I made this photograph for an ad appearing in the January/February 2019 edition of Arlington Magazine. It’s one of my all-time favorite group photos. Why? First, the folks at Dodini Behavioral Health were some of the happiest people I’ve ever photographed - and happy people make good, relaxed subjects. Second, all the compositional and lighting elements came together perfectly.
Let’s break it down.
1 - Positioning
You’ve seen the typical group photo: two or three uniform rows of people, shorter folks in front, tallest person centered in the back, everyone lined up in the same direction. I try to avoid “formation posing” when I can. Instead, I group people in “clumps” of 3 or 4 and turn their bodies so that individuals in each clump seem to be interacting with each other. In the image below, you can see how I’ve grouped 10 people into three clumps.
I also hate arranging people so there’s a predictable ramp in height. Instead, I like to create an “Alpine mountain range,” with peaks and valleys scattered across the entire width of the image.
The result is that the viewer’s eye dances across the page, never settling on a center point but moving up and down and jumping from face to face. Each person’s pose, i.e. direction of the body and hand position, also contributes to the dynamic feel of the image.
2 - Lighting
Though it appears simple, lighting this image was quite challenging. The biggest issue was the room itself: roughly 15 feet from camera to wall (short for a group this size), the space filled with large pieces of furniture, and not a lot of room for light stands, reflectors, or softboxes.
The key light was relatively easy: one strobe through a white umbrella, positioned to camera left and just above head level. This would cast a soft shadow behind each person and create shape and definition on each face.
I knew I would need plenty of fill light to even out overall brightness and to prevent harsh shadows on faces. I didn’t have enough space to use umbrellas or softboxes and I was forced to bounce strobes off walls and the ceiling. Because the walls were gray, I had to use several strobes at full power and aim them carefully to prevent hotspots.
The resulting image required a bit of post-processing to even out brightness and to correct for color, but otherwise was quite good straight out of the camera.
3 - Pose and expression
Everyone was relaxed through the entire session and you can see that with their natural smiles. And lucky me - no one blinked. (I often have to Photoshop faces from one image into another.)
The session took just under two hours from start to finish, including moving furniture, shooting at an alternate location outside the building, and shooting a headshot. Big thanks to my subjects for being such a cooperative bunch!