How to confidently direct a large group of people

Above: Image, Gina Milicia

For many inexperienced photographers the thought of having to photograph a large group of people is intimidating. It’s nerve wracking enough approaching a stranger, let alone 10 or more.

I can remember my first group portrait shoot. I was so nervous I could hear my voice shaking as I spoke. I felt hot and beads of perspiration were running down my back. I wanted to get it over and done quickly because I felt like everyone was judging my skill level based on speed. I dared not look at my camera settings because I thought this would make me look incompetent.

I basically mumbled something from behind the camera that I thought sounded like “Okay everyone look this way and smile” but in reality it sounded like “OKmmmmmmunayllllmmmmhhhmmm” I then took two frames, smiled, said thanks or “thuuuuuuaaaaaa.” Oh my God my mouth was so dry, I just wanted to get away from that group and be at home in my pyjamas eating Nutella. Group shots are brutal!

That was over 25 years and a thousand group shots ago. I’ve managed to overcome my fear of working with groups and have developed a checklist for posing groups to ensure I nail the shot every time.

So next time you get asked to photograph a large group here a few tips to help you get the perfect shot:

Essential checklist for group shots

Ensure everyone is clearly visible in the shot
Shy people often hide at the back of the group and some people don’t realise that the camera is not able to photograph them through a wall of people. As I’m arranging the group I like to say:

“If you can’t see me, I can’t see you!”

I then do a final check to pluck out any camera-shy models hiding behind the tall people in the back row.

Don’t pile everyone on top of each other.

For some reason whenever a camera is pointed at a group, people feel the need to smoosh in close like they were trapped in a broom cupboard.

Try to space everyone out so the shot doesn’t feel too constricted or crowded.

For really large groups I like to arrange subgroups of three and five because it makes the shot look more interesting and dynamic.

Keep it simple
If you have input into clothing choices then go for neutral autumn tones or blacks and whites.

Try and avoid red because it stands out like dogs… you know what I mean.

Check the little details
Double check for little details like; hair over eyes, dirty faces, drink bottles, awkward hands, crooked collars, buttons etc.

Also check the background for woman wearing bright pink sweatsuits or poles or trees that mysteriously appear whenever a photographer tries to take a group shot.

A few extra seconds of careful scrutiny at this stage will save you hours of post processing work.

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 a few 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 because I felt intimidated. I now realize that when I rush, I don’t get great shots. Be confident and explain that you need to get this right and if everyone does their bit it should all be over in five minutes.

Use a tripod
I like shooting large groups off a tripod for several reasons:

  • Firstly, it frees me up to direct the group and leave my camera position to adjust clothing etc.
  • Secondly, shooting off tripod means I can mix and match my images in case Jan up the back blinks in the shot where everyone else looks good. I can then simply swap Jan’s head from the dud shot with a frame where Jan is smiling.
  • Finally, I can  easily remove the passerby in the bright pink sweatsuit with another frame that she wasn’t in.

Keep the dialogue going
Silence is a cue that you are unhappy with the shot or finished shooting. It’s important to keep talking through the entire shoot. This doesn’t need to be cheesy dialogue or lame jokes. I like to use lots of positive reinforcement.

“That’s great”
“Wow, you all look amazing”
“The light looks so beautiful”
“5 more frames”
And so on.

Tone of voice
When you’re speaking to the group lower your tone and speak calmly.

This is a great trick I learnt 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 to speak louder. This doesn’t sound very assertive.

Have fun
The most important thing you need to remember to have a successful shoot is to keep your energy positive and happy. You as the photography set the tone for the shoot.

If you bark out orders in a grumpy and curt way you’ll get grumpy, curt smiles.

Be enthusiastic, positive and authentic and enjoy the shoot.

Do you have any little tricks or tips for shooting large groups? I’d love to hear about them.

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About Gina

Gina Milicia is one of the most widely known and respected photographers in Australia. She is the master of capturing that ‘magical moment’... READ MORE

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