How to Photograph and Light a Large Group Outside – Tutorial

Great Lighting Questions From Readers

I often get really great emails from many of my readers.

Occasionally I think an email deserves a more detailed response because it could benefit many more people than just the individual asking the question. Such is the recent email from one of my readers, Val Patel.

Val says,

“Hello Deborah,
I enjoyed reading your studio tutorials.  They have wealth of information.

The question I have is you said you used two lights for the photography large group, what was the placement of these lights?

Also, another question I have is how do you set up lights when there is no backdrop (or a wall) but a natural background of plants, flowers and trees?

I will be photographing large groups in a pre-wedding party this week-end.  So, your reply will help me tremendously.

Thanks and regards,

Val Patel”

Hello Val (and everyone!)

In the post being referred to, How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio I did use only two lights. I wanted to keep that vivid orange background super saturated, therefore I did not light it directly. Instead, I only lit the subjects and allowed their lighting to spill over and  slightly illuminate the background.

Lighting a Large Group Outside With Nature as a Backdrop

I have no idea how large the party is that you will be photographing, but something about your tone makes me think it could be really big. The bigger the group of people in a single shot, the more challenging it is to both light it AND to catch every one looking, if not their best, at least reasonable.

Before we get down to the basics of lighting a large group outside, let’s go over some basics of shooting on location.

Choose Your Background Carefully

If at all possible, pre-scout your the location. Try to do this a day or two in advance. If that is not possible, at the very least try to arrive WELL in advance of the event to do some quick location scouting. Here’s what you’re looking for:

  • Open shade
  • Simple, uncluttered backgrounds
  • Softly reflective surfaces

Open Shade

This could be any area that is evenly shaded, either by trees, an awning, pavilion, large building etc. You are looking for any area that has soft, EVEN lighting. In other words, AVOID dappled lighting because you run a very high risk of having hot spots and deep shadows.

Simple Backgrounds

A simple, clean, uncluttered background is always best.  Try to find backgrounds that are cohesive and uniform in color without high contrast patterns, stripes or designs.

For example, if natural foliage is going to be your background, try to find a section that is more monochromatic in color. It would be better to find a plants that are all some shade of green while avoiding tall/bright/spiky flower heads that can appear to be growing out of people’s heads.

Other examples of cohesive, monochromatic backgrounds would be brick, granite, wood, sand dunes, concrete, metal etc.

Reflective Surfaces

This one is not as crucial as the first two. However, if you can find a ground surface that can bounce a bit of light, it will make your job easier and your final image just that much more compelling.  The most awesome natural reflector of all time is the BEACH! All that white and light colored sand makes a perfect bounce card. If you’re not shooting on the beach, you can seek out  ground surfaces that are light enough to serve as a giant reflector.

As I said before, this is not as crucial as open shade or clean backgrounds. So don’t go exchanging a great, clean background for a less desirable one that happens to have a bright, reflective surface. Background first.

So HOW Do I Light These People?!

If it is a really large group of 10 or more people, use two lights on stands placed at about 45 degree angles to each side of the group.

Get the best, heavy duty light stands you can afford. You want to have your lights up slightly above the head of the tallest person in the group. Large, white shoot-through umbrellas are a very effective way to light a large group outside. You could also bounce the light out of the umbrellas. Soft boxes are tricky to use to light large groups, unless you use REALLY big ones. Why? Small light boxes allow too much light fall off, leaving some people in the dark….

It is also a good idea to provide some fill flash in front with your camera’s dedicated flash unit.

Metering the Light

If you’re accepting professional photography gigs, you have NO excuse NOT to have a good, working light meter and to know how to use it. The best results for outdoor portraits of large groups are achieved by balancing your light output with the ambient (existing) light.

It’s best to set your lens aperture at f/11 or smaller (f/16 etc) for larger groups, to make sure all people in the shot are in focus. If it a smaller group, you might be able to get away with f/8. An aperture larger than f/8 risks someone being out of focus.

Determine what f/stop you’ll be using and meter the ambient light first. Once you’ve determined what shutter speed you’ll need to be able to shoot at f/11, then you’ll place your light meter in the center of where the group will be. Set both of your lights to the same setting and fire them. Keep firing and measuring the light, until your lights match the ambient light.

In other words, if the ambient light is f/11 at 250th of a second, you’ll set your light output to be at f/11 at 250th of a second.  Next you’ll fire your camera’s dedicated flash AND your strobes at the same time. Make sure your camera’s dedicated flash is set low enough NOT to increase your overall light output over your f/11 at 250th of a second setting.
You’re good to go. Fire away!

Use a Reflector as an ‘Extra’ Light Source

Folding, portable reflectors are inexpensive and easy to carry. Have one, or even two available and you can ask an assistant to strategically place and angle one. In many cases, a well placed reflector can stand in as an additional light source. Just pay attention and watch where the reflections are falling. Depending on the type of surface your reflector has and its position to the sun, it is possible to have hot spots. It just requires visual vigilance and judicious repositioning of the reflector.

I prefer a reflector with one white side and one soft silver side.

Where to Position the Group in Relation to the Background

In general, you want to move your group as far away from the background as possible, to avoid hard, harsh shadows being cast behind them.

A Word About Wind

Funny thing about really large light modifiers. They make GREAT wind catchers. Yep. Those suckers will catch wind and take right off or topple over. That means you can severely damage your equipment…..or your subjects. Neither of those scenarios is acceptable. Get yourself some good, sturdy weights. I’ve used refillable sandbags from Photoflex for years. You can fill them with water, dried rice, sand or beans. I use sand. Lay them on the cross supports on your light stands and they’ll help prevent your equipment from falling over.

That’s all folks. So…….

Stay Cool, Stay Calm and Have Fun!

Check out these tutorials:

High Key Portrait Lighting Tutorial

Low Key Portrait Lighting Tutorial

Studio Lighting for Headshots

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