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Tips & Tricks

Ideal Lighting for Large Group Family Photos Indoors

By Shivani Reddy on July 22nd 2016

There are multiple ways to carry out, essentially, every task in this world, but efficiency is truly what differentiates the average from the proficient.

Most large family formal photos or clustered group shots take a generous amount of TLC, and with the constant ebb and flow of wedding timelines, challenges may present themselves when you least expect them, forcing you to think quick on your feet and act immediately. This simple light set-up gives you the flexibility to work with uncontrollable ambient light while utilizing high-quality, modified light as your key light source.

Gear Required for Group Portrait Lighting

Your quality of light is largely dependent on what type of flash you choose to incorporate into your kit. Although pocket wizards can do the job just fine, we are striving for the technique with the highest level of efficiency, and we recommend one of the following full-feature flashes that have built-in radio capabilities, to make it effortless to trigger and control your light:

Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT
Phottix Mitros+ TTL
Yongnuo Speedlite YN600EX-RT

Having three to four of these full-feature flashes in your kit gives you the flexibility to add in additional light when needed (without always having enough separate radio transceivers) or have a safety flash available in emergency situations. For this ideal setup, all you will need is three: one on-camera to trigger the two off-camera flashes.

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Want to know the difference between using our recommended list and alternate brands and accessories – check out Lighting 101 for detailed specs for your on & off camera flashes.

These trusty Manfrotto Nano Stands have proved their worth over the years in utility and durability, and when it comes to easy setup and breakdown, there is absolutely no comparison. The true MVP, however, is the Wescott 43″ Optical White Satin Collapsible Umbrella (one or two). Its convex shape pushes light forward while filtering small amounts of light towards the edges, filling a large portion of area. For group portraits like this when we want to illuminate such a large group, we don’t necessarily require utter control, but the downside of the umbrellas is that they aren’t quite as controllable.

Pay attention to the existing light in the room to determine the use of CTO Gels (color temperature orange) and modify your white balance in-camera to compensate for the change in color.

[REWIND: DIGIBEES | PAUL C. BUFF RELEASES DIGITAL COUNTERPART TO POPULAR ALIENBEES]

Photography Settings for Large group Portraits – Case study

group-portrait-photography

Let’s take this bridal party portrait as an example – a visibly large group that requires layered posing and pairing up. With these compositional attributes, we are shooting with a wider aperture of f/5. Stacking three rows of people in separate planes requires a broader depth of field, even if they are close in proximity to each other. To compensate for the narrow depth of field, bring the exposure to around 1/50th of a second, varying based on your ambient light exposure, and set your ISO to 800.

Why are we bumping the ISO up and slowing down the shutter? While the aperture and the ISO are going to affect both ambient light and flash power equally, our shutter speed isn’t. Slowing down the shutter is a matter of balancing the ambient light, while bringing up the ISO replaces the use of adding in additional light or blasting our flashes at full power to fill in for the low light exposure.

Group Photo Lighting Setup

large-group-photography

Set-up your two off-camera flashes, modified with the Wescott shoot through umbrellas, on light stands, raised to about 5-6 feet to avoid ‘campfire lighting’ and to get the best light spread. The key to creating even light across a large group portrait is focusing the light direction to control the spill as much as possible.

Place both stands to your left, one pointed at your center subject, and the other slightly feathered to the right. They should roughly be in the same plane as where you are shooting from so you have the ability to shoot wide for larger groups.

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The light is coming from one direction and is being feathered to distribute the light evenly. The height of your light stands varies on the group you are shooting, mainly due to where the shadows are being cast from this light source. One, we want to amplify ambient light, but we also want to amplify our flash power. Shutter speed, we know is not going to affect flash power, so that is just strictly an ambient light balancing issue, but ISO will.

