Dear A&J,

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! 

Sincerely, 

SE

Dear SE,

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.

Focus Tips for Sharp Group Portraits for Photographers

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.

Focus Tips for Sharp Group Portraits for Photographers

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!

Focus Tips for Sharp Group Portraits for Photographers

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!

Focus Tips for Sharp Group Portraits for Photographers

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!

A&J

Focus Tips for Sharp Group Portraits for Photographers

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51 comments

    Shani

    Thanks! These are so simple and make sense and yet I have never thought or read them this way - Thanks for sharing!

    Charlotte

    Brilliant! Thank you!

    Jeanine Churchwell

    Thank you for posting. Great tips to remember!

    Lauren

    Awesome! Any advice for shutter speed with flash on the 70-200 for indoor family formal shots? How do you determine that?

    Joe

    Manual mode, 250 shutter speed, raw image, iso 100, WB flash, try that most of the time works good

    Brianne Adams

    Great post! Thanks for all the wonderful tips!

    Silvana Cordeiro Braggio

    Thank you very much! Great tips!!!!

    Tracy Brauer

    Can I still get a sharp shot using the basic kit lens that came with my Nikon? Last year I had to shoot 20+ people at my grandpa's birthday party. 5 x 7 was ok, but larger prints started to look digitized. Now, it's my grandma's big 80th party & I have to do it again. I would've preferred hiring a professional, but it's too late for that. Is there any hope of creating a clearer shot?? Thanks! I'm enjoying your tips!!

    Amy & Jordan

    Hi Tracy! Great question!

    We'd focus on a few things.

    1. Make sure that the 20 people are as close together as possible if they're in rows. I'd try two rows of 10 or three rows of 7 or so.

    2. Then, be sure to have an aperture of at least 4.0 for the two rows (if not higher) and 8.0 if you go to three rows.

    3. Use the center focal point on your camera and focus on the person in the front center row (for two rows) or the middle row (if you've got three rows).

    Hope that helps and good luck, friend!!!

    Design Theory

    Hmm your tip about doubling your shutter speed for a 200mm on a 70-200mm lens was interesting. I have heard of this tactic about a week ago but never paid attention honestly if I have done this before inadvertently. Bumping up the ISO I understand would be necessary. The length of 200mm on a group shot of more than 7 people is daunting to me, but seeing what you did I am eager to try it. Thanks for your post!

    Amy & Jordan

    Hi, Design Theory! So glad it helped! We shoot most of our group portraits on our 70-200mm at 70mm and try to keep the focal length above 200 for sure and a lot of times between 200-400. We have no problem pushing ISO 800 for two-row group shots with an aperture of 5.6 since the grain at 800 on modern DSLR's is minimal, but if we have to choose between ISO 1600 and dropping our shutter speed closer to 1/100 or something like that, we'll try that first and hold REALLY still ;)

    Rosalinda

    You guys are amazing. Thank you so much for the tips. I've already added you to my favorites list! And look forward to learning more from you both as I begin my venture as a new photographer.

    Amy & Jordan

    Hi, Rosalinda! Welcome aboard, friend! We're so, so glad to have you. Thanks for being part of this online journey with us. We're cheering for you!

    Mica Sato

    Hi guys!

    I don't know how I came about this site but it has certainly helped me a lot for a wedding shoot tomorrow! I don't normally like shooting weddings but out of a friends request I had to give in :)

    I would like to ask you, I love shooting with my 50mm lens at 1.2, is it possible to shoot with this lens for the entire event? Not keen on switching lenses if possible? Obviously after reading your blog I'd probably play a lot on the apertures during group shots. What do you think? Switch or can I stick with this lens? Thanks so much!

    Amy & Jordan

    Hi, Mica! We're so glad it helped! If you send your question over to info@amyandjordan.com we can get something over to you!

    MeLissa Bull

    Thank you.

    Nia

    just finished your webinar, watched life hacks and downloaded quick start guide and I'm not even getting an income from photography! One thing I noticed is that your images are natural light ( I think on the webinar someone asks if you use flash photography) - do you only do daytime/outdoor weddings? If so how do you manage the harsh light during ceremony where you don't get to choose the location? (sorry I haven't had time to go through all your images). So many questions!!

    Amy & Jordan

    Hi Nia! Thank you so much for watching!

    If you search "light" on our blog, you should find other blogs when light isn't ideal!

