With September’s arrival came the return of several of the state’s hunting seasons, including dove and early Canada goose seasons. These hunting seasons are usually group affairs — not always, but quite often — which means another fall ritual, the bad group hunting photo, has also returned.
The group shot is one of the most common photos, but it is also one of the most difficult photos to take, especially after a long day in the field. And if you own a newer camera or a newer smartphone, it’s a given that your family, friends and hunting buddies will expect you to pull off a great group shot to commemorate the day’s success.
From my experience as a professional photographer, here are 10 thoughts and techniques I use to consistently achieve quality group photos.
1. Light matters
Light is the key element in every photograph. Take group photos outside in the field if possible. Shooting indoors can be dark and can present depth-of-field issues making it hard to get everyone in focus.
When shooting outside, try to avoid direct sunlight that can cast harsh shadows and have your group squinting their eyes. Seek out shadows to shoot under or wait to take the photos when the sun isn’t at its peak. Overcast days are ideal, as there is no better light filter available than clouds. Also, pay close attention to the light in relation to the group, because you want everyone’s face evenly lit.
If you have no other option than taking your group photo outside in direct sun, face your subjects toward the sun and have them close their eyes while you count to three. On three, have them open their eyes and snap the photo as fast as possible. This way you are not shooting into the light and they are not forced to squint, grimace and blink before the photo is taken.
2. Work quickly
If you’ve ever tried to take a group photo, you know your subjects have the attention span of a squirrel. With a short window of opportunity, work quickly and take multiple photos when you can because you know someone’s going to blink, look away or worse. Take more photos, because in the end you’ll be glad you have the added selection from which to choose.
3. Choose the background
A general rule of thumb is to choose a background that is simple and neutral, one that will not overpower your subjects. If the background is relevant to the context of the photo, such as beautiful scenery or the family’s homestead barn, then the opposite may be true.
Either way, make sure your group is not standing too close to the background. Ask your group to stand a couple yards in front of the background feature, be it a fence, barn or wall, to prevent shadows on the backdrop and to create an appealing depth of field.
Also, make sure the background is free of miscellaneous clutter such as empty cans, wrappers or garbage. Take the time and don’t let unnecessary clutter ruin an otherwise great group photo.
4. Seek higher ground
With many people in one photo it’s easy to lose someone in the shot. By taking the photo from a higher vantage point, you can ensure everyone is visible in the frame. Stand on a small step ladder, a staircase or a pickup bed, or shoot from a window of a house or an outbuilding to get your camera higher than the group.
5. Remember the ‘rule of thirds’
While taking a group photo it’s important to remember the “rule of thirds,” where you imagine breaking the image into thirds both vertically and horizontally.
Most smartphones or smaller point-and-shoot digital cameras do this for you, actually, as many have a rule-of-thirds grid as an option that appears on their screen and essentially breaks the photo frame into nine boxes. If you’re using a DSLR camera, however, it’s likely that this option doesn’t exist if you’re framing your photos through the camera’s viewfinder.
Whether the lines are real or imagined, remember to place important compensational elements where they intersect. For example, the sky or other visible background should only take up one-third of your picture, not two-thirds of your photo. Remember, in most cases the focus should be on the actual group, not the background, foreground or other aspect of the photo.
6. Height differences
The varying heights of your group can make the photo more dynamic. Try not to get all the heads in one straight line. Differences in height will form automatically if you place your subjects around a chair or table or if you create more than one row in your group photo.
7. Be Seen
Make sure everyone in the group can see the camera. If they can see the camera, the camera can see them.
Tell everyone to raise their chins and if you have a group of fewer than 10 people, make sure they are close together without hiding anyone. Smaller groups can also tilt their heads closer to one another to create more personality in the photo.
8. Focus, focus, focus
Try not to make the group too deep from front to back. This will help keep everyone in focus.
If you are using a camera that allows you to set aperture values, use a small aperture such as f/8 or f/11. This will create a larger focal plane and keep more of the group in focus.
9. Be in charge
Don’t be shy! It is hard to get everyone’s attention at the same moment, so take charge and direct the shoot. Call those who are distracted and make them focus. Stay connected to the group letting them know what they are doing right and what they need to change. Don’t let others take photos at the same time behind you. This can be distracting and will lead to members of the group looking in opposite directions.
Remember, if they asked you to take the photo they need to respect the direction you give them.
10. Be creative
Have fun! As the photographer you are in charge of setting the mood. Mix it up and take some photos when no one is looking. Candid shots are usually more interesting and reveal the true mood of the hunt or event. Tell a story or joke to gain the group’s attention or have the entire group sing to produce some emotion.