Photographing groups

Photographing groups is difficult at the best of times, but there come times when, as an event photographer, you have to organize a planned group photo in the middle of an event. Forget about long planning and lots of setup time: the goal is to make the best of the time you have, which is often brief.

The brief for this shot, of a group of mature students who had received their awards earlier in the evening, was to gather them together between the cocktails after the award ceremony and before they all headed for transport to the evening event. Using the entrance hall to the university building was a given, so the opportunities for alternative shots were non-existent. I was photographing during the afternoon and evening prior to and after this shot, so I didn’t have much prep time at all.

My only main goal for group shots is to ensure that the group is evenly lit, that everyone’s face is visible, and that the photo is in focus. It’s very difficult to achive much more than that in such a short space of time. For this shot, I had a total of 20 minutes to set up the environment, light it, get everyone organized and in position, and take the shots. Hence the simple lighting setup: two big white umbrellas containing flash guns to the left and right of the camera, set to manual exposure and using green gels to match the ambient fluorescent lights.

Then dial in an appropriate exposure to ensure that the ambient light (in the background of the shot) was still visible: without this, the photo would’ve been of a flash-lit group in a huge dark cavern. As the ambient light was so dim, and there was too little time to put a set of secondary lights around the room to illuminate the entry hall, a high ISO (800) combined with a low shutter speed (1/20 at f/5.6) and a steady hand was necessary: not ideal, but good enough for the circumstances. I would also have aimed to have raised the umbrellas higher to eliminate the shadows better, but time and equipment meant that I needed to stick with the end result seen here.

Once the lighting was sorted out, the more difficult part of the shot came. Coralling people in a group shot like this – particularly mid-celebration – is like herding schoolchildren. You have to get their attention quickly, by speaking loudly and clearly. Look at individuals and speak to them directly: if there’s someone talking, interrupt them politely but firmly, and only start asking the group to do what you need when you have everyone’s attention. Once you have the group’s attention – which is often easier if you are excessively friendly and smiling – then ensure that you look at every face in the crowd to ensure that they’re not hidden behind someone else. Try and keep people of similar height together: in this instance, I asked the taller people to stand around the sides of the group, to echo the amphitheatrical surroundings.

Once you have everyone in position, tell them what you need them to do: be smiling or not, look into the camera or not, according to the photograph. Always warn the group of the precise moment when you’re pressing the button: “three, two, one” always helps! If you do this, the chance that everyone will have their eyes open and will be looking at you at the right moment will be higher. However, you’ll have to get used to the idea of missing out on perfection: this was the best of 10 shots and there are still four people amongst the group of 26 who aren’t looking at the camera.

A final word of advice: try not to have someone next to you who is co-organizing the group when you’re taking the photograph. A surprising number of people will look at this second person for reassurance (or just because they know them) instead of looking into the camera. People who are less self-assured will seek out a reassuring face instead of concentrating on the photographer, which will spoil the details of the photo.