How to Photograph Big Group Portraits

There’s a saying “the simple life is a happy life.” That can be applied to the world of portrait photography too. Nevertheless, things get complicated when shooting a good big group portrait.

For one, there are a lot more people to direct, and that’s where posing can become a challenge. Location is another, because the place you choose to make the image could also break it.

Shooting a single person’s portrait may be ‘simpler,’ while a big group setting is infinitely more stressful, there is really a great amount of satisfaction and fulfillment when a large group portrait comes together.

There’s amazing dynamism seeing a group of colleagues/friends/family captured in that one single moment, as though all is right in their world and the invisible bonds that tie them together are wound up tight. As a portrait photographer, there’s a sense of calm when I see a beautiful group portrait. While not every photo turns out great, I’ve noticed over time that there are certain factors that immensely contribute to a shoot’s success:

  • Colour coordination keeps the photo and its people grounded and ‘bound’ to one another.
  • A large space/setting is needed, so as to not restrict the possibilities of what a photo can become. In a tight location, a photographer is limited to certain angles and focal lengths, which isn’t a good thing. I know, it’s tough in land-scarce Singapore, but remember there’s always the great outdoors.
  • Good lighting adds ‘pop.’ While I love using natural light in some instances, having sufficient and well-placed lights make the photo stand out.
  • Shooting large group portraits (like any other sub-genre) is an art and often situational. Every shoot has its challenges, and there’s always a lesson to take away from it. If you’ve discovered a few tricks of your own, would really like to hear from you in the comments below!

    Photographing Architectural Cover Shot for The Straits Times

    Plain architectural photos can really bore me. The mass of concrete, glass, wood look stunning and beautifully designed, but it is devoid of that warm human touch. What is a home if it is merely a house without a living soul? I felt it was brilliant that The Straits Times arranged for sweet Sophia and her dog Cookie to pose for this cover photoshoot. Adding people, especially a young girl and a pet, would make shooting much tougher (we’ll get to that below), but the results were worth it! 

     We had a beautiful new house (situated with the Goodwood Grand condominium), a showcase unit, to shoot as we desired. But after some quick scouting, we founds the rooms too small and made to look like a upper-class hotel. The kitchen was likewise very small relative to the house, which is in excess of 5000sq ft. 

    What really stood out for me was the full length windows around the living and dining area. These panels were sliding doors that, when moved, could create a spacious, fresh feel.

    My only gripe was that I could not do justice to the private pool just behind the sofa in the photo. Getting onto an elevated position could have meant capturing too much of the white ceiling, and draw attention away from the people and the interiors.

    In terms of lighting, I went with simplicity, using bounced ceiling light to balance with the exterior exposure, creating a naturalised look. The idea was to get people to think this was all done in one shot without specialised lighting. No, by far the hardest part was to get the right combination of pose, expression and location for our two models.

    Above left is how we ‘cheated’ to get Cookie to stay still, offering fake treats and then quickly slipped away. But when Cookie was perfect, Sophia could have been looking away. This continued for dozens of shots. Even in the final photo (above right), you might have noticed that some cushions had been messed up and we did not have the luxury of rearranging everything when moving from one scene to another. Nevertheless, very happy with the result!

    Lessons from Photographing a Book Cover

    Shooting a book cover always fills me with great pride, and not just because it is - the first thing buyers see. I’ve loved reading every since I could pick up a book. Back then the Internet didn’t exist, so none of that e-book, digital-edition spew we’ve been seeing lately. There is a certain joy in pulling out a book from the shelf, and holding paper between your fingers.

    The Brief

    99 Rules for New Dads is written by Shan Wee - a DJ with 91.3FM - and is published by Straits Times Press. Every one knows photographing celebrities can have its challenges. But Shan was very down to earth, and didn’t want the shoot to be bogged down into a full-day session with intense wardrobe and makeup changes. He arranged for the props and a personal stylist so that I could focus on the lighting and photography.

    The concept was brief and exciting: Shan would be an infant-carrying badass armed with baby gear. It was a cross between macho and parody, but ultimately we wanted people to pick up the book just by looking at the cover. 

    The Tricky Part

    I’ve photographed babies before, and even as a father myself, capturing them with the right look is tough! It was one of my main concerns going into this shoot, as not event parents can control a baby’s temperament. So we decided to be smart about it. I would photograph’s Shan’s solo shots before bringing the baby in. When the little one did come in, there was a big enough entourage to keep him excited and curious.

    Here’s the full cover, front and back with flap. We took about 2 hours to photograph the three different sets, including time for styling. 

    The Verdict

    I found my lack of creativity holding me back. Considering the theme, I could have gone with really harsh lighting to bring out Shan’s raggedness. But I was afraid it would look bad on the baby. In the end I went with a big soft box camera left and a hair light to the right. I’m happy with the results, just wondering how I could do better.

    In a lot ways the timing of this shoot was impeccable. My son was a month old at the time and the book’s subject couldn’t have been more fitting. Lately I’ve also been keen to pursue more long term projects - books being a prime example. I really hope more of these will come.