How do you arrange family group shots?

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Q. I’m trying to get away from the ‘stand in line’ shot or the traditional triangle which is a classic and always works, but it is difficult to capture the emotion of the family this way – M.I. London UK

A. Most families want a shot where they are all close together, and looking happy! Once you’ve got this, you can take shots where they are running through fields etc, but I find they definitely like a close up, looking at camera shot too – and that needs to be arranged, in order that everyone looks their best.

How you arrange them, depends on how many people there are in the group – but I always look for the tallest shape first – this is usually the father, then I add Mum, followed by the children, and their positioning depends on their age/size.

It’s important to position Mum and Dad so they look good even without the children in the shot, and then bring the kids in one by one and move them to where you feel they look best. Do this one at a time, rather than asking everyone to stand against the wall, for example – take your time building them into a shape. Then you can take a straightforward shot where they are all nicely positioned, followed by a shot which shows more emotion – but you need to start with the more composed shot first, in order to get the more emotional shot – you move from one to the next.

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Left: This shows how I have positioned the family where I feel they look their best – I have started by placing Dad in the shot, then asked Mum to tuck in next to him, and asked her to move her leg forward which gives her a nice body shape. We have then brought the girl in on the left, and although I tried the boy standing on the right, his head was too low down in the shot, so I have asked Dad to pick him up, and this brings all their heads closer together.

Bottom Right: This is very similar positioning, but I have swopped the parents around, then asked everyone to look at Clay, and asked Clay to look at his Dad – which results in a natural looking shot.

Top Right: I have asked Dad to crouch down, then brought Mum into the side crouching down, put Clay on Dad’s shoulders, and asked Robyn to wrap her arm round Mum’s neck – I have then asked them all to turn and laugh at each other!

Getting the emotion into the shot

It’s hard to position people hugging and get a good shot first time. You need to position them in a shape first, take the shot, and then get them to hug each other from that position. This results in a much more natural looking shot, and brings out the natural emotions of the family – because they usually laugh when you ask them all to hug each other. If you started from scratch asking people to hug each other you would end up with the backs of some people’s heads. By positioning them in a shape first where they are all looking at you, you’ve already got them looking in the right direction. They look at you, and you take that shot – then you say, “ok – now all hug in tight!” and be ready to grab the shot when they do! See the shots below which illustrate this.

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In the pictures above, I have asked Dad to sit down, and then placed Mum next to him. I’ve asked the older two boys to go behind their parents and lean over them, and then asked the youngest one to lean onto Mum’s knee. The first shot is a nice family shot, with everyone positioned well. And it enables me to get the second shot which has much more emotion in it, by simply saying, “Ok – all lean in and hug each other tight!”

It would be more difficult to start with the second shot – you need the first one to lead into it.

Note: these are shot on F5.6 to keep the background out of focus – so it’s important that you lean everyone’s head into the same plane, otherwise some of them will be out of focus too – ask the ones at the back to really lean in, and ask the younger child to lean back towards his mum.

More ideas

Below are a few more ideas for grouping people. Note these are all set up – they don’t just happen. I have positioned the people first, and then asked them to react in different ways, before taking the shot – see the details below.

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Top Left: “Everyone look at Grandma” (who was standing beside me pulling funny faces at the child!).
Top Right: “I want you all to hold hands and stand still, and then when I tell you, I want you to run towards me, laughing at each other.”
Bottom Left: “Everyone keep talking to Frankie, and then walk slowly towards me.” (The shot prior to this was positioned with their arms around each other, to keep them together when they started walking, and the slight tilt brings their heads more into line.)
Bottom Right: “Can you see a spider on daddy’s nose?” (I know it sounds mad, but it works with young children and gets them to look the right way!)

Below: Gates are really useful, as you can stand people at all different levels, even if there are 8-10 people in the shot. In this case I used the gate to even up the heights and create a panoramic shot (an alternative crop can be seen on the header of this blog).

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Good luck!
Annabel x