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Designing Wedding Groups

Today's post, which offers some insights into designing effective group portraits, comes from the book Master Posing Guide for Wedding Photographers by Bill Hurter. It is available from Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

There are a number of ways to look at designing groups. The first is a technical aspect. Design your group so that those posed in the back are as close as possible to those in the front. This ensures that your plane of focus will cover the front row as well as the back row. Ensuring such an arrangement is a good habit to get into if you want your groups to be sharply focused.

The second consideration in designing groups is aesthetic. Y
ou are building a design when creating a group portrait. Norman Phillips likens group design to a florist arranging flowers. He says, “Sometimes we might want a tight bouquet of faces. Other times we might want to arrange our subjects so that the group looks interesting apart from the dynamics of the people in the group.” In other words, sometimes the design itself can be what’s important.

This is a carefully designed and expertly executed group photo by Kevin Jairaj. You have three subgroups set inside three arches. Each group is carefully arranged to create a V shape. The strength of the group arises from its asymmetrical nature (three, three, and two). Notice that the bride is the only one in a formal pose. She has good posture, with her weight on the back foot and standing erect. This contrasts with the tilted poses of the bridesmaids.

A third consideration is proximity. How close do you
want the members of the group to be? Phillips relates proximity to warmth and distance to elegance. If you open the group up, you have a lot more freedom to introduce flowing lines and shapes within the composition. On the other hand, a tightly arranged group where members are touching implies warmth and closeness.

Composition Basics Still Apply
When working with groups, the rules of
composition (like the rule of thirds) remain the same, but several key members of the group become the primary area of interest. In a wedding group, the bride and groom are usually the main centers of in
terest and, as such, should occupy a prime location.

Creating Lines and Shapes
Implied and inferred lines and shapes are created by the placement of faces within the frame. These become all the more important in group portraits, as they are the primary tool used to produce pleasing patterns within the composition and guide the eye through the picture.

This means that no two heads should ever be on the same level when next to each other, or directly on top of each other. Not only should heads be on different levels, but the subjects should be as well. In a group of five people, you can have all five on a different level—for example: one seated, one standing to the left or right, one seated on the arm of a chair, one kneeling on the other side of a chair, one kneeling down in front with their weight on their calves. Always think in terms of multiple levels. This makes any group portrait more pleasing.

The bigger the group, the more you must depend on your basic elements
of group portrait design—circles, triangles, inverted triangles, diagonals, and diamond shapes. You must also really work to highlight and accentuate lines, real and implied, throughout the group. If you lined people up in a row, you would have a very uninteresting “tea
m photo,” a concept that is the antithesis of fine group portraiture.

Notice the different head heights in this group portrait. They’re like musical notes on a score. The photographer, Marcus Bell, arranged the group into five neatly organized subgroups to give the overall gathering some dynamics. It is very effective and an attractive means of photographing a big group, like the bridal party.

The best way to previsualize this effect is to form subgroups as you start grouping people. For example, how about three bridesmaids here (perhaps forming an inverted triangle), three sisters over on the right side (perhaps forming a flowing diagonal line), a brother, a sister and their two kids (perhaps in a diamond shape with the littlest one standing between her mom and dad). Then combine the subsets, linking the line of an arm with the line of a dress. Leave a little space between these subgroups so that the design shapes you’ve formed don’t become too compressed. Let the subgroups flow from one to the next and then analyze the group as a whole to see what you’ve created.

Dissect this attractive pyramid-shaped group by South African photographer Brett Florens and you will see three straight lines and three groups of three, using the center-most standing girl in two groups. Good groups are nothing more than a careful arrangement of subgroups linking shapes and lines.

Remember that arms and hands help complete the composition by creating motion and dynamic lines that can and should lead up into the subjects’ faces. Hands and arms can “finish” lines started by the basic shape of the group.

Just because you might form a triangle
or a diamo
nd shape with one subset in a group does not mean that one of the people in that group cannot be used as an integral part of another group. You might find, for example, that the person in the middle of a group of seven unites two diamond shapes. In a portrait like this, each subset could be turned slightly toward the center to unify the composition or turned away from the center to give a bookend effect.

This wonderful portrait is not only a good group portrait, but a storytelling image as well. The bridesmaids, intent and confident they can fix the flowergirls’ hair, are hard at work, while the younger girls look at one another incredulously. Notice, too, the interplay of cohesive lines within the composition, which keep your eye within the circle of girls and tie the individuals together in an integrated composition. Photograph by Kevin Jairaj.

Be aware of intersecting lines that flow through the design. Diagonal lines are by far the most compelling visual line and can be used repeatedly without fear of overuse. The curving diagonal is even more pleasing and can be mixed with sharper diagonals within the composition.

Also, keep an eye on equalizing subject proximity—don’t have two heads
close together and two far apart. There should be equal distance between each of the heads. If you have a situation where one person is seated, one standing, and a third seated on the arm of the chair (placing the two seated heads in close proximity), back up and make the portrait a full-length. This minimizes the effect of the standing subject’s head being far from the others.

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