Taking the Challenge Out of Taking the Group Photo

Trying to fit several people into one image can be daunting—but it doesn't have to be. When taking the right steps to prepare the group, set up the camera and take the shot, you can take the collective sigh out of the group photo—at least from the photographer's standpoint anyway.
By Digital Admin, Last updated on: 6/10/2014

Taking a group photo can be challenging, but the result is a shot that shows the group dynamics -- quirkiness and all.

Taking a family photo—it seemed so simple, just yell out “say cheese” and then snap—but then you realized Aunt Edna's notoriously big hat is blocking half your cousin's face, your niece says the front row makes her look fat, and the uncles in the back row are out of focus. Whether it's a family photo, a wedding party or a sports team, the challenge seems to multiply by every person that you have to fit into the space of a single photo. And while we can't help you with your family's quirks, we can help you get them into one photo that makes family quirkiness look good.

Arranging the Photo

First, take a look at your location options. Since you are trying to fit several faces in, avoid busy backgrounds and opt for something that isn't going to detract from your subjects. Keep your mind open for spots that could help arrange the group into rows, like a stone wall or fence outdoors or for a small group, a wide set of stairs indoors.

And whether you are indoors or out, check the lighting—you want the space to be evenly lit. If you are outside, that means making sure the spot isn't half sun and half shade; inside, make sure the light source is large enough for the entire group.

If your group is small, try staggered rows instead of straight ones for a close, casual feel.

Consider how many people will be in the photo. Small groups of three to five people can fit into one row, but larger groups need some sort of arrangement to fit everyone in. Try putting everyone into rows of five to eight, but don't go over four rows. Why? The camera will focus first on the front row, and those farther back in the photo may appear out of focus (as well as smaller, because of the distance from the front row) if the arrangement is too deep.

Don't forget to look within the rows for a visually appealing arrangement as well, like based on height with the tallest in the middle, or some other element like attire.

Try to place the rows at different heights. The simplest way is to have the front row sitting, the second row kneeling and the back row standing—but it doesn't work in every scenario; a sports team looks comfortable knelling and sitting, but a group of people in business attire less so. You can also try chairs or stools, or something more casual like a sturdy fence. The important thing is to make sure you can see all the faces clearly.

Have a group of over 20 people? It's not impossible to get them all into a single shot, but it will take some creativity. Find a way to get up high—you will be able to see more and show more people. Arrange the group into a unique shape and have them look directly up at you.

At a certain point, you can no longer clearly see the faces of a large group—but that doesn't mean there's no reason to take one. A picture taken on scaffolding looking down on 100 factory employees, for example, portrays the size of the group—plus looking for specific people in the photo has a “Where's Waldo” sort of fun factor

Setting Up the Camera

Now the group is set, but what about your camera? A few quick tips can help your camera capture a clear shot of everyone.

If your camera has manual mode, set the f-stop at the highest number that the lighting will allow for. A high f-stop (or a smaller aperture) allows for a wider depth of field. It's the depth of field that controls how much of the image is in focus, and in a shallow depth of field, the people in the back rows would appear blurry. Most group photos don't involve a lot of movement, so choose a shutter speed that will allow for the highest f-stop without making the image too dark or just use aperture priority mode.

Notice how, in the photo above, the people in the back row are out of focus and appear smaller than people in the front row because the arrangement is too deep.
By arranging the same people in two rows, the entire group can be seen clearly in one photo.

Don't have a camera with manual settings? Don't worry, most point and shoots can handle basic group shots. If the camera has face detection, make sure it is turned on, and give the feature enough time to find the faces. Pay attention to how the camera focuses and make sure the focus marks on the screen highlight the entire group and not just one person.

If you need, turn on the flash, particularly if the background is brighter than where the group is arranged (this is called fill flash). But if the lighting is sufficient, leave the flash off to avoid unusual shadows on the group.

Taking the Shot

The group is set, your camera is set—now it's your turn to shine and take the shot.

If there's more than one photographer trying to capture the moment, take turns. While it may take longer, your group won't know which camera to look at—resulting in eyes looking in several different directions in the final image. Wait until the other photographers finish and get the group's attention, instructing them to look at your camera for a few shots.

And while you've considered the heights of the group to arrange the shot, what about your height? Traditionally, group shots are taken at eye level, so if your are capturing a group of kids, get a little lower, a group of basketball players, a little higher. Or, toss tradition aside and use height to create different effects.

Then, just give your camera enough time to focus on the entire group by pressing the shutter button halfway before taking the shot. But don't stop there—the more people you have in the group, the more likely you are to catch blinks and funny expressions, so take multiple shots. Make sure you work quickly so the group doesn't grow impatient, but take a few shots, then use your screen to zoom in on what you have to make sure you've got a shot that doesn't embarrass anyone.

The challenge of taking a group photo multiplies by the number of people in the image—but if you take the time to arrange the group, set up your camera and take the shot, you will have a photo that captures the dynamics of the group—family quirkiness and all.


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