You know that saying “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know?” Earlier in my photography career, taking a large group portrait wouldn’t have scared me. But now that I have a better grasp on what’s required in such an assignment, group shots are more daunting.
My assignment wasn’t quite as consequential as Tony Corbell‘s portrait of all 130+ heads of state at the UN Millennium Conference, but it was definitely one of the most challenging assignments I’ve had as a photographer: 60+ students, teachers, horses and sheep at Keystone Adventure School and Farm in a single group shot. I learned a lot, and I want to pass along those lessons to other photographers.
Step 1: Research the Necessary Skills and Equipment
Build a plan by studying how to find an appropriate location, what gear and camera settings to use, what angles work best, and common mistakes (etc.). Start this process at least a week before the shoot, so you have time to tweak it, get gear together, practice, and scout the location. You’ll sleep better the night before if you have a solid plan with backup procedures; if you don’t, you will lay there sweating all the details and things that could go wrong.
Step 2: Scout the Location
I cannot stress enough how important this is. It was much harder than I anticipated to find a spot on the property that worked from both a technical and aesthetic standpoint, even though beforehand, I thought of the beautiful Keystone property as a photographer’s dream. I spent about 2 hours roaming the property on my scouting trip, considering the options, observing the light, and making notes. (Imagine if I had tried to do that the morning of the shoot! I would have been totally stressed out!). I was looking for a spot that had all of the following:
- A Unique Sense of Place. I wanted the group portrait to clearly communicate the “farm” ambience of the school. Shooting against a backdrop of trees, for example, would have been technically easier but less descriptive, since trees can be anywhere. Further, I wanted to avoid using the same places they used last fall or the year before.
- Even, Directional, and Somewhat Soft Lighting. I made sure to scout the location at the same time of day, and in similar weather conditions, that I would be shooting in two days later. This was the most difficult aspect of my planning; there were no ideal locations on the school’s property that met all of these criteria.
- Even Shadows.
- What I Avoided: Uneven shade (like from a tree). I didn’t want shadows from leaves on the students’ faces, or a few people with full sun on their face, and everyone else in the shadows.
- What I Looked For: Even shade (like from a building).
- Constant Light. The quality of daylight changes dramatically in even 30 minutes, and group portraits can take that long to pose and shoot. Shadows move; light gets increasingly harsh as noon approaches, and then reverses again as the sun starts sinking.
- What I Avoided: A space that would move from shade to sun while we worked, and/or one that would require me to change my camera settings between every shot.
- What I Looked For: A space that would remain consistently lit (evenly shaded) all morning.
- Consistent Foreground and Background Lighting.
- What I Avoided: Shaded foreground with brightly lit background, or vice versa, which makes for an unpleasant composition.
- What I Looked For: Consistent quality of light between where I’d ask the students to pose, and the background.
- Directional Versus Flat Lighting.
- What I Avoided: A spot that would require the group to face into the sun, which causes squinting and loss of patience. Also, I wanted to avoid totally flat light.
- What I Looked For: A spot where the light source would graze the group at an angle, to create interest, depth, and avoid squinting.
- Different Levels for Posing. A completely flat stage is uninteresting and makes it difficult to see everyone’s face. I looked for a place with steps, benches, natural sloping, etc.
- Few to No Distractions. As you can imagine, schools are full of potentially distracting elements in a photograph: playground equipment, balls, toys, garbage cans, shoes, rain boots, doors, dusty windows, cars, fences, etc. I was going for “FARM” with my location choice, not “cluttered school.”
Step 3: Take Test Shots, and Study Them
Bringing my camera along while scouting proved to be vital. I fired many test shots from different angles, heights, and focal lengths, checked my histogram to look for spots in the scene that would be clipped or blown out, and zoomed in on my LCD to check sharpness levels, etc. Here is a test shot with my notes:
At home, I went through those test shots in Lightroom, found my favorites, and noted those settings in my plan. I also used those test shots to create editing presets in Lightroom to save time in post.
Step 4: Write Down a Plan.
As a result of my scouting trip and test shots, my basic plan for the group shot was as follows:
- Camera Position: Shooting at an angle (camera at about 65 degrees to the group) while standing on a ladder – so they’d be looking up, elongating chins and ensuring short people didn’t get lost.
- Gear: Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 wide angle to capture the environment; Full-frame D700.
- Settings: f/11 – for maximum sharpness and good depth (no fuzzy faces) and ISO 100 for noiseless enlargements.
- Location: In front of the school barn (above), which had constant shade against building, good ambience, animals already nearby, no distractions from the school structure. There was spotty shade in the foreground, but I minimized the contrast with some editing tricks in post.
- I prayed for diffused lighting from clouds but got full sunlight. Ce la vie. Some things we just can’t plan.
I ended up with four pages of notes, which I studied for long enough that I didn’t really need to look at it while I was shooting. But if I hadn’t written it down, gone over it multiple times, and committed it to memory, I am certain details would have slipped through the large cracks in my brain. My plan included the following sections:
- Equipment Checklist. My gear list included both camera gear and other things I might need, such as wipes to clean benches, a ladder, etc.
- “Upon Arrival” Checklist. These are things I wanted to remember to do as soon as I arrived, such as sweeping leaves off the porch for individual portraits, setting up my tripod for the group shot, etc. The idea was to be ready to go before I gathered the teachers and students, so I didn’t waste their time.
- Group Portrait Plan. This included a detailed script and order of events, including:
- Instructions to give the group (i.e. “Chins up! If you can see the camera, it can see you!” etc.)
- Posing plan
- Camera settings
- Shot list
- Notes about when to change lenses, memory cards, camera angles, and positions
- Alternate Locations. On my scouting trip, I identified not only the “ideal spot” for the group and individual portraits, but also 2 – 3 alternate locations that would work if conditions weren’t ideal due to rain or other unanticipated reasons.
Step 5: Bring an Assistant(s)
Kind of like scouting, I can’t stress this enough. A job of this nature would have been almost impossible without some help. Since I was the tog in charge, I scouted alone, wrote the plan, and made all the decisions. However, I shared my detailed notes with Katherine the day before, and made sure they included clear instructions about what I would do, and what I needed her to do.
Step 6: Enjoy a Cocktail
Self-explanatory. You’ll need it after a job like this! 🙂
What I’d Do Differently Next Time
- Scout at two different times of day. Despite my best efforts, we still had some people’s faces in direct sun. I think the only way we could have avoided this would have been to shoot much earlier (which wasn’t an option), or at about noon-1:30pm, when the sun would have been directly behind the barn. But then the lighting would have been flat. So, you can’t have it all. Gotta decide what’s most important!
- Make some people sit. They didn’t want to sit because of the danger of sitting in a pile of sheep poop. So, knowing this, I’d probably grab some benches or chairs.
- Shoot from a higher position, closer to the group, and at less of an angle. My attempt to incorporate the environment was well-intentioned, but I think in this case, parents just want to be able to clearly see all the faces. I’d prioritize that by getting closer to and more directly in front of the group, cropping out the environmental stuff, and positioning myself even higher.
I think that covers it. I hope this is helpful! What do you do to plan for big jobs like this? Did I miss something? Post your tips below!