Shooting a large group of people can be a challenge, and lighting that same group outdoors in the middle of the day can make things even more difficult. In order to create a flattering, balanced photo, it’s a good idea to bring flashes into the equation to gain another level of control over the scene. Here’s a breakdown to help you execute in these situations with bare bulb flash.
This information and much more like it is covered in more depth in our Lighting 201 course and to our Premium Members.
Step 1: Set up Lights and Camera with an Assistant
A prerequisite and big piece of advice is to get all of your technical settings roughly set before you begin to place and pose the group. Making a large group of people wait while you pick an angle, set up lights and/or a tripod, etc., will only serve to make everyone antsy and uncomfortable. The solution, get things into place and as dialed-in as possible before setting your subjects.
First, find your desired background. When shooting in the middle of the day, it’s best to put the sun behind, and slightly to the side of your group whenever possible. This will help you avoid double shadows with your flashes, and raccoon eye shadows from overhead sun.
Unless all of the lights you’re planning to use are equipped with high speed sync, the first setting you should lock in is your shutter speed. Se it at, or just below, your camera’s sync speed, and then adjust your aperture and ISO to find a pleasant exposure for the ambient light. This will often involve a low ISO, and a high aperture, which will also give you a greater depth of field, thus keeping everyone in sharp focus.
Step 2: The Lights
The first step in lighting this type of shot is determining the amount of flash power needed. A single, bare pocket flash will usually not be enough to light a large group, so you can either use a larger battery powered strobe like a Profoto B1 (if you have access to one) or add multiple smaller speedlite. 3 of these pocket flashes will generally be adequate. Think of them as lighting for the left, center, and right sides of your group.
Note that you will need a way to trigger your lights off-camera. Many flash systems now come with built in radio tranceivers, but you can also use a separate radio trigger system like a Pocketwizard.
Set all three of the lights on the same side of the camera, at an angle to your group, each on their own light stand, but placed as close together as possible. Some photographers choose to place their flashes either on camera axis, or on both sides of the camera. While this is not necessarily a “mistake,” we don’t recommend it, as it leads to a very flat, uninteresting light. By putting all of your lights on the same side of the camera, you’ll get a more defined light direction, and create more definition in your subjects.
Setting the lights as close together as you can will help you minimize the double-shadow effect. When lights are further apart, they each cast a unique shadow, and create an unnatural, distracting look. When placed close together they mimic one unified light source. Also, make sure that the lights are all raised rather high, above the level of the tallest members of your group, and pointed slightly downwards.
You’ll want the lights on their own stand (as opposed to a multi-flash bracket) so that you can aim each light at a different part of your group. Point the light furthest from camera to the side of your group from which you are lighting. (If your lights are camera left, point the light on the left at the camera left side of your group) zoomed out fairly wide, around 50mm, and powered slightly below full power, perhaps 1/4 to 1/8. Then the light in the center will be pointed at the center of your group, zoomed in a bit more, 85mm-ish, and powered a bit higher, and the light closest to camera at the opposite side of the group, zoomed even further, around 105mm and set at or near full power.
With an assistant, ensure that your lights overlap a bit, so that you don’t have any dark spots in between, and that the light is well balanced and fairly even across the area where your group will be posed. If you need a bit more or less light, adjust all three of the lights in concert, maintaining the power differences between them. If there’s a bit of inconsistency, within a half stop, don’t worry about it too much, as this can be fixed in post.
Step 3: Posing and Shooting
When you bring in your group to begin posing, you should have you camera and lights set to the point that any changes you need to make will take a minimal amount of time. No one likes to be kept waiting while the photographer figures out how to use their camera.
With any group larger than 6 or 7 people, you’ll want to organize people into at least two rows, one sitting or kneeling in front, and one row standing behind them. If you have a much larger group, you can form three rows, sitting on the ground, sitting in chairs, or kneeling, and standing.
To help the group look as natural a possible, and promote a sense of closeness and comfort, have people find contact points. This can be as simple as having people put their arms around one another’s shoulders, or waists. Unless you’re shooting a kids sports team, you’ll want to avoid having people in the group standing in the same way, as it tends to look overly posed and stiff.
And then off you go! Take a lot of shots to maximize the chance of catching everyone in the group with a good smile, and not blinking. Before you let everyone leave, check the photos and zoom in to ensure that everything is sharp.
Step 4: Post Processing
In addition to whatever normal post processing you’d like to do to the resulting image, you’ll want to keep a close eye on the exposure differences across your group. When using multiple flashes, you may have certain areas of the photo where people’s faces are slightly brighter or darker than others. As long as these differences are relatively minor, within about a half stop, you can use a graduated filter in Lightroom to even things out. This is a quick fix, and while it will also affect your background exposure, as long as the adjustment isn’t too drastic, it will be difficult to notice.
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And that’s it! This is certainly a process which is easier said than done. Anytime you’re balancing multiple strobes with ambient light, and dealing with a big group of people, things will begin to get complex. When they do, the key is to stay calm, and take the time necessary to find the appropriate solution. Good luck, and happy shooting!