A large family group is among the most difficult pictures to properly take. Joining two picnic tables together in order to pose the family can bring order to the scene.
One of the most difficult family pictures to take successfully is the family group portrait, and worse, the difficulty increases as the size of the group increases. The reason is partially technical and partially due to human nature.
The primary technical considerations in group photography includes lens choice, illumination of the group and, if you are shooting with a traditional film camera, film choice. See our subsections entitled Film choice and lighting and Lens choice for family groups where we address these matters.
THE HUMAN ASPECT
Controlling a family group can be a problem. Control is what you must maintain in order to take a posed family group portrait. Typical issues to deal with include:
1. Ensuring that everyone is present and available on time;
2. Individuals should be properly dressed and groomed;
3. Positioning family members according to a plan and good composition;
4. Getting everyone to look relaxed and natural;
5. Getting suitable and similar expressions from everyone;
6. Preventing the family ham - whether a child or an adult - from acting up or looking goofy;
7. Timing the picture when small children are well-rested, fed and have gone to the bathroom, and are therefore less likely to squirm or break out in a tantrum at the key moment;
8. Getting everyone’s attention so they will all be looking at the lens when the picture is taken;
9. Shooting quickly when the moment is right and before impatience sets in.
Even early photographers had problems posing family groups - trying to get everyone to stop looking around and face the camera, look their best and have more than half of the family dog's head in the picture.
DETERMINE WHEN AND WHERE
Decide on a day, a time and a place. It’s critical that everyone has as much advance notice as possible. A family reunion or wedding is the perfect opportunity.
TIME OF DAY
Large and small groups photograph better outdoors. Ideally, your family picture will be taken when the weather is warm and the risk of rain is low. The best time of day is late afternoon, around 4:00 or 5:00 o’clock in the summer, when the sun is beginning to get low on the horizon and the light is more pleasing. Because of changing light conditions, a fall, spring or winter photograph outdoors should be taken earlier in the day.
A location that provides sufficient room for everyone can be a large backyard, park setting, a hotel or resort. If you decide to pose everyone in a structured, row-like manner, the image area will be taken up with people, and the background is less important. If your intended composition has people placed in differing locations, then setting becomes more important.
Try to select an area where the sun, if it is shining brightly, will be behind the group, and you have options for people placement, background, and foreground elements. If the sky is overcast and the light is diffused and soft, with no harsh shadows, the group can face towards the sun. If it is brightly overcast, and you have to squint when you look towards the sun, then have them posed to face away from it.
Be sure to have an alternate, covered location in the event of inclement weather.
Non-family group photos are often easier to take since the individuals are usually cooperative and eager to be included in the picture. Placement of individuals is generally done by height and/or group heirarchy, rather than by family units.
Family members should be notified about the style of dress. It can be quite embarrassing if everyone is dressed in jeans and checked shirts except for Uncle George and his family who show up in suits and dresses. We have seen family pictures where a specific color is assigned to each family unit, so that Uncle George and his small clan are wearing red sweatshirts while Aunt Lillian and her group are in yellow. It can be quite effective, and shows who belongs with whom. Encourage people to remove sunglasses and headgear. Baseball caps can place faces in shadowy darkness and large hats can block the face of someone behind them.
DEALING WITH INDIVIDUALS
Have someone take charge of organizing a group picture. The responsibility ultimately lies with you, the photographer, but having someone with influence in the family to assist can be a big help.
- Make sure everyone knows the schedule and has sufficient time to prepare.
- Ideally, small children will be rested and fed.
- People making silly faces or holding fingers up in the rabbit ears sign behind someone’s head can ruin a once-in-a-lifetime event. Nip such behavior in the bud, and point out that it’s important for all to cooperate and look their most natural without acting silly for a lasting family portrait.
- If any family member still insists on acting up, single him or her out by using the person’s name in front of the entire group. It may seem cruel to perhaps embarrass the person, but it will usually get the desired results.
- When you are ready to take the picture, be careful not to use person’s names when asking for someone to change their expression or look your way, because you will find the entire group will look at that person, and you may have lost the best opportunity to shoot. Use general verbal expressions when possible (e.g. "Okay, everyone, time to look your best.") and hand signals to move people a bit closer or further apart to ensure everyone’s face can be seen.
