Large Group Photography Tips

Here I am assuming you don’t already have a couple of high power studio type lights with their own power sources. Everyone has there own way of doing things and my advice, tips is just that. Hopefully you can pick up a helpful tip or two from reading this to add to your knowledge base. I have put up most of the tips I have read elsewhere as well as my own experience. Almost all the formal large group shoots have required me not to post any images on the internet so you won’t see any examples from me here  but hopefully the information will still be of help.

There are several tricks to taking photos of large groups indoors and out.  unfortunately most modern cameras only allow a flash sync up to 1/200 – 1/250, (important outdoors in bright light) A few of the latest camera models have both a base ISO of 100 (some go to low 3 which is ISO50) and a flash sync of 1/320 without losing power,  some medium format cameras and most large format lens use leaf shutters which allow higher syncs. Older DSLRs like the Nikon D40/50/70 allowed up to 1/500 flash sync. What this means is you will need to use at least one stop more flash power than you would with a higher sync (or larger Fstop) when needed for large groups ( or any situation for that matter). The advantage of the lower base ISO is that you will have a better chance of avoiding diffraction from using F8 + with the newer high mp sensors. Outdoors in bright light you will usually set your camera at the highest flash sync speed and then adjust the aperture and ISO to get you base exposure. Remember, your exposure speed will not affect your flash output (unless you go over the sync speed) only the ISO and Fstop will.  If your going to take a shot of 65 people 3-5 rows deep in the sun (side or back-lit hopefully) you’re going to need some very strong flash output which your typical camera flash unit can’t always provide, here you will need studio type units and umbrellas (if it’s not too windy) along with a power source ( which most folks don’t have). Umbrellas when used as fill out in the sun really aren’t needed that much since your already dealing with hard lighting from the sun.  If your subjects are in the shade (all should either be in the shade or sun but not both) you can get by with just a little shadow lifting which just maybe your DSLR type flash units might provide ( a big maybe). If your flash units can’t provide enough output try using a P&S camera with a hot shoe to trigger them, why? because a P&S camera has the advantage of a higher flash sync speed plus you can set the camera for a larger Fstop and not lose any of your needed DOF, so you can set your P&S at say F4 and 1/500 sec instead of F5.6 and 1/250 the exposure is the same but the flash unit now has more effect on the subject and your DOF is about 2 stops more  with the P&S. If that’s what you need to do to get the shot do it, it’s the right tool for the job in that situation. P&S cameras can in the right situation  provide just as good of IQ as a similar MP DSLR if you don’t have to pull  the shadows too much  in processing.

Have any doubts about that see here:

Once the light starts to fall as evening approaches you will find that you can now start to use higher ISOs or larger apertures which give your flash unit much more effect on the subject. After sunset and at night Speed lights work just fine and are easier to set up and use, plus they have their own power source built-in.

Note: you can in many cases get away with using a bit more shutter speed  than your max sync (turn off FP mode). You will not get full frame coverage but it might not matter depending on the subject. For example on my D90 camera if I shoot flash at 1/320 a sec I lose about 1/3 or more of the frame, if I make good use of that knowledge I might actually find I like the effect or maybe don’t  really need flash in that portion of the frame (think vertical shots with some space on one side of the frame). Check it out and see. FP or high speed sync with modern cameras greatly reduces the effect of flash output and is only really  useful when the flash unit is up close to the subject or when very little output is needed.

Indoors you may be able to use Strobes (camera type flash units) either directly pointing in or bounced from a rear wall / ceiling / side wall or umbrella depending on the ambient light level. Your subjects should be stationed so that each row is higher than the last, if not you will want to elevate yourself or use a longer focal length lens to increase compression in order to reduce the near far difference in the size of people’s faces. Depending on how many rows of people you have you may need to feather the light so as to even out the exposure. Current DX and Full Frame sensored cameras have such good high ISO capabilities that you can easily use ISO 800 -1600 which gives you flash much more effect on the subject. This is particularly useful when you bounce your flash off surfaces that are a little further away. I often use ISO 800 -1250 indoors at events along with bounced flash or at least a bounce card. If you have an assistant you can have a Speedlight mounted on a pole either bare or in a small portable softbox/umbrella, your assistant can then place him or her self so as to give the effect you want.

