This post is about how to photograph large groups of people on location with speedlights.
Disclaimer: This was my first attempt to light and photograph a large group of people. The final photo is not perfect, but I learned a ton, and that’s really what this website is all about. I hope this post will help if you ever have to take a large group photo and I hope you can learn from my mistakes!
I recently was on assignment photographing and taking video to document a company incentive trip in the Maldives. Tough assignment I know 🙂 If you haven’t ever heard of them (like me before getting this assignment) the Maldives are a small chain of islands south of India. Here’s the wikipedia link. I’ll be writing more about my experiences in this beautiful place soon, but for now I wanted to share how I setup and photographed a large group of people at the end of our visit.
It was a few hours before the farewell dinner was about to begin and someone mentioned that I should get a shot on the beach during sunset of the entire group. I knew this would be a bit of a challenge as the sun would be setting behind the subjects and I would need some fill light to illuminate their faces. Luckily I’ve started packing two speedlight kits. You never know when you’ll need more light on location and I’ve found this setup to be extremely portable and easy to use.
My speedlight kit consists of:
Westcott 2001 43-Inch Optical White Satin Collapsible Umbrella – These handy little umbrellas fold down really small and fit in my carry-on bag just fine. They are quite fragile, and I’ve replaced a few of them after they get blown over and bent up. For the price they serve their purpose. Umbrellas are great for blasting softer light in all directions. Not the most precise of lighting modifiers, but for photographing large groups on location a good umbrella is probably your best bet.
Manfrotto 026 Swivel Umbrella Adapter (Lite-tite) (#2905) – This sturdy adapter mounts on top of a light stand and does the duty of holding your umbrella as well as your speedlight flash.
Yongnuo YN-560 II Speedlight Flash for Canon and Nikon. GN58. – You can spend hundreds of dollars on a Canon or Nikon name brand flash, but the Yongnuo YN-560 seems to be the goto flash for photographers who don’t care about name brands. Seriously, this flash is durable, packs plenty of power for most situations, and is a fraction of the cost of other speedlights.
Manfrotto 5001B 74-Inch Nano Stand – We’re going for portability here again. I almost always pack two of these light stands in my kit. They are super handy if you just need to place a flash and don’t have an assistant to hold one, which is 99% of the time in the work I do.
PocketWizard PlusX Wireless Radio Flash Remote Trigger – There are several ways to trigger flashes when you press your shutter release button. I find the most reliable way is to use PocketWizards. The PlusX version has 10 channels so if you are ever shooting around other photographers you can avoid having them trigger your flashes. I pack three of these. One mounts to the hot shoe on your camera, on one on each speedlight. I use a rubber band to strap the PocketWizard to the top of each YN-560 flash. Each PocketWizard comes with the little cable that connects the PocketWizard to the flash. The YN-560 flashes can also be triggered as a slave, meaning that they will go off if they detect another flash going off. I’ve had mixed results with this feature especially outdoors. I find it easiest to just have a PocketWizard on each flash and get nearly 100% reliability.
About half an hour before the farewell dinner, I setup my two light stands, YN-560s, and umbrellas on a corner of the beach backdropped by the ocean and the setting sun. I could tell because of the size of the group and the potentially strong backlight from the setting sun that I would need as much light from my flashes as possible. I set each flash on full power, shutter speed 1/200 and took a test shot with my coworker as a stand in. I could tell I would have to adjust for exposure as the sun was rapidly setting and the light was constantly changing. I waited until I thought the sunset was going to be about the best it could be and then I started gathering the group in front of my speedlights. This might have been the most difficult part of the process! Wrangling 36 people all into one spot and getting everyone smiling and not blinking all before the sun completely sets is no easy task!
I ended up settling on 1/125 at f4 for this shot:
I’m fairly happy with the results considering the circumstances. The sunset could have been better, but I feel like the exposure is nice and this shot will work for our purposes.
After seeing the image large after the event, there are some things I wish I had done better and will try next time I have to take a group shot:
• The second row of people suffers from shadow on part of their face from the first row of people blocking the speedlights. I think if I could have put the light stands up higher I could have minimized this.
• Related to the first problem, some of the faces in the back are partially blocked by the people in the front. If I could have gotten the camera up higher and shot down more on the group, I could have captured more full faces.
• I really need to work on some funny things to say in this setting to get a large group laughing and smiling in a more natural way. I told a few jokes but by the 5th or 6th shot I was struggling to keep everyone’s attention and keep them smiling.
I learned a ton from photographing this large group of people and I hope you can learn from my experience as well. Do you have a large group shot you’ve taken that you thought went really well? Send it to: firstname.lastname@example.org and I may feature it in an upcoming reader gallery.
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