Five Tips for Better Group Photos

The group shot is no one’s favorite photo to take.

I’m sure we’ve all been at the big family event where someone hands you a point-and-shoot camera and says, “You’re a pro photographer — take everyone’s picture!”

If you’re particularly unlucky, it’s an important, once-in-a-lifetime gathering and none of your subjects will ever be in the same room again.

The pressure’s on.

Nervous … fumbling with an unfamiliar point-and-shoot … now here it comes — flop sweat.

Train Wreck Potential

There is legitimate reason for your trepidation.

Any group shot has the potential of becoming a train wreck — an out-of-control portrait where the photographer is reduced to a button-pusher and the result is a listless mugshot with a whole bunch of mugs in it.

But when the photo is an assignment (rather than an impromptu request), you at least have the opportunity to prepare for what might go wrong in advance.

Council members of the city of Grand Terrace, Calif. The picture was made between agenda items while the council was in session.

Here are five tips for making better group photos:

  1. Take control.
  2. As photographers, we do our best work when we are orchestrating, cajoling, schmoozing and generally making people do our bidding in our pictures. The same is true for group photos.

    You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you walk into a room to take a picture and you are told what to do — and even where to stand — by someone “organizing” things. Chances are, they’ll already have everyone packed together like sardines in front of what the client describes as the “perfect background.”

    Take control in advance of the shoot by laying out expectations for the client, including what subjects should wear and any other particulars. Then, show up and set up early.

  3. Bring an assistant.
  4. With group photos, particularly of larger groups, there is often too much for one person to keep track of. Looking out for disheveled hair, unbuttoned flies, mismatched accessories, and distracting expressions becomes difficult if not impossible. Having an extra set of eyes in the form of an assistant makes the assignment much more manageable.

    An assistant also can help watch your gear and make sure no one trips over those long extension cords you’re hauling around.

  5. Bring out the big guns for lighting.
  6. With large groups, unless you plan to shoot the picture in bright sunlight at high noon (with everyone squinting), you won’t have the depth-of-field to keep everyone in focus. That means you’ll need to light.

    Expect to keep your Speedlights at home and break out the big guns or studio strobes, because only the big guns will have the necessary power to provide even coverage for all the subjects.

    Of course, using flash introduces another little problem: you can generally expect someone’s eyes to be closed at the most inopportune time. So beware.

  7. Be mindful of backgrounds.
  8. Groups of people can occupy lots of space, so what’s in the background — an ugly wall, a distracting mural, etc. — becomes harder to ignore as the size of the group expands. Whenever possible, decide on an appropriate background in advance of the shoot, and have furniture rearranged or any other changes made before people arrive.

  9. Prepare for the elements.
  10. If you’re shooting outdoors, the scariest sound you might ever hear is a sudden gust of wind taking down your light and stand with a loud crash. Have an assistant stand by your light stand in the event your sandbags aren’t doing their job; this will keep the elements from sending your umbrella and lights into the next county.

The key to all five of these tips is good preparation, which has another, intangible benefit for group photo shoots.

How you cope with all the obstacles you encounter, and the confidence you project on assignment, makes all the difference in whether your group listens attentively and follows instructions — or turns your shoot into a train wreck.

4 Responses to “Five Tips for Better Group Photos”

  1. Good tips for those who find themselves thrown a group to photograph.
    Lightingwise, if you are indoors then yes studio flash, if it's a large group get try to het the flash head high so as to drop the shadows low and not fall on the person behinds face.
    Outdoors then in most situations I've found speedlights are fine, just use clever group placement (as mentioned - planning) utilising shadow.
    Groups can be good fun, just remember not everyone will laugh at your lame jokes though 🙂
    Great article.

  2. A couple of rules of thumb I've always used:

    - Keep any punters who are not part of the group out of the groups sight (to the side) - there's always someone who'll get distracted and look the wrong way.

    - Take at least one frame for every individual in the group - especially large groups. Too few frames and there will always be one or two with their eyes shut, which generally looks awful.

    - Once you have them together, work quickly; its hard to keep the attention of a dozen people while you fiddle with lights etc. They get fidgety and it shows.

    - Be mindful of the 'shy' ones. In large groups there's always one or two who want to hide away somewhere at the back, and this tends to look obvious.

  3. The group shot is a tough one. Especially because everyone feels like they’re getting shot. I mean, really, shot.
    No one enjoys it and the results often prove it.
    Get happy. Be a clown/sergeant. It allows you to lighten up yet be the strict guy (shows you mean business). You’re only going to be with these people for 30 minutes of their lives but the picture will last much longer. Results are more important than how you feel being a clown. Why a clown? People have a chance to give you a real smile, even the executives.
    What’s going on in the picture? Form and content. The flat horizontal group shot can be boring. Design your pictures as a squat pyramid. People sitting, people standing. Remember chiaroscuro. Use boxes, chairs,tree stumps, whatever’s handy. No one ever asks, “What was he standing on?
    Background. Try to tie it in with meaning. Move outside. If not figure out what’s close by for an interior picture. Keep the light flattering.
    Get natural. Yes, let them talk amongst each other. Profiles of people sometimes are better than face on. This is not a Police I.D. situation.
    Take the picture before you say “1, 2, and a 3.” Often the best one is when they thought you weren’t ready.
    Use objects. The guys on the ends can hold some icon things that they would hold walking down the hall or wherever they hangout. ..file folders, coffee cup, etc.
    No eye contact. You are not the superstar, they are. Don’t answer questions about the camera equipment. Be unaware, badly informed about photography. It makes people think, “I’m getting my picture taken.”

  4. Some good common-sense tips there. As far as being handed the point-and-shoot, I can dodge that bullet because I always have one of my pro cameras with me. Unfortunately the general public don't seem to realize that good images are the result of careful planning, but that's why we do need to be in control of the shoot and to have adequate prep time.

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