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The fashion in group portraiture has changed more than in any other branch of photography. The florid "draping" of the sitters in groups of forty or fifty years ago has now given place to neat, formal posing.
Groups involving 100 sitters or more are usually taken with a panoramic camera.
This gave a negative 6 inches or more in depth and as long as the group demands. Prints up to 3 feet in length were not uncommon. This type of work was largely in the hands of specialist firms who act for other photographers on a trade basis.
Groups up to 100 sitters are commonly taken on a J-plate camera and the negative subsequently enlarged to the required size. Such plates (or cut-films) are normally processed in fine-grain developer to ensure maximum, grain-free resolution of each sitter's face. In order to make maximum use of the plate area and to produce a print of pleasing proportions, it is customary to "bank-up" the group as much as possible. In a typical arrangement for a school group of 100 persons, 20 of the smallest pupils would be sitting cross-legged on the ground; 20 (staff and senior pupils) sitting in chairs; 20 standing immediately behind them; 20 standing on forms; and a final 20 standing on tables forming the rear rank.
The photographer is careful when marshaling the group to arrange for even balance of height in all ranks- normally he puts the tallest pupils in the center and allows the ranks to tail away to the sides of the group. A group always looks better if all the members adopt the same pose: either all arms should be folded or all hands should rest in laps; all ankles should be close together or all knees crossed. The exact arrangement rests with the photographer, but uniformity is essential.
Into this category come such assemblies as cricket XI's, football teams and other such sporting groups. The usual arrangement for an "eleven" makes use of five chairs only. The captain sits in the center chair with two players on each side of him. The six remaining members of the team stand behind the seated five covering the gaps between the sitters. Trophies, if any, are placed on the ground in front of the captain.
Occasionally teams wish to be photographed holding their sports gear- e.g., tennis racquets, hockey sticks or rifles in the case of a shooting eight. Particular care is then taken to get the members to hold their gear in a uniform manner or the final effect will be ragged and untidy.
Here are included groups taken on the diverse occasions on which families gather to celebrate some notable event. Strict formality is not appropriate to such groups; the photographer aims at achieving a sense of relaxed, comfortable unity. It is customary for the central characters to be seated with the women seated beside them. The men stand and the children are seated on rugs on the floor.
Such seemingly simple pictures call for the highest degree of technical and creative ability. The formal group is a comparatively simple matter- sitters are posed in conventional fashion and all eyes look towards the camera. In the informal group, the reverse should be the case. There should be some central point of interest to create a sense of artificial unity. A high viewpoint is desirable in many cases so that the camera may appear to be, as it were, an eavesdropper to some notable occasion.
To cite examples: a trophy has been presented to a golfer and the picture shows, from a 7-foot viewpoint, a re-staging of the presentation. All involved are closely gathered around and vigorously clapping hands are seen. Such a treatment is more effective than a formal lineup. A similar theme from a different viewpoint would be treated as follows: the wedding cake is about to be cut and all concerned are grouped closely around the table. The photographer exposes from a very low viewpoint to stress the style and elegance of the gowns worn by the ladies.
Whatever the subject chosen for an informal group, care should be taken that none of the sitters appears to be aware of the camera's existence. This means adopting a technique similar to that for candid photography, in which various methods are used for concealing the camera- e.g., aiming the camera "blind" from inside an open coat.
With many informal groups it is important to capture the atmosphere of the occasion too.
This may mean including in the picture certain objects that are a feature of the surroundings, choosing the position of backgrounds carefully, and selecting the right moment for making the exposure. The choice of viewpoint, influencing the composition, can also play an important part in getting the atmosphere- for instance, a group of chorus girls may look more agile and full of movement if the picture has strong diagonal composition rather than static, horizontal emphasis.
It is, of course, possible to "stage" an informal group beforehand. This involves careful handling and direction of the people if the effect is to look natural. Usually it is better to work out a rough arrangement and make the exposure when the people have relaxed and forgotten the photographer's intentions.
Commercial studios often arrange informal groups for advertising pictures. These are frequently taken in the studio- even if the setting is an outdoor one. In this case, professional models are mostly used, experienced in posing naturally. Photographs of this type are more complex in setting-up than the final picture suggests, and involve much patience and attention to minor details. But the same advice as for other informal groups still applies.
Large groups indoors are best lit evenly from both sides, so that shadows more or less cancel each other out. Such lighting can consist of floods or flash.
When working outdoors it is wise to avoid direct sunlight, as this will cause unpleasant strained expressions and also cast harsh shadows. Soft daylight from a clouded sky is ideal. Diffused sunlight helps to give the picture some sparkle.
In all groups the position in relation to the background is important. The chosen site must be level in a "left-to-right" plane and selected so that it avoids unsightly distraction in the background. A smooth, distant line of trees is almost ideal. Buildings in the background are avoided unless there is some very good reason for including them. The backs of buildings, with their unsightly drain-pipes and other services, are particularly undesirable.
A photographer's success in handling large or small assemblies depends almost as much upon his personality and capacity to handle people as upon his technical ability.
The men who succeed in this exacting branch of photography are invariably calm and deliberate in their methods of working. They have no use for excitable patter, fuss, artistic antics or ponderous humor.