How do you get such sharp family and group portraits? It’s one of the most common questions we get from photographers — because it’s one of the most normal technical challenges new photographers have. A few specific focus tips can make all the difference in walking onto a session with confidence. We remember exactly what it felt like to be nervous at a session, acting calm and positive in front of the client (Everything looks great, guys! Perfect!) while inside we were secretly scared to death, because someone had finally PAID US to take their pictures… and we were realizing the group images weren’t even IN FOCUS. In those moments, the doubts that had lingered in the back of our mind for months got louder. We felt the opposite of professional.
Have you been there? We want to change that for you today!
Or, maybe you’re in a different boat. Maybe your images look sharp on the back of your screen, but when you get home they’re a little soft. That was SO HARD for perfectionists like us! It still is today. We’d be lying if we told you that every image we take is tack sharp. It can’t be. That’s not a realistic expectation for anyone. Especially on wedding days when we’re shooting wide open, at lower apertures like f/1.2 – f/2.0, with a bride and groom who are moving — and that’s okay! Because we have a lot more time with the couple than we do for family photos, for example, where we only get the fire the shutter a few times. So if a few shots of the couple are soft (here and there) in order to get some perfectly crisp ones with the creamy background that f/1.2 – f/2.0 gives us, then it’s worth it. Every. Single. Time.
Family and group portraits? That’s a different story. We only get one crack at those, and they have a completely different purpose.
Lastly, the larger the group is, the more combinations they want and the less time there is to work with (which is basically all wedding days!), the more pressure and room for error there is — which makes it really important for the technical part to be second nature to the photographer, so the photographer can focus (pun intended) on giving the clients a fantastic experience. We can help with that!
Here are our top focus tips for getting sharp family and group portraits on a wedding day or during a large group family session.
We always divide and conquer family and group portraits to expedite the process. Amy stays near the group, reads off combinations, poses and positions each person (click here to watch a free posing class with us!) and looks for anything that’s out of order. This gives Jordan the chance to focus on his composition, settings and getting the pictures in focus. Splitting up the roles has really helped us execute this well, because trying to do both is a lot for one person — especially if it’s a large group or challenging family — and can lead to mistakes with the camera. If you’re shooting a wedding solo, we recommend asking the wedding planner or the least intoxicated, most responsible-looking family member to assist with the shot list.
If you’re shooting a family session alone and don’t have the luxury of a second shooter/assistant, we’d recommend putting your camera down while you instruct and organize the group, step back, take a breath, look at the entire group before you bring the camera up to see if you need to make corrections and then bring the camera to your face to get the shot.
Groups have a tendency to curl in on the ends and make a U-shape without even realizing it! We all do it — even photographers! — but it’s a problem when trying to get everyone in focus because as the people on the ends curl up, they’re unintentionally stepping out of the focal plane, so when you focus on the person in the middle (like you always should), the people on the ends will be out of focus. The fastest, easiest way to correct this is with a preset in Photoshop that sharpens everyone that’s our of focus. JUST KIDDING. Like we teach in our Shooting & Editing Course, the fastest, easiest way to correct problems is IN-CAMERA. In this case, Amy uses the simple direction,”Let’s line up your toes,” to help them get straightened out and back on the same focal plane.
If you’re able to get everyone lined up on the same focal plane, that’s best. If you have to do two lines, one of our best focus tips is to make sure and remind the people in the back row to get uncomfortably close to the people in front of them. The farther apart the subjects are (from front to back), the more difficult it will be to get everyone in focus. The closer they are together, the easier it will be.
If you have a two rows of people standing, make sure to focus on the person who’s front and center. Aperture, like a lot of things in photography, works in a system of thirds. So, if your aperture is f/4, then within that focal plane, wherever you focus, 1/3 of that will go forward and 2/3 will go backward. In other words, when you focus on someone in the front, you just need them to be in focus, and nothing in front of them, but you do need the people behind them to be in focus, so you’ll have a better chance of doing that if you give them the extra 2/3 of that aperture’s focal depth. In this photo below, we focused on the bridesmaid sitting in front, and you’ll notice the bride in the second row is completely in focus, too.
