Photographing a group can be scary. Really scary. I remember when I was a new photographer, the thought of photographing a large group completely terrified me. I dreaded getting the inquiry for a family reunion, extended family, or even a request from my mother-in-law.
However, after years of practice and a lot of mistakes, I have learned to photograph a large group with confidence. By developing a reliable workflow, I have replaced the nerves and fear of large groups with confidence.
Even better, this workflow can work for any photographer at any level. Here are eight of my best tips to help you nail your next group photo.
1. Have one main contact or decision maker for the group
Whether you’re photographing your own large family, a group from work, or an extended family session, you will need one main contact to make decisions for the group. This is the person who will finalize all of the details. They are your source for important information including time, location, types of images desired, wardrobe, styling, and must-have shots.
I usually ask the person contacting me who would be the best point person for the group. If it is a client session, I recommend that the person be the one paying for the session. This ensures that they are in the loop of all decisions, their expectations are communicated directly to me, and there are no surprises.
2. Have all of the details planned in well in advance of picture day
When you are coordinating a large group of people, it can take some extra time to get all of the details planned. Often, it takes more time than you would think
That’s why you should have all of the details set and ready to go a good while before the session. Let everyone have enough time to have the time and day on their calendar without having to move other obligations. For clothing, give everyone ample time to shop and order items as necessary. Have your shot list set well before the session giving everyone ample time to add their input on the photos they want.
3. Keep it simple
With all of the moving parts of a large group photo, simple might not even seem possible. But the truth is that there are things that you can control and in those cases, simplicity is always the answer.
Resist the urge to shoot in multiple locations. Have everyone dress in two to three neutral colors that will coordinate easily. Choose gear that is versatile so that you aren’t perpetually switching lenses.
While it is easy to want to flex all of our creative muscles at a photo shoot, when working with a large group it is often best to work simply so that the challenges of wrangling all the people don’t overwhelm you.
4. Choose a location that is family friendly and works for all members of the group
It is very important to consider the ages of all of the family members, both young and old, when you are choosing a location. The wrong location can make the session go south very quickly.
Is there anything to distract young children, such as a play area, heavy foot traffic, or a nearby candy store? Are there any areas, like water hazards or abrupt drop-offs, that would be unsafe for children who aren’t as steady on their feet? Is everything accessible for older or disabled family members?
Keeping everyone comfortable throughout the session and having the location accommodate everyone will make for happier photos and a smoother workflow.
5. Create a schedule of arrival times based on the ages of the children
I cannot recommend staggering arrival times enough. Start with the oldest family members arriving first and then work down the line until the family with the youngest members arrive last.
If photographing a large extended family, I would have the grandparents arrive first, followed by the adult children with no kids, families with teens, and families with school age children. Finally the last to arrive would be the families with young toddlers and babies. This allows for the youngest children to have the shortest window and really maximize their attention span.
Usually, I stagger the arrival times by 10 minutes. This gives me an opportunity to get to know each family and have time to take individual photos of the family and children.
One week before the session, I discuss the arrival schedule with the group coordinator and go over details. Finally, I send an additional reminder the day before the photo session to confirm all of the designated arrival times.
6. Do the large group or family photo as soon as everyone has arrived
After everyone has arrived and you’ve done the individual shots, this is the perfect time for the group shot. Given the staggered times, this usually is about 45 minutes into the session. By now the adults are comfortable and have been hanging out and chatting and the youngest family members are still fresh.
Before starting to line everyone up, make sure your camera settings are perfect. Your number one priority in a group shot is that everyone will be in focus.
I usually photograph large group with my 24-70 2.8 lens around f/3.5 – f/5/6 and make sure that I am far enough back to safely ensure that everyone is in focus. In addition, make sure you don’t have any distractions in the background such as trees sticking out of someone’s head. After fixing so many mistakes in post I have learned to stop and take a moment to double check the composition. It is much easier to get it right in camera.
Finally, make sure that the lighting is ideal for a large group. I usually prefer flat light for the posed group shot to make sure that everyone is lit evenly. This ensures that everyone’s smiling faces are perfectly visible which makes for happy clients.
7. Take control of the posing
Once you have your camera settings dialed-in, now is the time to begin posing the family. Start by placing the oldest or most prominent members in the middle of the group. These are your anchors for the group photo.
Next, go in and add the other members and families around the anchor points as needed. I start with the adults and add the kids in last.
Check for symmetry in both height and color. A clump of one color in the midst of varied colors or a group of small children with tall adults all around can look strange.
This is the perfect time for an assistant to be a second pair of eyes and check for details. While an assistant isn’t necessary, it can be very helpful to have a detail-oriented person to be there for this part of the shoot. His/her job is to make sure everything is in check because as a photographer, you already have so many things going through your head. It can be easy to miss an untucked shirt, an out of place accessory, or crazy hair.
If you don’t have an assistant, ask one of the adults who will be on the end to stand behind you and do a quick check.
While I’m getting set up, I always instruct the group to just hang out and chat for a while. The group welcomes the break from being camera-ready! If you are extra sneaky, this is a great opportunity for fun candids of the group interacting with each other as you take your “test shots.”
Finally when it’s go time, I instruct all of the older family members to look and me smile no matter what. I tell them this is the only time during the session I’m going to ask them to do this, but it’s important for them to be looking at me and smiling while I interact with the kids. I assure them that I have the kids under control
The next few minutes are always a bit comical as I do anything I can to get the kids attention. Some of my favorites include jumping up and down, singing, dancing, telling stories, or talking animatedly to them about all the fun games we are about to play “after this photo is taken.” All the while I am snapping away.
This is a great time to be an over shooter. So many things can happen in large groups and having a bunch of photos available for head swaps and variety can be incredibly helpful.
8. Bring the fun!
As important as it is to get the shots on your list, it is also just as important to make this a fun, memorable experience for your subjects. Your demeanor will drive the tone of the session and can make all the difference in getting the shots you want.
There are endless ideas for sweet, interactive photo setups. I love putting grandparents on blankets or chairs and having them read to the little kids. Play games with the kids. Taces, ring around the rosy, tickle fights and duck-duck-goose are all sure to please.
Even the teens and adults like to get in on the action! Adults do really well with conversational questions such as, “What was your favorite vacation?” or “What is your favorite memory as a family?”
These simple prompts get them engaged with each other and really allow me to capture some great candid images. I let the last half of the session play out on its own and aim for a mixture of posed and candid images to complete the family gallery.
At this point in my journey, photographing large groups and extended families is one of my favorite things. These photos will mean so much to current and future generations. I have learned to embrace the moving pieces and challenges that these sessions bring. Instead, I focus on the importance of these photos to these families.
So feel confident when tackling your next group photo. Arrive prepared and you can approach these sessions with confidence rather than fear.
These tips will give you a framework to handle all of the details that need to be taken into consideration. Make them your own so that you can achieve your unique vision in the final photos. You’ve got this and I can’t wait to hear about your large group sessions in the comments below!