You can do it without flash in some cases it just depends on the quality & quantity of available light as well as your cameras ability to handle higher ISOs. If you elevate yourself so as to point the came down some you can use a larger Fstop because the needed focus plane will be shorter as a result. If you can get a fast enough shutter speed and your subjects stay still enough you can fire off 2-3 exposures and blend them in software to even out the exposure. I’ve done that but still preferred the flashed shot I took at the same time. You can also swap backgrounds in software later. This works great if you have a specific place you want in the photo but it is impractical to do the shoot there. If you need to use a slow shutter speed hand-held take at least 3-6 shots, one of them should be noticeably sharper than the rest.

One of the best light sources you can take with you is a light stand with a light bar on it that can hold 4 speed lights. You get 2 stops more light plus you don’t need a power source and its mostly wind resistant. Also because the lights are spread apart you get a softer light source without even having to use a reflector of any kind. Going from one speed lightt to Two gives you another stop, going from two to four gives you yet another stop. If you make one of these be sure to buy cheap but powerful manual flash units, there is no point in spending $500 for each when you will be using manual mode anyway. This guy has a video on using it. You may just find that this is the way to go instead of all that bulky equipment. The cost is a bit more overall from a studio light setup but the portability if just awesome.

Here’s a link showing the use of some new umbrellas and larger group shots.

Another post on large group wedding shoots.

1. Adding colored gels to your flash units to match the ambient lights white balance can also produce more natural results in the end, although you can often fix it in post. If your cameras sensor is good enough almost anything can be fixed in PS but that requires a lot more of your time, its better to get it right in camera. The latest Sony Sensors can take a lot more shadow pull than previous sensors and this is really nice for those times you need it.

2. Heavy people should be placed more towards the center of a group when using a wide-angle lens. You can also use the thinify tool or push tool in Paint Shop Pro or Photo Shop to fix the edges a bit. Another trick is to angle them a bit or have them hold something to block the body a bit. Also if you use a wide-angle lens and are pointing it down some from an elevated position your will see the upper body and heads start to become out of proportion to the lower body making heavy folks look more unnatural, so in this case having those individuals further back is best. In the end you just have to deal with it to get some interesting shots, there are always pros and cons to each setup.

3. Your base exposure will be limited by the placement of  folks with gray or white hair as the hair blows out easier under AC lighting and from flash units. Consider that when setting up.

4. A larger light source ( such as a wall or umbrella) will produce softer shadows. If there is a wall behind your group try to put distance between them and the wall and elevate your flashes a bit above their heads. Sometimes just asking for a couple of assistants to hold flash units is all you need. Also the further back the light source the less difference there will be in illumination from the front row to the back. The closer the light source the greater the difference in brightness of the flash from the closest subject to the furthest. Also if needed try to feather the flash so that the front row is not noticeably brighter than the last ( if possible), elevating the flash can help but you may get some shadowing from it depending on how high you need to go. If you have the power and its possible you will get best results if you light up the whole room with bounce  rather than directly in soft or hard. Directly in will give you more issues than a properly lit room. You will often need a lot of power to do this though. Pro wedding photographers in dark churches will try to light the room before shooting light directly in at the group or couple. Once you have the room lit up your free to shoot without worrying about the subjects angle to light and position so much. Remember you can always darken the background in PS easier than lighting up the shadow.

5. Try to elevate each row of people or place taller folks in back. Try and minimize the depth with less rows if needed or possible. If 8×10 prints are required take post cropping into consideration when setting your focal length, for 8×10 prints you may have to have more rows, if  that’ the case try to use a longer focal length to reduce the near far distortion from wider focal lengths.

6. If you can, elevate your camera some.

7. Avoid direct sunlight onto their faces / eyes of your subjects. Open shade is generally best.

8. Modern DSLRs can easily handle ISO 800 and above for making 12″x19″ prints of groups shots. In some cases if a very large print is desired and your limited by your camera you can try merging 2 or more shots together. this works best if the subjects can stay very still for two quick shots in a row or if there are two groups with a small amount of space between them so you can use two downsized shots and merge then thus reducing the visible noise form high ISO.

