Photographing Groups

Let the Goals Define the Most Effective Strategy

The primary goals for lighting any portrait are to: 1) put light in both eyes and the front of the faces, and 2) eliminate distracting shadows on the faces. For a solo portrait the key light is typically put to the side about 45 degrees from the nose in a "short" lighting pattern to highlight and draw attention to the front of the face and at the same time get light into both of the recessed eye sockets and modeling the face in a flattering way.

But short lighting patterns, executed well, require precise positioning of key light to the face to prevent distracting shadows. That is easy to accomplish with a single subject or a couple, but with a larger group the faces and noses wind up pointing different directions making it physically impossible to get similar flattering lighting on the faces when the key light is placed to the side.

With groups the rules-of-thumb of effective portraiture collide head-on with a law of physics, the inverse square law which states that light intensity decreases with the inverse of the square of the distance. In plain English, if the distance to the light doubles the light intensity falls by 1/4 or 2-f/stops.

If the only goal was to make the lighting even on the group the simple solution would be to place two lights on opposite sides pointing in towards the edges. In fact that is exactly how flat artwork should be illuminated to copy it. But faces are not flat and that strategy called "crossed-shadow lighting" will create a muddled unflattering mix of blotchy flat highlights and distracting shadows.

A strategy which meets the goals of even flattering lighting and a consistent pattern on all the faces in a group is a centered strategy where the light is placed directly over the camera. Since light radiates in an arc it is necessary to arrange the group in arc or chevron pattern to keep the light source and equal distance and intensity from each face in the group:


A very simple way to keep lighting even and exposure consistent from session-to-session when shooting groups is to tie a string below the flash head with knots 15ft. making it easy know where the faces need to be relative to the light in the center and edges of the group. If using manual flash once the exposure for the light at 15ft. is determined the first time that method is used, the same power, f/stop and ISO will produce identical results, making the technical aspects a "no-brainer".

Shooting from a Ladder or Higher Point-of-View

The light needs to be raised above the heads of the highest subjects but not so high the brow begins to shade the eyes. But before setting the light it is advantageous to raise the position of the camera using a ladder.

A multi-row group viewed from ground level winds up looking like a collection of heads stacked on top of one set of bodies in the front row. To compose the group in a rectangular viewfinder it is often necessary to include a large amount of potentially distracting background above the heads. By virtue off being stacked front-to-back the heads in front wind up much closer to the camera lens than those in the back, which causes near/far size distortion: big heads in front / smaller heads in back.

Raising the point-of-view of the camera solves all of these problems. Consider for a moment how a group would look if the camera could be positioned directly over the group on the ceiling with the people looking up. All that would be seen in the photo would be the faces, and the would all be the same size and in the same light. In fact when shooting at a venue with a balcony a very simple but effective strategy is to shoot from it with the people looking up, lighting the shot by simply bouncing the light up at the ceiling.

When balcony is not available a step-ladder can be used to get the camera above the face. I used a 7ft. ladder for the shot below:


Shooting from above also has other advantages. When the subject raise their heads up to look at the camera it will tighten-up any loose skin on the neck. The downward angle will also foreshorten the body, making it appear smaller than an eye-level view.

Near / Far size distortion is a function of
shooting distance, not focal length.

Shoot from far enough away to avoid excessive distortion.

Composition and Posing for Groups

A holistic strategy always starts by defining the perceptual goal for the photograph. In a group shot a collection of people can loose close and unified or like a collection of random individual portraits placed in the same frame. Groups have a form of "body language" which in a photo is created by clothing and spacing of the heads.


If you haven't read my "COI for Thou" tutorial stop here and review it before proceeding in this one because it explains in a simple visual way how coordinating clothing and background are to any holistic lighting strategy. A group will look more unified and cohesive in a photo is when no single person contrasts and draws more attention. That's the rationale behind dressing people in similar clothing in group shots. Something as simple as having everyone wear similar colored pants and shirts will have a tremendous effect.

