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Get the shots your client needs. Communicate. Take charge!

Group Shot Tips

by National Geographic, Contributing Editor:  Jim Richardson


Take command

Fear not (or at least, show no fear). Everyone expects that someone else is in charge of this mess. Step up to the plate. Rise above the fray (literally) if you can. A step ladder is a quite good bully pulpit, and a commanding voice will generally bring the rabble to attention. Become the focal point of activity and half the battle is won.


Organize the bodies

Think ahead about the physical layout you want for the picture. Then figure out an efficient way to line everyone up or move them around. Old time group photographers used to put a chalk line on the ground. When the group arrived they would tell everyone to stand on the chalk line. Simple. You can try putting a row of chairs where you want them (thinking about composition), then grab the first folks to arrive and tell them to please sit down. As more arrive ask them to fill in behind (and NOT to go beyond either end of the row of chairs.) Then grab a few of younger, spry ones and ask them to sit on the ground up front.


Recruit co-conspirators

Find a couple of folks to help you on the ground. For instance, the crowd will just naturally want to spill out too far on either side. So grab two people and put them at each end of the line where you want your group. Just say “Stand here and don’t let anybody go outside of you, OK?”


“Build” a composition

If the group isn’t too large (fewer than a dozen, perhaps) you can often build a more relaxed grouping. Start by select one or two people as the centerpiece (Grandma and Grandpa?) and put them in a central position. Then start adding people, one by one, in around them. Take people gently by the arm, if you have to, and move them where you want them. Don’t expect everyone to just sort of fill in naturally.


Try subdividing

Some groups naturally lend themselves to subdividing, gathering smaller arrangements of two, three, or four people together within the larger scene. This can add visual variety and make things look much less stuffy. (And not everyone has to stand directly facing the camera. Have a few folks stand sideways, then turn their heads to the camera.)


Try a different angle

Getting above a group is a marvelous way to see everyone’s face. Just make sure they really get their chins up and look you straight in the face.


Move quickly

You won’t keep the group’s attention forever so have everything in readiness. Camera focused, exposure checked, lighting checked.


Talk to them constantly!

As long as you are talking they will pay attention to you. If you stop talking then little conversations will break out, and then full-fledged laughter and debates. By then you’re lost. Keep up a little chatter and you’ll stay in charge.


Make it fun

A little zaniness on your part will go a long way toward easing the atmosphere.


Play the maestro

When it comes time to snap the picture, change the tempo and take command. Make eye contact. (I like to have the camera on a tripod so I don’t have to be looking through the viewfinder.) Raise your arm like you are ready for the downbeat and say something like “OK, everybody, we’re ready.” (And be ready.)


Tell them what you want them to do

Remember at this critical moment that all those folks have any idea of what’s happening unless you tell them. I like to be really, really plain. I say, “OK, look at me, look at me, don’t blink, eyes open, look at me, don’t blink” while I snap away. The best way to get everybody’s eyes open is to take several pictures. If you need to make adjustments then tell them so. I say, “Don’t go anywhere, but you can relax for a moment.” Ideally, once I get them in position l like the picture to be over and done in 30 seconds.


Try something different

Before you let them go take one more. Maybe you can ask everyone to give you a BIG wave or throw their arms in the air (assuming you aren’t photographing the Supreme Court justices).


Disband the crowd (and grab one more)

Keep your finger on the shutter when you say “Thank you everyone.” Very often the pleasant confusion of the breakup is interesting in itself. Sport teams are particularly likely to come to life in the moment when everyone is being released.

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