Act like a new teacher demanding attention from an unruly class – it’ll help getting better group portraits.
There are many occasions when both amateur and professional photographers find themselves trying get a group portrait – caralling a bunch of people to pose for a photograph. It can be a lot of fun, get a crowd laughing and you can do anything with them. Or it can be like herding cats….
The ability to slide shadow-like into the background can help get great candid photographs. But like a conductor imposing their will and their interpretation of the music on an orchestra, photographing a group of people is one of those times when any desire to blend in has to be put aside. Instead, you should be like the new teacher at the start of term demanding the attention of an unruly class, or act as a the sergeant major commanding compliance from a platoon of new recruits or perform as an actor on the stage as the curtain goes up after the interval. Of a bad play!
Crowd photography is first and foremost crowd control, sometimes getting a good photograph of a group depends on the strength of the rapport you create with the people you’re photographing.
To keep the group on your side it’s vital to be efficient and as quick as possible, so know the precise location you want to use and have the lights set up before they arrive. If you have the choice, stage the shoot outside, a bit of fresh air can waken them up and put some colour in their cheeks. Ask the venue staff where photographers usually take group-shots, it’s likely to be the best place in the grounds. Otherwise think about posing the group within a natural frame like a doorway. Position them with the sun to the side to avoid squints or silhouettes.
Always use a flash to fill in the shadows on a sunny day, or punch up the colour on a dull day. Soften the flash through a photographic umbrella if it’s a small group, this will help avoid the flat, ‘flash’ look. If the weather drives you indoors use flash to give you the flexibility to stop down the lens for depth-of-field, or look for a light-coloured ceiling or wall to bounce the light from. Maybe you’re a lucky person and you’ll find a large indoor space with discreet decoration to stage the picture.
Or perhaps you’ll be confined in a room with too much furniture, violently patterned wallpaper and a low ceiling. Well, you’ve still got to get the picture so there’s no choice but to get on with it and use what you got, and always remember that group shots are about the faces, not the art direction.
Indoors or outdoors, there is one great secret to composing a group of people; arrange them in a way that you looks nice. Simple. You’re the photographer – trust your eye, it’s as good as anyone else’s. Be assertive – arrange them how you want them. Symmetry can help, so can the rule of thirds. Look out for light fittings, red fire alarms, green exit instructions, signs pointing to the toilets. But the most important thing in arranging a group is making sure you can see everyone’s face.
Look out for the shy ones trying to hide at the back. Moving an individual whose name you don’t know is a problem, so if eye contact doesn’t work then forget good manners and point. Directing with a light touch gets a better response than the heavy hand; boss people around with a smile and joke! Sometimes there’s someone you can safely pick on, “I knew you were going to be trouble” “There’s one in every group”. But be careful, don’t comment on appearance or body shape, a crowd can turn very quickly! Of course people want to help and co-operate, if they are not playing along ask them to do it as a favour for the hosts or their friends, even for the boss! And point out that they won’t get their dinner until the photography’s finished!