A Group Shot Master Class

I have long been a fan of Annie Leibovitz' work. Her American Express ad series (way back when) was one of the things that got me really thinking about light as a way to amp my photos.

I have a signed poster framed in my basement that shows every single double-truck from her second book. A very cool gift from my wife, through her connections in the publishing biz.

Each year, Leibovitz does a tri-fold cover group shot of the heavy hitters in Hollywood for Vanity Fair magazine. I was cruising around their website and came across this gallery of the last 13 years worth of images.

Just really neat stuff, and well worth a trip to view the photos if you are looking to see what can really be done with a group shot. Beautiful light, posing, concept, etc. Not easy to do, either. Can you imagine the egos? The logistics?

This has gotta be a lot harder than grabbing a photo of 20 guys at a Elk's Lodge Annual Dinner.

More down-to-earth tip: If you are assigned to do a group shot and cruising for ideas, you can always head down to the local record store (or Best Buy, Borders, etc.) where you'll find thousands of groups shots waiting to give you inspiration.

Nothing beats flipping through stacks of cool images which have already solved many of the same problems you are dealing with. It is a great way to fill your head with new ideas.


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Blogger Carlos said...

While I agree the technical challenges are enormous, I disagree about the comparison to members of the elk lodge. The sittings for Annie usually take all day and the actual onset appearances require several hours at least (altho stand-ins are used for some of the setup) but try to get 10 guys from the lodge to mug for an hour in very strict poses while wearing their best suits, while having at their disposal catered gourmet food and wine, beer etc...

July 26, 2007 10:00 AM  
Anonymous EssPea | Photography said...

Now don't get me wrong as, I respect Annie's work and the ego wrangling, patience, posing, and organization that went into get 'the shot' but from a straight up lighting perspective isn't each one just nuking them with a two huge soft light sources (one from 45 degrees to the left and one 45 degrees to the right) with an interesting background?

July 26, 2007 11:00 AM  
Anonymous Jamey said...

Is this (the shot you chose for the post on strobist, with Sophia Loren on the right) just done by firing lights up into the ceiling or what?

I can't reverse-engineer really soft lighting. Anytime there are no sharp shadows, I find it really tricky to work out what was done. Please help out.

July 26, 2007 11:03 AM  
Blogger gwppk said...

it would sure make it easier if the artwork was
larger... say 12 inches x 12 inches!

July 26, 2007 12:05 PM  
Blogger Merv said...

Wow! impressive stuff, and impressive bunch of people she gets together.


July 26, 2007 12:41 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

What I find interesting is that some of her shots (or maybe just recent ones) aren't shot all at once. I think the Green (environment) cover recently was shot over several days, in multiple locations (they rebuilt the set each time) based on the schedules of the people in the shot.

July 26, 2007 12:46 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

I've been a big fan of Annie Leibovitz photography, specifically her groups shots. I termed her style of lighting "double diffusion utopian" lol. I do know she uses double and triple diffusion. I've seen a few shots that give you an idea of what she is doing. I read an interview with a former assistant who indicated she has them testing with a variety of diffusion materials (they called them "silks") She clearly has her crew and herself doing a alot of dirt time to get the light as soft and smooth as it is.

July 26, 2007 1:11 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

You any of you missed it, the film noir style shoot she did for Vanity Fair was simply SICK !!!! Sick as in insanely amazing and beautiful.


July 26, 2007 1:14 PM  
Anonymous John in DC said...

Poster Jeff has it right. It is downright impossible to get groups like this together for many reasons, so Annie shoots them over several days and even different locations (when the background is portable). When you look close at many of the photos you can find logical breaks in the groupings of people where she shot each group individually. That said, she is one of the best portrait photographers alive. Her latest exhibit is touring the country right now.

July 26, 2007 1:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those pictures are even bad Photoshopping. Everything is wrong about it and its a big mess.

Ooohhh, hang on...

This is about "how many photographers does it take to screw in a light bulb..."

July 26, 2007 3:29 PM  
Anonymous Brock said...

Er... whoever it was that said the lighting was just "two large softboxes at 45 degree angles" is, living on another planet. These lighting schemes of Annie's are incredibly complex, probably overly complex.

But that is what one expects when a NORMAL shoot for her includes no less than fifty assistants. Yes, you read that right, 50. It's astounding.

July 26, 2007 5:29 PM  
Blogger David said...


You are correct. And many of the assistants are there just to make a production out of it and feed the ego of the subject. (And the photographer.)

July 26, 2007 5:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My daughter is a big fan of Japanese Rock (J-Rock, J-Pop): bands like An Cafe, L'Arc en Ciel, etc. You want some interesting group poses / costuming ideas...you should take a look at some of the J-Rock magazines... Wow!


July 26, 2007 5:53 PM  
Blogger Andre said...

Go ahead and shoot me, but I don't think Annie Liebovitz has taken an important photo since leaving Rolling Stone.

Yeah, these are technically intricate, but they're essentially product shots; I see nothing of the subjects' personality in any of her work. If anything, it's the absence of human interest that has become her trademark. It's cold, and it's boring.

July 26, 2007 5:57 PM  
Blogger David said...


Please post some links to the good stuff. Love to see it.


"Product shots," huh? Very interesting characterization. I don't disagree, either.

July 26, 2007 7:48 PM  
Anonymous Laura said...

Word is that the fee and production budget is no less than $100,000 per shoot.

July 26, 2007 9:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

50 assistants...I don't think so.

July 27, 2007 1:48 AM  
Blogger dave said...

Some interesting comments, always good to see photographs making people think. The lighting used was probably large soft boxes (I think I have seen her using 5' x 7') for main and fill. The group is a photoshop amalgamation so that makes it easier to light the smaller groups. Better than the lighting (simple Rembrandt/loop) is the facial posing: perfect 2/3 or full face views. No extended noses, hanging eyes, etc. The hand posing is also exceptional although that may partly be the experience of the subjects; amateurs tend to pose much more awkwardly. I also noticed that in 11 of the 13 covers, her main light is placed to camera left. Habit? Facial analysis? Or is that where the plug is...

July 27, 2007 2:44 PM  
Blogger craig said...

The final images are composites. Trying to get that many high powered celebrities in one place at one time for the time it takes to get the shot, really isn't possible.

And this way they can be lit separately and ideally.

I have seen some of her setups, profoto light, big silks and bounce cards manipulated by a phalanx of assistants. Not *that* complicated, really. Just big, soft and pretty. I believe her camera of choice is usually a mamiya 645.

July 28, 2007 4:50 PM  
Anonymous Dan Coogan said...

I had to shoot several groups of lawyers this year, and actually used Annie Leibovitz's group shots from the Vanity Fair site as inspiration. I showed the subjects her photos as examples for posing... i.e. why we needed them to turn one way or another. Also using one main light source looks great for the faces. I posted some of the shots on my flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cooganphoto/

August 17, 2007 7:08 PM  

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