Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.
While cruising the wild Hebridean seas, we were attacked by Vikings. Beset, we were, by wild men—and women—returned to their ancient haunts, and bedecked in their ancient garb.
Otherwise, it was a nice evening.
Touring the Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis had been glorious (as it always is) and the Zodiacs were waiting to take us back to the National Geographic Explorer. Looking like orange-clad doughboys in our life vests, we were facing stiff winds when the Vikings appeared in a side cove. And, glory be, they were a friendly lot, dispensing very welcome hot toddies and looking ever so fearsome in their (plastic) horned helmets. It was a moment that called out for a group photo.
Which brings me (at long last) to my core question: Which is worse, being attacked by Vikings or having to take a group photo?
Being the photographer saddled with group photo duties is made all the worse because many of the hapless subjects feel like they are being subjected to torture and will not go willingly to their fate. The rest seize the moment to play the clown and can be heard chortling and snorting at their clever disruptions. At best it is like herding sheep, and at worst like herding cats. Generally, chaos rules the day.
It doesn’t have to be that way. And sometimes it can actually be fun, as it was on this evening with the Vikings. I quickly surmised that resistance was futile and so adopted the old physician's dictum: first, do no harm. After all, there was no reigning in this ragtag band. Better to let the chaos run rampant and just capture the fun. If one or two revelers got lost in the fray, so be it. No fancy lighting either. Just a flash on the camera, a couple of quick adjustments to get the sunset glow, and fire away. This is what motor drives are made for.
You won’t always be so lucky. So here are a few tips to ease your misery.
- Take command. Fear not (or at least, show no fear). Everyone expects that someone else in charge of this mess. Step up to the plate. Rise above the fray (literally) if you can. A step ladder is a quite good bully pulpit, and a commanding voice will generally bring the rabble to attention. Become the focal point of activity and half the battle is won.
- Organize the bodies. Think ahead about the physical layout you want for the picture. Then figure out an efficient way to line everyone up or move them around. Old time group photographers used to put a chalk line on the ground. When the group arrived they would tell everyone to stand on the chalk line. Simple. You can try putting a row of chairs where you want them (thinking about composition), then grab the first folks to arrive and tell them to please sit down. As more arrive ask them to fill in behind (and NOT to go beyond either end of the row of chairs.) Then grab a few of younger, spry ones and ask them to sit on the ground up front.
- Recruit co-conspirators. Find a couple of folks to help you on the ground. For instance, the crowd will just naturally want to spill out too far on either side. So grab two people and put them at each end of the line where you want your group. Just say “Stand here and don’t let anybody go outside of you, OK?”
- “Build” a composition. If the group isn’t too large (fewer than a dozen, perhaps) you can often build a more relaxed grouping. Start by select one or two people as the centerpiece (Grandma and Grandpa?) and put them in a central position. Then start adding people, one by one, in around them. Take people gently by the arm, if you have to, and move them where you want them. Don’t expect everyone to just sort of fill in naturally.
- Try subdividing. Some groups naturally lend themselves to subdividing, gathering smaller arrangements of two, three, or four people together within the larger scene. This can add visual variety and make things look much less stuffy. (And not everyone has to stand directly facing the camera. Have a few folks stand sideways, then turn their heads to the camera.)
- Try a different angle. Getting above a group is a marvelous way to see everyone’s face. Just make sure they really get their chins up and look you straight in the face.
- Move quickly. You won’t keep the group’s attention forever so have everything in readiness. Camera focused, exposure checked, lighting checked.
- Talk to them constantly! As long as you are talking they will pay attention to you. If you stop talking then little conversations will break out, and then full-fledged laughter and debates. By then you’re lost. Keep up a little chatter and you’ll stay in charge.
- Make it fun. A little zaniness on your part will go a long way toward easing the atmosphere.
- Play the maestro. When it comes time to snap the picture, change the tempo and take command. Make eye contact. (I like to have the camera on a tripod so I don’t have to be looking through the viewfinder.) Raise your arm like you are ready for the downbeat and say something like “OK, everybody, we’re ready.” (And be ready.)
- Tell them what you want them to do. Remember at this critical moment that all those folks have any idea of what’s happening unless you tell them. I like to be really, really plain. I say, “OK, look at me, look at me, don’t blink, eyes open, look at me, don’t blink” while I snap away. The best way to get everybody’s eyes open is to take several pictures. If you need to make adjustments then tell them so. I say, “Don’t go anywhere, but you can relax for a moment.” Ideally, once I get them in position l like the picture to be over and done in 30 seconds.
- Try something different. Before you let them go take one more. Maybe you can ask everyone to give you a BIG wave or throw their arms in the air (assuming you aren’t photographing the Supreme Court justices).
- Disband the crowd (and grab one more). Keep your finger on the shutter when you say “Thank you everyone.” Very often the pleasant confusion of the breakup is interesting in itself. Sport teams are particularly likely to come to life in the moment when everyone is being released.
Piece of cake!