Slow Down: The Key To Taking Better Pictures & Group Portraits
Gear Used To Create The Image
- Canon 5D Mark IV | Alt: Nikon D850, Sony A7R III
- Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 Mark II | Alt: NIKKOR 24-70, Sony 24-70mm
- Profoto B2 250 Air TTL | Alt: Godox AD200 (or a pocket flash at close distance)
- OCF Magnum Reflector | Alt: MagMod MagGrid / MagSnoot
In this article, I want to discuss one of the tips that I talk about most, not only among our Associate Lead and Master Photographers at Lin & Jirsa Photography but also in our education on SLR Lounge. It’s quite simple in theory, but it can be difficult to master in practice. The tip? Slow down. It’s how we consistently create unique imagery like the image above.
It’s difficult to slow down. No matter the type of shoot, be it an engagement, wedding, maternity, newborn, or family session, there’s always a sense of urgency to get the shots you need or want. As a professional, you are tasked with directing your clients and capturing amazing imagery, regardless of the situation. Perhaps a client shows up a late to a shoot, or you’re having issues with your gear, or maybe the baby woke up and you have to get him back to sleep. Each of these challenges will make you want to speed up. It’s perfectly natural to want to kick it into high gear when you’re behind in the timeline, but fight the temptation. Even when a formal timeline is absent, it’s natural to rush when chasing light or just trying to capture all of the images you see in your mind.
In these moments, remind yourself. SLOW DOWN.
Slowing down will quickly help you realize just how much you can accomplish by working slower with intention and purpose. I will demonstrate this concept by showing you how we created the following groomsmen portrait during a recent wedding. Better yet, how we created the following image in less than five minutes from start to finish.
Here are six steps for slowing down and working with intention with group portraiture.
Step #1: Scout Locations In Advance
It is difficult to overstate the importance of scouting locations before the shoot begins, whatever that shoot might be. Scouting can save you time, which reduces stress, and it also helps ensure that your locations will be available and work well to serve your purpose.
While scouting earlier in the day, I knew I was going to need a space that would accommodate a large wedding party. I selected a location near the stairs (see the image above) because I knew it would provide enough space for up to nearly twenty people. The staircase also gave me what I needed in terms of staggering my subjects and placing them at different heights throughout the scene. But that’s not all.
You can see by the size of the shadow that we were actually shooting close to midday for this session, which means these guys were directly lit by the sun. Somebody may have told you at some point to avoid shooting in direct, hard sunlight. This advice has its time and place, but not here, and not now, which brings me to the other reason I chose this spot.
The scene itself provides a soft, natural fill light. In the image above, you can see the sunlight entering from the left side, reflecting off of the walls and floor and back into the shadows of the image as shown above. This is important because it’s going to play into the overall look and the effect that we’re trying to create later.
Step #2: Arrange The Group From The Center Out
When it came to posing this group, I told the guys what I always tell the guys to do in any large group: “Start filling in the spaces.” I then began arranging the subjects in order of importance from the center of the group outward. In other words, the groom should occupy the center of the image, with family members and the best men next to him, followed by friends along the outer edges.
Step #3: Create Balance With Staggered Poses
I’m staggering the poses and I’m placing them in different areas. Some of the guys are sitting, some of the guys are standing. Notice that on the left side there are three people sitting and four people standing. On the right side, there are only two people sitting and five people standing behind our three primary subjects. So rather than creating a sense of symmetry, I’m trying to create this sense of balance. Now, for all the other guys in the shot, I know that they’re going to be accent pieces. Once the group is basically posed, it’s time to start shooting. Am I worried about getting it absolutely flawless for this set? No, because we literally have five minutes to grab this shot.
Step #4: Set Your Base Exposure
I started with the image above to get a base exposure. I also stood a good distance back from the group and zoomed all the way to 70mm to compress the background as much as possible. After seeing this first shot (which you’re seeing straight out of the camera), I realized that this is what the shot would look like properly exposed without adding any additional light; however, I knew I wanted to add a light. You’ll notice the groom is actually standing forward a bit in this image, and it’s going to play into the next two steps.
Step #5: Dial-In Ambient Light Settings
This exposure more closely resembles the look I am after. You’ll notice that now all the gentlemen are underexposed by about one stop. With these settings and no additional lighting, everything is just a little bit darker in the scene. I’ve intentionally underexposed the scene because I am trying to create a painterly effect in which the light source will chisel out our subject.
The best way to accomplish this is to light a scene with the main light, as well as a fill, and then darken everything down. From that place, we add an additional light to highlight and chisel out the primary subject. In wedding photography, more often than not, we do not have time to add two or three lights to a scene, particularly when trying to complete the shot in five minutes. So what did we do? We found a space that had the necessary main/fill. From there, we added a singular light and achieved all of our looks with just one off-camera light source.
