Movie-star posing for teen groups

Three sisters wanted a great shot of their collective pre-teen, teenage and young adult children. The kids were less than enthusiastic – how could I get them on board?

This portrait was one of 20 images in my submission for the top professional qualification, a Fellowship with the Master Photographers Association.

I took it during a session booked by three sisters. They were looking for a portrait of their combined offspring: ten cousins, aged between 10 and 21 years old.

Driven by their desire for a perfect shot, mums and dads can sometimes ‘peck’ at their children and make lots of ‘suggestions’. Although trying to help, this interference can backfire. That’s a particular risk with teenagers, who tire of parental directives particularly quickly.

In addition, the cousins were not totally enthusiastic about having a formal family photograph. To get them onboard, I sent their mums (the three sisters) off to make themselves a drink, and instead asked the children what kind of portrait they’d like to see.

Naturally, they wanted something that would make them look cool, and definitely didn’t want a cheesy group cuddle with matching grins. Once they saw that I was listening to them and would take their preferences into account, they were a lot more interested in taking part.

Finding the light

It was a lovely summer’s evening, and I noticed that they were all wearing very different styles of footwear: some heels, some flats, some smart and some casual. To bring more coherence to the portraits, I asked them to slip off their shoes and go barefoot instead.

The shoot took place at the beautiful family home belonging to one of the mums. I had worked with the family in this location before and knew that there was usually good light down the end of the garden at this time of day. I dragged everyone down there to see what we could create.

As soon as I saw this wall I started to visualise the shot. The sun was dipping low enough that there was no direct light hitting it. Another wall opposite (behind the camera, as we’re looking at the image) was pale, helping to bounce more light towards where my subjects would be standing. Soft light, bouncing in from all directions, is perfect for flattering everyone in a group portrait.

Directing the pose

I asked the cousins to move close together and then lean against the wall as though we were just having a casual chat.

Once everyone had done that in a way that felt natural and comfortable to them, I asked each individual to make small adjustments to make sure nobody was standing in exactly the same way, as this would look regimented and forced.

As I backed up to take the shot, I kept talking and bantering with them. This meant their eyes would maintain focus on me, and therefore the camera, too. If your subjects start to tune out, their eyes glaze over. In the final images, this loses the connection with the viewer, so be intentional when engaging with your subject and timing your shot.

In post-production, I felt the image worked best as a black and white. The cousins were wearing an array of different-coloured tops, and converting to just light and dark tones removes the distraction of the colours.

The end result feels more like a movie poster, rather than a family portrait, and I’m not sure who loved it the most: the parents or the cousins! I’m quite pleased with it, too!

Camera Settings

  • Focal length: 58mm
  • Aperture: f/5.6
  • Shutter speed: 1/320 sec
  • ISO: 100
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