HOW TO: Set up a Family Group Shot – Step by Step

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Arranging a family group shot is a matter of thinking about shapes and building them up one by one. Just follow these simple steps!

Check out the video below, which shows you how I put together a family group shot, so that it’s flattering and you can see everyone’s faces.

Step 1:

Find a background that has flattering light. As usual, I am looking for a doorway or porch which will create soft, even light on their faces. Check out this blog to learn how to find the best light: HOW TO: Find beautiful light on your doorstep.

Left: A doorway or patio door creates lovely soft light and the picture on the wall creates interest in the background. Centre and Right: Arranging their heads in a triangle shape creates intimacy and brings everyone together.

Left: A doorway or patio door creates lovely soft light and the picture on the wall creates interest in the background. Centre and Right: Arranging their heads in a triangle shape creates intimacy and brings everyone together.

If you’re using a front doorway, or patio doors, move any furniture or clutter in the background, so it’s far enough away to be out of focus. In the pictures above, the room was bright enough to sit them on the furniture at the back of the room. Normally, you would have to bring the family forward to the doorway to get more light, and get a fast enough shutter speed. There’s no reason why you can’t bring the sofa to the doorway too! Flattering light is essential for pictures of people.

Step 2:

Build up a shape by starting with the strongest shape first – which is usually the Dad in the family. Use him as the starting point for the group.

Screen grabs from the video show the stages of building up the group

Screen grabs from the video show the stages of building up the group

Building the shape:

  1. Start with the strongest shape (usually Dad) and then demonstrate how you want him to sit down.
  2. Then demonstrate where you want Mum to sit – position her so she leans towards Dad.
  3. The parents are now the centre point of the group and we can add children around them depending on how many there are.
  4. Place the children wherever you feel they look best, depending on their height.
  5. All families are different shapes and sizes – so it’s a case of building up your group from one point, and adding as you go along.

If the child doesn’t look right where you first put them, move them to a different place and see how they look there.

Triangles – don’t worry about the textbooks that say you have to build triangles – you don’t! I prefer rectangles and lines – depending on how many children there are in the shot. However, I find I often do end up naturally with a triangle (or several triangles), once I’ve built a group. But I love shots cropped in a panoramic way too, and this only works on close ups if their heads are in a line (see image below).

It’s really a case of putting in your central points (the parents) and then adding the children – looking at the shape you are building as you go along.

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Placing people so their heads are in a line, creates a great panoramic shape.

Tip: With very young children (1-3), it helps if you ignore them while you build up the rest of the group, this way they are not sitting there for ages while you put the others together, and then get bored and walk off right at the last minute! Let them wander around and don’t focus on them, and when they see their family being arranged together, usually you will find they just come over and sit right where you want them!

If this doesn’t happen – say, “Now, where would you like to sit?” so they feel important.

Teenagers can be placed either side of their parents, with a younger sibling peering between their parents from behind. Even if the teenagers were taller than the parents, I would still start by placing the parents as the central point in the group.

Step 3:

Ask them all to lean in together, which will tighten your shape and bring their faces closer.

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Step 4:

Then comes the tricky bit – how to get them all to look at you at the same time!

1. Ask the parents to keep looking and smiling at you – or they will try and get their children to smile for you, which means that when they do smile at you, the parent’s may not be looking the right way! Say: “You two keep looking and smiling at me, and I will get the children to smile” – then they understand what you’re trying to do.

2. Try saying – “Ok everyone, when I say, I want you to shout smelly socks! And then say: “1,2,3 – now!” – and this should make them laugh.

3. You will find that with young children in a group, there is usually one person not looking at you – usually a child trying to get attention by shouting louder than everyone else or pulling a funny face! Keep repeating this exercise (2) using different silly expressions. Try: “Is your Daddy a silly sausage?” – “Is your Mummy a silly sausage?” and finally, “Am I a silly sausage?” – this usually works!

Tip: If a young child won’t cooperate: I often quietly go up to them and tell them I want to whisper a secret – I then whisper, “When I say, I want you to say, “Smelly mummy” – but shhhh don’t tell her, it’s a secret!”

4. Give clear directions

Say: “Ok, this is what we’re going to do – after 3, I want you all to say smelly socks… ready? Ok, 1,2,3!” – giving clear directions helps to get them all doing the same thing at once.

With teenage & adult families, I would ask them to say “cheers” or something, which relates more to their age group. I often still say silly things like “bananas”, because they laugh at the stupidity of it – and at least you get a great smile! I usually say, “I know it sounds stupid, but it made you laugh!”

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Once you’ve got a few shots with them looking at you, ask them to look at each other and laugh – and you should get a very relaxed shot which looks like they are naturally interacting.

IMPORTANT – If you are shooting at F5.6 to get the background more out of focus, you will need to get all their heads into the same plane, so you don’t have some people out of focus. Just ask the ones at the back to lean forward so they are all close.

You can of course shoot at F8 or 11 – but the background will be sharp and you won’t get the same effect (and I would forget to put it back on F5.6, because I find I get too distracted dealing with the people, and forget about my equipment – which is why I like to set up my camera so it’s consistent (check out how to set up your camera the easy way…).

How to keep all the faces in focus at F5.6

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  1. This shot shows positioning so that the faces are all in one plane – which will keep them all in focus at F5.6.
  2. Now we change the group arrangement to create variety, by placing Grayson between his parents. If he stands up his face will be too far away from the others.
  3. I ask him to crouch down, but if he stays here, his face will not be in focus, as he’s too far behind.
  4. I ask him to lean forward and now he is in the same plane as the rest of the family.
  5. The finished shot – all faces in focus!

Below: Here are a few more ideas for setting up family groups. None of these have happened naturally – they have all been deliberately positioned so they are flattering, and you can see their faces.

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Remember! Don’t ask everyone to stand in one place – start with one person, and build up the shape gradually, this way you can create a flattering picture by adding people as you go along.

Good luck!

Annabel x


Check out these blogs for more tips:

Video: Jeff Leap / Editing: James Robinson