Really Large Groups

Today's post comes from the book The Best of Family Portrait Photography by Bill Hurter. It is available from and other fine retailers.

Once a group exceeds nine people, it is no longer a small group. The complexities of posing and lighting expand and, if you’re not careful to stay in charge, chaos will reign. It is always best to have a game plan in mind with big groups.

Posing bigger groups requires you to use standing poses, often combined with sitting and kneeling poses. Those subjects who are standing should be turned at least 20 degrees off center so that their shoulders are not parallel to the film plane. The exception is with small children, who gain visual prominence when they are square to the camera.

With standing poses, care must be taken to disguise wide hips and torsos, which can sometimes be accomplished simply by using other people in the group. Always create space between the arms and torso simply by placing a hand on a hip or, in the case of men, placing a hand in a pocket (thumb out).

In really large groups, the task of clothing coordination can be a nightmare. It is often best to divide the group into subgroups—family units, for instance—and have them coordinate with each other. For example, a family in khaki pants and yellow sweaters could be positioned next to a family in blue jeans and red sweaters.

For really big groups, it is a good idea to have the subjects stand close together—touching. This minimizes the space between people and allows you to get a larger head size for each person. One directive you must give to the group is that they must be able to see the camera with both eyes. This will ensure that you see all of their faces and that none will be hiding behind the person in front of them.

With big groups, fight the tendency to “line ‘em up and shoot ” This is, after all, a portrait and not a team photo. You can incorporate all types of design elements into even the largest groups.

Naturalness Counts. It is important with medium to large-size family groups that the poses you put your subjects in appear to be natural and comfortable. Even experienced group photographers working with assistants will take ten minutes or so to set up a group of twenty or more. Therefore, it is imperative that your subjects be posed comfortably. Natural poses, ones that your subjects might fall into without prompting, are best and can be held indefinitely.

It is important that the group remains alert and in tune with your efforts. With large groups, it is important to stay in charge of the posing. The loudest voice—the one that people are listening to—should be yours, although by no means should you be yelling. Instead, be assertive and positive and act in control.

With natural poses, have your antennae up for errant thumbs and hands that will pop up. Always do a perimeter search around each subject to make sure there is nothing unexpected in the posing.

Posing Levels. Two true experts at posing the mid-size to large group are Robert and Suzanne Love. I have witnessed them build groups made up of photographers attending one of their workshops and each person, without exception, was amazed when they saw how easy the Loves’ technique is and how attractive the arrangement turned out. The basic principle in the Loves’ technique is the use of different posing levels and the combinations of those levels used adjacent to one another. Here’s a brief look at the system.

Level 1, Standing. Each standing subject has his or her weight on their back foot and is posed at a 45- degree angle to the camera, lowering the rear shoulder to diminish overall body size.

Level 2, Tall Kneel. Generally a masculine pose, not unlike a football players’ team pose, this pose calls for the man to get down on one knee with his other leg bent at 90 degrees. The elbow of the arm on the same side as the knee that is up should rest on the knee.

Level 3, Short Kneel. This is the same pose as above but both knees are on the ground and the person’s weight is back on their calves. This pose is good for either men or women, but with women in dresses, they are usually turned at a 45-degree angle.

Level 4, Sitting. The man sits on his buttocks with the leg that is toward the camera curled under the leg that’s away from the camera. The elbow rests across his raised knee. For a woman wearing slacks, this is appropriate. However, a more graceful seated pose is achieved when she lays on her hip and rolls slightly toward the camera. Her legs then flow out to the side with the ankles crossed. Her top hand can rest on her lower thigh or in front of her. If she can bring her top knee over to touch the ground, her body produces a beautiful curved line.

Level 5, Lying Down. The subjects can lay on their sides with their hands resting on the sides of their faces, or can lay on their stomachs with their arms folded in front of them. This really works better for an individual pose, rather than a group, but it offers another level if needed.

By intermixing the levels without defining rows, you can pose ten to twenty people quite easily and informally. Each face is at a different level and no face is directly below or above another, providing good visual interest. And while the group is really quite highly structured, it doesn’t appear that way.

Stepladders. A stepladder is a must for large groups and, in fact, should be a permanent tool in your wedding and portrait arsenal. Stepladders give you the high angle that lets you fit lots of people together in a tight group, like a bouquet of flowers. Ladders also give you a means to correct low shooting angles, which distort perspective. The tendency is to overuse them, so use a stepladder when you need to or when you want to offer variety in your groups.

A stepladder is the answer to the refrain, “Boy, I sure wish I could get up on that balcony for this shot.” But a few words of caution: have your assistant or someone strong hold on to the ladder in case the ground gives or you lean the wrong way. Safety first.

In less dramatic ways, a stepladder lets you raise the camera height just slightly so that you can keep the group plane parallel to the film plane for better depth of-field control.

Linking Shapes. The bigger the group, the more you must depend on your basic elements of group portrait design—circles, triangles, inverted triangles, diagonals, and diamond shapes. You must also really work to highlight and accentuate lines, real and implied, throughout the group. If you lined people up in a row, you would have a very uninteresting “team photo,” a
concept that is the antithesis of fine family portraiture.

The overlapping circles around these shapes define each pattern as unique, even though both shapes use the same person centrally. In a portrait like this, each subset should be turned in toward the center to unify the composition, or turned away from center to create a bookend effect.

The best way to previsualize this effect is to form subgroups as you start grouping people. For example, how about a family of three here (perhaps forming an inverted triangle), three sisters over on the right (perhaps forming a flowing diagonal line), a brother, a sister and their two kids (perhaps in a diamond shape with the littlest one standing between her mom and dad). Then combine the subsets, linking the line of an arm with the line of a dress. Leave a little space between these subgroups, so that the design shapes you’ve formed don’t become too compressed. Let the subgroups flow from one to the next and then analyze the group as a whole to see what you’ve created.

Remember that arms and hands help complete the composition by creating motion and dynamic lines that can and should lead up into the subjects’ faces. Hands and arms can “finish” lines started by the basic shape of the group.

Be aware of intersecting lines that flow through the design. As mentioned earlier, the diagonal is by far the most compelling visual line in compositions and can be used repeatedly without fear of overuse. Diagram concepts courtesy of Norman Phillips.

Just because you might form a triangle or a diamond shape with one subset in a group does not mean that one of the people in that group cannot be used as an integral part of another group. You might find, for example, that the person in the middle of a group of seven unites two diamond shapes. The overlapping circles around these shapes (see diagram above) define each pattern as unique, even though both shapes use the same person. In a portrait like this, each subset could be turned slightly toward the center to unify the composition or turned away from the center to give a bookend effect.

Be aware of intersecting lines that flow through the design. As mentioned earlier, the diagonal is by far the most compelling visual line and can be used repeatedly without fear of overuse. The curving diagonal is even more pleasing and can be mixed with sharper diagonals within the composition.