Flash Power Settings

large-group-photo-ideas

The strength of your flashes will largely be determined by your camera settings and ambient light exposure. With an ISO that’s high, there is no need to go full 1/1 power. Beginning at 1/8th power and increasing or decreasing from there will be a good starting point to yield the most flattering results in terms of even light spread with exposure compensation.

Now, let’s say you were capturing small movements or action poses, how would this affect your camera and flash settings? With action, you require faster recycle times to capture motion as it happens, so bump up your ISO and reduce your flash power.

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For more effective lighting techniques, be sure to check out Lighting 201, our comprehensive workshop for single-source off-camera light shaping. Stream this along with a myriad of photography and post-production educational tutorials as an SLR Lounge Premium Subscription member.

Shivani wants to live in a world where laughter is the cure to pretty much everything. Since she can’t claim “Serial Bingewatcher” as an occupation, she’ll settle for wedding/portrait photographer at Lin and Jirsa & marketing coordinator here at SLR Lounge. For those rare moments when you won’t find a camera in her hand, she will be dancing, eating a donut, or most likely watching Seinfeld.

Follow her on Instagram: @shivalry_inc

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Rachael Walpole

    Thank you so much! Is there a tutorial where you put this in practice or is lighting 201 the best for this?  Group, indoor, chapel photos casting shadows and trying to angle lights to prevent this and use equipement correctly would greatly help!

    Thank you for this article, love what you do!

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  2. Karthik Thorali

    Very nice article. Most of the time I bounce the light off the ceiling, which i think is a standard practice. Still as you said I meter for ambient light and balance it with flash. As per your article. you have light on 1 side, extended the fall off region by keep 2nd flash also at same location. Wouldn’t the person at extreme right corner be under exposed as per inverse square law of lighting? What if flash was placed on either sides?
    Thanks again

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  3. Paul Wynn

    Speedlights are a fantastic tool and no photographer should be without one…or two…or three. Personally I use a Profoto B2 with an umbrella for lighting family shots, both indoors and outside. The extra power is really helpful and allows me to have a greater depth of field.

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  4. Lenzy Ruffin

    This is very timely for me. The Help Portrait project is coming to my area soon and I want to participate, but I don’t know if I have suitable lights. I shoot headshots at f/2.8, so speedlights are all I need.

    For the Help Portrait project, the task is to shoot back-to-school family photos for homeless families. Having to bump aperture to f/5.6 or f/8 to shoot a family at around 35mm, I have no idea what to expect from the speedlights in terms of number of shots and recycle time.

    The event lasts four hours and I don’t think there’s any way to know in advance how many families will show up or how many photographers will be there to split the load across. If I knew it would be a few shots of a half dozen families, I wouldn’t be worried about the speedlights. I have two Yongnuo 568 IIs and a Canon 600 EX RT. I also have two external flash battery packs and enough batteries to load them both, but that’s all the batteries I have. If a flash goes down, I’d have a spare, but once I’m outta juice, I’m done shooting. And since I don’t shoot these kinds of shots ever, I have no idea how many of these group photos I could expect to shoot before I’m outta juice. For the way I normally use speedlights, my second external battery pack and batteries are just there as a backup. I don’t want to buy more batteries because I’d end up with two dozen extra batteries in addition to the extra batteries I already have.

    Hoping someone who shoots these kinds of shots regularly could give some idea of if shooting this kind of event with the gear I have is feasible. I shoot with a Canon 5DIII, so I can bump the ISO to lighten the load on the speedlights, but I’d really like to keep it at 1600 or lower.

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  5. fred palagonia

    I’ve used this method numerous times using 3 canon 580ex IIs when i photograph large swim teams (100 swimmers +) in the early morning hours during the the summer.. its cheaper than studio lights with portable battery packs though i’ve used that method too. your method will work out doors too

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    • Shivani Reddy

      Hi Fred,

      The 580’s are a great option as well, no doubt. The only difference when using this technique outdoors is the removing the diffusion and adding in more light, most likely to compensate for the power of the sun. Great observation!

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