If you think taking photos of a single subject is hard enough, then shooting a bunch of people can indeed be quite demanding. Not only do you have to tell everyone what to do, but you also have to make sure every single one of them looks good in your photos.
To guide you through the chaos, we’ve put together these 7 tips on things like how to be confident and how to arrange subjects in a formal setting. Hopefully, these will not only help you capture excellent group portraits but also have fun doing it. Let’s start!
01. Be confident
Organizing a group portrait can be nerve-wracking. That’s why it’s essential that you’re confident about your abilities, not just to take photos, but also to coordinate people. You have to know what you’re doing because if you keep second guessing your decisions, there’s a good chance they might not take you seriously.
To feel confident about the shoot, plan the minute details of the photo session ahead of time instead of doing it straight away. Before you grab your camera, look for a good place with a beautiful background, good lighting, and ample space for everyone. Then think of how you’d like to arrange the group, so by the time they’re all there, you know exactly where to put every single one of them.
When it’s time to arrange the group, give short, clear directions that everyone can easily follow. Make sure your voice is loud enough, especially because group shoots can be very noisy affairs. Speak up when you see something that looks amiss (e.g. an uneven tie, a shirt that got untucked, etc) — don’t hesitate to point out these little things to make sure that your subjects look their best.
It’s important to communicate your vision for the shoot and make your subjects follow through, but don’t forget to be polite. People will trust you more and loosen up faster if you’re friendly towards them.
02. Arrange people in a staggered formation
When posing your group, the rule you learned from having been in way too many family and school portraits applies: generally, you want shorter people in front and the taller people in the back. But, of course, this isn’t the only rule you need to follow.
You also need to position people in a staggered formation. Instead of posing the group in a grid, arrange them in a more triangular pattern. Try to separate people of equal height from standing together to avoid making the scene look too static.
To make everyone in the group more visible, try having them pose on a set of stairs, bleachers or any other surface where they can stand or sit at different heights. Alternatively, you can have people kneel or sit on chairs to make sure they are all seen. Levels bring in more dimension to your group photo.
03. Keep the group close together
Forget about personal space when doing a group portrait. Ask your subjects to squish together and stay tight.
If you’re shooting family or friends, tell them to put their arms around whoever is beside them. Doing so will keep them locked in. If you’re photographing co-workers in a more formal setting, ask them to stand or sit no more than two inches apart from each other.
To make your group look more cohesive, ask them to form a semi-circle. Doing so doesn’t just naturally make them stay closer together, but it also saves a lot of space. Furthermore, the semi-circle breaks that grid pattern that makes many portraits too straight and boring. Because of the uneven formation, the semi-circle also allows makes the faces of your subjects more visible than when they’re standing in a row.
Remember to always check your screen or viewfinder before you take a photo. See to it that no one is cut off. Sometimes, you'll encounter shy subjects who like to stay in the back or distance themselves from the rest of the crowd—politely remind them to stay close to the group.
04. Make sure people’s faces aren’t covered
When arranging your group, make sure the subjects in front don’t cover the faces of those behind them. Ask them to keep their hands down or hide them behind their backs. This is also the perfect time to remember to place your subjects in a staggered formation. If you do it properly, you don’t have to worry about people in the group blocking anyone.
Before you press the shutter, check if every face in the group is unobstructed—whether by another person or by shadows. Make slight adjustments if necessary. When you’re ready, count loudly to give your subjects time to assume their positions.
05. Be strategic about lighting
Having a beautiful background isn’t enough for group portraits. You should also consider how the lighting in a location could affect your images. You want all of your subjects' faces adequately lit regardless of their position and distance.
If you’re outdoors, avoid positioning the group directly in front of the sun because it could cause them to squint. Angle them just enough to prevent the bright rays from hitting their eyes. To avoid harsh shadows that may fall on your subjects’ faces, you can use trees or large walls as a shade or even wait for clouds to diffuse the sunlight.
Shooting indoors can be a bit more tricky since it may require different light sources. If you have access to windows, open them to let in some natural light. If not, look for a room that’s adequately lit.
If you’re shooting under artificial light, make sure that your subjects’ skin tones still look natural. Incandescent lights tend to cast a yellow hue on skin that may be hard to adjust in post production. Make sure to adjust your camera’s white balance before shooting so you don’t end up with unusable shots.
If the room is too dim, consider using an external flash unit (not the built-in flash). Install a diffuser to soften the harsh burst that comes out. When shooting, flip it at an angle so that some of the light bounces off the ceiling and not straight towards your subjects.
Remember, regardless of your light source, it has to hit your subjects’ faces equally. You don’t want some in the group to be too close to the light that they end up looking too bright, while the others are in the shadows and underlit.
06. Shoot a sequence of photos
Since you’re shooting several people at once, it’s almost impossible to check how every one of them appears as you press the shutter. There’s always a chance that one of them blinks or changes position, and you wouldn’t even notice. To get the perfect image, switch your camera to continuous low (a subset of burst mode), and shoot several frames in one go.
Taking a series of photos not only provides you with more options, but it also gives people time to straighten themselves up while you shoot. For example, if some of them still aren’t ready at the first click of the shutter, they should have enough time to compose themselves by the second or third click. The same goes for blinkers—even if they blink during the first shot, you can expect their eyes to open fully by the second or third click.
Once everyone is in place, take as many photos as you can. Once they disband, it would be difficult (and embarrassing) to ask them to regroup just because you failed to get the shot the first time.
07. Let your subjects have fun
Group dynamics is essential when shooting a crowd of people. Have your subjects interact with each other freely, so they feel more relaxed by the time you start taking photos. Don’t be afraid to connect with them yourself, especially if you don’t know them very well. Talk to them, so they’ll feel more comfortable around you when you start directing them during the shoot.
If you’re photographing friends or family, feel free to try fun poses. Have them jump in the air, run toward the camera, or even make funny faces. You can even shoot them while they're playing games or hanging out on the porch. It’s a good idea to let people do their own thing so you can document unstaged, authentic moments too. These types of photos are much more memorable than just asking people to stand like statues.
However, you should also be careful about what you make your subject do. Don’t try ideas that would make people look awkward in photos (like stacking them on top of each other belly down! Eek!). Make your subjects feel comfortable and you should be able to get genuine expressions and natural poses from everyone.
Shooting group portraits can feel like playing a highly stressful game of whack-a-mole at times, but once you know which steps to take, the whole process should be a breeze. Whether you’re shooting a bunch of businessmen or your friends, always smile and make it a fun experience for everyone.