I’ve been employed to do some group photographs for a couple of clients recently. There are challenges to groups, especially if you’re the sort of photographer, as I am, that aims to capture documentary-style candid shots and tends to avoid set-ups like the plague! One of my biggest influences is photographer Shirley Baker who insisted her photographs were never posed, saying that she shot around the people in her images. What’s more, in everyday life, I tend to find it easier to relate to one or two people at a time rather than large numbers. However, group shots can be fun and families, especially, love to have them for – but they take a little planning. Things to consider might be, can everyone be seen and lit, is there enough space, is it possible to create variety of heights? If not, how can these challenges be overcome?
A friend of mine sent me a picture he’d taken on a school trip. In it, you can see about 20 or so 11-year-olds sitting on a wall and the steps in front of a church. Plenty of space! They are separated into smaller groups. Sometimes hands and arms are linked. Other times, individuals lean nonchalantly against the wall. Various levels were achieved. It was taken on his phone on cloudy day so the lighting is even and just right for the shot. Different characters emerge from the various ways in which each child has been captured and yet they’re a clear collective. It’s a wonderful photograph because there is a freedom in it that can be tricky for paid photographers to capture. I must let my friend know how much I like that picture – he’d be pleased!
In preparation, as well as thinking about amateur shots I like, I have also been revisiting famous photographers. Of course, Annie Leibowitz springs to mind, and you can see her group work analysed here, which is helpful, although one risks being bogged down. While Leibowitz’s covers for Vanity Fair have become iconic and she’s definitely a good reference point, it’s important to recall that she shoots the whole picture over several days, capturing two or three subjects at a time, and then stitches them together with the rest of the crowd in Photoshop. I once read someone describe her style as fascistic… which isn’t quite what most families are after, although I can think of one or two corporate clients who might like that kind of thing. Either way, I think I prefer to look at Irving Penn’s groups shots. His photograph of famous New York cartoonists and another of famous photographers (all male, unfortunately) are great to study if you’re planning a group shot of your own.
I’ll have my work cut out for me at my next job where I’ll be required to capture about fifteen very large group shots in a relatively short space of time with minimal lighting! Let’s hope I’ll be channeling Irving Penn on the day, but I shan’t forget to recall the super shot my friend shared with me either. In the meantime, here’s one I took several years ago during a family shoot that I’ve always really liked.