Configuration of the Group and Head Spacing

The spacing of heads in a group shot will create an impression in the mind of the viewer and is an important form of group body language in a photograph. Look at the two different configurations of five people illustrated below:

5HeadsWider 5HeadsClose

Why does the spacing, both horizontally and vertically convey about the relationship of the people? Something to keep in mind when arranging groups is that a stranger, seeing the photo for the first time, will use the spacing of the people as a clue about how they relate to each other. What makes one couple look like they are married and in love and another like co-workers? The spacing of the heads. Who is the bosses and who are subordinates? That message is conveyed by vertical separation which sets one or more heads apart from the other.

Connecting the Dots

When first presented with a group photo the overall geometric shape created by the pattern and spacing of heads provides clues for how the different people relate to each other. But to relate to the people in the group a viewer will focus on one face at a time, scanning from face-to-face until all are seen. In that sense the spacing of the heads is like the arrangement of notes in a musical composition; it will be more pleasing if there is a regular spacing and up and down flow as the viewer scans across the photo with the eye moving with a smooth, even flow. Smooth eye movement translates into a sensation of harmony. If the eye viewer is forced to jump across large, uneven gaps between heads the sensation will be less unified and harmonious.

Put yourself in the place of a total stranger to get clues about relationships from the arrangement of the group. Traditional families have stereotypical roles with the parents in charge and the children subordinate. So what message does a family group send when the parents are seated and one of the kids is standing and towering above them? What message does it send if three of the faces are close together, but the youngest smallest child is lower and further away.

Connecting the heads is how the viewer will connect the dots to understand the relationships and interaction of the people in the photo. That is especially important in a multi-generational group containing families of siblings. A stranger looking at the photo should be able to immediately grasp which kids belong to which parents.


It is easier to wind-up with an eye pleasing composition by basing it on a geometric pattern for the overall group in mind beforehand. V, ^, W, M shapes all lend themselves to groups. Every person in the group should be posed and lit in a way which would flatter them in a solo portrait. Married couples should relate to each other in the group shot in the same way they would in a portrait of just the two of them together.

With that in mind I start by posing the core of the group so their heads are at the focal point of the overall geometric pattern. For a simple family group a pyramid pattern with the parents at the apex is very effective. For a multi-generational photo an M or W pattern with the grand-parents in the center would form the pattern and core for building the group.

Approached that way, from the center out, the process of arranging the group is much simpler than starting with everyone and trying to re-arrange them. Like football it will be easier to execute the plays if you practice them in advance. I model various group configurations using Photoshop in the same way I created the illustrations used above. I created adult and child figures on separate layers in a Photoshop document, which allows me to rearrange and add more figures easily. I can experiment with various different arrangements then step back and see how my eye flows from face to face and what the impression of relationship and hierarchy is. When I find pleasing combinations I save copies as JPGS and make prints to show the subjects as a "blueprint" so they will understand what the finished group shot should look like. Its a very effective tool for learning how to arrange small and medium groups and a very good way to communicate with the subjects in advance of the session the importance of clothing and background.

The same sub-group and geometric pattern strategy used for a multigenerational family shot can be applied to a large group shot of a company staff, or other large group. First decide on an overall geometric shape for the group, then pose the each sub-group cohesively to fit within it, making sure the spacing will provide good overall flow and there is enough non-distracting negative space around the overall group to frame it and pull the viewer of the photo into it. Use the arc strategy to keep the sub-groups the same distance from the camera to avoid near/far size distortion, depth-of-field problems and to keep the lighting even. Large complex shots like that are best tackled outdoors in natural lighting with flash used as needed for fill.

Hands in Group Portraits

Part of making an effective portrait is understanding how things in person translate into the impression created in a photo. I person the touch of a hand is a very important gesture of closeness and connectivity. So The natural inclination in a small family group will be for everyone to put a hand on everyone else's shoulder. But stop and consider that everything other than the faces in a portrait to be a potential distract from the faces. The more skin toned objects other than the faces in the photo the more difficult it will be to find and stay focused one the faces, thus 10 hands competing for attention with 5 faces is not the recipe for an effective group portrait.

