Tips for Making Group Portraits

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Photographing groups can be a humbling experience for even the most seasoned photographer. The trick is to create an image that succeeds on an individual and collective level. Depending on the number of people involved, this can entail quite a bit of planning and more than a little bit of luck. Below are a few tips for photographers bold enough to tackle the group portrait.

Choosing the right location is important for any portrait.

Think Big Picture First

Who are you photographing and what are you trying to communicate with your image? These are questions you should ask before any portrait shoot, but they become especially important when working with groups. For example, photographing a team of lawyers will require a different approach than photographing a bridal party. The first step in this process is choosing a location. Your sitters are framed, literally and figuratively, by the environment that they occupy. In some instances, a location can be almost like another member of your group, providing visual clues as to what brought your subjects together. On the other end of the spectrum, a nondescript location can help focus attention on the individuals in your image.

Your approach should vary depending on the type of group you are photographing.

Having full creative control over where you are shooting is a rare luxury for many working photographers. However, you should still pay close attention to certain details when setting up your shot. Lighting can make or break any photograph. Ambient lighting can become a serious obstacle for photographers working indoors in tight quarters. The fluorescent lights inside of many corporate offices can produce godawful color casts and are usually just bright enough to keep workers from falling asleep at their desks. When possible, flag poor light sources and work with your own kit for consistent lighting. Otherwise, suggest taking a field trip out of the office to create your portrait.

Tell a Joke

Portraits live and die by their sitter’s mood when the camera’s shutter is released. Everyone has a different level of comfort in front of the camera, and it is your job as photographer to create an environment in which your sitter can shake any pre-shoot jitters or anxieties. This can be hard enough when working with one sitter but, with groups, you will find yourself juggling at least two distinct personalities. One way to get everyone to loosen up is by talking. When possible, it is always beneficial to set aside a few minutes before shooting to have a quick tea or coffee and relax. This can also serve as an excellent opportunity to make sure everyone is on the same page for the shoot.

Allow your subjects to have fun. Your images will benefit.

It may seem obvious but maintaining a lively conversation will help take everyone’s mind away from the fact that they are having their photo taken. It is easy to spot a group portrait that has been taken in a clinical manner during an awkward silence. While time constraints or the sheer number of sitters you are working with may limit how well you get to know everyone, do whatever you can to lighten the mood and set everyone at ease as best you can.

Photographing multiple people distanced from one another, wide open, is generally not the best approach to a group portrait.

Stop Down!

Contrary to the relentless lens marketing we’ve all been exposed to, the first thing ninety-nine out of a hundred viewers look at in a portrait is not bokeh—gasp—but faces. I know, I know—you want to take full advantage of your super-fast prime lens and let the bokeh flow. Trust me, nobody is going to care about how smooth your background is when one of your sitters’ eyes is out of focus. Stop down enough to make sure that everyone in your portrait can be in focus together.

This doesn’t mean you have to shoot groups at f/22. Simply paying attention to where everyone in your image is positioned relative to one another will go a long way. Keep each person’s face in the same general plane and you can still keep everyone sharp while shooting on the wide side.

While you should pay attention to what everyone is wearing, you don’t have to ask your sitters to all match exactly—unless they want to.

Style Wisely

The more people in a portrait, the more important styling becomes. This is a subjective factor; dressing a group for a high-fashion editorial is going to be much different than a family’s holiday card. Likewise, the amount of control you will have over what your subjects wear will vary depending on what kind of shoot you are doing. Generally speaking, neutral colors are your safest bet for portraits where the top priority is the individuals depicted. Bright colors can clash, distract, or—worst of all—contaminate skin tones if you are not careful. Thoughtful styling will help unify your group, producing a more harmonious image.

One of the best ways to learn how to pose groups is by studying the work of portrait painters. Christian Schussele, Washington Irving and His Literary Friends at Sunnyside, oil on canvas, 1864.

Think Like a Painter

Before there were portrait photographs, there were portrait paintings. An entire history of group portraiture precedes the invention of photography. Renaissance painters were meticulous in their compositions, establishing conventions that continue to be used to this day. Looking for a little more drama? Baroque painters poured it on using dynamic poses and strategic lighting throughout the 17th century. Portraiture would evolve even further throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Create your own history of portraiture through the present.

There are countless books and online resources available to help you understand the history of portraiture. And while painting established the paradigm, don’t forget about photography. Study the ways that photographers you admire have approached the group portrait. Finally, few experiences can be more invigorating for an artist than visiting a museum to experience past works in person. If possible, spend a day at your local museum soaking in the creative energy of your predecessors.

Depending on your subjects, it may take a few tries to get an image in which everyone is on the same page.

One More for Safety

Creating a photo that every sitter is happy with is the Holy Grail of the group portrait. Inevitably, someone will blink. And then someone else. And then the first person, again. Always grant yourself the luxury of a few more shots than you think you will need for each look. On larger productions, consider shooting tethered to a computer or tablet to allow an assistant to put an extra set of eyes on your shots in real time to spot any issues. Shooting tethered when capturing very large groups is also a much easier way to check images for inconsistencies than looking at the comparably small rear LCD or EVF of your camera.

Have any tips for making group portraits? We’d love to hear them in the Comments section, below!

1 Comments

I've come to really liking the portrait where one person is in focus while others are fuzzed out.  That means people in multiple plans and a wide aperture.  Not everyone has to be in focus, especially if attention rightly is paid to a specific individual(s), but the peripheral people are also important and acknowleged by their sheer existence in the image.

 I also like the "album cover" look where people are scattered about, again in different planes/subgroups, and not necessarily centered.  It's eye catching.

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