The Ultimate Guide to Photographing Big Groups of People
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So, you’ve been asked to take pictures of a great big group of people? Don’t panic! You can do this, and it’s not nearly as tough as you think! Here is a handy guide with a few quick tips to keep order and get your most excellent ever group shot!
Do Your Research
As with any photo shoot, the job starts long before you arrive on the scene. You’ll want to start your session by asking lots of questions. I’ve made a questionnaire for you to use when you talk to your client, so you’re well-prepared. I keep this one handy, so I don’t miss any details while I’m preparing for a large group shoot.
How many people will there be?
Of course, you know that this is just critical information, so it’s the perfect place to open the conversation.
What are the ages we’ll be photographing?
Your clients’ age range is critical information for your upcoming shoot. Preparation is key, and you want to be ready for small kids or the elderly who may need some help. Each of these scenarios can add a level of difficulty. On the flip side, it might relieve some of your jitters if you know you won’t be dealing with young children or the elderly.
Are there any small groups within the large group that will want separate photographs?
Many large groups will be made up of individual family units. You will be better prepared for the entire shoot if you know who you will need to separate for additional shots. Here is a group that I recently photographed made up of 3 families of 5 and one set of grandparents. Each family requested individual family shots and a couple of shots of just the grandkids together. It was essential to plan for the correct amount of time needed to get all the shots the client requested.
Location, Location, Location...
Do they have a location in mind?
Some groups will have already gathered for an event at a site, but in case they don’t, be ready with a suggestion or two. Again, be sure you’ve done your homework. You need to know when the light will be best and where you can fit your size group. Shooting in the middle of the day makes it tricky to work around the very bright sun if you’re outside. Scout your location during mid-morning or early evening to find a shady spot or a place that will provide a good source of backlight. Side note – It’s best if you can have everyone already on site when you arrive. Moving a large number of people from one place to another can be time-consuming.
If you’re stuck for ideas and need some help finding a location, you can look for a local park finder online. I use this app called Park Path, and it’s free on the App Store. Another great resource is an app called Really Good Photo Spots, also free on the app store, although there is a paid upgrade if you really love it. Really Good Photo Spots (RGPS) is on my list of Five Amazing Photography Apps to Try Right Now.
Everyone is unique
Does anyone in the group have any unique needs?
For example, will someone need to be seated or need assistance walking to the locale? Potential location and terrain limitations are essential when scouting your location and knowing how much time you’ll need.
What will your group be wearing?
If your group is open to suggestions, then I recommend that everyone try to stay within a few common colors. I’ve learned the hard way that if colors clash, it makes the job of lining everyone up just that much more complicated. You can find some helpful suggestions for clothing in How to Dress Your Family for Timeless Photos.
Once you’ve ironed out the details of who, what, when, where, and how many people you’ll be photographing, you can focus on making the actual event happen.
Show Up Wearing Confidence!
The big day has arrived, and I bet you’re excited! Big groups can be my favorite sessions! However, a large group of people can be tricky to handle. You must establish your professionalism and confidence from the beginning. When you do, everyone in the group will be ready to listen for your direction. Fair warning – you might have to channel your inner coach and find your big voice to get everyone’s attention. You are in charge of the fun, and you’re going to make memories for these folks!
Once I’ve got everyone’s attention, I introduce myself and tell them that I have the toughest job to do. All they have to do is be themselves. It’s my job to make the clients look their best, so easy-peasy, right?
Prepare for the Children
If you have any small children in your group, be prepared to not only wrangle the kids, but the parents as well. Parents will, by nature, try to direct their kids. I tell the parents two things and the kids one thing from the very beginning. Parents need to know that it is their job is to look at me and hold their expression – no peeking at junior. Also, I tell them that they don’t need to worry at all about what the kids are doing while posing because that’s my job. Then I turn to the children and tell them in my best cheeky voice that this is the only time they are ever allowed to NOT LISTEN TO THEIR MOM AND DAD, but they can listen to me, and we’re gonna have FUN!!!
Line 'em Up!
Now that you have the ground rules established, it’s time to line ‘em up! When you are getting everyone in place, think of a huge triangle. I start by placing the tallest members of the group in the center and work out from there. You may find that you need some tools to help you get everyone lined up, especially from top to bottom. Here are some of the items I keep handy:
Don't Forget to Have Fun
Remember to have fun with this portion of the event. As long as you’re having fun, your group will enjoy the process, too. Now is a fun time to introduce some friendly rivalries. I like to ask the dudes who is taller, the women who is younger, and older couples who have been married the longest. Some basic rules I use when lining groups up are: Keep couples together, put stars of the group in the center (think grandparents or a special couple or new child), and try to keep your composition as straightforward as possible while leaving a bit of breathing room between people.
If you are looking for more suggestions for prompts to make a photoshoot a bit more relaxed, check out Crazy Simple Prompts Instead of Poses for Natural photo
Once you’ve got everyone lined up, take a good look. Make sure that no one’s head is partially blocked off, there are no sunspots on your subjects, and that details like jewelry and hair are in place, and that shirts are adjusted, etc.
As a general rule, women should be bending limbs wherever possible to lend a more feminine quality to their look – I like the sass that comes with hands-on-hips. For the men, I ask them to place their hands partially in pockets with thumbs out, or if he’s next to his partner, on the small of his/her back. These are just a few of the little details that make a big difference in the end shot.
Pay Attention to Your Camera Settings
So now we’ve got everyone lined up, and we’re ready to go! It is the perfect time to talk about camera settings. If you need a refresher on shooting in Manual, check out Your Ultimate Guide to Shooting in Manual Mode.
When shooting a large group, I suggest you adjust your settings, starting with aperture. You may remember from The 5 Things You Need-to-Know about Aperture that aperture controls depth of field.
If you’re not sure how Depth of Field is critical in a group photo, then you’ll want to read up on it in Take Your Photos to the Next Level by Understanding Depth of Field.
Summing up the Settings
To summarize, you’ll want your aperture open wide enough (small #) to give you a beautiful, creamy background. People stand out better when the background is soft. I recommend an aperture of around 4 if you have your group lined up in 2 rows. If you add a third row, you’ll need to decrease your aperture some (bigger #). A smaller aperture will keep focus on the faces that will be on different focal planes. The more rows of people you have, the bigger you will need your depth of field. When you are ready, find your focus on the person closest to the center of the front/back focal plane. In other words, not someone whose face is closest to you or furthest from you, but somewhere in the middle.
If you cannot get enough light in your camera with settings alone, then now is a great time to introduce a speedlight. For my large group shots, I use a standard speedlight mounted on camera with a Magmod diffuser, both of which can be purchased on Amazon, so no worries if you don’t have a local camera shop!
One final thought before you begin pressing the shutter is to take several shots of each grouping so that you have multiple opportunities to catch eyes open and proper smiles. If you must, you can always do a head swap or two in the final editing process.
Get the Shots!
Now you’re ready! You’ve done your homework, you’ve selected your location carefully, everyone is on-site and prepared with a smile. All of your subjects are lined up and ready for smiles. All that’s left is to have a great time! Don’t be afraid to peek at your camera to make sure everyone is where they should be, and everyone looks great! You can always tweak as you go through the shoot. Remember that confidence. You are the Pro and they hired you for good reason. While you’re there and having fun, don’t forget to improvise with some shots that maybe the client didn’t specifically ask to capture. You may be surprised at what they love that they didn’t even think of. Remember – you’re the expert!