Why event group shots can be counterproductive
Let’s say you are the event organiser or are responsible for hiring a photographer to take photos for an upcoming special occasion. It could be a wedding, corporate event or birthday party, but the common element is people.
When we think about an event photographer the first thing that may come to mind is arrival shots, red carpet or group table shots. You imagine the charismatic photographer cajoling guests into having their photo taken.
You imagine that the photographer can best cover the event by going from table to table, group by group, directing people as needed and taking photos. That way every person at the event will be “covered” so to speak, and the photographer has done their job. You even make this suggestion to the photographer during the briefing "Some tables shots would be great. And maybe a few group shots."
After photographing many different types of events on a weekly basis since 2016 I realised that this approach did not always yield the best photos. It sometimes worked against the event organiser or hosts, and was actually counterproductive.
Firstly let’s consider why the photographer is there in the first place. This will vary for each event depending on the actual purpose and there may be more than one reason. This is vitally important, because without an end purpose what is the point of group shots anyway?
What are you going to do with the photos?
This is where it gets interesting, because every event will have different reasons for benefiting from professional photography. Sometimes these reasons are subtle, or not apparent on the surface. But it's important to think about the end use for photos, and why the photographer is there in the first place.
For a wedding for example, there are probably multiple reasons for taking professional photos. These might include documenting the event for posterity, capturing the true emotion and mood of the event for future reminiscing, creating artworks and keepsakes for the bride and groom or close family, and having a record of the event for guests who could not make it.
But for most couples who hire a wedding photographer the real underlying reason to take professional photography is to capture the memories and emotion of the day. That way, couples can relive their wedding day by browsing through an album either next year or in 50 years time. Photography is the only indelible thing that comes out of your wedding, other than the wedding rings. Everything else is lost or forgotten.
These are all good reasons to take photography, but none of these reasons justifies excessive “camera aware” group photography. A candid group shot or photo of assembled guests in their natural social formations, and with real body language, will communicate more information and warmth and emotion than any staged or formal group shot.
A wide shot of the wedding reception right as the best man delivers a speech punch line or grandma is on her third gin and tonic and is cavorting on the dance floor, are infinitely more interesting and photographs than any formal group photo.
Which shot brings back more memories and is more authentic? Of course the candid or close up shots, or the couples shots where genuine emotion is being shown.
Group shots rarely make for great photos
The problem with getting a professional photographer with a big camera, lens and intimidating flash to take group photos is that people immediately tense up. Unless they are actors or celebrities, they are not used to having professional cameras pointing at them.
This shows in staged “camera aware” photos regardless of how experienced the photographer is, and results in unnatural and unflattering poses with consistently boring and lifeless expressions on peoples faces.
Camera aware group shots are best taken by friends within the group, that is the honest truth.
Candid or documentary style photos are best taken by a professional photographer for reasons that they are much more technically difficult to capture.
This one is painful and hard for many professional photographers to admit. But the truth is, the best group shots are often taken by friends or relatives of the guests on their mobile phones. People are always more relaxed and already have a rapport with the person taking the shot.
There are technical limitations to this though, and often lighting in venues is just not good enough to capture a sharp photo on a mobile phone.
Group shots taken by a professional photographer by going around "group by group" are invariably lacking in real warmth and emotion. They may help capture everyone that was there, but for what purpose?
Often the only way to capture a natural smile on a guest is when they are being photographed by a close friend or when they are not camera aware. I do this from whatever vantage point I have at the time. This is also a more flattering camera focal length as I normally zoomed into the subject.
Here is an example of that taken from the 2018 New Years Eve Party at the Defiant Duck in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane.
The first photo below was taken as an arrival shot camera aware by myself:
Now watch what happens when the guests are not "professional camera unaware", they completely light up and the resulting photo is suddenly 10 times better. What a massive difference!
I think you will agree the second shot is much better. And yet the second shot was 100% candid.
Group Shots Require Unflattering Focal Lengths
I was shooting at the same event and there were five large guys to shoot assembled on the same wall. The lighting was poor and I was using flash to compensate. Because of the position of tables behind the wall, I had no choice but to shoot using the widest angle on my zoom lens at about 24mm using the Canon 24-70MM f/2.8L II.
This was 24mm (wide), and the problem with this focal length is that it unnaturally distorts subjects on the edge of the frame. I took a few photos and showed the guests (as they asked - another problem with taking group shots) and he immediately expressed shock and disappointment with the photo.
This surprised me because I had already checked the focus and it was razor sharp. There was some nice catch light in his eyes and the histogram showed the shot was exposed correctly. As far as I was concerned it was an acceptable photo.
It dawned on me that he objected to the way his hair and face was looking at the edge of the frame due to the lens distortion. I was forced to take the shot this way due to the conditions, and the result was a photo the guest didn’t really like.
But it doesn’t matter how good your camera or processing is, a wide angle lens is not flattering for anybody, even top models. The best lens length for taking portraits is somewhere between 85MM and 200MM. Even a 50MM focal length is nice for portraits and results in minimal distortion.
The Me Too Syndrome
Another reason not to take endless unplanned group photos at events is the unfortunate syndrome that can happen at events when the professional photographer starts taking group shots.
Just when he thinks he has everyone in the shot and has chosen the perfect focal length and is ready to hit the shutter button, someone screams from across the venue "wait for us!" and then another six people pile into the shot.
