Large Group Lighting

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon2 Comments

Jeff, Brian, and Brent talk through the camera settings, flash modifiers, and flash locations to take a portrait of a large group.

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How to Shoot Large Group Portraits

When shooting very large groups (like 50-100) of people you have to get them on a hill or on stands so that you can put them 6-8 rows deep and still have the faces of all the people be seen.  Add flash with reflective umbrellas on light stands to the left and right of the group up high enough that shadows are not cast on the faces. Get the camera up high. Shoot with an aperture stopped down at f/8 to f/16, shutter at 1/160 (if using flash) and ISO 100.

I love the question from Jessica Jean in the Facebook group that we are going to cover here at the top of the show because this has happened for me over the past 3 or 4 years now that I get contacted by somebody, usually a friend of mine, and they ask if there is any way I could help them with a photo of their extended family that is gathering for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  

Usually the story is that the extended family hasn’t been all together in many years and so grandma wants to have a professional photo taken because she fears she may never get the chance to do that again.  In fact, that has happened for me again here in 2018. I did two shoots of large extended family groups the day after Thanksgiving. With one of them they had only a single member of the extended family that can’t make it and so we are going to have my oldest son stand in for him in the photo and they are going to have me photoshop his head in there.

Jessica asked 3 questions in the Facebook group that I already provided by advice on there for how I approach lighting large groups, but let’s go through it here and I want to get your thoughts Brent and Brian.

Jessica Jean: “Can you give me some advice? I’ve been hired to do my first indoor event where the client wants photos of each individual family and one large group (80 people). I have recently purchased a 24-70 and two soft boxes and two umbrellas for my speedlights. Here are my questions:

  1. What is best for this event? soft boxes or umbrellas?
  2. How far away should I have the lights from the smaller groups and for the gigantic group?
  3. What settings should my camera and speedlights be at

Any other tips or tricks I’d love to hear!”

How to get all the faces of a large group seen?

Getting the people on risers AND the camera up high is the best way to have a shot at getting all of the faces in a very large group portrait to be seen.

First off, not really about the lighting, but 80 people is a lot!  The last “large” group I shot was only 32 people. I don’t think I have ever shot a portrait with 80 people in it.  The challenge there is getting it so that you can see all 80 people in the photo. With 32 people I had to put them in 4 rows, having the first row sit down and then carefully positioning the people with the taller in the back and make it so that all of their bright smiling faces could be seen.  

Even then, I had to be up higher than the people in order to really get them all to be seen in the photo.  I had a little hill I was standing on to make that work but bringing a ladder to stand on would be important with large groups.

With 80 you probably can’t really go just 4 rows of people, the group will get too wide and not only will you have challenges getting enough detail in the faces from a single shot, it is hard to get a print of the photo big enough for it to show them all with much detail, and it is going to be hard to get even lighting on a group that wide.  Have to get more rows of people and still have them bee seen. Probably 6 to 8 rows.

I suggested to Jessica that she check into using a high school football field or maybe even the basketball court where there is the stadium style seating that she could position everyone on.  Then have a tall ladder that she could get on to take the shot.

Brent and Brian, how would you solve this problem?

Brian: Sometimes you just can’t get all of the faces in the photo.  When I have shot 200 people in a single shot and you have some time constraints you just can’t get them all in.  The main thing for me is trying to get myself up higher. I use a 15 foot ladder and climb up to the top and then that makes an immediate difference in the number of faces I can see.

Brent: I’ve also stood on a chair or ladder to get up and make it a bit more even between the layers of people. We also need to make sure we do a good job with the lighting we add because the front people will be closer to the lights than the background people. Whether you lift the lights up higher, or lift the back people up, it will help even that out.

Brian: You can’t just put people on a hill.  If you put them on a hill and you aren’t higher up as well, this doesn’t solve the problem.  The hill will help some, but it is much better if you can get the camera up high as well. You could try the steps of a government building as a place to take a large group and get the people in the front lower than the people behind and the camera up higher.

Brent: A church might be a good option too.  A church building that has a stage and stairs.  Might be able to arrange some time inside that church building for getting the people seen.

Brian: If living room space is all you have then you are going to be tempted to go with just two rows of people and shooting really wide.  Just remember that if you shoot wide you will now have a lot more ceiling and floor in the photo. May end up with a lot more furniture in the shot.  Try to position the people in a square. Use rows so that the depth of the group is as big as the width of the group.