One of the most important focus tips when shooting groups of people is to make sure you choose the right aperture. If we’re shooting a bride and groom and their parents, or a smaller grouping of bridesmaids or groomsmen (of about 4-6 people), and they’re all on the same focal plane, we can shoot at f/2.8, get them all in focus and (depending on the lens we’re using, our distance to them and their distance to the background) maybe some blur or bokeh, too. If we’re shooting a larger bridal party grouping (of about 8-10 people), and they’re all on the same focal plane, then we’ll bump our aperture up a full stop to f/4.0. If that makes you uncomfortable, you can always go to f/5.6, but we like f/4.0. We’ll use f/4.0 if there’s a second row added to a small grouping, as long as everyone is very close together, like we explained earlier.
If there’s a third row, we’ll go to at least f/5.6 and maybe even f/8.0, but we rarely encounter that because most of our clients usually just want immediate family in the photos: parents, siblings, and grandparents. As a rule of thumb, though, we tend to hang out at f/4.0 for most of family portrait time and keep the groupings smaller, because even though we give up some of the bokeh in the background compared to f/2.8, we’ll trade that for guaranteed in-focus family shots any day of the week. Your client probably won’t appreciate the difference between f/2.8 and f/4.0, but they will notice if they’re blurry!
Pro Tip: A lens’s sharpest aperture isn’t actually its highest number (like f/22). For most lenses, it’s around f/8 – f/11. So if you’re really worried about getting everyone in a large, multi-layered, generational group shot sharp and in focus, something in that range will definitely do the trick!
As a rule of thumb, especially for new photographers, one of the most imperative focus tips is that your shutter speed should be double your focal length — at least. We shoot a lot of our family portraits with a Canon 70-200 f/2.8 at 70mm with a shutter speed somewhere between 1/200 and 1/400. Can that lens handle a slower shutter? Definitely! At this stage in our career, if we’re not moving and our subjects aren’t moving, can our hands handle a slower shutter and avoid camera shake? Probably! We shoot it lower than that all the time, but not when so much is on the line. It’s just not worth it. Bump up your ISO one full stop to keep your shutter faster. Outside on a bright day (even if you’re in the shade), you’ll never notice the grain from a higher ISO — and neither will anyone else — but you will notice if someone’s face isn’t in focus… and so will everyone else.
If the sun is hitting your lens directly and you see lens flare (like a haze over the entire image), try to make an adjustment before you start family portraits. Lens flare can cause the camera to have trouble focusing. You might not notice it right away, or until you get home, but if lens flare is there, it’ll be a problem. We recommend lens hoods in situations like that. Sometimes we’re limited to where we can shoot family portraits, so if the only spot available is somewhere that has light hitting the lens, a good lens hood will minimize or eliminate that. If you can’t get rid of all of it, you can always have a second shooter or assistant hold something to shade your lens.
Every time we take a set of group portraits, we double check the LCD screen before we move on to the next combination. We have our cameras set to zoom in tight with one click so we can see our client’s eyes quickly. Even on a tight timeline, it only takes a few seconds to make sure everyone’s eyes are open and in focus; if they’re not, it only takes a few more clicks of the shutter to correct it. An easy correction to make on the spot, but a huge headache to try to correct later digitally!
We hope that these focus tips help you get your large group and family photos in sharp focus every time! If you try all of these tips and you’re still having trouble with sharp focus, it might be time to send your lens or camera in for an inspection at a local camera shop. Canon and Nikon also have professional service programs where you can send your gear for routine maintenance and, when needed, repair. Here’s a link to a blog post we wrote about our experience with Canon Professional Services.
If you’ve eliminated all user error and had your gear inspected by a professional, and you’re still struggling with focus, it might be time to upgrade your camera and lens to newer models. If you need help with that, click here to see a full list of all the gear that’s in our bag. Hint: If we had to shoot a wedding with just one camera and one lens, we’d choose the Canon 5D Mark III and the Canon 50mm 1.2.
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