Group Posing Tips: Families And Friends In One Frame

Photographing families and large groups can strike fear into the hearts of many photographers. As for me, there’s nothing I’d rather do. I not only get to meet a lot of great people, but family groups are the most profitable portraits that I take. Everyone wants a copy of a good shot, and many of my family group photos result in the sale of a wall portrait or grouping with frames, plus several smaller prints.

Why should this cause fear? Well, it involves lots of variables—posing, lighting, clothing, background, etc.—all multiplied several times since you have numerous subjects, not just one. Add in little kids and maybe a dog or two and you can see how it can be much more difficult than just trying to take a photo of one person. While every group is different, here are a few tips to help you get over any groupaphobia you might have.

Avoid Straight Lines
The key to a nice group photo is to make it look interesting. One of the best ways to do this is to avoid straight lines. You know how you can sit kids all on a log and then have them look at you, with the tallest kid on one end and the shortest kid on the other? If you can take a ruler and draw a line from the first kid to the last, you have fallen into the straight-line trap. Instead, try to have each head occupy its own space and height; it will make for a more interesting composition.

By avoiding straight lines you create a more dynamic image. It makes for a more pleasing composition than a “lineup.” (The Teed family.)
All Photos © Steve Bedell

See In Triangles
Triangles are a very powerful shape. Form a group where the eye can just roam around the image, as opposed to carrying the eye in one direction. Triangles are easy with groups of three but can be used with practically any number of people. Once you start seeing in triangles the dynamics of your group photos will improve a thousand percent.

Add Depth
Adding a foreground, especially when it’s out of focus, can make the image look more three-dimensional. You use creative and selective focusing on a single-person portrait, so why not on a group? Just remember to keep everyone sharp!

Groups of four can make it difficult to create triangles. Here I’ve diagramed just some of the triangle dynamics, and even more can be made. (The Bernard family.)

Show Closeness
Group photos shouldn’t be stiff and static. It’s important to see the connection of family members. Some folks are nervous in front of a camera, so this means it’s up to you to make it a fun and comfortable experience. While I’m preparing for the shot, I’ll also keep an eye on the interaction of the family to see who really shares a strong bond, like dad and his little girl, and use those connections to pose them near each other in the group.

Bend It
One of the first professional photography workshops I attended was with Don “Big Daddy” Blair many years ago. When it came to posing, he was the man. One of his favorite expressions was, “If it bends, bend it.” This means try to avoid straight arms, legs, fingers, etc., for a more graceful and relaxed look. You don’t want people to look like they’re standing at attention. As a rule of thumb, when people are standing, have them turn in a little and keep their weight on their back foot and bend the knee closest to the camera. It will make them look more natural and also thinner than if they were square to the camera.

I included the out-of-focus tall grass in the foreground and set the shot up with color-coordinated white flowers behind them, which creates depth in the image. (The Decker family.)

Use Blockers
Many clients like to appear “thinner” in the family photo. The easiest way to do this is to use blockers, things that block part of the person. You can use rocks, trees, bushes, and, many times, other people. Remember, too, that the people closest to the camera appear larger, so you may want to have smaller people block the bigger ones. It’s really simple and your clients will love you for it.

Posing doesn’t have to be stiff. I put mom and her kids where they were backlit and had nice light bouncing off a white building nearby. Then I asked the kids to squeeze in close. I’d like to have the boy’s arm bent a little, but expressions are fleeting and I love how the heads form a nice tight triangle. (The Raftoupoulas family.)

Quick Tips
Use a long lens—it will give you a longer working distance. If you need to get in close with a short lens, the closest people will appear much bigger than those further away.
Use a tripod and cable release. This way you can interact and have your eye on your subjects, not stuck in the camera. Also, for those taking multiples for the best pose and expression, having a steady frame means “head swapping” will be easier.
Be very careful with lighting. Use either flat light or be very careful your light is the same from one end of the group to the other.
Use selective focusing. Don’t think a large group has to be shot at f/16. Most of my outdoor family groups are taken at about f/5.6; I like the background to be unsharp.

There is hardly a straight body part—bent knees, arms, legs, etc.—in this tripod-mounted photo. By using a long lens I can watch the dogs and people for expressions, making it easy to do “head swaps” if needed later, though none were. (The Foy family.)

Steve Bedell has been a portrait photographer for over 25 years. To subscribe to EPhoto, a free e-mail newsletter with tips for photographers, contact Bedell via e-mail at: smbedell@gmail.com. Also ask about his lighting DVDs.

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