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.
Here are five tips for making better group photos:
- Take control. 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.
- Bring an assistant.
- Bring out the big guns for lighting.
- Be mindful of backgrounds.
- Prepare for the elements.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.