The Pitfalls of a Group Portrait Session


How do you photograph large groups without a large studio setup?

My wife sings with one of the leading a-cappella choruses (Signature) in the UK and sometimes I am asked to do photos for them. This is always a tricky situation as the girls want good photos but rarely have the time that it takes for me to do a proper job of it. So invariably I end up taking photos during a performance, or a quick 5 minutes on a staircase during a competition weekend. So never ideal situations.

For a few months towards the end of last year Angela, the PRO for the group, was asking me to come along and take a few photos of the chorus to update their publicity material and web site. I tactfully suggested that if they wanted some good photos they would need to devote some dedicated time to a proper photo shoot rather than just a few minutes during a rehearsal crammed in a corner of a room somewhere. After some delicate negotiations we came up with a compromise that would work for all concerned.

So on a rather cold and dreary Thursday night in late December I dragged my studio lights and backgrounds over to Iver Heath for Signatures last rehearsal before Christmas. The arrangement was simple, they would primarily dedicate the evening to the photo shoot with singing taking second stage (no pun intended). There would be group shots in two different sets of costume with full make up and also individual head and shoulders. The village hall where they rehearse has a large hall with a stage at one end, and a very high ceiling in the auditorium area (sounds more glamourous that it is). I ruled out the stage as there was too much clutter around and the curtains would suck up too much of the light, so the auditorium area it was then!

First the background went up, 9 feet of ‘Ice White’ paper role. Up it went and then down it unrolled eventually to be held in place with a couple of strategically placed bulldog clips (otherwise it just keeps unrolling!). Then the 3 Bowens flash heads, 2 with wide angle reflectors and the third with a large softbox. These pack quite a bit of light output when on full power so I normally end up shooting at a very small aperture and very low ISO, but then normally I use them in the living room, white walls low ceiling. In a large hall with an extremely high ceiling they jus don’t pack that big a punch!

The next problem of course then came when nineteen dressed up ladies dashed into the hall. Nine foot background just ain’t wide enough for nineteen women (or men, or anything for that matter). It’s also very difficult to get any semblance of order when you have any more than about two in a group, especially when no one (and everyone) knows what they want. After some hesitation it was decided that the first photos would be what I would loosely term ‘semi-formal’, so we had some of the girls standing and some sitting at the front of the group. This actually made a rather nice shot and when tightly cropped got rid of most of the background rubbish, unfortunately it did make for heavy shadows behind the back row as they were too close to the background. That is one of the biggest issues with a large group and a limited background width, the rubbish round the sides I can crop out and manipulate fairly easily, the shadows are a completely different ball game.

The next 3 images show the ‘out of the camera’, cropped and final image.

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Step one take the photograph. This was taken with an EF24-105mm set to 45mm at f22, 1/200th @ ISO 100

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Step two crop it and process it

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Final image after a lot of Photoshop work, believe me taking the photograph was the easy bit. As I said previously I’m not happy with the shadows but there really wasn’t much that I could do about them. At the end of the day the girls were happy with the result as they thought that it added a certain amount of character and depth.

The next pose was to be less formal and a bit more seasonal, scarves and silly (sorry girls) hats. Because of the way that they wanted to pose it made it even more difficult to compose and required the use of a wider angle lens, which obviously meant that there was even more detritus in the image. For this shot I moved the girls further forward, away from the background which helped to eliminate the heavy shadows but unfortunately that moved the front subjects off the background! Again a lot of processing was needed in Photoshop to create an even background and this time I had to add some shadowing to create some depth, not something that I relish as it’s by no means my best accomplishment. Softening skin, removing blemishes even opening closed eyes, but not shadows!

The next 3 images show the ‘out of the camera’, cropped and final image.

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Step one take the photograph. This was taken with an EF17-40mm set to 22mm at f22, 1/200th @ ISO 100

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Step two crop it and process it

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The final image after it had gone through the Photoshop process. The background was duplicated a number of times on to separate layers, each then having a mask applied to blend it into the main image. A levels adjustment layer was then applied to try and even out the background tones and finally some extra shadowing was applied to try and create some depth where there was none. I don’t know if the finished result is good or not, again the girls love it but I can see the flaws. Maybe I’m just over critical of myself, I just don’t know.

The next part of the evening was to shoot individual head and shoulder portraits so that we could use them to create a montage which could then more easily be updated when people join or leave the group. I shot half of the portraits with their casual gear on and half with the more fancy stage gear. This was a quicker way of getting through everyone as some were changing while others were being photographed. On the whole the results weren’t too bad but they did need more tweaking than I would normally do for a portrait shoot. At least all of the processing for the individual portraits was carried out in Lightroom, which I must admit is my preferred method of editing. I really only go into Photoshop now to do heavy duty stuff, even cloning/healing is normally carried out in Lightroom, unless it is very complex.

The following 2 images show the original unprocessed photo and the final result that was used for the montage.

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Step one take the photograph. This was taken with an EF180mm at f22, 1/200th @ ISO 100

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Step two crop it and process it

There wasn’t anytime to play with the lights to get a better out of the camera result but luckily Lightroom is a very good tool and it never ceases to amaze me just what it can achieve. In a normal room situation the 3 flash heads operating at full power would actually have been too much, whereas in the hall it just wasn’t enough by a long way. Still as with the group shots, everyone appears to be pleased with the results.

Once everyone had changed into their more formal stage costumes we recommenced with some more group shots, some more formal photos and then some more relaxed poses such as the ‘group hug’. So you thought the first set was difficult, think again! This time I have 19 women, in a circle and I have to try and get them all in!

So it was back to the wide angle standing on a chair holding the camera up high and hoping for the best. Surprisingly the results were much better than I could have hoped for, not that they were as good as they should have been. You will again see from the following three images that a considerable amount of editing had to be undertaken to get a result that was acceptable.

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Step one take the photograph. This was taken with an EF17-40mm set to 19mm at f22, 1/200th @ ISO 100

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Step two again was to crop it and process it

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The final image after it had gone through the Photoshop process. The background was duplicated on to a separate layer with a mask applied to blend it into the main image. A levels adjustment layer was then applied to try and even out the background tones and finally some extra shadowing was applied to try and create some depth where there was none. As it turns out this is the image that the girls have chosen to put on their flyers and also on to their seven foot high banner, so I guess that they’re somewhat pleased with it.

Sometimes of course an image is just complete rubbish, or is it?

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It’s all in the crop. Yes I know that the diehards will want to shoot me down in flames, it’s always supposed to come out of the camera perfect. Well, like most mortals, mine don’t but I can normally produce an image that is pleasing to the person that it is commissioned by and to me that is the most important thing. How we get there is somewhat irrelevant in comparison.

Lessons learnt?

  • Large spaces are not always helpful, unless specifically designed for the purpose.
  • 9 foot is just not enough!
  • Never work with animals, children and female choruses (just kidding)

So How do you photograph large groups without a large studio setup, with extreme difficulty I’d say!

If you want to find more information about signature why not visit their web site, or their Facebook page.

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3 thoughts on “The Pitfalls of a Group Portrait Session

  1. Photography is such a subjective medium, so what one person likes, another may not think of so highly. I personally like the photos where you actually see the backdrops and other accoutrements of the photo session. I think it adds a bit of interestingness or funkiness to the scene. Something a little out of the ordinary.

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