9. The further back you stand and the longer the focal length you use the shallower the depth of field will be with the same Fstop, also the further back you stand with with any given focal length the greater the DOF. Another couple of factors to work out. For large groups you will probably be using in 35mm terms a  24 – 50mm focal length. You will end up using what is needed for the shot anyway so its best to be open-minded and think outside of the box, doing the same setup every time can get boring, you may want to do that to make sure you get what you came for but why not try something new as well since you have the people right in front of you anyway.

You might find youself in a situtation where you have to shoot a large group on a tall staircase, here you might need 2 8ft ladders, one for yourself to get high enought and one for an assistant to hold the flash  on its light stand in order to get it high enough and angle it to match the stairs. the height will be needed to get far enough back to reduce light falloff and keep some angle to it. Sometimes you really need an assistant to do it right, particuarly if its outdoors and  windy. Always bring rope, gaffing tape, clamps and some straps to hold down you stands against something in windy conditions. You never know what you might need to position lights in difficult places. To avoid nasty shadows always try to have the light at or above the subjects so any shadows will be cast down behind then. Thats one of the things flash brakets where for when doing weddings. I personally don’t use them though.

I recently had a chance to photograph 5 large groups (33-43 persons) over a period of 5 weeks indoors, each week I was able to find ways to improve the shot, things such as posture and interior items. I used 2 Paul Buff 52″ soft silver umbrellas and 2 AB800s. What a difference in power compared to the SB800s. I was able to use F8 and ISO 200 and still only at 3/8 power while covering more area. I was told not to post photos on the net so no samples here. This time I also used a large step stool from the stage shooting out into the audience in a similar venue as the shot below. My post processing was based on a guide print from another shoot done elsewhere to try to keep all the class’s photos taken in different cities looking similar.  The first week we setup in such a way that I used about 24 mm focal length, the following week I put the step stool further back in the stage area and used 36mm which looked real good. Of course the first class was the biggest also. Paying attention to details and getting everyone to pose correctly proved to be the hardest part, I never got it perfect. I even had two assistants helping to make sure all the details were correct and we still ended up missing things (only we noticed these things though). Really good training for us all. The guide prints required graduated masks in PS to be done to match the look which was professional looking. The last week or so had the smallest class which allowed me to use a longer focal length which gave the best look.

What kind of details should you look for? Here are some tips to consider ( pasted from MS word so the text is not formatted so well).

Tips & suggestions for photographing A large Group from a stage.