    Stephanie Cass

    Hi Amy & Jordan, you guys are great btw, I have a question. My camera came with a kit lens, 18mm and I'm often not happy with the DOF I get in portraits, so I switched to using my 55-300mm lens (came with the camera) But I find that really cuts down my frame, how far back should I be standing from the couple or group for my speedlite to still properly illuminate them and get that nice tack focus? Thanks so much for any help you can offer!

    sarah

    Oh my gosh, you guys are amazing! What a great post...I actually feel like I am starting to understand!

    Cindy

    Thank you for sharing these helpful tips.

    subira

    Thank you... just started "freezing moments" and this will help alot..

    Janie

    I have struggled with this for so long. Amy and Jordan, this is awesome!! Thank you so much! I can't wait to try all your tips out.

    Janie

    I have struggled with this for so long. Thank you so much for explaining in a way that no one else has. This is awesome, can't wait to try out these tips!!

    Kathy

    Hello Amy and Jordan! I love your work...I myself am a retired elementary school teacher...who married her high school sweetheart as well! My question is what metering do you use? Partial, spot or centered weighted? For your photos? Or do you use a variety for different shoots? Thank you!

    Dee

    Thank you so much for sharing!

    Amy & Jordan

    You're so welcome, Dee!

    Beverly Maunus

    Hello- I am shooting a group of 16 this Sunday. Adults and kids. I have a Nikon 700 and usually use an 85mm 1.4 lens. I also have a 70-200 lens and a 50mm. Which one would you use. How can I get them all in focus? There is also going to be great foliage and color in the background. I am shooting mid day to accommodate

    Amy & Jordan

    Hi Beverly! If you shoot us an email at info@amyandjordan.com we can make sure to get your question answered!!

    Beverly Maunus

    Hello- I am shooting a group of 16 this Sunday. Adults and kids. I have a Nikon 700 and usually use an 85mm 1.4 lens. I also have a 70-200 lens and a 50mm. Which one would you use. How can I get them all in focus? There is also going to be great foliage and color in the background. I am shooting mid day.

    […] http://amyandjordanblog.com/2014/education/taking-sharp-family-and-group-portraits/ […]

    Meylyng

    Hi A&J,

    Thank you for sharing all this information with us. Love your work. So excited to be trying out your tips toning at a Birthday Party.
    Is there any other lens recommended to take group photos that is not the 70-200mm which i don't owe yet... (on my wishlist)? Owning a 85mm f/1.4 and a 11-16mm f/2.8, kit lenses, ff body and c-body, and a 17-40mm f/4.......

    Amy & Jordan

    Hi Meylyng!! Thank you!! If you send us an email at info@amyandjordan with your questions we can definitely get it answered for you!

    Madeline

    Good day!
    I have a Canon EOS 70D dlsr and need to shoot group photos ranging from 3 ppl to about 12. The photos are indoors with enough light to not have to use flash. I have selected Aperture priority, F.Stop 7.1 and ISO to Auto. I also chose burst shots because people tend to move. Are these good settings? Thank you!

    Amy & Jordan

    Hi Madeline!! Thanks so much for your questions! If you send us an email at info@amyandjordan.com we can get them answered for you as soon as possible! :)

    Holly Mellown

    I can't believe it's taken me so long to find you! Your tips are amazing and just what I needed to help my photography get to the next level! Thanks a million times over for being accessible and willing to lend a helping hand!

    Amy & Jordan

    Aw! Thanks so much, Holly!!

    Dany

    Thanks! It will help me for the aperture.

    Amy & Jordan

    Absolutely, Dany!! We're cheering for you! :)

    Miranda

    Hi was wondering on what you use in shooting group photos with a NikonD5000 at 18-55mm lens? im still learning on it, some shots i had great focus and some not, it gets so frustrating when it comes to lighting if your in a home with low light or just the position im standing because the light changes every time you move to stand, or just outside in general, shots can be to dark or to light. much needed of advice and assistance on this ! thanks !

    Tracee Pickle

    It is very kind of you to spend time detailing these tips for us! This was most helpful. Your photography is beautiful!!

    Amy & Jordan

    Hi, Tracee! We're so glad you found these tips helpful! Thanks so much! Hugs!! :)

    Javier Larios

    Enjoyed your tips. Thank you!

    Amy & Jordan

    We're so happy to hear these tips were helpful!! Thanks so much, Javier! :)

    Kendra

    Thank you for the tips! I am shooting my first wedding and have been reading your pages and practicing. I am loving it! Thanks Amy and Jordan! Now if I can just remember everything....

    Amy & Jordan

    Hi, Kendra! Awe! We're so glad our blogs have been helpful to you! Good luck!! <3