Large Group Portrait Techniques

by William Lulow

I just read an article published in PDN online that talked about a photographer’s technique for shooting large groups. It talked about adding light from one side of the set and then somehow strengthening it by adding additional lights in a sort of progressive manner.

The problems with shooting a large group are several: 

  1. To make sure everyone in the shot is lit fairly evenly
  2. To make sure that everyone in the shot is visible
  3. To make sure that every person in the shot is sharp

Photographing large groups outdoors:

Here is my technique for photographing a large group outdoors. I like to find a nice spot where I can put the people in the sunlight with the sun behind them. This enables me to use the sun as an accent light (or in this case a hairlight). Having people face away from the sun accomplishes two things: (1) it uses the sun as a highlight because it is brighter than the fill-in light and (2) it allows the subjects to open their eyes without having to squint. I also try to find some shade in which I can place my camera. If there is no shade available, I carry a black umbrella with which my assistant will provide some, so that the lens is always shaded. With this setup you always need to fill-in the shadows so that the subjects’ faces are lit. For this I use my portable speedlights mounted on stands with their own battery packs. Sometimes I use two of them or only one, if it provides enough fill-in light. I usually have the power dialed down to 1/2 or 1/4 to make sure that the fill light is less intense than the sun. If they were the same, the image would be washed out and the sun would not be doing its job as an accent light. If power is available, I use my studio strobe units, usually two of them, each fitted with an umbrella

Here is one example of a group portrait shot with just one portable speedlight as a fill in light:

Bleustein (29)B

In this group shot, they are all in the sun and the sun lights up their hair and shoulders. Note that the shadows on the grass are in front of the group. This image was filled in with one speedlight mounted on a light stand, set at 1/2 power and placed about 10 feet away and a bit off to the left.

Here’s another example of the same type of lighting setup for a large group:


This image was made on a NYC rooftop using the same technique. Note the great highlights and the open expressions. Since there was a place to plug in my portable studio strobe units, this image was lit with a two lights each aimed into a small umbrella. It provided nice, even illumination of everyone in the group.

The technique of utilizing the sun as an accent light, if you will, works extremely well because it adds a three-dimensional quality to the image. Also, everyone is sharp because I was able to use a small enough aperture to carry focus from front to rear.

Photographing Large Groups Indoors:

If you’re going to shoot a large group indoors, you have several requirements again:

  1. You need enough room to pose everyone comfortably
  2. You need enough room to position your lights
  3. You need enough light to be able to stop the lens down enough to carry focus from front to back
  4. Light has to be even so that each person receives the same amount of light on his/her face
  5. There has to be enough room to light the background

Here is a large group which I shot indoors in a rented studio with a large cyclorama:

The lights included in the shot were just props. First of all, the camera was mounted on a tripod set on top of a large platform above the group. A large umbrella was placed almost as high as the camera and as close to the camera as possible. Another umbrella was placed on the opposite side of the camera, a bit lower. In order to carry background tone from front to back, two (2) background lights were placed on either side of the set (making 4 background lights in all) and aimed directly at the background. So, there were a total of six lights used on this set ensuring that everyone was lit evenly and the background was lit evenly as well.

In order to be able to carry focus with my digital SLR, I determined that I needed an aperture of at least f/11, so the main light (large umbrella) was connected to a pack which had a 1600 watt/second output. The fill-in light to the right of the camera was set at 800 watt/seconds and each set of background lights were set at 1000 watt/seconds each. Note how everyone is sharp and well-lit!

Here’s a slightly different technique for a group shot:

For this shot, (a take-off of the Beatles first record cover) was made with a directional main light from the right side, but feathered a bit toward the front in order to make sure everyone was lit. There will always be some fall off from a directional main light, so here is where you might want to add a second light, from the same direction, placed a bit closer to the people farthest away from the main light. You need to make sure that this second light doesn’t overpower the first. You only want to bring the light level of the people furthest away up a bit.

The other thing you need to think about when shooting large groups is to position your subjects at various heights. Sometimes it is hard to avoid that “straight horizon line” look, but if you have chairs, boxes, ladders etc., to give you different heights of the heads in the shot, you will create a much more interesting group portrait.