There are probably more group shots on the internet and photo sharing services than any other type of picture. And the vast majority of them are going to be a loosely organized mob of people thrown together in uncomfortable closeness for a few quick frames of unimaginative poses punctuated by forced, half-hearted smiles. Painful for subject and viewer alike they are quickly washed away by the digital river of newer images and forgotten.
Yet there was something that brought those people together. It may not be significant now, but what about the future? A good group shot will tell a story, both about the event that brought them together and the people taking part. A fabulous group photo will fix a moment in time and make the date memorable for a lifetime.
It’s hard to tell a story herding people over against a wall and telling them to bunch up, unless the story is the first few minutes of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. It’s equally hard to tell a story about people sitting around a table. If I’m doing a group shot of a family gathering, I try to get it before everyone sits down or herd them all over to one side.
Getting a photo of the group engaged in an activity is almost always going to be more interesting than a posed group shot and the photo will tell a better story. If the group is part of a band, it’s not hard to figure out that photos of them making music are going to be more interesting and tell a better story.
Likewise with any cohesive group of people. The group actually doing something, even if it’s staged, will make a better picture than a quick huddle.
Watch stand up comedians closely to pick up tricks for manipulating an audience, most are masters at the craft. They grab people’s attention, get them laughing and the rest of the act flows from that beginning. Group portraits are kind of like that; grab the group’s attention and start setting up the shot before they have time to think about it.
Since busy people have a short attention span anyway, you’re going to need to shoot fast. Try to keep the atmosphere upbeat and fun. A genuine laugh will always make a better picture than a forced smile. Unless you are a stand up comedian, keeping people laughing for more than a few seconds is going to be difficult.
Once I’m sure I’ve got a couple good shots, then I’ll start trying to get the subjects to think up something goofy or offbeat.
When To Use Flash
Probably the most hideous lighting imaginable for a group portrait is a straight on shot with the camera’s built-in flash. It’s harsh, flat and unflattering. In most cases you’ll get better pictures just turning it off. A little noise in the picture from a high ISO is better than a straight on camera flash.
The best pictures will come if you have at least an entry level DSLR with a sync cord or wireless controller to get the flash out away from the camera which cuts down on red eye and that awful shadow under the chin.
A small diffuser or one of those portable softboxes will help a tremendous amount. Personally, I like a shoot-through translucent white umbrella. It’s light weight and easy to move around and the light is fabulous.
If you’re shooting a baseball team or group shot when people are wearing ball caps, then take the diffuser off the external flash because you’ll need the extra light eliminate the shadows under the ball cap.
Group shots take a little pre-planning and imagination to get right. But a good one is a priceless memory for the lifetime of everyone in the shot and will never be part of the millions of unimaginative group shots forgotten in time.