As mentioned above it is the spacing of the heads which conveys the strongest message of intimacy in a group photo because the faces are the focal points. So rather than everyone putting a hand on someone else hide the hands and put the heads closer together. Instead of Mom holding Jr. with fat ham shaped hand around his waist facing the camera have her grab a handful of the back of Jr's jumper. When arranging a group stop, step back, look for distractions from the faces, and try to eliminate them.

That's not to say hands should never be included, only that ways should be found to prevent them from distracting from the smooth pattern of eye movement from face-to-face in the group. Ways to make hands less distracting are to put them close to the face so both are seen at the same time, or make them significantly darker than the face if they are lower in the frame by feathering the lighting when shooting or vignetting the photo when editing.

Posing very large groups

It's possible to turn an unruly mob or team into a cohesive looking group photo in about 30 seconds:
  1. First arrange the front row in a chevron or arc pattern relative to the camera

  2. Stand in the middle and split the group in half and instruct everyone to turn their bodies to face the middle and point their front feet at the camera,

  3. Have everyone shift their weight to the back foot.

Standing with your back to the group and demonstrating for each side helps people understand the instructions. If they follow the simple 1 -2-3 instruction the group will appear uniformly posed with all of the shoulder lines and heads tilting towards the center. A ladder is the most important piece of equipment for large group The same sub-group and geometric pattern strategy used for a multigenerational family shot can be applied to a large group shot of a company staff, or other large group. First decide on an overall geometric shape for the group, then pose the each sub-group cohesively to fit within it, making sure the spacing will provide good overall flow and there is enough non-distracting negative space around the overall group to frame it and pull the viewer of the photo into it. Use the arc strategy to keep the sub-groups the same distance from the camera to avoid near/far size distortion, DOF problems and to keep the lighting even. Large complex shots like that are best tackled outdoors in natural lighting with flash used as needed for fill.

Coordinating the clothing and background
to creating strongly contrasting faces
makes lighting less critical

The best strategy is to keep it simple.

Lighting Equipment and Lens Considerations

Two technical limitations affecting group lighting strategies are the exponential fall-off of light intensity and shutter sync limits.

Light intensity of flash decreases about 2 f/stops each time the distance doubles. So if shooting a group from 10ft the light will be 1-stop darker at 15ft and 2-stops darker at 20ft. That makes it difficult to get even lighting front-to-back even when a centered strategy is used. The further lights can be placed from group the more gradual the the fall off will be. If lights are placed at 20ft from the front row of the group the light will only be about 1/2 stop darker 5ft further back and 1 stop darker 10ft behind the first row. So the further the lights can be positioned the more even it will be over the group.

When shooting groups outdoors it is necessary to put the back of the group to the sun to avoid squinting. The faces are illuminated by the skylight, but because it is 3 stops darker the faces will be reproduced darker than normal (i.e. what is expected) if the background is exposed correctly for highlight detail. The technical limit when adding flash to balance the foreground is the sync limit of the shutter, 1/250th on most cameras. Shooting at 1/250th requires an aperture of around f/11 and shooting a large group such as a sports team from 20 feet away f/11 requires a substantial amount of flash power.

The power limitation of hot shoe flashes make them a poor choice for group shots compared to studio flash. Fortunately there is relatively inexpensive battery/inverter powered studio lighting equipment available. Two 600 W/S flash units would be the minimum I'd recommend for any serious group photography done as a business (e.g. AB1600 or WL1600). If shooting large groups an even more powerful 1200 W/S flash would be a better tool for the task.

I have a separate tutorial on lenses for groups so I will not elaborate here, but as with the lighting its better to shoot from further away with a longer lens than closer with a wide angle due to optical stretching of the image (anastigmatic correction) which is a characteristic of wider lenses. The ideal lens would be a sharp single focal length without any apparent distortion on the edges.

Holistic Concepts for Lighting
and Digital Photography

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