Softboxes or umbrellas for lighting a large group of people?

Reflective umbrellas are the best light modifiers to use for a portrait with a very large group of people.  Softboxes are for smaller groups or individuals.

Brian and Brent, what are your thoughts about softboxes vs. umbrellas for adding lighting to 80 people?

Brent: Definitely an umbrella. Though I’ve seen a photographer in town get up in a cherry picker and have one White Lightning light with him up there, with no modifier since he’s so far up there, a modifier would soak up too much light, and it wouldn’t make a difference since he’s so far up there, at least 40 ft in the air.  

Depends on how far away from the people she is going to be with this group of 80.  Two umbrellas is good, three might be even better.

Brian: I would also go with umbrellas for a large group of people.

Jeff: My thought is that you have to go with reflective umbrellas here.  Those are the kind that are black on the outside and silver on the inside and then you point the flash into the umbrella and the light reflects back to the group.  You don’t lose a lot of light with umbrellas. Nearly all of it gets reflected to your models. I would do umbrellas over softboxes because you probably don’t have enough power in the flashes to have the light from a softbox reach more than the first few people in the group.

Softboxes have that big diffuser on the front of them that spreads out the light to make it really big, but it also dampens the light significantly and it just won’t reach across the group far enough.  They are better for individuals and small groups like maybe 5 or less? You could do a bit larger group if you use two of them like she suggested, maybe get up to 10 or so with softboxes on both sides, but softboxes just won’t work with a group this large.

Brent, what group size would it take for you to go from softbox to umbrella?

Brent: I think a group of 5 or so would be the max for a single softbox.  8-10 at a max with two softboxes. Bigger groups than that I would go with umbrellas.

Brian: Just to clarify, when you use an umbrella you aren’t shooting through the umbrella like you do with a softbox.  You point the flash into the umbrella and have the light reflect back onto the group.

How far away should the lights be from a large group of people?

To evenly light a portrait with a very large group of people get the flashes up high and far enough away that the lighting is falling evenly on the group.  May mean they are further away than you would do normally.

Jeff: The goal with lighting is always to make the light source as big and close as you can to the group.  However, this one is going to be a little different here because if you put that umbrella really close to a person, they are going to be getting a lot of light and then as you move away from the flash the others are getting less light.  Really hard to light them evenly. So Brian and Brent, what is your advice here and remember that she has some constraints here being indoors?

Brent: I would want to get the lights up as high as I could inside that room.  Want to minimize the hot spots on the people.

Brian: I like to have 3 different lights. If it’s a medium size group, like I have in weddings, I’ll have a softbox on my right, a softbox on my left, and my trigger flash w/ the MagMod sphere on top of my camera to help fill in the shadows. Even if the group is large, I still like to have my lights not too far away from me since that’s the viewpoint of my lens.

Jeff: I would put one light on the right, and one on the left.  Both on light stands with reflective umbrella modifiers. They need to be high enough that when the flash goes off a shadow from a person at the front is not cast onto the face of the person behind.  For a group this large that may mean they have to be pretty high. I would put them far enough in front of the front row of people that they aren’t going to be significantly brighter than the back row.

If you end up with a shadow of the head in front of a person is on the face of the person behind, this is nearly impossible to actually fix in post and have it look good.  Much better to get this right in camera.

I also put a third light by the camera to add some fill light to the middle of the shot.  This helps make sure the shadows from the lights on the right and left don’t end up on the faces because this third light is covering that.  This third light also helps to add a catch light to the eyes of the people, something you will notice is in every commercial portrait. You could even put the softbox on this third light in the middle of the shot by the camera.  Would have to bump up the power on the flash to make that work, but then the catch light in the eyes is bigger.

What should camera settings be for a large group of people?

For a portrait of a large group of people start off with a 24-70mm lens, as long a focal length as possible, an aperture of f/8.0, a shutter of 1/160, ISO 100.

Jeff: I mentioned in the last episode that there is an order I think through the settings, so I want to go through them that way here too.  Also want to say that this is just the starting point on settings, there is no magical formula or setting suggestion we can provide here that is going to be right for shooting every large group.  You have to become familiar enough with each setting to know how to change them with each shoot to create the photo you want.

  1. Pick your lens.  Jessica said she is going to use a 24-70 here, a recent purchase.  I love my 24-70 for portraits and I think that is a fine choice for this kind of shot.  Brent, you are a big lens guy, would you pick anything else for this ?

