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Family photograph during the fall illustrating how to get large groups in focus

Shooting Group Shots With A 50mm Lens

Group shots can be tricky.

In this post I’m going to show you how you can take pro quality group shots with a 50mm lens.

I used these techniques to shoot thousands of family portrait images for my clients with a 50mm lens.

A 50mm f/1.8 lens is one of the first “fast” lenses that beginners get when they want to upgrade their kit lens. So mastering that lens, no matter what the group size, is a great step towards improving your photography.

So let’s jump right in with tip #1.

1. Make Sure You Have Enough Room

A 50mm prime should be wide enough to shoot group portraits outside, but if you’re shooting inside, then you have to consider whether you have enough space to back up and get everyone in the frame.

Unfortunately, sometimes you won’t know that until you get there and put everyone together.

I do think that a 50mm lens is great for shooting portraits

2. Make Sure Your Aperture Is Not Too Wide

One of the biggest mistakes I used to make when I was shooting group portraits with my 50mm lens was using too wide of an aperture.

Keep in mind that a smaller f-stop (f/1.8 for example) means a wider aperture and a larger number f-stop (like f/22) means a smaller aperture. Wider apertures will cause less of your scene to be in focus (a shallow depth of field).

If you are shooting larger groups (5 or more people), it is a good idea to set your lens at an aperture of around f/5.6 tp f/8.

Here are some scenarios to give you an idea of how much depth of focus you might have at different apertures:

  • If your subject is 20 feet away and your aperture is f/1.8 then you’ll have about 5 feet of focus depth.
  • But move them up to 10 feet away and your focus depth is only 1 foot 3 inches!
  • If your subject is 20 feet away and you’re aperture is f/5.6 then you’ll have about 19 feet 8 inches of focus depth.
  • At 10 feet it is 4 feet 2 inches.

So as you can see, bumping your aperture to 5.6 makes a huge difference in the amount of your frame that is in focus. But you can also just back up a little to “cheat” and get more depth of focus. If you have a camera with a high megapixel count, this can be a great option if you have the room to back up and need the wide aperture because of low light.

A group with two rows of people will need at least 5 feet of focus depth.

PRO TIP: Focus on someone in the front middle to give yourself the best chance at getting everyone in focus. But that’s not a substitute for choosing a suitable aperture.

3. Leave Some Room Around Your Group For Adjustments

Ever get your photo back into Lightroom and realize you were holding the camera a little crooked?

So do I…all the time.

Which is why you need to make sure you have some extra space around your group with shooting. If you’re shooting with a 50mm, you won’t be able to zoom in and out without moving your feet. So the tendency might be to stay still and just fill the frame with people.

Don’t do it!

Move your feet and back up a little. Find some space if you have to.

Make sure that there is sufficient space around your group so that you can crop in a little. This makes sure that when you level the image or need to crop to fit a specific print size…you can avoid cutting off people’s feet or heads!

Today’s cameras have plenty of megapixels and are designed to let you crop in with minimal quality loss. But if you shoot too tight, you can’t get that space back.

4. Keep The Composition Interesting

This should go without saying for any group portrait image, but it’s even more important if you are shooting group shots with a 50mm lens.

The 50mm is a relatively “standard” looking lens (on a full frame camera). Which means that it is close to how we see the world with our eyes. You don’t get the interesting distortion of a wide angle or the compression and bokeh of a long telephoto lens. So you have to focus on your composition and posing.

This is one reason why the 50mm f/1.8 is a great lens for beginners. It will let you focus on the subject and composition and learn those skills rather than relying on the “effect” of the lens for creating compelling images.

5. Shoot at 1/100 Of A Second (or faster)

As a general rule, if you are shooting handheld…then you want to make sure your shutter speed is at least the reciprocal of the focal length. That means that for a 50mm lens you’ll need to keep your shutter speed at 1/100 sec or faster.

By ensuring that you are using a shutter speed 1/100 sec. or faster, you’ll ensure that any camera shake from hand holding the camera will be eliminated. In fact, if the conditions allow, it is a good idea to go to 1/160 or 1/200 to make sure to avoid any motion blur from either your hands or slight movement of the subject.

6. Pay Attention To The Focal Plane

The focal plane is related to the depth of field (or depth of focus). This is the line where your subjects will be in focus. You can picture it as a line that runs more or less perpendicular to the direction that you are pointing the camera.

An important thing to remember is that the focal plane is a curved line. You can see this illustrated in the diagram below.

The important thing to keep in mind with large groups is that putting them in a straight line across may result in the ones on the ends being farther from the camera than the ones in the middle. It’s a good practice to have them stand in a slight arc to make it easier to get them all in focus.

The great thing about a 50mm lens is that the curvature of the focal plane is minimal compared to other focal lengths, especially wider lenses. That’s another reason why a 50mm is a great option for shooting larger groups if you have the room.

Speaking of wider lenses…

7. Consider A Wider Lens For Crop Sensor Cameras

If you are shooting with a crop-sensor camera, then that 50mm lens will be about equivalent to 75mm.

So if you have a crop sensor camera and want the same field of view as a full frame 50mm then consider a 35mm lens.

Many of the things we talked about above will apply to a 35mm lens on a crop sensor camera the same as they do to a 50mm on a full frame camera.

Pete LaGregor

Pete LaGregor

Pete is a photographer in New Jersey and specializes in portraits and commercial photography, but loves shooting landscapes and video for fun. You can check out his work on his website.

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