My question for you both is in regards to focus. I know it sounds a bit silly, but whenever I do family portraits, say of a family of four or even two people, there is always one person who is tack sharp and everyone else is soft. This even happens to me at f/4 or f/5.6 I’m really not sure what I am doing wrong. I do try to make sure my shutter speed and ISO are up to speed to avoid camera shake, so I’m not sure what I’m missing. I really need help taking sharp family and group portraits. If you could give any focus tips to creating crisp portraits with my aperture wide open, I would be beyond thankful!
We feel ya, friend. As a photographer, it’s one of the worst feelings in the world to take a great photo, only to get home, zoom in, and realize that it’s not in focus or tack sharp — especially for perfectionists like us! It’s going to happen, of course, more often when you’re shooting wide open at lower apertures like f/1.2 – f/2.0, which is how we shoot most of the time when we’re with a couple on a wedding day, especially if there’s some movement involved, and that’s okay, because we have a lot more time with the couple, so a few soft shots here and there to get the perfect crisp ones with the creamy background that f/1.2 gives us is worth it. Every time. Family and group portraits are another story, because we only get one crack at those. The purpose of group portraits is to clearly see every member of the family or group, so there isn’t a whole lot of creative license. When we’re banging through a list of combinations, we may only get a few frames of the bride and her mother together, so it’s not okay for those not to be in focus, because there are no re-dos. So, here are our top tips for getting sharp family and group portraits on a wedding day:
1. One Shooter, One Organizer
We always divide and conquer family & group portraits to expedite the process. Amy stays near the group, reads off combinations, poses and positions each person, and looks for anything that’s out of order. This gives Jordan the chance to worry about one thing: getting the pictures in focus. Splitting up the roles has really helped us execute this well, because trying to do both is just too much for one person (in our opinion), and can lead to mistakes with the camera.
2. Line Up Their Feet
Groups have a tendency to curl in on the ends to make a U-shape without even realizing it! We all do it — even photographers! — but it’s a problem when trying to get everyone in focus, because as the people on the ends curl up, they’re leaving the focal plane of the people in the middle. So, if you focus on the person in the middle, then the people on the outsides will be out of focus, and vice versa. Amy uses the direction, “Let’s line up your toes,” to help them get straightened out and back on the same plane.
3.Try to Avoid Multiple Rows
If you’re able to get everyone lined up on the same focal plane, that’s best. If you have to do two lines, one of our best focus tips is to make sure and remind the people in the back row to get uncomfortably close to the people in front of them. The farther apart the subjects are (from front to back), the more difficult it will be to get everyone in focus. The closer they are together, the easier.
4. Focus on the People in the Front
If you have a two rows of people standing, make sure to focus on someone in the front and center. Aperture, like a lot of things in photography, works in a system of thirds. So, if your aperture is f/4, then within that focal plane, wherever you focus, 1/3 of that will go forward and 2/3 will go backward. In other words, when you focus on someone in the front, you just need them to be in focus, and nothing in front of them, but you do need the people behind them to be in focus, so you’ll have a better chance of doing that if you give them the extra 2/3 of that aperture’s focal depth.
5. Pick the Right Aperture
If we’re shooting a bride and groom and their parents or a small grouping of bridesmaids or groomsmen (of about 4 people), and they’re all on the same focal plane, we’ll shoot it at f/2.8 to get them all in focus and have nice bokeh in the background. If we’re shooting a full bridal party (of about 10-18 people), and they’re all on the same focal plane, then we’ll bump our aperture up a full stop to f/4.0 (if that makes you uncomfortable, you can always go to f/5.6, but we like f/4.0). We’ll do the same if there’s a second row added in on a small grouping, as long as everyone is very close together, like we explained earlier. If there’s a third row, we’ll go to at least f/5.6 and maybe even f/8.0, but we rarely encounter that because most of our clients usually just want immediate family in the photos: parents, siblings, and grandparents. As a rule of thumb, though, we tend to hang out at f/4.0 for most of family portrait time and keep the groupings smaller, because even though we give up some of the bokeh in the background compared to f/2.8, we’ll trade that for guaranteed in-focus family shots any day of the week. Your client won’t notice the difference between f/2.8 and f/4.0, but they will notice if they’re blurry!
A lens’s sharpest aperture isn’t actually its highest number (like f/22). For most lenses, it’s around f/8 – f/11, so if you’re really worried about getting everyone in a layered group shot sharp and in focus, something in that range will definitely do the trick!
6. Keep Your Shutter Speed Fast
Your shutter should always be double your focal length — at least. We shoot all of our family portraits with a Canon 70-200 2.8 at 200mm because it allows us to pull in a small piece of the background and get clean, non-distracting shots, so that means we keep our shutter at around 400 just to be safe. Can that lens handle a slower shutter? Yes, probably. We shoot it lower than that all the time, but not when so much is on the line. It’s just not worth it. Bump up your ISO one stop to keep your shutter fast. You’ll never notice the grain, and neither will anyone else.
UPDATE: When we wrote this post 15 months ago, we were shooting A LOT (if not most) bridal parties and families at 200mm because we were photographing at venues that only had one good option for a clean background with open shade. In a lot of cases, even THOSE spots had distracting elements on the periphery. Thus, we were going WAY back from our subjects and using the power of compression to pull the one, clean, non-distracting background forward, to make it appear bigger than it really was, to give us the look we wanted and cut out the distractions. This season, a lot of the venues we’re shooting at have beautiful backgrounds with elements on the periphery that we WANT to highlight more, so we find ourselves shooting at 70mm a lot more, but we still shoot bridal parties and families at everything from 24mm – 200mm depending on the situation we’re presented with. Our preference, of course, being whatever focal length gives us the right combination of light and background. That’s probably 70mm over half the time (at least). We hope that helps!
7. Watch Out for Lens Flare
If light is hitting your lens directly and you see lens flare, make an adjustment before you start family portraits. Lens flare can cause the camera to have trouble focusing 100%. You might not notice it right away, but if it’s there, it’ll be a problem. We recommend lens hoods in situations like that. Sometimes we’re limited to where we can shoot family portraits, so if the only spot available is somewhere that has light hitting the lens, a good lens hood will minimize or eliminate that. If you can’t get rid of all of it, you can always have a second shooter or assistant hold a diffuser over the camera, like an umbrella, to shade the lens.
8. Check Your LCD Screen
Every time we take a set of group formals, we check the LCD before we move on to the next combination. It takes a few seconds to make sure everyone’s eyes are open and in focus, and it’s so worth it. We’re passionate about getting everything right in-camera so that we don’t have to pay someone to Photoshop eyes onto someone whose are closed, so, instead, we double-check on-site and do the photo again if we need to.
Friend, we hope that these tips help you get your family portraits in focus every time! If you try these tips and you’re still having trouble, it might be time to send your lens or camera in for an inspection. We’ll be anxious to hear how things turn out!
Until then, lots of virtual hugs!
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