A Quick Technique for Edgier Group Shots

When I shot for newspapers, one of the most common visually subpar assignments was the two- or three-person group shot. Nothing against group shots per se, but the small group was usually indicative of a reporter who just couldn't say "no."

The story might really be about Person "A," but the reporter gets strong-armed into this really being a "group effort," (translation: I don't want to be the only one in the photo, blah, blah, blah...)

So the 2-3 person group shot gets a bad rap from the get-go. Which is a shame, really, because most group shots are a good opportunity to play.

Why? Because you typically have nothing to lose since the normal group shot in the paper is a huge yawner to begin with. Hit the jump for a quick tip for carving out quick group light.

Experimenting on Captive Subjects

Let me begin by saying that I especially love one thing about lighting classes: They are attended by a roomful of people who think it is perfectly normal to play around with light for no good reason whatsoever. So naturally, I use them as guinea pigs for lighting ideas that I have in the back of my head.

Lord knows, they are much more cooperative than my kids. Heck, the cat won't even stay in the same room with me at home any more.

I have a project coming up this summer that will call for shooting some edgy looking small group shots, so I want to work a look that has a little more cowbell than the typical big-soft-light group. Nothing wrong with that light -- just a little too been-there-done-that for me at this point.

For the group above (R to L, Damian, Romain and Christian) at the CERN workshop, I started with my fill to place my baseline exposure before even considering the key lighting. The fill is an umbrella right behind the camera -- sort of a poor man's ring flash. A little better than ring, actually, as it is softer and does not leave that "ring signature" on the background wall.

I saw one immediate problem. The fill was not pushing to the back of the scene very well. This was because of the difference in distance between the fill as it hit the subject on the right (a coupla feet away from the camera) to the distance to the back wall (10-15 feet away). Of course the wall is gonna be dark, right?

Solution: Back that flash up. This is where the on-axis umbrella kicks the ring's butt. With a ring flash, your light location relative to the camera is locked down. With the on-axis flash, not so much.

So, by backing up the light we get better penetration of the fill into the back of the scene. Not perfect, but way better than before.

Now, it is just a matter of dialing in the baseline exposure before we accent the faces. This is a piece of cake, and easy to do by eye without a meter. Just light the scene with the umbrella fill, adjust the power until the scene looks good, and then alter either the flash power or the aperture until you see that the shadows -- areas will not be lit by your key(s) -- are where you want them to be. Check your histograms to make sure you are not falling off of the table on your darkest tones. Unless you really want to, of course.

You can set the base fill by dropping your power on the umbrella. But you'd probably want to just close down your aperture in a case like this, to buy yourself some depth of field. I am not gonna carry Romain in the back as tack sharp, but I may as well get him recognizable.

Which brings up an important point. Just for the heck of it, we shot them exactly where they sat in class. Sort of an exercise in lighting angles. If I was shooting them critically, I would want to compress the distance to hold focus on all three.

Now it is just a matter of adding the key lights. Remember, we are in total control of both the quality and the intensity of the fill, as we nailed that stuff down first. What that gives you is both the ability (and the excuse) to get a little atypical with your key lighting. We can go hard, grids, edgy angles -- whatever. Their faces will hold it because we have pre-determined the look and depth of the shadows.

For the key(s) we went with two hard speedlights, one of which sported a grid spot.

As the lead dog, Christian, right, got his own key light. It was gridded to control the beam spread. But I was able to light both Damian and Romain with the same speedlight, which was also bare.

You can more easily get away with hard lighting when you have pre-set your fill. Because while the transition from highlight to shadow will be quick and hard, you have decided exactly how far the drop-off will be. You can play it safe or be increasingly risky, by altering the intensity of your fill light.

You can see a setup shot here, courtesy Mark Howells-Mead of the Swiss Strobists Group. (Check out their meetup schedule if you are local, too.)

Here it is again. I took some liberties with the seams on the back wall (which turned it into a pretty cool backdrop) and removed a sticker.

But what the hell, I am not bound to the newspaper's rules anymore. It's not a completely finished look. But this quick experiment give me enough to go on to where I feel comfy trying it for my project later this summer. I tried a second variation (still honing it) on a single portrait early this month. And I really like the way it is evolving. I will hit that one on a later post.

Test, Test, Test.

It sounds weenie, but it will give you the courage to try new stuff when you really need a different look. And when you get dealt your fourth three-person group shot in a week, a new look is exactly what the doctor ordered.


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Anonymous Mo said...

What aperture did you use to keep all three in focus?? Thanks Dave and great post.

April 27, 2009 12:11 AM  
Blogger David said...


Not sure, but probably somewhere around f/16. The original is archived, and I am 3,000 miles from home this week. But if I remember correctly, I went to f/8 for the fill test and stopped down from there. So, close to f/16 is a best guess.

April 27, 2009 1:00 AM  
Anonymous Jamie Maldonado said...

Awesome. Reminds me a lot of some stuff I saw on Michael Grecco's older book. (I photocopied it entirely!) Probably like his newer stuff, but I haven't seen setups for that ... the grids remind me of his work. I definitely like this train of thought, and like the info on the fill a lot. Thanks!

April 27, 2009 1:41 AM  
Blogger N. said...

Hey Dave,
So we can enjoy another of your entertaining posts, this time you started to give me ideas as to my forth-coming shoot: 10 hip-hop/freestyle dancers. I was thinking of putting some kind of construction light behind for separation, and then go from there with some accents on two's or three's - hardlight, I guess.

I also thought of making them jump at once or one by one and later merge the pix together. Just ideas.

Thanks again for inspiration and enlightening info!

April 27, 2009 1:59 AM  
Blogger Mark Howells-Mead said...

Excellent technique, which was a good one to learn from you directly! It'll almost definitely see service this weekend, when we meet in Bern for our shooting day! Thanks for the props and the link.

April 27, 2009 2:16 AM  
Blogger diegonyc said...

Hey David,

Nice write up. I've been asked to do a few group shots and always end up using the same old umbrellas-- soft light look.

This will now get my creative juices flowing with some edgy hard light possibilities.

Thanks again!

April 27, 2009 2:38 AM  
Blogger DiMAGE photography said...

David, great post. This certainly gives a much better outcome than the normal set of heads you often see in small group shots. Will definitely be using this technique when the need arises. Many thanks for sharing.


April 27, 2009 2:39 AM  
Anonymous kramon said...

... just what I needed this week!

David; since you've suggested on-axis-fill, that baby has become a constant in my line of thought before I even make a portrait of "mr. bigshot of the week" these days.

So: I ow you a beer I guess... maybe 2. Allright: a barrel then!

April 27, 2009 3:52 AM  
Anonymous Goran, Novi Sad said...

For those interested in the David's photo parameters: handheld, f/20, 1/250, ISO 800, 24-70mm at 45mm, Nikon D3, and -2/3 ambient mettering compensation. Cheerio

April 27, 2009 4:38 AM  
Anonymous Goran, Novi Sad said...

One more thing, camera focused on Christan's eyes, other faces are OOF.

April 27, 2009 4:41 AM  
Anonymous Walet said...

Nice Website! I've bookmarked this website! Thank you very much for the information!

April 27, 2009 5:15 AM  
Anonymous John said...

Thinking about the composition and wondering whether the picture reads better if flipped left-right. And if so, is this due to the lighting or the arrangement of heads?

April 27, 2009 6:06 AM  
Blogger Vincent said...

Hi David, of the whole fantastic 'going-back-to-school' experience with your blog, this is for me one of the best posts ever!!! Thanks very much for sharing this.

(p.s. stop playing with your PW, when other photogs are setting up their shot :-P)

Cheers Vincent


April 27, 2009 6:30 AM  
Anonymous Dan Depew said...

Great point about setting fill first to set the limit of shadows. Thanks Dave.

f8 became f16 for DOF. Were the speedlights maxed out?

April 27, 2009 6:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David,

Which ASA did you use ? 200 ASA, 400 ASA ?
How did you choose it ? I have not still understood how you do.

Olivier From France

April 27, 2009 7:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, David. I do these assignments on a daily basis in the newspaper i work. Thanks for some much needed inspiration!

April 27, 2009 8:40 AM  
Blogger bungephoto said...

My kids run from the room whenever they see me with a camera and lights. That's why I finally bought a mannequin at an antique show this spring. Now it looks like I need to buy two more!

April 27, 2009 9:45 AM  
Blogger Steven W. Hopkins said...

David Hobby, you are awesome. Thanks.

April 27, 2009 10:19 AM  
Blogger JS said...

"...gets a bad wrap"David, was this a Freudian slip? As in, it's hard to get a nice wrap light with a group shot?


April 27, 2009 10:57 AM  
Blogger kirk tuck said...

Very cool technique. I'll be sure to use this next time out the door.

Thanks, Kirk Tuck

April 27, 2009 11:15 AM  
Blogger Quoc-Huy said...

That what I needed.
I was saying at the last London Strobist meetup that I need something new and here it comes!

Great technique for my bag of tricks.

Thanks David.

April 27, 2009 12:19 PM  
Blogger severoon said...

I like the way you laid out the steps. Can you post on adding one layer at a time? I know so many strobists that always approach lighting by placing their key lights first, and then dialing in fill.

I like the "layer cake" approach better, put your "foundation" lights down first and work those out, then key, then accent lights (if using).

Do you follow a systematic approach when it comes to this?

April 27, 2009 1:14 PM  
Anonymous hero-business said...

Nice post..Anybody Can Know It with ur post

April 27, 2009 1:33 PM  
Blogger José M. Ramos said...

This was a great piece, I could have used this post last week as I had a 3 person group shot on Thursday with very little time to make modifications from my original idea when they wanted to add the third person. The shot is good, but could have been a lot better. Learning a lot from your posts and flickr photostream. Thanks

April 27, 2009 1:36 PM  
Blogger Jordan Duvall Studios said...

Wow! This is a fantastic technique!

April 27, 2009 7:21 PM  
Anonymous Nick Masters / IKON XVI said...

David, I've taken particular note of the evolution of your lighting diagrams over the years. I must say, your shoot throughs are exquisite! Lawlz.

April 27, 2009 8:08 PM  
Anonymous patrick love said...

As a wedding photographer, this is a post that I have been waiting for, for a long long time.
Now I've just got to figure out how to get the lights set up well before the group shots are scheduled...

April 28, 2009 12:01 AM  
Blogger Stormin said...


Good luck in Paso this week.. if there's anything left of it after that group running around with Joe last week.. I heard something about the cops showing up at one of the shoots, so be on guard... and keep Syl from crying..

April 28, 2009 12:46 AM  
OpenID jerseystylephotography said...

It's not only the journalists that get strong armed...it's us in corp comm that need a nice shot for a media thingy or annual report. Except the lead person doesn't want to be photographed alone, so there I am throwing a 5, 6, 7 person shot at the shooter we hired. I roll my eyes and say "I know, I know....just see what you can do."

Thanks for these tips!

April 28, 2009 1:47 AM  
Anonymous Stevo said...

Great post. I wish I had had the time when I worked as a newspaper photographer to do this. Taking grip-and-grins was a chore that was best done quickly.

April 28, 2009 8:22 AM  
Anonymous Fotografi said...

Really nice trick.
Obviously I need a to practice to reach a decent result.

April 28, 2009 9:15 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

I like the look here. What's cool is that if the story had a particular bent toward one of the three subjects, it'd be easy enough to provide that with your lighting setup.

April 28, 2009 5:00 PM  
Anonymous kern said...

Once again you have opened up my eyes and my imagination! I would not thought about moving the main back. Thanks Dave, please dont ever stop.

April 28, 2009 7:14 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Hey David,
Thought your readers might find this interesting. How you light a 40x70ft hall full of fast moving dancers with only 3 speedlights...

Lighting for the Lindy HopAlex

April 28, 2009 8:02 PM  
Blogger Brian C said...

Thanks for the way you walked us through this! Excellent!

Brian Carey

April 29, 2009 8:33 AM  
Blogger Drew Shipley said...

Great post! I'm always being roped into group shots of a large variety of sizes. Any chance you might consider doing something like this for medium (10-20) and large (20+) sized groups?

April 29, 2009 8:58 AM  
Blogger b lorenz said...

Very nice stuff David, thanks

April 29, 2009 9:44 AM  
Blogger Curtis Copeland said...

Great photo tip. Thanks for sharing!

April 30, 2009 6:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David - Thanks for sharing this setup. I'm working with a group in a week or so and will give use this as a starting point.

May 01, 2009 6:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home