Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Creating Effective Group Portraits

Today's post is an ex
cerpt from the book The Best of Wedding Photojournalism (2nd ed.), by Bill Hurter. It is available from Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

Formal group portraits fall outside the area of interest of most photojournalists. However, they are still an integral part of almost every wedding. Most wedding photojournalists don’t exhibit their formal groups, but they do include them in their albums—usually because brides expect certain group portraits. Even purists will oblige the request for these images, but they will add the special twist that takes the images out of the realm of traditional wedding coverage.

Groups should be fun. Here, Marcus Bell gets photographed by the groomsmen with their point-and-shoot digital cameras.

Types of Groups
You will want to photograph the groom and his groomsmen, the bride and her bridesmaids, as well as the complete wedding party in one g
roup. Depending on the wishes of the bride, you may also need to photograph family formals, extended families, or a giant group shot including all of the guests.

Opt for something completely unexpected. Incorporate the environment or architecture, or ask the group to do something uncharact
eristic. Even though this is a “posed” shot, it does not have to represent a pause in the flow of the wedding day; it can be fun. You can get a wonderful group image if you exercise a little imagination.


While it might be tempting to find a great background and shoot all of your groups using it, the effect will be monotonous when viewed in the album. Look for several interesting backgrounds, even if they are only ten or twenty feet apart. This will add visual interest to the finished album.

Successfully designing groups of people depends on your ability to manage the lines and shapes within the composition. The more you learn to recognize these key elements, the more they will become an integral part of your co
mpositions—and the more dynamic your group portraits will be.

Couples. The simplest of groups is two people. Whethe
r the group is a bride and groom, mom and dad, or the best man and the maid of honor, the basic building blocks call for one person slightly higher than the other. A good starting point is to position the mouth of the higher person parallel to the forehead or eyes of the lower person.

Although they can be posed in parallel position, a more inter
esting dynamic with two people can be achieved by having them pose at 45-degree angles to each other, so their shoulders face in toward one another. With this pose, you can create a number of variations by moving them closer or farther apart.

To create an intimate pose for two, try showing two profiles facing each other. One should still be higher than the other, allowing you to create an implied diagonal line between their eyes, which gives the portrait better visual dynamics. Since this type of image is usually fairly close up, make sure that the frontal planes of the subjects’ faces are roughly parallel so that you can hold sharp focus on both.

Trios. A group portrait of three is still small and intimate. It lends itself to a pyramid or diamond-shaped composition, or an inverted triangle, all of which are pleasing to the eye.

Turn the shoulders of those at both ends of the gr
oup in toward the center of the composition to loop the group together, ensuring that the viewer’s eye does not stray out of the frame. Once you add a third person, you will begin to notice the interplay of lines and shapes inherent in good group design. The graphic power of a well-defined diagonal line in a composition will compel the viewer to keep looking at the image.

Try different vantage points—a bird’s-eye view, for exam
ple. Cluster the group together, use a safe stepladder or other high vantage point, and you’ve got a lovely variation on the small group.

Even-Numbered Groups. You will find that even numbers of people are more difficult to pose than odd-numbered groupings. The reason is that the eye and brain tend to accept the disorder of odd-numbered objects more readily than even-numbered objects. (Note: As you add more people to a group, reme
mber to do everything you can to keep the camera back parallel to the plane of the group to ensure everyone in the photograph is sharply focused.)

With four people, you can simply add a person
to the existing poses for three described above. Be sure to keep the head height of the fourth person different from any of the others in the group. Also, be aware that you are now forming shapes with your composition—pyramids, extended triangles, diamonds, and curved lines.

The dark suits and hats contrast against the light colored wall, creating a composition that resembles musical notes on a score. The boy’s face, turned slightly toward the camera, adds an aura of solemnity to the observance. Bounce flash was fired at the taking aperture (f/2.8) to add highlights along the shoulders of the dark suits. This is an award-winning photograph by Michael Greenberg.

