How to Pose Groups for Portrait Photography
For many years the gold standard for posing groups looked just like my first grade school photo. Everybody would be lined up and asked to stand as awkwardly as possible, feet together and for the lucky ones in the front, hands clasped together in their laps.
The photographer would shoot two frames (one for safety) and count every one in with a “1..2..3…say cheese” my grade one teacher Mrs. Witchell was way too cool to do cheese. She busted out her own version of Blue Steel instead. Respect.
Sadly this style of posing large groups is still pretty much the norm. But with some careful planning, and a little imagination, portraits of large groups can look far more dynamic than my grade one school photo.
The classic school or sports style group photo is rigid and posed awkwardly. Introducing some variation in height, pose and shape of the group with give your portraits more life and energy making them far more interesting and dynamic.
There are four main styles I like use to shoot my groups:
1. The 90210
I learned this style of posing groups by studying the publicity shots of the American teen drama from the 90s, 90210 (I had a huge crush on Dilan). I have now developed, and modified, this technique and it has become my go to pose for many of the cast shoots I do.
I like to create interest in these group shots by staggering the levels of all my models. I will have the back row standing. Middle row seated at various heights including high stools, chairs, lower ottomans or boxes. I then have a third level either on the floor or seated on very low stools or boxes. Lastly I pose each person individually and bring them onto the set one at a time, so I can see how the overall shot is looking.
- Shoot at 50mm or longer, as wider lenses will distort the group and make people in the front appear larger than those at the back. I usually shoot at around 100-150mm.
- Ensure everyone is clearly visible.
- Try and space everyone out so the image does not feel too constricted.
- Shoot at least 10-15 frames. This is harder than it sounds because large groups can be intimidating and many people in the group tend to lose interest after two or three frames. The way around this is to warn everyone that you will be shooting at least 10 frames.
- Keep the dialogue going. Be complimentary. Never single anyone out for doing the wrong thing.
- If you need to, stop the shoot and give more direction.
- Don’t be afraid to make people wait. I used to rush through my group shots (particularly with corporate males and athletes) because they intimidated me. I now realize that when I rush I don’t get great shots. Be confident and explain that you want to get this right, and if everyone does their bit it should all be over in five minutes.
- Keep the dialogue going. Silence is a cue that you are unhappy with the shot or are finished shooting.
- Lower your tone and speak calmly. This is a great trick I learned from my teacher training. Whenever I’m speaking to a large group I lower my voice rather than raise it. This way everyone becomes silent to hear you. I also find that women’s voices tend to go up and sound shrill when they try and raise it. This doesn’t sound very assertive or authoritative.
The 90210 style also works for larger groups like this shot of the entire cast of the Australian Soap Opera, Neighbours ( above) or the cast and crew shot of the musical Moonshadow (below). I use the exact same approach and set up my shot in groups of three and five, staggering the head heights to keep the shot from looking too square.
2. The Reservoir Dog
This shot was inspired by the opening sequence of a Quentin Tarantino movie, Reservoir Dogs.
This is a great option to photograph groups if you are pressed for time, need something more dynamic, or have a group of people that have trouble posing or taking direction.
I like to shoot very low to the ground (sitting or laying) and ask the group to walk towards me. It works best when I give each person individual direction before we start. Eg., Person 1 put one hand in your pocket;,Person 2 walk and fix your tie as you go, Person 3 button your jacket up as you walk, Person 4 walk with a strut and attitude.
If this shot is left to chance you may get lucky, but a little direction will really take it to another level.
When shooting set your camera to autofocus (AI servo for Canon or continuous for Nikon) and shoot with a long lens 150-200mm (to remove background distraction). I recommend aperture of f/5.6, a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second or higher, and focus on the face.
3. The Cartier-Bresson
This style is named after Henri Cartier-Bresson, a French photographer who took snapshots of everyday life and made them look extraordinary. He was a true master of candid photography.
I love photographing groups in is this fly on the wall style, which is posed to look like a candid snap-shot of life. I often get my inspiration for these poses from popular culture.
This photo of the cast of The Footy Show is homage to the famous 1932 image Lunch atop a Skyscraper.
When I’m directing a shoot like this I give everyone a role and ask him or her to repeat it over and over again. Poses are varied only minutely. For example: Billy and Shane (far left) were directed to look at the newspaper and eat the sandwich. Sam and JB (center) were asked to have an animated conversation and Garry (far right) was asked to laugh off camera. Expression was varied slightly but the pose was kept the same.
This image was inspired by DaVinci’s Last Supper, and was photographed using a very similar technique to the Footy Show image.
4. The lineup and “v” posed group shot
I photographed the cast of Small Time Gangster individually for this movie poster and then the shots were Photoshopped to create a “V” shape that is really popular in advertising and the entertainment industry.
The Cast of House Husbands was shot individually for this group shot, then the best expressions and poses were selected to create this image.
This style of photography works really well for large families and corporate groups, and really lets the individual personalities come through. I thought this was the ideal way to capture the cast of Project Runway Season 4.
This style of shooting was born out of necessity. Many of the TV shows I shoot cast shots for can’t schedule all their talent to be on set at once so I shoot them individually, and combine the shots in post-production. This is a great technique to capture everyone’s personality and it always looks dynamic.
Finally, don’t forget to have fun when shooting group portraits and let their personality (and yours) shine!
These images were all posed to look like they had been taken candidly. The problem with candid photography is that you are relying on too many variables to be just right before you can get your shot. You need good light, location and expression. Miss out on one of these and your shot may turn to caca. If you set up the shot and give everyone great direction, you are guaranteed a great shot.
What are your favourite ways to pose and direct groups? Is there anything I may have missed or do you have a group portrait you are really proud of? I’d love to hear from you.
All images copyright Gina Milicia 2015