Saturday, March 2, 2013

Photographing Very Large Groups

Over Christmas, my sister in law, Kathy, asked me to take photos of her entire family - 38 people. Actually, she called me to ask if I had anyone I would recommend and then we both touched the surface of the possibility of me doing it if all else failed.

Long story short, I ended up being the photographer. I warned her that indoor, posed photography was not my strong suit. Actually, it ended up working out perfectly and I am better off with the experience.
f/4, 1/100, ISO 1600

When I went to prepare for the shoot (like I do with all my shoots), I searched around for specific tips on photographing very large groups. I could not find anything for groups larger than about 15. It was frustrating. 

Of course, it finally hit me to check out a photography forum. Can you believe that I have never joined one before now? No matter your level or experience, you should join one and participate. Anyway, you are going to hate me because it's not as easy as just saying set you camera settings to this and that. You need to know what you are doing with your lens and focal distance and aperture. I will give you my settings though, so you can take what you want from it. 

I also learned a few things along the way that I will share.

1. Have a team - I like to have an assistant with me for even the smallest, easiest of shoots. This person is my sister, Farrah. She does exactly what I want and is fairly knowledgeable of her specific role and what I am trying to achieve. Before each shoot, I tell her my goal and how she can help. For this large of a shoot, I asked my dad to help as well. His role was to pose the group. This is my weakness and I knew I needed help. He was perfect. I just told him to do his thing and he did. He has a small photography background and experience with this type of stuff.

2. Bring your props - This is different for every photo shoot. I brought a short step ladder just in case space was tight due to crowds or space limitations for the individual portraits. I didn't use it, but I was glad I had it just in case. I also brought a small tambourine for Farrah to shake next to my camera to get the kids' attentions. Of course, after a few hours, my head was pounding from the constant noise right next to my head. Small price to pay for all eyes on my camera, though. 

3. Have a plan - I went to scope out the site (Union Station) a few weeks beforehand. I met up with Kathy in the morning to check out the light, the space and how busy it might be at that specific time. We talked about what kind of photos they needed and then what the possibilities were for the individual family portraits. I had spoken to an employee about paying the fee for professional photography and details of time and how busy he thought the place would be. While we were there, I spoke with him more and we learned that if we paid ahead of time, we could show up earlier to avoid crowds even more (considering we would be shooting on the day after Christmas, which was one of their busiest days).

f/2.8, 1/200, ISO 1600
4. Be flexible - As a photographer, you have in your mind an idea of how a shoot will go. Sometimes it happens that way and then usually it doesn't - especially when there are children involved. When my team arrived early, I figured Kathy's family would all arrive around the same time, we'd take the large photos and then we'd do individual shots around the station. Well, that's not what happened. There was already a family there waiting for us and they asked if they could get their portrait done while we waited for the others to show up. It worked out perfectly this way because each family seemed to trickle in right when I finished with the other. Once everyone had showed up, we were able to corral them into the large group portraits. By the time that was over, the kids had had enough and wanted to run around and play. I am so glad I went with the flow and allowed that first family to set the pace for the whole time.

5. Recognize your limitations - Unfortunately, one of Kathy's brother-in-laws was too sick to make it for pictures that day. It is always unfortunate when that happens, but it does happen. I've said it before and I will say it again - I am not a magician. This includes magically making someone appear in a photo. Some photographers can do it, but it takes skill and many times, knowing you are going to have to do that beforehand so you can prepare. I did get some shots with gaps in the poses in case I could superimpose the BIL and took some of their individual family portraits with the grandpa in the shot for head swapping. After weeks of trying to make it work, I had to throw in the towel. I could go into all the details and logistics of why it didn't work, but it simply came down to one thing - I could not give them something that looked distracting and unnatural. At the end of the day, even if I was doing them a favor, my reputation and professionalism is something I value. (And of course, I did warn them of this possibility, so it wasn't like I had made a promise I couldn't keep.)

6. Challenge yourself - With a large group, it's pretty much guaranteed that you will have to swap some heads. People blink. People look somewhere other than the camera. People grimace. This family was a bunch of blinkers. It was so funny! I had never head swapped, but thankfully, I was prepared to do so. All the photos were taken on a tripod with a remote so that everyone was in the same position with the same lighting and focal range. This made swapping a snap (even for a first timer like me)! I dare you to try and figure out whose heads were swapped. Honestly, I can't even remember or tell myself!
f/6.3, 1/50, ISO 1600 (27mm focal length)

f/6.3, 1/40, ISO 1600 (27mm focal length)

Look at all their grandkids!
f/5.6, 1/40, ISO 1600 (25mm focal length)

I walked away from this feeling pretty good. Like I said, it was a huge (literally) learning experience and I am so glad that I was able to provide this family with priceless images. Until they were all there in the same room, I didn't quite realize how monumental this was. With a large family that is spread all over the country, try to think back to the last time they were all together. For mine I can remember two, but there were at least one or two spouses missing. See? Monumental.

A humongous thank you to Kathy and her entire family for taking a chance with this photographer!


  1. Woohoo! I realized just last week that I hadn't made the post I was planning on making about this event....

    Well done, Elena!!

    1. Thanks :) I can't wait to see your post on it!

  2. You take beautiful pictures.

  3. Just looking back at posts I missed and I'm loving these pictures! You did an awesome job with so many people and an indoor location. I'm impressed!

    1. Thanks Paige! Like I said, it was a good challenge and luckily, it turned out well.


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