8 Ways to Master Tack-Sharp Group Portraits | Amy & Jordan

Do you ever take a photo of a large group of people that you love, only to get home, zoom in, and realize that it’s not in focus or discover that not every face is tack sharp? It’s the WORST FEELING!

We’re here to help with that! Here are eight quick tips to ensure your group photos will be sharp!

1. ONE SHOOTER, ONE ORGANIZER

We always divide and conquer family & group portraits to expedite the process. Amy stays near the group, reads off combinations, poses and positions each person, and looks for anything that’s out of order. This gives Jordan the chance to worry about one thing: getting the pictures in focus. Splitting up the roles has really helped us execute this well, because trying to do both is just too much for one person (in our opinion), and can lead to mistakes with the camera.

2. LINE UP THEIR FEET

Groups have a tendency to curl in on the ends to make a U-shape without even realizing it! We all do it — even photographers! — but it’s a problem when trying to get everyone in focus, because as the people on the ends curl up, they’re leaving the focal plane of the people in the middle. So, if you focus on the person in the middle, then the people on the outsides will be out of focus, and vice versa. Amy uses the direction, “Let’s line up your toes,” to help them get straightened out and back on the same plane.

3.TRY TO AVOID MULTIPLE ROWS WHEN POSSIBLE

If you’re able to get everyone lined up on the same focal plane, that’s best. If you have to do two lines, just make sure and remind the people in the back row to get uncomfortably close to the people in front of them. The farther apart the subjects are (from front to back), the more difficult it will be to get everyone in focus. The closer they are together, the easier.

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4. FOCUS ON THE PEOPLE IN THE FRONT

If you have a two rows of people standing, make sure to focus on someone in the front and center. Aperture, like a lot of things in photography, works in a system of thirds. So, if your aperture is f/4, then within that focal plane, wherever you focus, 1/3 of that will go forward and 2/3 will go backward. In other words, when you focus on someone in the front, you just need them to be in focus, and nothing in front of them, but you do need the people behind them to be in focus, so you’ll have a better chance of doing that if you give them the extra 2/3 of that aperture’s focal depth.

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5. PICK THE RIGHT APERTURE

If we’re shooting a bride and groom and their parents or a small grouping of bridesmaids or groomsmen (of about 4 people), and they’re all on the same focal plane, we’ll shoot it at f/2.8 to get them all in focus and have nice bokeh in the background. If we’re shooting a full bridal party (of about 10-18 people), and they’re all on the same focal plane, then we’ll bump our aperture up a full stop to f/4.0 (if that makes you uncomfortable, you can always go to f/5.6, but we like f/4.0). We’ll do the same if there’s a second row added in on a small grouping, as long as everyone is very close together, like we explained earlier. If there’s a third row, we’ll go to at least f/5.6 and maybe even f/8.0, but we rarely encounter that because most of our clients usually just want immediate family in the photos: parents, siblings, and grandparents. As a rule of thumb, though, we tend to hang out at f/4.0 for most of family portrait time and keep the groupings smaller, because even though we give up some of the bokeh in the background compared to f/2.8, we’ll trade that for guaranteed in-focus family shots any day of the week. Your client won’t notice the difference between f/2.8 and f/4.0, but they will notice if they’re blurry!

A lens’s sharpest aperture isn’t actually its highest number (like f/22). For most lenses, it’s around f/8 – f/11, so if you’re really worried about getting everyone in a layered group shot sharp and in focus, something in that range will definitely do the trick!

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6. KEEP YOUR SHUTTER SPEED FAST

Your shutter should always be double your focal length — at least. We shoot a lot of our family portraits with a Canon 70-200 2.8 at 200mm because it allows us to compress the subjects (which makes everyone look SO good!) and pull in a small piece of the background and get clean, non-distracting shots, so that means we keep our shutter at around 400 just to be safe. Can that lens handle a slower shutter? Yes, probably. We shoot it lower than that all the time, but not during group formals. It’s just not worth it. If you’re not getting enough light, bump up your ISO one stop to keep your shutter fast. You’ll never notice the grain, and neither will anyone else.

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7. WATCH OUT FOR LENS FLARE

If sunlight is hitting your lens directly and you see lens flare, make an adjustment before you start family portraits. Sun flare can cause the camera to have trouble focusing 100%. You might not even notice sun flare right away, but even if it’s subtle, it can still create a tack-sharp focusing issue. We recommend lens hoods in situations like that. Sometimes we’re limited to where we can shoot family portraits, so if the only spot available is somewhere that has sunlight hitting the lens directly, a good lens hood will minimize or eliminate that. If you can’t get rid of all of it, you can always have a second shooter or assistant hold a diffuser over the camera, like a a reflector or umbrella, to shade the lens.

8. CHECK YOUR LCD SCREEN

Every time we take a set of group formals, we quickly zoom in and check the LCD before we move on to the next combination. It takes a few seconds to make sure everyone’s eyes are open and in focus, and it’s so worth it. We’re committed to getting everything right in-camera so that we don’t have to pay someone to Photoshop eyes onto a subject whose are closed, so, instead, we double-check on-site and do the shot one more time if we need to. It’s worth it to get it right while we’re there!

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Friend, we hope that these tips help you get your family portraits in focus every time! If you try these tips and you’re still having trouble, it might be time to send your lens or camera in for an inspection. We’ve had to replace our shutter after too much wear. But most of the time, these tricks will do the trick! We’ll be anxious to hear how things turn out!

Until then, we have another awesome resource for you! Click here to watch our 5 Secret Photography Life Hacks to learn five quick practical and applicable takeaways to bring your photography game to the next level in less than ten minutes! By clicking that link, you’ll get instant access to this free video, and as a bonus, you’ll also receive helpful weekly tips from Amy and Jordan. The best part? It’s all totally free!
We’re cheering for you!
Amy and Jordan

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