- People in a group will be more inclined to smile if the photographer is smiling at them, so be sure to have a happy look on your face, even pointing to your smile to get the message across.
- A good trick to use in getting a quick, natural smile from everyone is to produce something unexpected just before you trip the shutter - hold up a card with a large happy face painted on it, for example, or place a goofy hat on your head.
People in a group usually smile if you just smile at them when taking their picture.
POSING THE GROUP
You have many options in posing a family group. The prime requisite is that people are comfortable and able to relax when in position, otherwise their discomfort will show in the picture.
A formally-structured pose that has people in rows is best with a very large group. An easy way to set up this kind of pose is to position a number of chairs or a bench in the chosen location, and then seat people in accordance with a plan - for example, place the most senior family members in the center seats, and work outwards from there. Then, the second row can be positioned behind. Select shorter people for this row, keeping in mind that smaller family units usually like to stay close to each other. The third row should be the tallest people. With a little manipulation, you should have everyone’s face visible.
Tell people that if they can’t see you, the camera can’t see them, and you will have everyone rearranging themselves for better visibility. Children, especially smaller ones, can be asked to kneel or sit on the ground in front of the chairs. This is also a good place for any family dogs that may be in the picture. (Make sure they are on a leash, as they may wander off at the key moment.) Ask mothers to hold their babies so their faces can be seen, uncovered by blankets and with soothers removed.
A special note about mothers and babies
Most mothers are more interested in their babies than in having their picture taken (understandably), but are always happy afterwards when the picture clearly shows both them and the baby. You will find that any instructions you give a mom about ensuring that the baby is seen by the camera will cause the mother to look at the baby just when you're ready to trip the shutter. So, be sure to take an extra few seconds to allow a mother to confirm that her baby is visible and looking good before you ask her, too, to look at the camera.
When Mom is happy with the way baby looks, then she can give her attention to you.
A special note about dogs and cats
When family pets are included in a group picture, they are usually quickly bored with the set-up proceedings and either want to go somewhere else or put their heads down and fall asleep. If they are kept in place by a family member using a leash, that is ideal. But, you still need to ensure that they look attentive when it is time to trip the shutter. So, don't be shy to make a noise (a loud whistle, a barking sound or any weird noise that an animal doesn't normally hear, even though you may feel foolish doing it) to cause them to lift their heads and look at the camera a second before you trip the shutter. You must ensure that everyone else is ready to be photographed before you do this, because it generally only works the first, and maybe, just the second time. After that, you will have a harder time attracting the animals' attention. Don't worry if the people in the group look at you as if you're from another planet. The picture you take, showing attentive animals and everyone's face, will justify your strange vocal behavior. Such unusual behavior, in fact, often causes the people in the group to look attentive and interested, too. So, it can be a double-edged sword that works in your favor.
When the photographer is at ground level, a really large group benefits from a wide staircase so that everyone will fit in the frame.
A larger group will need more than four rows, in which case, the best location may be a wide staircase or a slope where people will appear taller in the back rows. Try the local ball park stands or City Hall or a big hotel' staircase for a huge group. If this isn't possible, you may need to rise above the group by using a stepladder, a second story window or landing, or even a roof in order to capture everyone.
A medium family group can pose readily on a picnic table where the different levels help to separate the rows, and provide a sense of order to the composition. Just be sure the table is strong enough to support the weight.
A less formal but more difficult approach to posing a group involves arranging each family unit separately, so that everyone looks as though they just happened to be there when you come along with your camera. This is more difficult since each group must be given individual attention. You also want to avoid sameness among the poses used for each family unit. This posing technique works well where the setting is an important part of the image - large rocks on a beach, for example.
A last approach is the “no pose at all” approach that involves having everyone assemble in front of you, simply organizing themselves so that each person can see the lens and will therefore appear in the image. This approach works best for very large groups when your camera position is well above them.
JUST BEFORE TRIPPING THE SHUTTER
You will find that most people in a family group tend to lean forward, even slouch, in the few minutes it takes to get everyone organized. When all are in position and conditions are right, let everyone know that "This is it". Then, be sure to remind them all to sit up straight, square their shoulders and put on their best face. They will be grateful afterwards that you did, because the picture will show them all looking their best.