Martin McNeil: Organising people when time is short
It’s not always easy to get great portraits at events when so much is going on, so we asked professional photographer MARTIN McNEIL to explain how he shoots on the run when time is short.
They may be small affairs with your family, revelry with friends or perhaps even a social mixer thrown by your employer.
No matter how skilled you are with your camera gear or how comfortable you are with your subject matter, the prospect of taking photographs at parties – which almost inevitably involves getting a group shot – can strike fear into the heart of even the most seasoned social snapper.
As a media photographer, I’m often dropped into situations where I’ve never met the people I’m going to shoot, I’ve got next to no time in which to get a shot, I’ve got no control over the backgrounds or lighting and there’s usually a lot going on to distract those in the frame.
The first thing to do is prepare a little in advance. If you’re familiar with the place where you’re going to be shooting, you’ll probably already have a good idea about how bright (or not) it is, whether it’s a busy environment, how much space you’ll have to work in and so on. If you’re heading to a place for the first time you’ll have to think on your feet – but don’t let that prospect worry you. My own default rig for venturing into unknown shoots comprises the following:
• Two Nikon D3 camera bodies.
• A Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.
• A Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.
• Three SB-800 strobes with gels and diffusion domes.
• Two compact light stands.
• A Ray Flash ringflash modifier.
That amount of gear is perhaps overkill for casual group photography and, in a pinch, I would pare it down to one camera, the 24-70mm lens, one flash and the Ray Flash. Pressed further still, I’d make it the camera and lens alone, turning to higher ISO settings if needed. The first tool you need to rely on is communication. Talking to the people you are shooting is the most effective way of getting a good group photograph. When people are listening to you, they’re probably looking at you too. Give clear directions when posing the group and don’t be afraid to interact with people to show them exactly what you want.
Sometimes communication isn’t enough and you have to call on tricks or gimmicks. One of my personal favourites is using a ringflash adaptor on my hot shoe strobe. It’s unlikely that people will have seen one before – something that gets them looking straight down the lens almost every time. I’ve seen some photographers wear brightly coloured clothes or unusual hats – any trick you can think of that will get people looking at you is good.
Your next challenge is avoiding the ramrod-straight/rabbit caught in headlights effect. Of course, you can’t force someone to relax but once more this is an area in which communication comes into play. I’ll often say things like “Okay, now everybody… pretend you know each other!” or similar turns of phrase. Just ensure your language is appropriate to the occasion. Don’t be afraid to break or bend the rules for group shots. The standard temptation is to have everyone lined up perfectly left to right, paying attention to the smallest or tallest in the group. Mix it up a little for a more interesting, natural look.
Also, when posing groups, take a moment to look around for ‘props’ such as stairs, chairs, sofas, tables and other platforms to aid in arranging larger groups. Don’t be afraid to break the rules: try propping yourself higher or lower than your subjects – yielding a composition that elevates the result from the norm. My high school art teacher and photography enthusiast, Mr Jenkins, drilled into me that “everyone knows what the world looks like from around five feet in height; if you want to catch their attention, change their eye level.” This is advice that applies as much to group photography as it does to any other subject matter. Moving around your subjects also means you’re less likely to commit the photographic faux pas of having a distracting background element seemingly poking out of the top or side of someone’s head.
Of course, it doesn’t always go as planned. The larger the group, the greater the chance that at least one of the people you’re shooting will be distracted or end up blinking from the pop of your flash. It’s in these instances that the LCD screen on the back of your camera is invaluable when it comes to checking for these slip-ups, but try not to get too worked up if it doesn’t work out as – more often than not – the occasional ‘mistake’ can end up being the shot that people talk about the most. That wraps up my guide to taking group photographs in social settings – hopefully it’s a less worrisome prospect for you now and I’ve given you a few ideas to try.
Martin McNeil regularly shoots mixed martial arts fights all over the world for the Ultimate Fighting Championship and for US sports channel ESPN. He also shoots arts, celebrity and entertainment, which are syndicated via WireImage and Getty Images.
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