How to Photograph a Group Portrait

This statue of a group of civic leaders can be found in the grounds of St. Sebastian's Cemetery, Salzburg.

Have you ever faced the challenge of photographing a group portrait? Back in the day I used to run a wedding/portrait studio so family portraits; reunions; kindergarten and school photography; and debutant balls provided me with plenty of practice photographing group portraits.

The above photo was made under lovely, soft verandah lighting at the Cemetery of St. Sebastian in historic and beautiful Salzburg, Austria. Numerous luminaries and historical figures are buried at St. Sebastian including the wife and father of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

You'll notice that the figures in the sculpture have been arranged in such a way that enables us to see them. There's no little guy lost behind some dude with an afro. Let's look at some of the techniques used to achieve the desired result.

Make Sure You Can See Everyone

The people depicted have been arranged in a series of rows, a better alternative than placing them in a straight line. For a photographer this allows you to move in closer and, as a consequence, record each subject's face larger than if you had to stand back to fit them all into the frame. With a smaller group it's often enough to organise them into a single, curved row with each of them turned inwards towards the centre of the group.  

Placing the group into rows also provides a sense of three-dimensional space (i.e., foreground, mid ground and background) which, in the case of people-based photography, produces a more realistic affect.

Organize The Group Around Circles and Triangles

Let's put our cameras down for a moment. Imagine you're an artist making a drawing.

How would you draw a face?

A face contains features like eyes, mouth and nose and textures like hair and wrinkles. But even before you draw the face you have to put it into a shape which we call a head. You might describe that shape as oval-like. Now let's imagine we're back in kindergarten. My guess is that most of us would be more likely to draw a face based upon a two-dimensional circle. I'm going to continue with the notion of a circle because it's simpler.

To create a harmonious picture of a small group of people (e.g., three) you'd first have to draw three circles in such a way that, when linked by invisible lines, a triangle is created. This is exactly how I'd go about photographing a small group of people.

For larger groups just keep adding circles (i.e., faces), a few at a time, in such a way that creates new triangles. For an even more harmonious result you'd be considering where you place your subjects, in relation to each other, based upon the colors they're wearing and/or the color of their hair.

Your final image will contain the following:

  • Circles (i.e., faces)
  • Triangles (i.e., groups of faces)
  • Lines, linking one or more individuals within the group and from one group to another, inside the larger group portrait
  • A group of people, arranged in a cohesive manner, that appear to belong together 

I've traced these techniques back as far as Da Vinci's Last Supper. Where and when it actually started, I know not. But it goes back a long, long time. Because great photographers learn from other great artists, there's no co-incidence that many great photos of rock bands, soldiers and family portraits alike contain the very same approach to composition I've outlined in this article.

An Important Lesson That's Often Hard Learned

Photography can be as hard and complicated as you decide to make it. It's your choice as to how many lenses, flash units, stands and light modifiers you carry around with you. Sometimes the best decision is what not to bring along. If it isn't fun, find a way to make it so.

Adversity can lead to creativity, but only when taken in moderation. It can also be physically and psychologically debilitating. Again, do all you can to make it fun.

When it comes to composition I'd advise you to learn the fundamentals. This site is a great place to do so. I'd also urge you to have fun putting those fundamentals to creative use in your own photography. The great thing about composition is that, unlike gear, it doesn't weigh you down. In fact it fires the neurons, drives creativity and touches the soul. That's why it's important to me.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru