Large Group Portraits

by William Lulow

Every once in a while I have a large (five or more people) group or family to photograph. My trick here is to use what I have come to call “Big Set Lighting.” This basically consists of a main light, a fill light and two groups of lights to light the background. The reason you want to set something like this up is so that the background is lit evenly and is lit separately from the subject. If you get used to thinking of the background as a separate “subject,” if you will, your lightings will become easier to set up. You can literally change a dark gray background to white just by the amount of light you put on it. But, if you try to have your main light do two jobs and light the background as well, all sorts of things can happen. For one thing, you have to remember that the one thing that controls exposure the most in a studio situation (or most situations, for that matter) is the flash-to-subject distance. The further away something is from the light, the darker it will reproduce. So, you might wind up having the subjects lit normally and the background will fall off in terms of light intensity. If you want to render a white background as white, you need to light it separately.

I recently photographed a family group of five people. Since my current studio is fairly small, I had enough room to sit them all comfortably, but I did not have enough to set my background lights the way I normally do. So, I got a few autopoles and set them up at the edges of the studio. Autopoles are great because they have a very small footprint, much smaller than traditional light stands. The fit between the floor and ceiling and will support any light. This time, I aimed a light from each pole onto the background and adjusted the power until it gave a uniform white.

This was the result: