The holiday season is the time for family gatherings, so it’s often the best opportunity people have to take a family portrait.

When I set up a group portrait, I try to arrange seating so people can sit and stand on many different levels. That helps me vary head heights, which adds interest to a photo and helps keep the viewer’s eye moving.


Then I place the most important people in the photograph first. Normally, this will be the patriarch and matriarch. I like to get them centrally vertically, horizontally, and depth wise, if possible. This will help me with making sure they are in focus.


Because I had very limited space to work, I put in the adults on camera left next to make sure I could fit them in the frame. I also put in the oldest child. I try to fill in people with longer attention spans first, although there may be exceptions. (You know who you are.)


Next, I put in the next oldest kids. I could see at this point that there wasn’t going to be room in the middle for all those legs, so we shifted plans a little.


The younger kids were called in, as well as the adults watching them.


Eventually, everyone was in place.


This photo has four rows of depth, from front to back, but the back row heads are comparable in size to the heads in the foreground. This is because I put the smallest heads in the foreground and the adults in the back. Also, I stood far back (at least twelve feet) and used a 70mm focal length. This helps avoid the perspective distortion you get from shooting close up with a wide angle lens. With this slightly telephoto focal length, I used an aperture of f/5.6 to get the front and back rows sharp and kept my focus on the central couple.

I often use a depth of field calculator to help me know if my aperture is sufficient, but after experience using these same focal lengths and distances, I have a pretty good idea of what I can get away with without looking it up.


I try to stagger heights so that no two people standing next to each other have their eyes on the same level. Similarly, I try to keep from stacking heads vertically. You can see in this photo that the eye could follow an S curve through most of the faces.

I also try to use arms to connect people if possible, to show a relationship. However, when working with small kids in the group, it’s often better just to shoot fast, rather than fine tune all the details.

I could have easily taken three times as long and tried to pose everyone optimally, but we were here for a family gathering after all. There were more important things to do, and there was dessert waiting, after all.