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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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:
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.