Introduction: Group Photos in a Dark Building

About: I miss the days when magazines like Popular Mechanics had all sorts of DIY projects for making and repairing just about everything. I am enjoying posting things I have learned and done since I got my first to…

Taking photos of a group, like a wedding party, in a church presents special problems, particularly with regard to lighting.

This is the group photo I set up and took yesterday for our 2009 confirmation class. I blackened the eyes in this version of the photo to satisfy any legal details about recognizable photos of minors posted on the Internet without model releases, etc. I am the guy in the middle with the gray hair.

Step 1: Side Windows at the Altar

The first problem with photographic lighting in a church is side lighting at the altar. Most group photos in a church will be taken with the altar area as a backdrop. Side lighting makes a nice effect for a worship service, but is a real problem when making group photos. Most often the metering systems in automatic cameras will give preference to the side lighting. Since the side lighting is sunlight coming through crinkle glass, it can overpower most electronic flash units on home cameras. The group will be shown as a dark silhouette with unrecognizable faces.

Step 2: Halogen Shop Light

I have a halogen shop light capable of 1500 watts at the brightest setting. It was used to make the photo of the confirmation class in the Introduction of this Instructable. Light from a halogen shop light is very close to sunlight in color temperature.

Step 3: Remove the Wire Basket

Shop lights come with a protective wire basket designed to keep you from touching the hot glass face. It casts faint shadows in a grid pattern. You do not want shadows like that across your finished photos. I can remove one screw at the top of the light and open the frame on the face to remove the basket.

Step 4: Attach the Shop Light to a Light Stand

My shop light does not have a tall stand, but I do have an extendable photographic light stand.

Long ago I made a wooden adapter to fit onto the light stand for auxiliary electronic flash units. That was fine for a film camera, but digital cameras send out a pre-flash for metering purposes and to cancel red eye. I cannot use my electronic flash units to supply the extra light I need, at least not with my digital camera.

To make this adapter I drilled a hole into a piece of oak the same diameter as the thinnest tube on the light stand (red arrow). Then I cut a saw kerf (green arrow) so I could squeeze the oak and clamp it to the light stand tube with a bolt and a wing nut (purple arrow). The top section of the adapter tilts and is controlled with another bolt and wing nut (azure blue arrow). A bolt and wing nut fastens the shop light's frame to the wooden adapter (yellow box).

Step 5: The Setup

You can see how dark this church is. It sucks up light like a sponge sucks up water. I might be able to use the small flash on my camera, but the lighting would look pasty.

The flash is also too close to the lens so that red eye is almost guaranteed. Red eye is caused by too narrow of an angle between the flash and the lens. Red eye is actually light reflecting back to the lens from the blood vessels at the back of the subject's eyes. If you ever watch a professional wedding photographer, the flash on his camera is mounted about 15 inches above the lens on something called a Jones bracket.

Here you can see the camera is raised so it will be at eye level with the subjects. The shop light is on the light stand and is just to one side of the camera. That is to make some pleasing shadows that provide definition and roundness to the faces. The shop light is also raised about 18 inches above the lens to eliminate red eye.

Bring the camera and the light as close to the subjects as possible. Light on a photographic subject grows weaker as the light is moved farther away by the inverse square law. That means making the light twice as far away decreases the intensity of the light to one-fourth of what it was. Moving the light as close as reasonably possible helps to overpower the sunlight coming through the side light windows.

Step 6: Making the Exposure

Normally our confirmation photos are made with the group standing, but the young man second from the left is confined to a wheel chair. So, we all decided to sit. In my father's confirmation photo from 1924 all of the class and the pastor posed while sitting.

I obviously did not press the shutter button. We did not use the self-timer on the camera, either. One of the parents stood behind the camera. She did not count to 3 or say, "Cheeze." Instead she did something I found in some Kodak materials. She moved her face out from behind the camera and talked to the kids while smiling. That gave the kids the opportunity to respond to the face of another person. It always results in a much more natural and pleasing expression on the faces of those in the photo.

With a group photo always take more than you think you will need. The larger the group, the more probable it is that someone will have an odd expression. In order to make their expressions more natural, I ask the members of the group to lick their lips. Their lips move more naturally when they are not dry. And, there may even be a little reflection to define their lips that would not have been there with dry lips.

In a photo like this you want the skin tones to be properly exposed. I set my camera to its Manual mode, cancelled the flash, and over-exposed between one-half and one f/stop (1.5x -2x over-exposure). Had I let the camera use the meter's suggested exposure, the white gowns would have been perfectly exposed and our faces would have been too dark. Once white is shown as white, it does not matter much how much whiter or how pasty it gets.

If your camera is fully automatic and does not have a Manual mode, you can still trick it by going into the menu and setting the exposure compensation to over-expose by a factor of 1.5x to 2x.

An advantage to taking our own confirmation photos is that we do not need to wait around for a photographer after the service has ended and families are in a hurry to gather for their celebratory meals. We get the photo out of the way during the Sunday School hour before the worship service begins. And, I just burn the photos we took to a disc and give each family a copy. It costs them nothing and they can get as many prints as they want in whatever sizes they want.