. The first step in this is to ask people to position themselves so that they can see the camera and the lights, if you are using lights. If they can’t see the camera, the camera can’t see their face. If they can’t see the lights you are using, their face is going to be darker than everything else.
If it’s a very large group, you may want to elevate yourself.
Get a ladder or an apple box to enable you to shoot down on the group. The bigger the group, the higher you will need to go until you can see the people in the back of the group. The further away you go, the smaller the downward angle of your shot and the less distortion (meaning the lower body looks disproportionately smaller than the upper body) you will see. For the shot above I found a staircase and stood at the top. The distance and angle were not perfect, but the sun was coming from behind the group so it was a good compromise of time (didn’t have to set up a ladder or lights), space (lots of it), and light.
If you have time, space, and light you can start thinking about the finer points; like the art of a group portrait. Move on to symmetry and balance.
In some cases you will want symmetry, which means that the two sides of your photo (right and left or up and down) are the same. In a group of six people having three on the left and three on the right would create symmetry. You can place tall people on either end of a group to create symmetry. In some cases you will rather have balance, which can refer to the size of your subjects, the quantity of people, or the color they are wearing, among other things. Balance can mean having 20 people to the left of center and 20 people to the right, or 5 people wearing blue to the left of center and 5 people wearing blue to the right. It can mean having 3 men and 2 women to the left and 2 men and 3 women to the right. Balance is more subjective than symmetry and is not always easy to describe. Doing drawing exercises on positive and negative space will help to solidify the concept.
Lastly, if you have the time, spend it positioning your subjects.
Having them turn inward creates a focal point on the center of shot. If there are rows of people, position those in the back between the shoulders of those in the front. Start by positioning those in the center and work your way outward. Hands should not be distracting from faces so have them folded in front or behind, or in pockets. I like to have everyone positioned the exact same way or very different from others. This makes your shot look intentional and carefully crafted and is a great way to tell the professionals from the untrained.
These tips are just the beginning! There are many ways to shoot a group portrait. What are the most creative group shots you have seen?
Are you hoping to take group portraits at weddings? You might enjoy these wedding photography tips.