Like herding cats or nailing jello to a tree, organizing large group photos at weddings or during portrait sessions can be challenging (and a little scary and overwhelming!) if you don’t have a solid plan before you arrive. We can help with that! Today, we’re sharing five of our best tips for organizing large groups, like bridal parties and extended families, in the fastest, most effective way possible, so you can have confidence during a time most photographers dread, get group photos your clients L-O-V-E and you’re proud of, too — and have some fun while you’re at it! Sound too good to be true? It isn’t! Let’s get started!
Step 1: Decide if You Need Chairs
One of our goals for large group photos is to be able to see everyone’s face as clearly as possible. Earlier in our career, when we were newer and didn’t have enough experience to have a game plan, we used to string out large groups of people in one long line or single row, — which meant, compared to the frame, they were tiny! We don’t want our subjects looking like ants!
So, now, we (almost) always — whenever possible — use chairs for large group photos. A large staircase can work great too, but we don’t have very many of those at the venues we photograph the most, so chairs have become our best friend because they’re always available and easy to move! Our rule of thumb is this: We use chairs for formal large group photos (bridal parties and families) with more than 8-10 people. A dozen (in total) is the absolute most we’ll ever photograph without chairs. It’s our max. Again, that’s a general rule. You have to evaluate on a case-by-case basis depending on the location and what you have available (in terms of chairs) and the makeup of the group you’re working with. For example, eight adults with two little kids (think ring bearer and flower girl) who can be held or stand in front of an adult, could stand. On the flip side, a dozen wide-shouldered adult males might take up so much space in the frame that they have to be small in order to fit everyone in. In that case, sitting half of them in the front might be a better option, whereas with a dozen petite bridesmaids, you might be able to reasonably fit them all into the frame and still be able to see a lot of detail in their faces. Remember: The goal is to see as much of the people as possible.
Side Note: At a wedding, if the bridal party photos and the ceremony are at the same location, and there are ceremony chairs on the lawn ask the groomsmen to get them for you. They’re big and strong and there are a lot of them (which is why you need chairs in the first place!) so they’ll be able to get it done fast. As the photographer, our job is to be doing our job (photographing!) as much as possible on the wedding day, and every minute we’re doing something other than shooting, our client isn’t getting served as well as they should. Plus, we (almost) always photograph the girls first, so it’s easy to ask the guys after their getting ready photos, “Hey, when you guys come over in thirty minutes, will you bring some ceremony chairs from the back row for me? It’d be a huge help!” Most men are still just little boys in big bodies who love helping — especially when a lady asks! Just make sure they take them from the back corner, so the wedding planner or venue coordinator doesn’t see front row chairs missing and have a rightful heart attack.
Step 2: Do the Math
But how many chairs do I need?! It’s a great question and one that we used to go back-and-forth on and just used trial and error to decide. Then, the two kids who fell in love over being mutually bad at math figured out a simple division equation: total bridal party members (not including the bride and groom) divided by two equals the number of chairs you need. Or, for the math enthusiasts (and Bad-A$$ MCs, for the Mean Girls fans out there), the equation looks like this: Bridal Party/2 = Number of Chairs.
So, for example, if you have sixteen bridal party members (8 bridesmaids and 8 groomsmen) like we had at this wedding below, you’d need eight chairs. When you add the bride and groom, that means you have eight chairs for eighteen people. Wait. If the total group is 18 people, wouldn’t you need nine chairs since that’s half? That’s the obvious answer, for sure! But, in our experience, since people sitting with their shoulders squared to the camera take up slightly more room than people standing at an angle to each other, the best way to get the top and bottom even and symmetrical, where the people standing on the ends are just slightly (like half a body) outside the person sitting on the end, is to have two more people on the top row. In this case, that’s the bride and groom! That’s why we say Bridal Party/2 = Number of Chairs.
This is the same trick we use for big family group portraits too! Remember, a large staircase could be another great option for you, but we tend to use chairs because they are portable and allow us to have full control over the light and background.
Extra Tip: If you have an uneven number of bridal party members, stand two guys on the ends as bookends 🙂
Step 3: Visually Break Up the Colors
Whenever we’re organizing large group photos, we’re always aware of trying to break up the colors that people are wearing because we think it looks the best aesthetically. At weddings, this means we like to alternate guy-girl-guy-girl in the bridal party photos, since the guys are all usually wearing black tuxes, like you see in the photo above, to mix up the color. For family portraits, we try to do our best to keep this in mind, while also making sure to keep “family units” together, too.
Bonus Note: You might’ve noticed that in our own family photo, we snuck in fourteen people without chairs! Like we mentioned in our first tip, there’s always wiggle room with all of these guidelines. We didn’t have chairs or steps available on our family vacation, and we loved having the water be the background. In this photo, you can still see everyone’s faces well because we have two little kids in the front and we got everyone to stand really close to each other. Plus, you’ll notice the spouses hugging on to each other. That saves a lot of space. But you wouldn’t necessarily be able to do that with a bridal party of somewhat strangers. Bottom line: always give yourself permission to do what works best in the moment!
Step 4: How to Move an Entire Row with One Phrase & Two Gestures
We did an entire blog post on taking sharp family and group photos, and one of the points we talk about is asking the back row to scoot as close to the seated row as humanly possible, so that everyone can be in focus at a more wide open aperture, but what about moving rows of people side-to-side? We’ve ALL been in that situation where our bridesmaids or groomsmen or grandmas feel like human seesaws! A little to the left! A little more! WAIT! Too far! Back a little! To the right this time. Nope! Your other right! Almost… almost… PERFECT! Wait. Too far again.
That’s frustrating for everyone, right? Instead, we like to have the shooter (who can see everything best) set the camera down so the group can see our mouth and say very clearly, “Back row. Can you please move this much (insert hand gesture) this way (insert finger point in a direction) for me? Perfect! Thanks!” It works every. single. time. Almost always on the first time. Why? We think it’s because it eliminates room for error in space and direction. Everyone interprets “one step” differently and it’s confusing when we say “to the right” or “to the left” because it usually brings up this question: Whose right? Your right? Or my right?! Lastly, whenever you can get EVERYONE in the same group (or row, in this case) looking and listening at the same time, it’s infinitely easier to get them to MOVE as much as you need in the direction you need when you need them, too. It’s a lot like getting fourth and fifth graders to walk in a straight line. Take it from two former elementary school teachers!
Step 5: Uneven Numbers? No Problem!
This last tip has been a life-saver for us when we’re trying to alternate back-and-forth between guys and girls and we have an uneven number of bridesmaids and groomsmen! Here’s the trick: whichever you have more one than the other, like four bridesmaids and two groomsmen, for example, put whichever gender you have more of next to the bride and groom on either side. Then, alternate boy-girl-boy-girl from there and you’ll also end with the same in the middle as you have on the end. So, in the example of four girls and two guys, it’d look like this:
If you count in the photo below, there’s actually one more bridesmaid than there is groomsman, but your eye doesn’t see it that way because the girls are sandwiching the bride and groom in the back row, and on the ends in the first row! Works like magic!
Or you can simply mix up the guy, girl seating arrangement, like we talked about above, so that it looks more random and a little less placed! This is another fun way to mix it up!
Well, friends, we hope this helps make large group photos scary no more and gives you a plan to get your best big group shots yet!
If you want to learn more about posing large groups, check out our Posing Course!