Group photograph. Two words that can intimidate even a longtime pro photographer.
Take everything that can go wrong just photographing one person and multiply by three or four or however many people in your group and you get the idea. Extended family having a rare gathering and as the family photo person, you’re expected to get everyone smiling together? A group at work or church requesting a few shots, knowing your facility with a camera? Your daughter happily volunteered your services to her gymnastics team?
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to stack the odds of success in your favor.
Be organized. If at all possible, find a way to contact each person who will appear in the group pictures before the day of the session. If there’s an inkling that your outing or family get together will include a gathering of people for the camera, say so, along with whatever expectations you have – dress, location, time of day, etc. Your goal is to have everyone on the same page with you when they arrive at the location or as shortly thereafter as possible.
Be prepared. Have your location scouted ahead of time if you can, at the exact time of day of the shoot if possible and have your decisions made as to where you will shoot. Ditto with the group’s basic posing arrangement. Double ditto with your camera’s settings. Nothing is more aggravating to a group (and embarrassing to the photographer) than having to wait while you’re fumbling with the setup because you hadn’t anticipated the direction of the available light or the location’s space constraints.
Arrangement ideas. Don’t herd the group together. You’ll wind up using a lot of time rearranging them before you can shoot. Specifically select one or two people and direct them into position. Then select the next two or thee people to join the first two and direct them into place. Build your group a little at a time. It makes you come off as the man or woman with the plan and actually builds some anticipation as people wait their turn to join in.
The keep your group photo from looking too much like a police lineup, arrange people in a small semicircle and instruct them to turn slightly toward the center person. With larger groups, form two or more concentric semicircles.
Use the natural relationships between the people in the group – if shooting a large family gathering, place people into their respective family groups. Place the patriarch and matriarch in a prominent place in your composition. Photographing a group at work? Think about each person’s role, rank or responsibility and try to group them in a way that makes sense.
When you have more than one row of people, position the second row so people’s heads are visible between those in front of them. Instruct everyone in your group that they must be able to see the camera with both eyes. Have them close one eye, then the other. If they don’t have a clear view of the camera both ways, that means they’re partially blocked by the person in front of them and must adjust accordingly.
Break it up. No one says your group has to be one huddled mass. Set them free! Arrange them loosely throughout your location. Have some standing, some sitting, some laying on the floor. Be playful.
Ready, Aim, Click. Take several shots of the group, and let them know ahead of time exactly how many you will take. Otherwise you risk people turning to leave after the first shot and forcing you to go reposition them.
The reason for several shots? To minimize the number of “blinkers,” and otherwise not-quite-ready people in the shot. Also, having several shots will facilitate the ability to “swap heads” in a photo editing program if necessary to make sure everyone has a pleasant expression.
If you can elevate yourself above the group, so much the better. You’ll have less chance of losing someone behind another person.
What about flash? The onboard flashes of most digital cameras have an optimum range of only eight to twelve feet – depending on the size of your group, your flash likely will barely reach the first row of people. And if it does, people in subsequent rows will be in the dark or will suffer from shadows cast on them by those in front. If you can bounce your flash off a ceiling over the group, that will help. Otherwise, available light is the best way to go, barring an ability to use multiple off-camera strobes on stands with modifiers, which is another article altogether.
Final thoughts. Does the above sound like a lot of trouble for a few informal clicks of a group? It depends on the level of photography you’re going for. The world (and Facebook) is already brimming with haphazardly-arranged, poorly composed and badly exposed group photographs. Taking just a bit more care than the average Joe with a camera immediately elevates your game above the rest of the crowd. And isn’t that what you came here for?