How To Shoot Large Groups
by William Lulow
As with most photographic projects, success begins with planning. Whenever I have a large group to photograph, the first thing I do is to try to scope out the location to make sure I can set up my lights as necessary.
The next thing I do is to arrive at the location in plenty of time to set up and do some test exposures. Most of the time, shooting large groups will make lighting the background necessary (unless the shot is outdoors). Your main lights, no matter if they’re portable or studio lights, just will not be able to light up the background and the people at the same time. So, you will need to light the background separately. Sometimes you can achieve this with a bounce flash, but when you’re in a large space with high ceilings, it may not be possible.
In this image, I lit the group with two umbrellas and used a normal reflector placed behind the group and aimed up, to light the background.
The location was a store and I wanted to give it some sense of depth. Here’s another group shot, in the studio:
Another thing I try to achieve in group shots is to have everyone interact in some way. Having each lean or put an arm or elbow on the other is one way to do this. I also like to have everyone in his or her own space so that they are not standing in a line.
After setting up the lights, the hardest part of doing a large group is arranging the people. Sometimes the best way is by trial and error. As I said, I like to avoid having everyone’s head on the same line in the picture. Therefore, I’m always looking for things people can sit on or stand on to vary the heights of the heads in the photo. I even bring boxes and sometimes ladders for them to stand on and stools for them to sit on. I have some leaning and some straight up. Then I’ll take several shots. This particular image took about thirty shots to get right.
Once all the people are arranged satisfactorily, the next step is to make sure that everyone’s expression is good. Sometimes I’ll have a short word to say like “Say pizza.” That usually elicits a laugh and some smiles because they’re expecting me to say “Say cheese.” So anything different will get a better response. You may not get everyone to laugh, but you’ll at least get some good smiles and pleasant expressions.
If I am on a location such as at a wedding or corporate office, I try to find a spot where I can do some creative lighting with hair lights or additional background lights. Here, a staircase worked well. It served the purpose of getting everyone on different levels as well as provided a spot to hide the accent lights.
If I must have everyone lined up, I try to have some sitting and some standing. In this shot, I used the sun as an accent light. The location was a terrace in midtown Manhattan. Sometimes, with large groups, having people stand is unavoidable. I didn’t have the time or assistants here to bring extra stools and boxes with me. So, I had to make do with what I found at the location. Still, everyone looks good and the expressions are good.