When I was first getting started as a photographer, posing was one of the most intimidating things for me to learn. Posing one person was hard enough, let alone several people at a time. I used to be so intimidated by taking portraits of large groups, especially on my weddings. After all, when you’re shooting bridal party photos, time is a factor, the groups can be HUGE, and everyone is usually distracted. There are often a lot of unforeseen and unexpected variables too. Lighting is always a concern, you may be dealing with big differences in height between subjects, or you might have the nightmare of working with a subject who WON’T. STOP. BLINKING.
Over the years I’ve learned a few solid techniques for getting great group portraits that I’d like to share with you.
Staying on task
Sometimes you don’t have a lot of time to get these photos done. You’re running behind, the ceremony is about to start, or the sun is setting faster than you thought and you’ve got to wrangle 8 rowdy groomsmen together to pose for group shots that you won’t want to burn in a fire later during editing. The best thing you can do for yourself in situations like these are to be LOUD and ASSERTIVE. Don’t just wait for them to settle down and get into place. Be frank with your subjects, let them know you’re in charge right now and you have to get these shots. A lot of times it can seem like you’re being rude or you might be killing the vibe but at the end of the day you have to do your job. And its truly not rude! There’s a huge difference between being rude and being assertive. Be kind, but firm.
Rude: “HEY. SETTLE DOWN AND SHUT UP SO I CAN DO MY JOB.”
Kind but assertive: “Hey guys! The faster we get these done the quicker we all get to eat/drink!”
Something that has also helped me a lot is making my second shooter be a mediator between my subjects and me. Rather than having me shout across a room what I want my group to do, I’ll tell my second shooter exactly what I’m looking for and have her walk over and deliver the message herself. From there, she’ll keep an eye on the group and make sure everyone is looking their best. I used to have my second shooter take group photos alongside me, but all that did was give me a lot of redundant shots, or it confused the group because they didn’t know which camera to look at. It’s important to know when to utilize your second as a shooter vs having them assist you. In the case of group photos, I’ve found its so much more helpful to have my second help me with organizing and posing the group. Make sure your second shooter is comfortable filling this role ahead of time though. I’m fortunate enough to have the same second shooter for every wedding I shoot, but not everyone has that kind of relationship.
Between staying assertive, and having your assistant or assistants help wrangle your subjects, you shouldn’t have any trouble keeping the group on task so you can get the shots you need. However, if you have an especially rowdy or difficult group, you can always grab the mother of the bride or another family member to help out. No one wants to incur the wrath of the mom!
Ok so you’ve got your group settled, posed and ready for the shot. But what if your group is stiff, boring or all around not photogenic? Some bridal parties naturally vibe off each other and give you tons of personality and shot diversity without much effort. But some groups might be full of people who’ve just met, or people who are nervous on camera.
First of all, you can’t MAKE someone take a good photo. Some people are beyond help, and there’s only so much you can do. I’ve been taking portraits for seven years and I still run across people who I simply can’t get to loosen up. So if you’ve got an especially difficult group, calm down and take a breath, but know that there are a few things you can do.
The first thing I do after taking a few initial photos is to tell people to literally “shake it out”. I’ll drop my camera and demonstrate by shaking my head, shoulders and mouth, making a PFFFFTTTTTTTT sound with my lips. Making them do this helps them to relax, but also, watching ME do it looks ridiculous and can sometimes lighten someone up a bit.
Another good thing to do is to have your subjects interact with one another, if they’re comfortable with it. Have them chat with each other while you take photos. Sometimes you’ll get really candid, natural looks from them while they talk, and when you tell them to stop they’re often a bit more loose and distracted.
Lastly, the most important thing you can do is communicate. This goes for every portrait you’ll ever take, but especially here. Let your subjects know how they’re doing. Tell them they look good, they’re doing well, etc. Make specific call outs, too. Single people out and compliment them on specific qualities, within reason. Don’t be weird about it, but saying things like “You’ve got a great smile” or “Your pose looks very natural right now” are great things to say. Don’t ever discourage someone, but also feel free to make suggestions. And be specific! If someone seems stiff, point it out to them by showing them how you want them to look. I will literally look at them and demonstrate exactly how I want them to look or pose so they can actually see what I’m looking for. This REALLY helps me with groups of women, by the way. Watching a guy do a very feminine pose or expression usually gets a decent laugh and helps everyone loosen up.
In the end, these shots are supposed to be fun, so try to make them as fun as possible!
Getting Better Shots
There’s nothing wrong with standing your group in a line and taking the standard looking bridal party photo. I do this for every wedding I shoot, because the couple is expecting it. But that doesn’t mean you have to get ONLY that shot. I love to diversify my group photos by doing a few different kinds of setups.
Firstly, if your venue has a place for your subjects to sit, make use of it! As you can see in the examples below, breaking up the boring flow of standing your group in a line makes for great shots. Have some of your subjects stand, some sit, and position them in a way that is pleasing to you compositionally. You can use church pews, rocks outside, benches and chairs, railings, whatever is available. Again, as I said before, having your subjects converse while you shoot makes for a wonderful candid shot.
Next, I always love to try to get my subjects to do something weird or funny. For groomsmen, specifically, I always try to get them to hoist the groom up on their shoulders, or interact with him in a way that puts him front and center. I’ve almost never gotten a bad photo while doing this. Sometimes the group can be uncomfortable trying poses like this, so always ask first. Sometimes shots like these can look SUPER cheesy, so just use your best judgement. We’ve all seen the cliche shots of bridesmaids doing finger guns like Charlie’s Angels, and all that. Just do your best to think of unique and fun things for your groups to do!
So, there’s a few tips to help you take better group photos. I hope this post helped you think of some unique ideas for your own shoots. The most important thing is to be confident. You’re the professional. You know what you want. Your subjects are looking to you for direction. Be assertive and bold, sure of yourself and what you’re asking them to do. The worst thing you can do is flounder and sound unsure about what you’re asking them to do. Even if the shots aren’t working at first, pretend they are until you get things just right!
Matthew Simmons is a documentary and travel wedding photographer based out of Nashville, Tennessee