That then disrupts the balance of the photo and leads to ridiculous outcomes like guests trying to squeeze more chairs into a composition that wasn't designed to fit 50 people, with only one row of chairs.
This comes back to my first point about how group shots need careful planning to be taken correctly. The photographer would need to know the exact number of people, and to prepare beforehand in terms of lighting and the adding of chairs and rows to accommodate the precise number of people.
At this particular event I was not warned that group shots would be required so I had to try and arrange 60 people into a group with loud music blaring and it turned into a farce. In the end we had to take two group shots rather than one large group shot because everyone wanted to be in the photo but the space was too small.
This is why I insist now that any large group photos are discussed at least 24 hours before the event so we can plan them properly. I love taking group shots, I just like to plan them beforehand as much as possible for the best results.
I was only at the event for one hour. However, I spent 20 minutes setting up this group shot by the time everyone actually got together and stood for the shot. Once they were in place, it took only 30 seconds to take the photo, but it was a huge waste of time just to get two photos (in my opinion).
Consistently Boring & Unflattering Photos
Moving around a party or function and taking endless group shots at similar focal lengths (wide) results in consistently boring and unflattering photos. All photos are taken at similar focal lengths, often with flash to add light which is required because the camera is setup for deep field of view to capture everyone in focus.
Guests invariably have the same forced smiles, and there are always 1 or 2 people in a larger group who just refuse to smile or look away at the wrong time, blink or stick their tongue out accidentally. That means you need to take at least three photos and hope at least one is deliverable.
For some reason (and it tends to be blokes) there is always one person in a group of six or more that just refuses to smile. This just ruins the whole vibe of the shot, and wastes more time.
The aperture controls how much light is allowed into the lens and the camera sensor. A wide aperture (a small F stop) results in much more light but also a trade off being less depth of field for focus. If you are shooting a hastily arranged group portrait like a table shot, the aperture has to be at least F5.6.
An aperture of F5.6-F8 is ideal for group shots where guests may not be exactly facing the camera on the same plane relative to the lens. A photo taken as a candid might be taken at F2 instead. This means that at least three times as much light is entering the lens!
Most events take place at night time inside rooms with dim lighting. Having three times as much light entering the camera means the photographer can shoot at either a higher shutter speed or with less noise in the photo.
But more importantly, it means that more of the ambient light in the background can be seen.
A higher shutter speed means sharper photos can be taken, and there is less chance of camera blur. Less noise means that the image is less grainy and has more detail and nicer skin tones.
In a crowded room it is not always possible to ask guests to assemble “in a line” and nor is this the most interesting position for people to assemble every time.
If guests are seated at a table (which is very common at weddings or corporate events) then it becomes even more problematic. To get everyone in focus in this situation requires a wide lens firstly to capture everyone and to reduce the need for a higher shutter speed, and a much higher F stop something like F7.1 or higher.
Suddenly you get to a situation where the camera is 4-5 stops of light under what is required to expose it correctly. Lucky there is a flash on the camera right? Yes a good speed-lite can compensate for this but it will produce that "flash look" that makes the image look unnatural. And powerful flash falling on guests faces directly also produces hot spots or specular highlights especially on foreheads, noses and cheek bones. None of which is flattering!
The solution to this group lighting dilemma is to create artificial light using a much larger light source. This might be a soft-box or umbrella and it would have to be very large indeed (at least 40 inches wide). This would cause its own logistical and safety problems in a crowded function room or wedding or in other words, it is not as simple as that.
So there you have it, you simply cannot create very flattering group photos in a crowded event environment without planning beforehand. It is simply mathematically and logistically impossible. You are constantly compromising.
The bottom line is, if the photographer can just be left to their own devices they can shoot at wider F stops between f/1.4 and f/2.8 at focal lengths above 50MM and create much. much nicer photos of guests that they will actually like.
If group shots of everyone are required, these should be shot semi-formally in a space suitable for the purpose, allowing the photographer to setup additional lighting safely that is flattering and allows enough depth of field to capture everyone.
Guests Don't Actually Like It
They may be feigning smiles but deep down, guests don't always like their event or function being interrupted by a photographer. This will certainly come through in their attitude and often in very obvious ways.
The last two events I have shot in Brisbane are a good example. At both of these events (and one was a Xmas party for an international corporation) at least one of the guests gave the camera the fingers, rolled their eyes to the back of their head, or stuck food in peoples faces making the shots unusable.
Every choice we make comes with opportunity cost. By not doing A we are foregoing the opportunity to do B, C or D. That is basic economics theory and like most things, common sense as well.
By shooting time consuming long group portraits sessions at a wedding for example, either table shots or posed group shots, the photographer is unable to capture anything else!
That means much fewer candid shots and real moments can be captured, and guests are prevented from socialising and catching up with friends and family.
Stars of the Show
If you are getting married for example, you are the stars of the show so to speak for the day. Everyone will want you to be in their group shots, and especially the professional photos.
That is tiring and exhausting and means you are constantly on your feet and unable to talk with guests.
Reducing formal group photos to the bare minimum simply means more time for the photographer to capture nicer group or close up shots throughout the event, when and where the lighting, backgrounds and mood are more interesting.
I recommend keeping all professional group shots to a bare minimum and discuss them with your photographer well before the day of the event. This means they can be planned and executed well and not disrupt an event unnecessarily.
Your photographer will get better candid photos, and they will have much more meaning, context and interest than endless group photos.