How To Photograph Large Groups in the Studio

This past weekend I had the COMPLETE pleasure of working with a group of people so warm, vibrant and energetic I may be walking on cloud nine for weeks to come.   It’s shoots like this that keep me highly enthusiatic about photography in general.   I really do have a dream ‘job’.

I could take this post in any number of directions. I could talk about bold color in portraiture, how to transform virtually any place into a photography studio, how to work with children of varying ages or how to work with a larger group of people. Let’s roll with the last one.

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio - Photography Tutorial

Posing a large group can be intimidating to even the most seasoned of photographers.   Let me say at this juncture that my particular style of photography is casual, fun and quirky.   My subjects are often on the floor and very little proppage is used.   Yes, proppage is a word.   It means ‘things you use to make yourself feel more like a real portrait photographer and therefore run the risk of having your work look like everybody else’s work’.  If you are looking for more traditional ways of grouping and lighting people, then I am not the photographer for you.

Mama Koku, storyteller extraordinaire, a traveling bard who spins tales in several African traditions, hired me to photograph her upcoming CD cover. During our initial phone interview (yes, clients interview us and we most assuredly interview them, let the circling and sniffing begin….) it was decided that a bright orange backdrop would fit the bill nicely.  We selected a time and place (the multi-purpose room of the local library branch) and we were off and running.

Mama Koku and her wonderful tribe of friends, family and neighbors began to arrive in stages.  I decided to break the ice by photographing smaller groups to begin with.  Actually, my very first shots were lighting tests with a dashing young man of unusual grace and presence.  This test helped me determine a two light setup would be best.  Shooting down at your subject is also a great way to emphasize their eyes, btw.  This shot below was just between young Mr. ‘I’ and me, as the room was quiet and empty except for the two of us.

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio - Photography Tutorial

As more people arrived, I spied these two dashing young gentlemen.   They were thick as thieves and full of mischievous energy.   Sometimes the best thing to do is pair people up.   Having someone there with them, allows many children (adults too) to relax and not feel so on-the-spot.   Through the years I have found the back-to-back pose very effective.   It works especially well with boys, as they are often far more self-conscious in front of the camera than girls are.   It also gives them a way to touch, and I always insist their backs actually touch.   This has a profound psychological effect.   It says, in a primal way “I got your back”.   It also allows for maximum individualism.   Each subject is free to be, without visual input from the other.   Yet they each feel ‘safer’ and more confident than they would, all alone out there, in the big middle of all that cold seamless background paper.

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio - Photography TutorialAll kids invariably love the ‘watching TV’ pose.   They like it even better when the photographer assumes the same position.   I spend a lot of time crawling around on the floor when I’m working.   When shooting like this, I’m usually on my belly, just like my subjects.  Did she just say belly? Yep. I always insist shoulders should be touching.  None of this ‘I’m not really in this photo with you’ stuff.  Either go all the way or don’t bother.  Either you like each other or you don’t and if you don’t, why bother to be photographed together?  I’m just not interested in all that in-between stuff, in photography or life.

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio - Photography Tutorial

Least you think it was all about the boys, look again.  Of course the girls wanted to get in on the action.  I suggested they line up but had no clue they were already miles ahead of me.  The relaxed and sweet energy between these girls was fantastic.  They just naturally configured themselves into a classic pyramid, which is one of the most effective ways to group people.  They got it exactly right!  We can tell they all know and like each other just by looking.

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio - Photography Tutorial

The following images illustrate how versatile the pyramid configuration can be.  Please note spaces were left for a graphic designer to drop in animated figures for the final artwork.

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio - Photography Tutorial

Sometimes within one configuration, you can use another.  Inside the pyramid below is a modified back-to-back pose.

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio - Photography Tutorial

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio - Photography Tutorial

As another handsome young man arrived to be added into the mix, I shifted to a diamond pose, which also happened to encompass a back-to-back pose.

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio - Photography TutorialMama Koku is a storyteller.  I had the idea to pose her with children drapped about her person, much like the Native American Cochiti storyteller.  So I had her lie down and set about arranging some girls around her.  I decided to use only the girls in this one, because the boys were of an age to be extremely uncomfortable with this type of close, physical posing.  It is always best to work with, rather than against, your subject’s innate characteristics.  It is difficult to get warm, natural and engaging photographs of people who are woefully and wretchedly outside their comfort zone.

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio - Photography TutorialWe also did a number of shots of Mama Koku actively engaged in the art of telling a story  For these shots, I had her sit on a small child’s chair and we gathered the younger children around her.  This took a bit of arranging and rearranging to make sure everyone’s face or profile was showing.

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio - Photography TutorialAt the end of the shoot I asked Mama Koku if there was anything we hadn’t done that she would like to try.  She wanted some shots of the whole group standing.  Here goes:

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio - Photography Tutorial

By this time we had been working for about an hour and a half.  Everyone was relaxed and perhaps even a little tired…..

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio - Photography Tutorial

I couldn’t resist a little family love.  What’s not to love about mothers and daughters?  Yeah, I know.  Keep it to yourself.  You KNOW you love your mama.  And she loves you, right?  Right.

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio - Photography TutorialI realize I sometimes spend a fair amount of time on certain intangible things, like psychology or family and group dynamics.   That’s because those things MATTER.   This is aimed at all those folks who think any fool with a camera can be a photographer.   I would be remiss in my duties if I only talked about technique and equipment.   It takes SO much more to produce COMPELLING images of our fellow human beings.   It takes empathy, courage, strength of character, a sense of adventure and compassion, as well as killer instincts and lighting fast reflexes.   Here’s to all the people shooters out there.   Long may you prosper and thrive.   Without you, the world would be a lonelier and less colorful place.

Oh, here’s a shot of the room before I transformed it. Look closely and you can see my roll of orange background paper lying there waiting for me to finish my setup.

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio - Photography Tutorial

If you would like to read more, check out these articles:

Using Bold Color in Portraiture – Tips and Techniques

How to Set Up a Photo Booth in Your Home

High Key Studio Lighting Tutorial

Low Key Lighting Tutorial

Photographing Young Children with Low Key Lighting – Tutorial

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  1. Great stuff, love all the color,,and you may have missed your calling,
    keep the great pics coming

  2. George Dudley says

    I often have to take photos of diverse groups of people. It is common for a groups to have a dark skinned African-American and a light skin caucasion. Balancing the exposure in such diversity has been difficult. (I was even once accused of being racist because I insisted that an African-American, who wanted to be in the rear, to move to the front. A simple “it will make for a better picture” wasn’t good enough, and I had to explain the exposure problem.) Any suggestions for balancing light on photos of people with diverse skin tones?

  3. deborahwolfe says

    Hi George. Balancing lighting for disparate skin tones can be an issue. Your first instinct was correct, in that rearranging people in relation to distance from light heads is a good first step. You must also pay attention to shadows and where they are falling. It also helps to have at least four light heads when photographing larger groups, irregardless of skin tones. I keep my modeling lights on and pay close attention to shadows. If anyone’s face is in shadow, I will either move them OR reposition a light.

    Of course, in post processing it is SO much easier now in the digital age to simply dodge and/or burn to further even out skin tone exposures. There are several ways skin tone can be adjusted in Photoshop and that would be a entire blog post on its own.

    Good luck and happy shooting.