I can still remember the panic rising in my throat after taking my first formal group photo.
It was a team photo for a local sports program. And the back row turned out blurry.
I had no idea why. The answer, I’ve since learnt, is both a camera focus trick and a lesson in aperture.
Our article will show you exactly how to get a perfectly sharp group photo.
Why Is Focusing a Group so Hard?
Focusing a group photo doesn’t involve any special equipment. You need the typical gear for group and family photos.
Understanding depth of field, however, is essential. Depth of field simply means how much of the image is in focus.
The section of the image that’s in focus is called the focal plane. The focal plane is perpendicular from the camera. It runs in a straight, horizontal line in the photograph.
A narrow depth of field will have a focal plane that’s just centimetres, like a piece of ribbon. Everything on that imaginary piece of ribbon is in focus, but anything beyond is out of focus.
A wide depth of field will have a focal plane that’s a few meters wide, like a sidewalk. Now, everything standing on that road or sidewalk is in focus.
Of course, it’s much easier to fit a group of people on a road than on a piece of ribbon. This means that for a sharp group photo, you need a wide focal plane.
The distance that matters for the depth of field is the distance that each object, or in this case, person, is from the camera. Someone can be standing a few feet to the left of the first person and still be in focus. They are the same distance from the camera, still standing on that sidewalk.
But, put that person a few feet behind or in front of the first and that distance will often throw them out of focus. They’re no longer in the focal plane.
Photographers mainly control how much of the image is in focus using aperture. With a wide aperture, such as an f/1.8, perhaps a few centimetres of the image are in focus. The rest is nicely blurred. That’s that ribbon-width focal plane.
That wide aperture is what creates that soft background popular in portraits. But the depth of field at f/1.8 is so small that the eyes may be in focus but the nose is not.
New photographers often assume that for a group “portrait,” a wide aperture is best.
But if the aperture is so wide that the eyes are in focus and the nose is not, how can you get a dozen pairs of eyes sharply focused?
Photographing a group requires a wide enough depth of field. This means a narrow enough aperture to keep every individual in the image within that in-focus range.
If the depth of field is a few meters instead of centimetres, you can capture the entire group. Leave the blur for the background. Increase the aperture to a number like f/8. Moving from f/1.8 to f/8 changes the focal plane from that ribbon to a sidewalk, making it much easier to get a sharp group.
Aperture is one of the biggest mistakes in bad group photos. But setting a higher aperture isn’t the only aspect to depth of field or getting a sharp image.
If you set up the pose right, you can still get that soft portrait background while getting the group sharply focused.
Here’s how to get all your ducks in a row and get them in focus.
How to Focus for Group Photos
1. Direct the Group to an Area Away From the Background
Group photography requires narrower apertures than when photographing a single person. But what if you still want the background to be blurred?
Use distance instead of aperture to create that background blur.
Set up in a location that allows the group to be a good distance from the background. If the group is leaning against a brick wall, that wall is going to be in focus.
The farther the group is from that background, whether that’s a wall, a studio backdrop or a row of trees at the park, the softer the background will appear.
Of course, you have to balance that distance out with the composition.
The background may not be large enough to get the group 100 meters away. But as you set up, keep both composition and the distance from the background in mind.
2. Pose the Group With Depth in Mind
The farther away the group members are, the harder it will be to get the entire group in focus.
The easiest way to get an entire group in focus is to pose them in a single line. And make sure everyone is the same distance from the camera.
While that’s great for small groups, larger groups need layers to fit everyone in the image.
There’s nothing wrong with using a few layers to getting everyone in. But as you create the different layers, ask everyone to stay as close as possible.
Don’t have two meters of extra space between row one and row two. Ask them to get as close as possible as they can to the first row.
3. Have Your Group Back Up (If Possible)
Ever notice how macro photos tend to have very little in focus? The closer you are to the subject, the narrower that focal plane is. T
he farther that you can stand from the group, the more the group will be in focus without adjusting aperture. Of course, there isn’t always room in the environment to back up or a lens long enough to make that distance possible.
But as you shoot, keep in mind that shooting from a bit farther away will help to keep the group in focus.
4. Set a Narrow Aperture
Next, set your camera’s aperture to one narrow enough to keep everyone in focus. Use aperture priority mode or manual mode on your camera.
The “right” aperture will depend on whether you have different rows or if everyone is standing parallel to the camera. The distance between the group and the camera lens will also affect it.
I start at an f/8 for group photos. I then increase or decrease from there based on how the image is set up.
But sometimes I’m photographing a small group and they’re all standing the same distance from the camera. Then I will lower the f-number.
If I’m trying to photograph a huge group of 50 people, that aperture may be set higher, at f/11 or more.
Remember, aperture also affects how light or dark the image is. If an f/8 aperture is too dark, try getting everyone in a single row. Or try standing farther from the group to drop the aperture while still getting everyone in focus. Or, use a flash to add more light to the scene.
Need a refresher on aperture and manual mode? Read this to get acquainted with shooting modes.
5. Use Single Point Auto-focus and Find the Right Person to Focus On
The focal point that you use in-camera doesn’t start at the front of the focal plane (that ribbon or sidewalk). When you set the focal point, that point is a third of the way into the focal plane. That means 1/3rd of the focal plane is in front of that point and 2/3rds are behind that point.
The camera will have some distance in front of and behind that point in focus. If you place the focus point on the wrong spot, you loose some of that focal plane to empty space.
Set your camera auto-focus mode to single point auto-focus. This mode allows you to move the focal point around with the arrows on the back of your camera to choose where to focus.
For portraits, always place the point over an eye. For group portraits, avoid placing the focus point on someone that’s towards the edges of the frame. The sharpest focus comes from the centre focal points.
If you have a group of two rows or less, place the focal point on the face of a person towards the centre of the first row. While some of the focal plane is in front, more is behind that focal point. Use the first row for small groups.
For groups of three or more, focus on a face that’s the closest to one-third of the way through the group. In a a group with three rows, focus on a face in the middle row.
6. Focus and Shoot
With the group arranged and the focal point set, use a half press to focus and then a full press to take the image.
Burst mode can be helpful for groups. It has nothing to do with focus though and everything to do with avoiding blinks.
7. Checking the Photo and Troubleshooting
While you’re learning, check the shot before the group moves. See if you need to adjust any settings to get everyone in focus.
Use the zoom key to look at each row to see if everyone is sharp. Don’t rely on a three-inch image to judge the sharpness without that zoom button.
If the group isn’t in focus, you may need to increase your aperture or step farther away from the group. Or double check that the focal point was placed on a face towards the front third of the group.
If the background is too sharp, you may be able to step down the aperture or arrange the group farther from the background.
Be sure to also check for posing errors too. People on the ends may come closer to the camera creating a curve instead of a straight line. This can throw them out of focus if the aperture isn’t wide enough.
If you’re shooting a candid group photo, remember people may move slightly as they laugh or interact. Err on the side of a narrower (higher f-number) aperture.
By understanding camera focus systems, depth of field and focal planes, you can take a sharply focused group photo no matter how many people are in front of your camera. Capturing a sharp group photo is a mix of aperture, camera focus modes and setting up that photo.
Set up the group far enough from the background, and you can even get a group photo with a nice soft background.
Capturing a sharp group photo starts with setting up the pose with distance in mind. Both between group members, between the group and the background, and between the group and the camera.
A narrow aperture is often essential to maintaining that sharpness. Remember to place the focal point on a face in the front third of the group.
Group shots can be tricky. But capturing everyone together, whether that’s a team, a family or colleagues, can preserve group dynamics long after the moment ends.