Step #6: Add A Light Source
From the left side of the frame, you’ll see a little bit of a Profoto Magnum actually peeking into the frame. The Profoto B2 firing through the Magnum is at full power (250 watt seconds of power, equivalent to three pocket strobes). Could you achieve this lighting with a smaller flash? Absolutely. If you’re using a pocket flash, zoom it in all the way and move the light source closer. In reality, you would likely need to do a composite shot, but you can match the intensity of the lighting. The light power of the Profoto makes life a little easier by providing adequate light from longer distances, which allows us to keep it outside or close to the edge of the frame.
By positioning the light at an extreme side angle, the light mostly misses the groomsmen and lands almost squarely on the groom. In fact, it’s basically pinned to the groom. You will notice on the right side of the frame that it is spilling a little bit onto the plants and vases. We’re going to fix that and more in post.
Post-Production: Finishing The Image
Here’s a look at how we completed this image in post. All of the steps below should take between 5-10 minutes.
Pt. 1 – Lift Shadows In Lightroom And Merge Layers In Photoshop
My first step in post was actually to process the file using a new preset from a that we’re currently developing, and all I did was lift the shadows so that the image has an HDR vibe to it; however, I don’t want the final image to look like an HDR image. Instead, I want the final image to look burned down and darkened, yet with detail in the shadows. I also added contrast and a bit of warmth with just a couple clicks in Lightroom using the presets.
I then took this file (the image above) into Photoshop and layered it with the shot that doesn’t have any flash (see Step #2 above). I processed both layers identically and layered them together, which allowed me to remove the flash from the wall and the pots on the right side so that you no longer see the reflections from the flash.
I then saved the file opened it in Lightroom once again to do a little bit of dodging and burning.
Pt. 2 – Add A Radial Burn
Once we’re back in Lightroom, the first thing that we do is add a radial burn onto the groom. I placed two radial burns on the groom as shown above. The first burn is directly centered over the groom and the other two groups of groomsmen behind him. I placed the second burn over the entire scene in order to create a 1.5-stop vignette from the outer edge into the center of the frame. Why does this work? This works because of how the image was captured. Remember, we used a B2 to add light to our subject.
Pt. 3 – Dodge And Burn The Image To Taste
When we dodge and burn and pull the light away from the outer edges, it naturally fits into the lighting of the image. Notice how the groom’s stance is adjusted, how his chest faces away from the light. His hand is raised to highlight the dupatta and he’s looking to the left of the off-camera flash, which creates the Rembrandt light on his face. Again, because of how the groom was posed and lit, we’ve created a pleasing shadow on his face.
There are things in the background that I didn’t have the time to correct, but there are times you have to accept what you’ve captured under the circumstances (such as only having five minutes to capture an editorial-style large group portrait). Even though the three men that sitting down on the ground on the lefthand side are lost somewhat in the shadows, I knew while shooting the image that I could dodge them during post-production.
That said, there’s one more step. I pulled in a graduated filter from the right side, and I’ve also added a local adjustment dodge directly to the three gentlemen sitting in the shadows, lifting them up and out. The guys in the background are darker, but they’re exposed similarly to one another in comparison to the groom who is the brightest subject.
Take a look at the side-by-side comparison:
Looking at the image data, it took just over four minutes to dial in the settings, pose and light the group, and capture the image. Are there things I would change if I had more time? Of course. If I had an extra couple minutes to make adjustments, the first adjustment I would make is to the guy in the back. I would straighten out his neck, just slightly, so that he’s not so crooked. Similarly, the guy in the bottom right would also benefit from a straighter neck. Rather than have him smirk towards the groom, I would direct him to look more towards the camera. For the three gentlemen on the left side, I would probably space them out a little bit more to and make sure that nobody is too hidden. Those issues aside, in just five minutes of shooting and five minutes of post we have created a unique groomsmen portrait.
This is an image that will stand out from the work of other photographers, and that’s the point. In our usual hustle and bustle, how often are we overlooking these moments? I’m not just talking about what we can do in five minutes. I’m talking about group portraits. Group portraits are one of these moments that I absolutely love. It’s a moment for me to show what I can do in front of the groomsmen, the bridal party, and the family. These moments give us a chance to directly market our skillset. I covered this in detail in Wedding Workshop Seven: Photographing Group Portraits. That workshop is literally all about creating images like this that will get shared and organically market your brand.
Few others are creating work like this, especially in such a short window of time, and with that rarity comes a great opportunity for you to wow your clients and get them talking. In short, the moral of the story is that I want you all to slow down, understand that moving slowly and deliberately is far faster than frantically jumping around and trying to get things into place, setting up only to make mistakes. Slow down, move with purpose, understand how much time you actually have, and go.
I hope you enjoyed this tutorial. I’m curious, if you had a single tip to tell the younger, less-experienced version of yourself, what would it be? Perhaps you can help inspire my next article.