  • Remove  the front row or two of seats if taking the photos from the stage to create some distance from the camera if needed so you can use a longer focal  length. Use a small ladder or a step stool to stand on for height. You may have to get close to the ceiling to elongate the group to better fit an  8×10 print. This will help keep sharp focus on the rows and get a clearer  view of the back rows as well as reducing the near / far effect of a wider  angle lens. Where you stand will depend on the lens used.
  • Umbrellas  (2x) can be just touching the ceiling and at 90 degrees as well as facing somewhat      inward,  this will give even illumination  on the 4 rows or so, and need very little adjustment in Photo Shop. Ceiling   exposure is not critical as it will either be mostly cropped out or   darkened with a graduated mask in Photo Shop for the text area. Umbrellas should be kept near the stage to maximize the distance for less light fall   off. If professional lighting is not available a single on camera flash can be utilized but will probably require more PS work to even out the exposure before adjusting the background for text.
  • Make sure the front row person or persons are centered with the rest of the rows as well as back of the room so the interior will be symmetrical if possible.
  • Front row should have fewer persons ( 1-2 max) than the 2nd and 3rd row.
  • Fourth row or last row should have persons standing with shoulders overlapping some  towards the center. If more than one row of standing persons is needed, consider using taller persons in back or shorter ones standing on the chairs. This can be time consuming to work out, be decisive and get it done.
  • Taller individuals should be in the 3rd or last seated row.
  • Shorter persons in the first row. You can stagger the  rows by half a seat if needed, I did.
  • Make sure any window shades (if any) are down on all windows. Reduce clutter if needed.
  • Persons should remove all their belongings from the area in the photo.
  • Individuals should stand with their arms relaxed and hanging straight down or what ever is appropriate..
  • Front row Men should keep their feet straight ahead and lined up if possible. Legs should point straight ahead within reason. Hands should be kept on the knee area just inside the knee somewhat with fingers kept natural, not closed tight or wide open over the knees. Open fingers attract attention against a dark pant leg. Hands should not cover the crotch. You may prefer a different method but consistency is what your after.
  • If the front row needs to have more than 7-8 people a very wide-angle lens may be  needed such as a 12-24mm lens for DX format or a 18-24mm or so in 35mm format depending on your distance. 28mm equivalent can work if the first few rows are not utilized. You may also have to stand back further on the stage depending on the hall’s layout and size. It all depends on the room you have and the distance you create with the first row. I can  tell you that a longer focal length looks better in the end as a 8X10 print. Always try to use the longest focal length you can by stepping back and using a ladder or step stool.
  •  Larger persons should not be placed on the edges of the front row due to wide-angle lens distortion.
  • Take your time to make sure no one is hidden behind another in the final shot. Take several shots for insurance. Look for closed eyes. Make sure everyone’s clothing is neat and orderly. Have another person ( set of eyes) help you to keep from missing anything.
  • The back of the space should be darkened if needed. The bottom of the print can have a black? strip about 1″ or so for the date and to help with the 8×10″ crop ratio. Here’s one that we tend to miss and that’s crooked eye glasses, watch for that at least in the first few rows.
  • Photos that are framed will lose about a 1/4″ from the edges, keep text away from that line.
  • For ease of setting up the 8×10″ crop with a DSLRs 3:2 ratio image. The image can be pasted on another layer which is larger than the print itself in Photo Shop, then cropped which allows you to see where you may need to add the black? area giving you more useable area on the original image if needed. Wide angle shots benefit the most from this.
  • You could start the setup by having the individuals split up into two height groups, one group on the left / right to pick from. Have a  test print made the first time before  ordering dozens of prints or to use as a guide for the next shoot if more  than one shoot is to be done.
  • Be prepared to instruct others on what to do. You may have to get down and fix clothing details yourself. Bring an assistant to help with setting up and helping you get the details right. You need to be relaxed when on stage directing the shoot so that others will feel relaxed too.
  • If you using cross lighting (two lights apart in frot) watch for shadows when you have people standing close to one another in rows. Sitting is usually no problem but standing can mean you have to have your lights closer together. Check you LCD carefully for that.
  • Be sure to use a lens hood so you won’t find any unwanted flare (which sometimes can just rob you of contrast) in your photos once you get home. It’s very easy to miss on the back of your camera.

How I deal with the croping issue.

first I make a layer that is larger than the image and paste the image onto it. I can now crop for an 8×10 and see where I need to add area if any. after croping I may need to air brush, paint or clone some extra area into the image from my cropping . This area can be used for adding text or creating a border of some type to extend the image or give the impression that is is larger than it was, this is done all the time. Making large group shot 8x10s from a 2:3 ratio sensor images and having it look good  is not too easy. Some cameras have a built-in 4×5 crop to help with positioning. If your not used to doing this its harder than you think. It just does not feel natural to setup a large group of people in a squarish formation to fill an 8×10 frame properly. This is very very  important to keep in mind when your setting up unless your free to deliver the wider format of 35mm. Once you get the 8×10 finshed you  can also get a 11×14 and 5×7 format from it with little effort. Most jobs I have done require 8x10s. Thats what people are used to but I always make 11×14 prints for some as well as myself. If you shoot with too much room for cropping later your just robbing yourself of resolution once the crop is made.

Here is an example of using the bottom and top of the image as a border with text. This final design and colors was picked by the clients. As you can see the grouping of the 3 rows is still far from fitting into an 8″x 10″ crop properly. I would have had to add another row with the people even higher. This just was not practical here so 3 rows was it and I had to make it work. Showing the legs and feet in the front row is distracting here so a border of some kind is really needed. Looks fine in a frame. This is a smallish group which is actually harder to do like this IMO.

Crop Example