How To Photograph Big Groups
Simple Guidelines For Great Results

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Notice the many different head heights of the family members. With this many small kids, I'm more concerned about expression than perfect posing. Watch the horizon line to make sure it's straight and doesn't cut heads.
Photos © 2003, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

I love photographing big family groups. I do lots of them, usually in the summer when families get together, and many times at the beach since it's so gorgeous and people love it. It's one of my specialties, but many photographers shy away from it because of the difficulties involved. What difficulties, you say? Like most "big" problems, it helps to break it down into smaller pieces and solve each piece individually. I think there are four main areas that need to be addressed in order to pull off successful big group portraits--clothing, posing, lighting, and background. Fail in any one area and the group photo won't work. Conquer each individually and success is yours. With that in mind, let's take a look at each facet individually.

Film Vs. Digital
I make a lot of big prints from these groups, so quality is a major issue. I've done them both on my medium format cameras and ISO 400 film and my Fujifilm S2 Pro. Up to 16x20, there is very little difference in quality. The 20x30s and 24x30s look a little better with film. But, retouching is far superior with digital and I have much greater control over the image after the shoot. I don't really like the look of scanned images that size so I prefer to go all the way with either format. At this point I'd say things are very close and the next generation of digital cameras will probably end the issue.

This photo was taken at about 8:15pm on a summer night on film. The big surprise? One of the people couldn't make it, so we photographed he and his family the following night--same place, same time--and inserted him in the photo via Photoshop. The film was of course scanned.

1. Clothing
It is absolutely essential that the clothing be coordinated. I'd like you to look at all the sample photos with this article and imagine one person with a bright red shirt. See what I'm saying? Now try to imagine if everyone decided to wear whatever they wanted--bright colors, stripes, Nikes, etc. You can see the result would be a total disaster! Therefore, a clothing consultation is an absolute necessity, preferably in person, but by phone if necessary. The easiest way to drive the point home is to show them an example with "proper" clothing, and then another where your client did not follow your advice. That alone is usually enough to make the person in charge (read mom) make sure everyone arrives in coordinated clothing. You'll notice in most of the samples shown my clients wear jeans and white shirts or khakis and white shirts because it's a nice look at the beach. If the session were in the studio, I'd probably recommend darker, more formal clothing. The main idea is to make the clothing believable with the background.

You can see that by having coordinated clothing, the attention is focused on the faces, not the clothing, since it almost becomes a part of the entire scene. Controlling the clothing is part one of a successful shoot.

I usually shoot in open shade before turning toward the ocean. This allows me to do other groupings without interfering with my tight "window of light."

2. Posing
Posing is a bad word. When I hear it, it conjures up images of people looking uncomfortable because a photographer told them to "sit straight and look at the camera." I prefer to use "guidelines." My posing outdoors, if you want to call it that, is very informal. Having people lined up straight in front of the ocean is just not my idea of a good portrait. So here's what I do. I "build" the group. I usually start with the parents or oldest couple and then build around them, keeping each family unit intact. I'm careful to avoid straight lines of heads. I prefer an "up-and-down" flow to all the different head heights, a composition that is easy on the eyes. I do this by just directing them where to stand or sit, and using kids in front to create several different head heights. When I see something I like, I take it! That's about it.

Since my studio is small, most large groups I do are on location. In the studio, the posing, like the clothing, would be more formal. But I'd still follow the basic guidelines as stated earlier.

Smaller groups, or "breakdowns," are done before the big group. By shooting down, I was able to crop out the bright sky over the water.

3. Lighting
While I like relaxed posing and am not super fussy about it, the same cannot be said about my lighting. I'm very fussy about it! As noted, most of my big groups are taken outside because of my limited studio space and because of the preference both my clients and I have for beach portraits. My trademark is natural lighting outside--I don't use flash. This means I have to be very particular about the time of day I shoot. On the East Coast, that means I don't even start shooting until about 30 minutes before sunset, sometimes even later depending upon cloud conditions or if the sun is behind trees or something else that would block it. That also means I've only got about a 20-minute window of light, so I must be ready. I wait until the light is not direct but has direction. Huh? That means the sun is below the horizon or blocked by a cloud bank but that part of the sky is still the brightest so it gives me diffused but directional light. I also wait for the light to match my subject and background. Sometimes the light is fine on my subjects but the ocean and sky in the background still has direct sunlight on it. I could flash to match, but again that's not my style, so I wait. Sometimes my subjects (read dads) get annoyed having to wait, but I'm the expert, not them, so I insist on it. The results are worth it.

If you are shooting big groups inside, the best lighting technique is to feather a really big light source so the output from the main light is equal throughout and use a strong fill not more than one stop less than the main.

Why do I do so many big groups and sell such big prints? Because that's what you see when you enter my studio! Sometimes the simplest things work great.

4. Background
Like I said, I'm usually at the beach, so I've got a great background and it's pretty big! But that doesn't mean it's without its problems. You've got to watch for people in the background, especially with film where you may not want to scan it to remove them. Then there's the question of where things line up in back of your subjects, like lighthouses or boats. The big thing to watch for is the horizon line. Try not to have it intersect exactly in the middle of the image--it looks very boring--and watch that it doesn't hit people in the neck, "cutting off" their heads. I always try to shoot as if Photoshop did not exist, as I find my work is better and I'm not dependent on Photoshop to save me. I do shoot in other areas also and the biggest thing I'm careful about is very bright highlights, which can be very distracting.

In the studio, the usual problem with big groups is finding a background big enough! This is an area where Photoshop can save you. If you run out of background but can still fit the people in, you can clone in more background and save the photo. As noted, my studio maxes out pretty quickly, so it's not a problem I usually face.

By combining these four elements, you can ensure success in your group portraiture. For more ideas, sign up for my free e-mail newsletter at: steve@stevebedell.com.

Financial Rewards
Doing extended family portrait groups as shown here is very rewarding financially. It is by far both the highest average sale and the highest per hour use of our time in the studio. The sales are multiplied by doing both the large group and then several "breakdowns" of the individual families. We charge a flat fee for the session and have a minimum purchase agreement, which is always exceeded. If you're a pro and not doing this type of work, I suggest you look closely at it.

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