Get Everyone in Focus in a Group Photo

8 Tips for Stunning Group Portraits

If there is anything that makes an intermediate photographer sweat, it’s got to be getting everyone in a big group in focus. For example, if you’re photographing a wedding, get one mother-in-law in focus, but not the other, there is bound to be trouble! 

The reason that group photos are so tricky is that there are often multiple focal planes in play. And it’s easy to get fooled while you’re still at the shoot. What looks sharp on your camera’s LCD display often doesn’t look nearly as good when you get home and start editing. 

While it’s a technical challenge to capture groups well, it’s not impossible! 

Tip #1 - Don't Try to Get Fancy

A group photo is more utilitarian than it is artistic. This isn’t the time to try out new things. You just need to make the people in the photo look good, and that means keeping them in sharp focus. 

Save the artistic shots for brides and grooms or individual portraits. 

Tip #2 - Avoid Multiple Rows if You Can

If you can, line up the group up in just one row. 

This keeps them on a single focal plane. When you get one person in the group in sharp focus, the rest should follow. But this isn’t always possible. 

If you need to add a second row, get everyone in the back row to stand as close as they can to the people in the front. The farther they stand away from each other, the harder it is to keep them all in focus. 

Tip #3 - Set Your Focus on People in the First Row

Your camera’s center focus point is the sharpest of all, because it has more cross points than all the others. So set it on the middle person in the front row for best results. The ‘most important' people in a wedding photo are always the bride and groom, so place them in the center of most of your group shots. 

Tip #4 - Keep ‘Em Straight

When people are posed in a row, there’s a natural tendency for the people on the ends to turn inwards a bit. And that’s a problem, because that’s often enough to create another focal plane. And the more focal planes you have, the greater the risk that your focus will not be as sharp as you'd like.

Ask your group to line up their toes before you press the shutter release for sharper photos. 

Tip #5 - Get Out That Tripod!

I highly recommend that you use a tripod whenever you’re shooting a group. Shooting a group is always a little stressful, and that extra surge of adrenalin is enough to make you a little shaky. Having your camera on a tripod will calm you down and keep that camera steady. Doing this will give you the extra few seconds you need to recheck your settings, and the light, before you press the shutter button. 

I always like to have an assistant on hand to help position the group. But if you don’t have one, then a tripod is a real must. You can walk away, and line up the group the way you want without having to reposition your camera. If you use a remote trigger for your shutter, you can position your tripod far enough away to capture the entire group, yet stay in close contact with them. 

People will respond more to seeing your face than looking into your camera. So get that tripod out! 

Tip #6 - The Best Lens for Group Portraits

While some photographers swear by a wide-angle lens for groups (because they can fit more people in the shot without needing to group them into rows) there is huge a drawback to them. The wider the lens, the more barrel distortion there is. (Barrel distortion means that the field of view is wider than the camera’s image sensor.)

And that means that people tend to look shorter and wider than they really are. Or exaggerate the size of their heads. Not a good look for anyone! 

I prefer to use a short telephoto lens like a 85-105mm instead. Sure, it means you’ve gotta back up to get everyone in the shot. But the effect is so much more flattering than a wide-angle lens. 

Tip: If you pose your group farther away from the background, you’ll get some nice background blur to make them stand out. 

Tip #7 - Suggested Apertures to Keep Everyone in Focus

don’t recommend shooting at wide apertures when your photographing groups. It’s just too hard to keep everyone in focus. The more focal planes you have to deal with, the more you should stop down your aperture. 

You must experiment a little to see what works, but here are some starting points. 

  • When you have 2 focal planes, i.e. two rows, try f/4
  • For 3 focal planes, try f/5.6
  • For 4 focal planes, try f/7.1

Another thing to remember is the closer you pose your subjects together, the wider the aperture you can get away with. Because the closer they are to each other, the more likely they’ll be on the same focal plane. 

Tip #8 - Adjust Your Shutter Speed Accordingly

While you can expect an adult or teen to hold a pose for 1/15, it’s not reasonable to expect the same of a kid. I set my shutter speed to at least 1/125 to start any time I photograph kids. If you don’t want to open up your aperture, to compensate for the faster shutter speed,  then you’ll need to bump up your ISO instead. 

Bonus Tip: Use Live Mode on your LCD to zoom in and double check if everyone is in focus. It wouldn’t cost much time to do this, but it could save you lots of headaches. 

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13 thoughts on “Get Everyone in Focus in a Group Photo”

  1. David Marcovitz

    Great tips David! Group shots are always difficult. Most of mine are of family, and I am always running into one or more of them not wanting to be there and acting up, which messes up the entire image.
    Any tips on how to control that unruly person.

    1. David Molnar - Your Photography Mentor

      Sometimes you have to just go with what you can! You have to be ready to shoot fast once you get everyone lined up and ready to go. Usually it’s the littles that have a hard time being still. Talk to them. Be goofy with them. Make them your buddy and they will often cooperate, even if it’s just for a few seconds….it will be long enough to get some good shots. Others that just aren’t happy being there because they have been pulled into a family photoshoot by a family member….they tend to laugh at a few silly dad jokes. You’d be surprised at how far conversation between and even during shots can go.

  2. Hi David I’m truly an amateur in taking photos. I really enjoy taking but you can imagine how they come out. I have a cannon and really don’t know how to use it. Do you have classes on line?

  3. Charlene Dubbels

    Your blog mentions you prefer the 85-105 lens. I can’t find a lens like that so I am confused. Please help.

    1. David Molnar - Your Photography Mentor

      Charlene, GREAT question! I was suggesting any telephoto lens that has the the focal length of anything in the neighborhood of 85mm up to 105mm. This isn’t a single lens to purchase, just an option to look for…anything that is 85mm up to 105 mm would be great choices for a short telephoto lens.

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