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Film choice & lighting

Avoid the harsh light of direct sunshine


Since family group pictures are often enlarged and framed for the mantlepiece, it is important that they be sharp, properly-exposed and look their best when enlarged. This means using a slow film (ISO 100 or slower) that is fine-grained and retains detail when blown up. If you are shooting with a digital camera, then select a film speed equivalency setting of ISOI 100 or even slower. Lighting considerations may make the use of a slow speed impractical, however, and it is good to know that attractive enlargements can be made from faster speeds with little trade-off in quality. Unless you enlarge only a part of an image or boost a film’s speed in a high-energy developer, grain is hardly ever a problem.

The film you use can be black and white or color, and indeed many people prefer the look of intimacy that black and white film can seem to provide to family pictures. An individual’s brightly-colored clothing will usually stand out less, making the group seem more uniform and cohesive. A yellow-green filter will provide skin tones and any foliage with a natural look. Since most people would likely assume that you will be shooting in color, you may wish to consult with the family group as a whole to determine whether there is a preference for color or black and white film before you load your camera.

Color film, on the other hand, makes excellent family pictures, and is often the best choice in summer when everyone’s skin looks healthy and the picture is being taken in an attractive outdoors setting. Select a film that is known to produce good skin tones and to properly render the colors of nature.


Group pictures indoors, especially at night, can be a nightmare to illuminate. On-camera flash will often properly illuminate only those who are closest to the camera, leaving people behind them in relative darkness. Light falls off quickly over distance, even as short as a foot or two. Shadows created by direct flash can look unsightly and darken the faces of people who are behind others. Red eye can also occur. And direct, frontal flash can produce a flat-lighting effect, where faces and forms lose their three-dimensionality.

Ideally, group pictures taken indoors should be illuminated by off-camera flash, ideally studio flash units, for the best results. But, few of us have access to that kind of equipment. So, what is the answer?

The answer is to try to copy the overall even lighting that studio flash units provide by bouncing the light from your camera’s flash off a reflective, white surface held close to the flash itself. Your flash must be able to tilt upwards in order to do this. An excellent and inexpensive reflector is a small sheet of white styrofoam (about two feet by two feet in size), but any stiff, white board or a piece of white cloth stretched over a panel may do the trick. Point the flash head straight up, hold the reflector just above it by a foot or so, angled so that the light will bounce off it to illuminate the group, and take your picture. The light is diffused when bounced in this manner, and will produce a softer, more even illumination from the front to the rear of the group, without harsh shadows and minimal risk of red eye. If you don’t have a suitable reflector handy, you can bounce the flash off the ceiling if it is white and low.

Your camera may have a built-in flash which cannot be aimed anywhere but straight ahead. You can still achieve even lighting by standing on a chair or stepladder, so that the height and angle distribute the flash more evenly over the group. If those in front are seated, this technique works even better. Both seated and standing family members receive roughly the same amount of light since their distances from the flash will be equal.

Ideally, pictures taken indoors should be illuminated by off-camera flash, ideally studio flash units, for the best results.
Ideally, pictures taken indoors should be illuminated by off-camera flash, ideally studio flash units, for the best results.


Outdoors, flash can also be highly beneficial for group pictures, particularly since we recommend that you do not place your subjects so they face into bright sunlight, but rather have them facing you with the sun at their backs or behind them but off to the side. This advice may seem contrary to what you have been told about lighting in outdoor photography - that the sun should be over your shoulder - but it is the best way to produce portraits when the sun is shining brightly. People will not be squinting, and there will be no harsh shadows on their faces. Your exposure must be increased to accommodate the backlighting. Light meter readings must be taken from the light falling on the subjects on their shadow side, which is the side you will be photographing. You can move in closely to take an exposure reading off of peoples’ faces, then move back to your camera position and use the close-up reading’s exposure settings. If your automatic camera has a back-lighting setting, now is the time to use it. Using fill flash to brighten the group will produce even better results.

One cautionary note when using flash. Women who may be seated in the front row and are wearing dresses should be asked to turn their legs a bit to the side. Flash will sometimes brighten the natural shadow beneath a dress, illuminating more than would normally be seen, resulting in potential embarrassment for the women and the need to retouch the photograph before it can be distributed.

Your best results outdoors can be achieved when the sky is lightly overcast, making the natural light diffused and even overall, with no harsh shadows and no eye-squinting. A lightly-overcast sky is ideal for illuminating groups of any size. Similar conditions can be found in areas of open shade, under a large tree, for example, or in the shade of a building. If the shaded area is in deep, dark shadow, such that you can't use a workable exposure, that is the wrong location. Open shade means that the light from the sky, not direct sunlight, is illuminating the area. If you are shooting slide film, a skylight filter will help to eliminate the bluish cast of this type of light. The key to properly illuminating a large group outdoors is to avoid having them look into direct, bright sunlight.