Photographing people in groups presents some interesting challenges, not all of them photographic.
The photographer can be faced with a variety of different groups – large groups, small groups, children, sports teams, compliant, unruly, and so-on. The type of group you’re working with influences your approach, but in all cases you’re dealing with people that you have to organise and exercise control over. This is the non-photographic challenge. Some people in a group are happy to be photographed whilst other may be reluctant. Whatever the group, they have to look like a group, rather than disassociated individuals sharing the same frame. This is where being a photographer becomes a “people job”. It’s about having an idea in your head about the best way to photograph the group and to organise your subjects into that group by communicating with them and directing them. And it doesn’t help if you don’t know all their names, which is often the case. If I’m addressing individuals in a group I usually refer to them as “young man” or “young lady”, regardless of their age. I usually try to pick people out by what they’re wearing, rather than personal attributes, although this can be a problem if you’re dealing with people dressed uniformly. You have to be assertive without being bullying. You have to be charming yet determined. And you have to do all of this within a time frame. If you take too long people will lose concentration and boredom will set in, making them harder to communicate with. They’ll also not look their best when you get to start shooting. Which brings be to the photographic challenges.
You never take just one shot of a group. Someone will always be blinking, pulling a face or looking away. You need to take as many shots as you can get away with. The larger the group, the more chance there is of at least one individual being distracted. There will also be people who “disappear” behind other people, either accidentally or otherwise. I always say to people that “if you can’t see the camera then the camera can’t see you”.
Which brings me getting everyone in full view. This obviously gets harder as the group gets larger. I always use a set of steps when photographing groups. Just raising your height by a couple of feet can give you a much more successful image. Ideally of course you would have the time to arrange people by height and in rows, although with larger groups this can be impractical. Where possible, I try and have the front row seated (or kneeling, depending on circumstances). Anywhere with steps or stairs can provide an ideal location for shooting groups. Alternatively, if you can shoot from an upper level, such as a gallery, mezzanine or balcony, you can get a much better view of everyone. Just be sure you have a powerful flash if you’re shooting indoors.
Which brings us to lighting. With any group you need to make sure that everyone is properly lit and that the group is lit evenly. In an outdoor setting this means avoiding mixed lighting – by which I mean some of the group being in the sun whilst others are in the shade. You can partially address this with fill-in flash but it’s not ideal. When shooting with flash, you should be aware that people in the front row of the group will be getting more light than those at the back, so the shallower the group, the better. When faced with this I often use the Dodge tool in Photoshop to brighten up the back row(s).
Successful group photography is down to confidence and awareness of your location (not to mention equipment that is up to the job). It’s also as much about people as it is about photography.