    Brent: For the size of this group, I think that’s the perfect lens. It provides excellent flexibility of framing and positioning where you need to stand. A fine choice in this situation.
    Jeff: I love it too.  Love my Tamron 24-70 G2 lens.  Image quality is really good. I use a crop sensor, so having a lens that is a little wider helps me.
    Brian: That’s a great lens to be able to make some adjustments.  If I am on top of a 15 foot ladder to take this large group shot, not very practical to get down off the ladder and move it around to have the right field of view.
  2. Pick the focal length.  In this case one of the things to be concerned with is making sure the people in the front of the group are not distorted compared with the back of the group, an effect you can get if you are shooting too wide on the focal length, so I would try getting positioned to shoot at 70mm.  Brian, what do you think?

    Brian: Do the best you can with what you have.  Anything around 50mm or more tends to be ideal. Shooting at the wider end, 24mm on this lens, there can be some distortion.  The people on the edges are going to seem larger than the people in the middle.

    Brent: Certainly going to be some challenges.  I would look to fill the frame, but not so much that I can’t crop for different print sizes.  Most cameras are 3:2 aspect ratio and if you want to print an 8×10 photo you are going to be cropping the sides off the photo.  Giving it a little bit of room so that you can do that crop is important.

    Brian: Talk to the client before the shoot to understand if they are going to put any text over the top of the photo.  You may need to have some space above the heads or beneath the feet to put that text so that it won’t end up over the top of people.

    Jeff: Jean is shooting a crop sensor here, and being inside this likely means she is going to be putting her back against the wall, as far back in the room as she can get so that she can fit everyone in.  Like you have said, have to do whatever the scene dictates here, but if possible go as high as you can on the focal length as possible.
  3. Pick the aperture.  Depth of field is a really important.  With individuals everyone immediately jumps to f/2.8 or even more wide open like f/1.8 if they have a lens that fast, but in this case if you can manage to get them in 8 rows of people you are definitely going to need some depth of field to make sure the people in the front and the back are all in focus.  Brent, what would you suggest as a starting point on aperture?

    Brent: f/5.6 would be my target starting aperture. Wouldn’t really want to go any wider than that.  With a group this size I’d go for f/8 as well. If you are at an aperture is 5.6, 35mm, and your main subject is 10 feet away then you get a depth of field of 5.68 feet, which is a little tight for a group this size.  Might want to go to f/8 to get the depth of field a little wider and make sure all of the people are in focus.

    Brian: A key thing there is that we usually talk about focusing on the closest eye of the closest person to you.  In this case you may want to focus on the second row with the depth of field starting in front of where you are focusing you probably still get that first row in focus.  You may want to focus on the second row of people in this case.

    Jeff: This is a place where I love the PhotoPills app.  You put into the depth of field pill in the app the numbers about your shoot.  You put in your camera, a crop in this case. Then the focal length, 24mm I will assume here.  With an aperture of f/8.0 and a distance from the camera to the focus point which we will say is 10 feet.  With those numbers 4 feet in front of the focus point and 52 feet behind it will be in focus. Have about 5 feet in front of where you focus with that setup.  If you got f/5.6 then you lose a foot off the front of the focus, lost a foot of the depth of field. At f/4.0 you lose another foot off the front and the back only has a little over 7 feet behind the focus point.  Might be getting to narrow a depth of field there.

    This is what I love about PhotoPills though.  I can use it right there in the moment to get some information that helps to make a decision on what aperture I am going to use and make sure I have an appropriate depth of field.  You can also hit the AR button at the bottom of the app and you can then see on your phone to see where the depth of field is going to be given the numbers you have provided.

    The worst thing you can have happen here, worse than undexposing or having shadows on faces, is having people in the group be blurry.  You just can’t do that.
  4. Pick you shutter speed.  I love Conner’s suggestion that I have heard him make many times when it comes to shutter speed and artificial lighting.  A starting point is 1/160 any time you are adding artificial lighting. 1/160 for shutter is fast enough to make sure you don’t have motion blur from the people moving or you shaking but safe for pretty much all cameras from the max sync speed.  So that is a good starting point.

    Can’t go too slow either.  Even if you have your camera on a tripod, if you take the shutter speed down too far then people moving will get blurry, motion blur will be there.  I don’t like shooting on a tripod for portraits, but this might be a case for it here so that you can try to go slower on shutter.

    General rule of thumb is not to go any slower than your focal length.  In this case we are guessing Jean is going to shoot at 24mm, so don’t go any slower than that on the shutter speed to avoid motion blur.  It is only a general rule of thumb, a starting point, you have to figure out with your shooting style and technique if that is going to be true for you.

    What do you think Brian and Brent?

    Brian: Yep, that is good advice.
    Brent: I concur with Connor 🙂 It’s a great starting point. Even with that general rule of thumb you have to consider as you get to wider focal lengths that it kind of falls apart.  If you are shooting at 14mm for example you can’t really hand hold a shot that will avoid motion blur at 1/14 of a second. You do need to know the gear you are shooting, the technique you use, and where the limits are for you.  1/30 of a second is probably the very slowest you can go no matter the focal length.

    If you need more ambient light then going a slower shutter speed is the way to get there.  Aperture affects the depth of field and the flash power, shutter speed affects the ambient light.  If you lower the shutter speed you will get more ambient light in the shot and won’t have to change your flash power because it will look the same.
  5. Pick your ISO.  Of course we want ISO to be as low as possible, so it is the last one I consider always.  It is the last thing to use to get the exposure you want. Ideally you could go with an ISO of 100.  If you have reached the limits of what you can do with aperture and shutter speed and the shot is still underexposed then you bump up the ISO to get where you want to be.

    Brent: If you do increase the ISO, you will have to look at the flash power again, ISO also effects the flash.
What flash settings for a large group of people?

Start with the flashes at 1/8 power.  Expose for the ambient light first, about 1/3 stop underexposed, then add the flash.  Add more ambient light by slowing the shutter but not any slower than 1/30.  If there isn’t any more flash power, add more flash by opening up the aperture being careful to watch the depth of field.

Brent, tell me what zoom you would put the flash at here.  Using reflective umbrella modifiers and assuming the flash has zoom from 24-105mm, where would you put it?

Brent: I’d probably look to fill the umbrella so I’d set it to a wider setting. It’s hard to exactly judge what you’re doing specifically, so I’d do a few test shots, maybe even photograph the umbrella itself so I can judge the size of light hitting the umbrella. This will spread the light out the most.

Brian: Yep, zoom at the widest.  My flashes are almost always there.  I usually start at ⅛ power and adjust from there.

Brent: With experience you will come to understand with your gear where to start things out.  You may need more than ⅛ with this bigger group here. The lights being higher and further away.  Starting at ⅛ power and bumping it up from there is a good way to approach it.

Jeff: Remember too that flash power is not the same for all makes/models of flashes.  ⅛ power on one flash is not necessarily the same on another brand. Same way we think of the exposure settings on the camera of aperture, shutter, and ISO.  Might be good to work through it that way too, get the exposure without any flash first. Maybe underexpose the ambient light just ⅓ of a stop or so and then add the flash in.

Brent, let’s say you get things set up and you have the front row lit well but the back row is too dark, what do you do?

Brent: Lift the light more if you can.  If you have another flash then set that up to hit the back row more.  

Brian: If you can set up a light over head then do that.  Or bounce the flash off the ceiling.

Brent: If all other hope is lost, you can’t get it to light the way you want to, then take the umbrellas off and set them up in the corners and let it bounce off the walls and the ceilings to get more light in the room.  A bad setup here can cause shadows that just ruin the shot. Bouncing off the ceiling is a pretty good option.

Brian: You could also light them row by row.  Take the first row, have them move, take the second row, etc.  Avoid the shadows on faces. You could also take individual shots and then put them all together in Photoshop.  It is a lot more work here, probably not going to be doing that here with 80 people, but it is another option. Plus you would really improve your Photoshop skills.

Jeff:  I have done that with sports photos and that is really part of the reason I did this with high school basketball.  It challenged my Photoshop skills and I just don’t really learn unless I do it. Watching a video isn’t quite enough for me.


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Brent: WP gallery plugin called Modula. I’m looking for options for my students this next quarter where I teach WP and this plugin has come to my attention recently.

Brian: GoPro HERO7 Black ($470)



  1. There are several different sizes of umbrellas to choose from. If I’m lighting a sports team of maybe 15-20 people with a Speedlight and one umbrella…what size is best for that? I know that having two lights and two modifiers is the better idea but I have to use what I have for now and make the most of it. Any suggestions?

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