Group Portrait Settings
“We don’t want posed photos” is a common warning from
youth these days. What they mean is that they want to appear natural and relaxed in their family portrait. A certain amount of
posing is a necessary evil to achieve what they want. Of course, it’s up to the photographer to make this as painless as possible.
There are some general “rules” of the group portrait that have been around since Rembrandt. Never align faces vertically or horizontally. The reason for this rule is that curves, triangles, and diagonals create a more dynamic flow and are easier on the eye. Straight lines are static and tend to align with the edges of the image. Another rule of thumb is that faces never look directly at the camera, as if they do, asymmetrical features become more apparent and the eyes remain fixed. Now, the rules are meant to be broken, but first you have to know them.
While couples can be considered a group, I’ll start with a group of three. The easiest of numbers, three people form an automatic triangle. The heads can be placed in an uneven triangle, bottom down. The space should be varied, but similar in distance. Other successful patterns are the inverted curve with the tallest middle person, a flatter, decreasing curve with the shortest person closest to the camera, and a stacked triangle in vertical format. Groups of three generally look closer together when the people on the outside are facing the center. Sufficient body must be included in the composition so that it does not appear bodiless. A general rule of thumb is to leave twice as much space above the heads as under the feet or hands in the image. The space between the heads is measured from the center of the eyes, not from the edge of the head. Please do not cut the wrists and ankles.
The hands play an important role in the language of the portrait. To look elegant and slender, the hands must present their edges to the camera. On the contrary, to appear strong, the back of the hands must face the lens. Never let your arms hang vertically, but find something for your hands to hang so that your arms are bent at the elbow. Armrests, furniture, and other people are useful tools for creating a dynamic angle for your arms.
The shoulders look best when they are placed at a slight angle to the camera. Views from the back emphasize the curve of the spine and the protrusion of the jaw rather than the width of the shoulders. Too much angle will make the near shoulder appear too large, due to foreshortening.
Groups of four present an interesting challenge. You don’t want to place a head in each corner, making a square. The people are primarily made up of curves, not straight lines, and appear mechanical and lifeless in this setting. So what can you do with four people? An inverted curve can be formed with the two tallest people in the middle. Make sure one is taller than its neighbor. For a more compact composition, overlap the shoulders, fitting them together like a puzzle. This places the heads closer together with no dead spaces and gaps between the shoulders. Remember to rotate the outer faces toward the center for a cohesive look. Other shapes that fit the quadruple portrait are an off-center vertical diamond or rhomboid, a stepped vertical or horizontal zigzag line, and an inverted curve of three with the smallest one below in the center. Note that vertical faces must never be in line.
Five is an interesting and easy number to pose. The space becomes more important, informing the viewer of the warm relationship between the family members. Basically the faces are placed in two triangles, the bottom middle person shares the triangles. A vertical composition stretches the space vertically and compresses the spaces horizontally. Six faces can be grouped as two even triangles, one slightly higher than the other. Classic oil paintings of large groups of people contain masterful examples of group poses.
Ambient settings play an important role in balancing a portrait, creating a sheet of forms against the most important faces. If there are masses of light areas, they should be balanced by the appropriate mass of darker areas elsewhere in the image. The eye travels in an omega curve, starting at the lower left corner and wandering through the centers of interest (faces) until exiting at the lower right corner. The centers of interest should fall along this comfortable line.
The photographer’s skills hold the interest of their subjects with a consistent pattern, while making decisions related to the height and placement of faces related to the overall pattern. Time should be spent on smoothing clothes without appearing too fussy. All eyes should be in one direction, i.e. on the photographer for a cohesive look. An exposure in which a person is looking at the camera lens cannot be considered a viable pose. Try to make the process fun so that your subjects appear relaxed and natural. To quote a famous philosopher, they will never look younger.