Photographing Group Portraits That Are In Focus by Melissa Jill

Hello and Welcome to Photographer Week here on! I'm excited to collaborate with fellow peers as they shed light and share industry tips. One of the questions I'm asked the most is how to shoot a large group and keep everyone in focus. Luckily my good friend Melissa Jill is sharing her wonderful tips…as well as some pretty darn amazing sketches…ha! Love her!

I get asked all the time what the right aperture is to use when photographing large groups. I could answer this question, but aperture is only one part of the equation for depth of field. And oftentimes, I think photographers are using an adequate aperture but are still unable to get the whole group in focus. In this post I am going to explain why.

There are three components that impact your depth of field — aperture, focal length, and subject to camera distance. In this post, I'm going to shed light on a simple mistake photographers often make when photographing group portraits. If you have ever looked at your images on the computer and wondered why the people on the edges of the group are out of focus, this post may clarify why.

Regardless of what your depth of field is (again based on aperture, focal length and subject to camera distance), 1/3 of it is in front of your point of focus and 2/3 of it is behind your point of focus. Let me illustrate:

As portrayed in the above visual aid, if I am focusing on the middle person in the group, a third of my depth of field will be in front of that person and two-thirds will be behind.

The problem arises when groups form into a typical U-shape formation with the people on the edges closer to the camera than the people in the center. This next illustration is a top down arial view (with the circles representing the tops of the group member's heads).

If the photographer focuses on the middle person in this group, as is typical, they are not making the most of their depth of field. Whatever is behind the group will be sharply in focus, but the front few folks on either edge of the group will likely be soft.

Here's an example image. My lovely models are attendees from my recent MJ2Day workshop in Charlotte, North Carolina. Cute bunch, huh? This photo was taken with my 50 1.2 at f3.5 — which should be a perfectly sufficient aperture for this size group. Note that the red box in this photo represents where my focus point was. Also note that we can't tell how cute Leslie and Melissa are because they are on the edges of the group and didn't make the depth-of-field cut. 🙁

What if, instead of focusing on the middle person in the group, we focused on the closest person to the camera? In the common U-shape formation, that would be the person on the edge. We are using back-button focus, so we can lock onto that person and recompose. Notice how our depth of field shifts to encompass the whole group:

Here's the same exact group shot with the same exact settings as the previous image. Notice where I put my focus point in this photo:

And note how much cuter Leslie and Melissa look:

So simple and so effective! Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!

*Edited to add: When people get into a U-shape, I often ask those on the edges to step back so that they form more of a straight line. This allows me to use a lower aperture and still ensure that everyone is in focus. But regardless of the formation, I make sure to focus on the person closest to the camera.Have you read…
Monday's post about Sue Bryce's secret to using a white sheet on a photo shoot?
Tuesday's post on how Katelyn James controls her image color by shooting in Kelvin?
Check them out!