The Secret to Composing Group Portraits

Family Portrait featuring three generations of men.

Nikon D800e camera and Nikon 24-120mm f4 lens. Exposure: 1/100 second f8 ISO 800.

Would you like to know the secret to composing group portraits? Actually there are several, but one of the most important ones is based upon the notion of circles and triangles. Over the years I’ve researched this notion in some depth and have traced this essential element of composition back as far as the Renaissance. Most likely it goes back even further.

Circles and Triangles

Let’s look at the above photo as an example. Imagine you’re drawing it. Likely you’d pick up your pencil and start sketching the basic shapes, prior to adding shading and texture.

Now let’s consider the most important shapes. You might say that they’re faces. Let’s simplify that a bit. From a compositional point of view those faces are actually circles. Now you might want to correct me and call them ovals. Well, smartie pants, just remember this exercise is about simplifying composition. So, with that in mind, I’m sticking with circles.

So the most important element, from a structural point of view, are circles. Now take a look at how I’ve linked those circles together. If you draw imaginary lines between them you’ll find those circles (i.e., faces) are linked into groups of three, and each group of three forms a triangular shape.

How many triangles can you find amongst this most handsome bunch of guys? You should end up with six or seven triangles.

Extra Advantages of this Theory

Drilling down a little further we can say that the use of triangles allows us to build a variety of sub-groups within the larger group. And that’s particularly important when the larger group includes, for example, siblings and their partner and children within a larger (e.g., three generations) family portrait.

Another great example of my circles and triangles approach is that you no longer have the situation where you’re losing people by having them hidden behind someone else. What’s more you’re able to organise them into a relatively smaller group, thereby making them appear closer and easier to see, compared to spreading them out in a long, straight line.

Now clearly, unless your subjects are trained artists, they’re not going to comment on your photography by saying “Hey dude, love the circles and triangles.” The idea of composition, when dealing with the general public, is that it doesn’t so much scream out to the viewer but blends into a pleasing, harmonious result. Just what your customer is looking for.

You can look forward to more group portraits next week. 

Hope this helps. Please feel free to share widely and wildly.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru