September 26, 2018
One of the things that many photographers struggle with is taking family + group photos that are consistently + completely in focus. These are the photos that are probably the MOST important to get everyone in focus in, because they are documentary portraits and not intended to be artistic… at least on the wedding day. It is important to really slow down when you’re doing family photos or informal group photos during cocktail hour because ensuring you have the right camera settings for these group photos is a big part of nailing these photos consistently.
First, some technical stuff. It’s important to understand that your focal plane runs parallel to your camera’s sensor. It’s basically a straight line that runs left to right through your image. The lower your f/stop, the thinner that plane of focus is. The higher the f/stop, the deeper your focal plane. And you have to understand that anyone (or anything) that you want to be in focus needs to be positioned on that straight line/focal plane! But you also have to remember that YOU need to be shooting straight on to your subjects, because your focal plane is a straight line and your focal plane will shift with you + your camera. Slowing down, shooting straight, and having the right settings dialed into your camera is key.
This image (below) is a good visual representation of what I’m talking about. In this photo, you can clearly see where the focal plane is. It runs across the image and it’s positioned on the front of the rings. The front of the rings and a tiny piece of the invitation are in focus. The foreground and background are blurred because the focal plane is so thin. I like to think of the focal plane as a sheet of paper that is being held horizontally in front of my lens. Anything that I want to be in focus must be touching that very thin piece of paper. Anything in front or behind that sheet of paper will be out of focus and blurry. If these rings were not lined up in a straight line, they wouldn’t be in focus – they’d be blurred out like the rest of the invitation. Does that make sense?
Throughout the wedding day, my aperture stays around f/4 for pretty much everything. The reason for this is that I know I can shoot pretty much everything at this aperture and it’s just one less thing I need to think about on the wedding day. I can comfortably take family + group photos at this setting because I am managing my focal length and focal plane accordingly. However, there are times when I will stop down to f/5.6+ if there are multiple rows of people because I’d rather be safe than sorry when it comes to these group photos!! Remember – these are family and group photos. These are IMPORTANT and they need to be IN FOCUS.
When I am shooting group photos, I ALWAYS ask my clients to stand in a straight line. I have them look at their feet and make sure that everyone’s toes are touching the same imaginary straight line. If needed, I’ll walk right in front of them and “draw” that line for them – and even instruct certain individuals to move backwards or forwards so that they are on that line. For whatever reason, people love to group together in a “U” shape, but it’s our jobs as photographers to correct them. If needed, you can absolutely gently guide the people on the edges of the group to step backwards and fall in line with the rest of the group along the imaginary straight line at their feet. They may look at you funny, but you know what you’re doing and your photo will be amazing – so it’s totally worth it! Remember – YOU are the expert here!
Check out everyone’s feet in the images below… STRAIGHT LINE!
Once everyone is together in a straight line, I will focus on the person who is closest to the camera. If they are all in a straight line, it may be hard to tell which one is closest – and in those instances, I take a few shots focusing on one person and then a few more shots focusing on another person. That should ensure that you’ve gotten everyone in focus in at least one of those frames! And FYI – when I’m focusing, I’m focusing on peoples’ faces – not the bouquets or anything else. Always the subject’s face!
Sometimes you won’t be able to get the group to be in a completely straight line. This could be due to wedding guests not cooperating or understanding what “back up and get in a straight line” means. It could be due to a tight space restriction where they have to form two rows to fit in the photo. When I’ve tried everything in my power to get them into a straight line and it’s just not working – because let’s be honest, it’s going to happen – I stop down to f/5.6+ and adjust my shutter speed + ISO to compensate for that. I’ll usually try to shoot at a wider focal length, but I am making sure to leave plenty of room around the edges of the photos so I can crop in and get rid of the distortion on the edges. Then, I’m focusing on the person closest to the camera. This could be the someone in the front row of the group. This could be the people on the edge of the group. It’s important to remember that you won’t necessarily be focusing on the person in the middle of the group. More often than not, you’ll be focusing on someone closer to the edge of the group because people naturally want to get together in a “U” shape!
In the photo below, you can clearly see that this group was not in a completely straight line. There is a slight “U” shape if you look at their feet. To compensate for this, I shot this photo at 35mm and focused on the people on the end of the group. I took a bunch of photos focusing on the lady in the black dress on the left. Then I took a bunch of photos focusing on the man in the dark grey suit on the right. Then I also took a few focusing on the woman in the lilac/lavender dress towards the center. By taking a bunch of shots utilizing different focal points, I knew one of them would work out. Remember – it’s OKAY to take a ton of shots during group photos. If you’re not 100% sure that you’ve got everyone in focus, just take some insurance shots. There’s no harm in doing that!
“Why focus on the person closest to the camera?” Because of the way depth of field works. When you focus on someone, 1/3 of the depth of field falls in front of the focus point. The other 2/3 of that depth of field falls behind the focus point. So focusing on whoever is closest to the camera ensures that they are in focus, but also everyone behind them will be in focus. Melissa Jill, an AMAZING wedding photographer in Arizona that I’ve followed since the start, does an amazing job illustrating this in her own blog post. Please, check it out. It’s a fabulous post that helped me so much and her illustrations about depth of field are great!
In all of the photos below, you will see that there are either multiple rows of people or they are quite obviously not in a perfectly straight line. SOMEONE is clearly closer to the camera than the rest of the group. In all instances, I lowered my aperture to f/5+, focused on the person closest to the camera, and squared myself up to the group as much as possible, so that the plane of focus was hitting as many people in that group as possible.
One more thing – I’ve found that the best focal length for family + group photos is around 50mm. I will say that 35mm is also a good focal length, but only if you leave plenty of space around the edges of the frame to avoid lens distortion – that is VERY important. Shooting group photos with a longer lens is a bit trickier because the depth of field may not be sufficient unless you stop down more than your usual aperture. Choosing the right lens is an important component of taking great family + group photos.
So there you have it! Some tips to help you take better group + family photos! I hope this was helpful. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions!
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