How To Take Group Portrait In Natural Light

Flint Rock Ranch-004

Flint Rock Ranch-004

When it comes to photographing people in a group, it's quite different from taking individual portrait.   Common problems we encounter include:

  • When people stand in different rows, some people appear blurry while others appear sharp

  • The picture looks busy caused by various colors (of clothes), surrounding trees, rocks (or chairs, tables) etc.

Here's my suggestion how to take group portrait.

1. Lighting

  • Always maximize even lighting for your image. Put the subject in the same lighting condition as the background. Meaning, if the background is in the shadow, put the subjects in the shadow. If the background is in the sun, put the subject in the sun. This will avoid over or under exposing the background. Best scenario is everyone and background is in the shade.

  • Avoid harsh light on people, ie. between 10am - 3pm. Early morning or later afternoon are best portrait hours if everyone will be in the sun. If you have to photograph during 10am-3pm, put people in the shade.

2. Lens & equipment

  • If you have only 3-5 people, set f stop anywhere between f3.5 and f8 (the closer you stand from the subjects, the bigger the f stop you should set to allow larger depth of field). I don't suggest a wide angle lens for small group.

  • If you have more than 30 people, and you don't have a large space to adjust your distance to them, consider a wide angle lens. Note lens distortion might happen and people will look stretched if they stand on the edge of the photo. So again avoid wide angel lens if you can, instead stand somewhere further away by choosing an open space.

  • Regardless of group size, if you have a wide open field and can easily adjust your distance to your subjects, you can use a telescope lens (such as the cow group image above). But since the lens is heavy and you might consider using a tripod to avoid camera shake.

  • Best portrait lenses: 24-70mm, 2.8f; 70-200mm, 2.8f (my personal favorite, but again not necessary for large group portrait); 50mm, 1.2f (50mm, 1.4f and 1.8f could achieve great results as well and are much cheaper); 85mm, 1.2f (85mm, 1.4f is much more affordable and does a good job as well). These lenses are very fast and produce sharp, crisp images.

3. Your camera setting

  • Dial to manual mode. I typically set f6.3 or f8 and a shutter speed of at least 1/200 sec or faster with a mid-range zoom lens, for a large group standing in multiple rows. But if you can manage to squeeze everyone in one row, then you can use much smaller f stop, eg. f3.5, f4.5 etc.

  • Exposure: An easy tip to get the exposure right is to ask people to wear clothes in similar color tones (eg. all light colored or all dark colored). Avoid white and black clothes. This will help avoid unnecessary exposure problems. I was lucky the cows were wearing similar clothes in this case

  • Focus: focus on the person standing in the middle of the front row (typically the most important people will sit/stand there). In case you didn't get everyone sharp at least you want to make sure the main subjects are sharp.

  • Composition: try to select an wide open field as the background. If space is limited, try to find some blank wall or clean background. You already have lots of people in the image, and you don't want to make the image look "busier" with unnecessary subjects, or "noise", in the background.

  • Move the subjects or yourself. What about you can’t move the subject sometimes to get the right composition – like in this case for the cows – it’s easy, move yourself. Have you ever heard what Ansel Adams said: “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” It applies to both landscape and portrait photography

My camera setting for the cow group picture is as follows.

  • Camera: Canon 5D Mark III

  • Lens: Canon 70-200mm, 2.8L

  • Aperture priority: 200mm, f/4.5, 1/160 sec

  • ISO: 400 (good for cloudy days)

  • Tripod used

I had to admit the cow group portrait was pure luck.  I bet it’s the first time these cows saw a large black box with a long pipe pointing at them.  They simply did not know what to do.  Of course I did benefit from my little friends Dylan and Frank who spent the earlier 30 minutes chasing cows, wearing them out.  Here’s more background story.


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