Summer is a popular time for extended family reunions and gatherings to celebrate birthdays, weddings and anniversaries--all which offer a prime opportunity to capture everyone together in one image. I frequently photograph extended families and large groups of people, but it's a completely different challenge to do it for your own family! Gathered to celebrate Gramma's 90th birthday, I was tasked to replace the 14-year-old Nowak Family portrait that hung on Gramma's wall. But, there were parameters: we couldn't leave the party location, our shoot couldn't exceed four minutes (lest the steaks on the grill would burn), and everyone would wear the clothing that they arrived in. Thanks to an equal mix of skill and luck, the resulting prints look fabulous. Following are my tips for success.
The Nowak Family, 22 June 2019
Tip #1: Plan Ahead
- Select a location based on lighting, backdrop, and space. I calculated that the sun would drop behind the treeline at a certain time, providing even lighting on everyone. Patchy sun on subjects' faces, squinting, and lens flares never are flattering in group photos. Likewise, a distracting setting or a crowded space won't look good.
- Calculate out the space needed to comfortably sit everyone without blocking anyone. Plan for the guest of honor or most senior family members to be in the center. In this case, I chose to seat everyone in groups by sub-families.
- Bring in furniture or props to use to layer people on. Don't be afraid to use items of different heights, and to utilize chair arms, stone walls or stairs.
- Remove distracting items like banners from the background, and add fillers such as plants to add interest in bare spots.
Tip #2: Prepare the Gear
- Set up the camera on a sturdy tripod. I set the tripod and camera on a deck about five steps above the patio to offer a flattering portrait angle. Use the highest resolution possible to ensure crisp faces if you plan to enlarge or crop the image. I recommend a prime 35mm lens to provide a wide enough angle to fit everyone without being too far away with a closer lens or distorted on the sides with a wider angle lens. I didn't have a wireless remote trigger with me, so used a wired version that allowed me to press the shutter from several feet in front of the camera.
- Run test shots to ensure proper composition, exposure and color balance. I tweaked my original plan by adding one Profoto A1X light with a round diffuser to soften any shadows on faces from the natural light angle.
- Set the camera to shoot 20 consecutive images at intervals of two seconds. Given that the first two shots will be lost to the photographer dashing into the arrangement, that results in 18 final photos.
Set up and test shots while waiting for the sun to drop behind the treeline
Tip #3: Prepare the People
- When the light is right and everyone is present, work quickly to sit everyone as planned. Work with individual families, giving each person a specific location and showing them how to sit. Details such as where to put their hands, how to lean, the best way to cross place their feet make them feel more comfortable. For example, everyone should sit near the front edge of deep-seated furniture, and pillows can be placed behind anyone who needs extra support.
- Start assembling the photo with the more senior family members who will have the most patience, leaving small children until last. Work quickly since even the most patient adults tend to run out of steam quickly in photo sessions.
- Tell everyone what to expect: there will be a series of twenty photos over forty seconds, then they can relax for a moment. Explain that you plan to take three sets of photos, so if everyone cooperates, all images will be complete in three minutes. Most everyone can sit still for three minutes! Acknowledge that it's awkward to stare at a camera and smile in silence, but explain that talking during the photos will make their faces appear contorted.
Tip #4: Run Fast!
- Give the group a count of three to get their their attention, hit the shutter button, and dash fast to your spot in the image. Relax and Smile!
- Tell everyone to remain in place, and survey the group quickly and make any minor adjustments to positioning. If they are like our family, you will need to remind them not to talk, since the silence does feel awkward.
- Repeat the process two more times.
Tip #5: Edit Carefully
- With 54 final images to choose from, don't be surprised that there isn't a single shot with 25 people all looking the same way with their eyes open.
- Remove any distractions in the foreground and background that couldn't be adjusted earlier. Remove and logos or stains from clothing. Depending on the size that the image will be printed as, gentle cosmetic editing will make everyone feel their best when they see the final product.
- Never, ever reveal whose heads needed to be swapped from similar images to create a final composite photo with everyone looking their best.