Larger Groups. With five or six people, you should begin to think in terms of creating linked subgroups. This is when a posing device like the armchair can come into play. An armchair is the perfect posing device for photographing up to about eight people. The chair is best positioned roughly 30 to 45 degrees to the camera. Whoever will occupy the seat (usually the bride) should be seated laterally across the seat cushion on the edge of the chair, so that their weight does not rest on the chair back. This promotes good sitting posture and narrows the lines of the waist and hips, for both men and women. With one person seated, you can then position the others close and on the arms of the chair, leaning in toward the central person. Sometimes only one arm of the armchair is used to create a more dynamic triangle shape.

What a wild and crazy group this is! It is completely unchoreographed in a wacky, vaudevillian way—groomsmen piggy backing bridesmaids, who buckle under the weight; guys dropping their trousers—it’s completely out of control. Yet, this is what it’s all about: having fun on a once-in-a-lifetime day. The photograph was made, and no doubt inspired, by the photographers, Jeff and Julia Woods.

Hands can be a problem in groups. Despite their small size, they attract visual attention— particularly against dark clothing. They can be especially troublesome in seated groups, where at first glance you might think there are more hands than there should be. A general rule of thumb is to either show all of the hand or show none of it. Don’t allow a thumb, or half a hand, or a few fingers to show. Hide as many hands as you can behind flowers, hats, or other people. Be aware of these potentially distracting elements, and look for them as part of your visual inspection of the frame before you make the exposure.

Really Big Groups. In really big groups, the use of differe
nt levels helps to create a sense of visual interest and lets the viewer’s gaze bounce from one face to another (as long as there is a logical and pleasing flow to the arrangement). The placement of faces, not bodies, dictates how pleasing and effective the composition will be.

Having the guests wave to the camera usually results in too many faces being lost behind raised arms. However, this is a good time for the bride to throw her bouquet. Ask her to throw it over her head into the crowd behind, mainly upward and slightly to the rear. Alternately, you might simply ask the couple to kiss and have all the guests watch them.

When you are photographing large groups, an assistant is invaluable for getting all of the people together and helping you to pose them. Keep in mind that it also takes less time to photograph one large group than it does to create a series of smaller groups, so it is usually time well spent (provided that the bride wants the groups done in this way).

This is a group of eleven groomsmen taken by Kevin Jairaj. If you let your eyes wander across the group, you will see three groups of three guys, plus a grouping of two on the far right side. This is intentionally done to subdivide the large group, preventing it from becoming a “team” photo all on one plane. Instead, it is a moody, introspective image of the young men, beautifully done with stage lighting and carefully composed to give the image rhythm and unity.

Focus and Depth of Field
As your groups get bigger, it’s important to keep your depth of field under control. The stepladder is an invaluable tool for larger groups; it lets you elevate the camera position and more easily keep the camera back parallel to the group for the most efficient focus. Another trick is to have the back row of the group lean in, while the front row leans back slightly. This creates a shallower subject plane that makes it easier to hold the focus across the entire group.

If you are short of space, use a wide-angle lens or a wide-angle camera (like the Brooks Veri-Wide, a 35mm panoramic camera with a rotating shutter). Wide-angle coverage results in the people at the front appearing larger than those at the back, which may be advantageous if the wedding party is at the front of the group. Make sure everyone is sharp. This is more of a certainty with a wide-angle lens and its inherent depth of field. Focus at a distance one-third of the way into the group. This should ensure that everyone is sharp at f/5.6 or f/8 with a wide-angle lens.

After You’ve Snapped the Shutter
Many wedding photographers will tell you that the best groups and formals are often taken seconds after you’ve told the people, “Thanks, I’ve got it.” Everyone relaxes and they revert to having a good time and being themselves. This is a great time to fire off a few more frames—you might get that great group shot or formal portrait that you didn’t get in the posed version.

Buy this book from Amazon


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