Photographer Barry Harley, his wife, and a group of friends were recently on a week-long vacation at Duns Castle in Scotland where they set out to take a magazine worthy group photo with affordable gear.
Harley used a Canon 5D Mark II, which is a model that’s almost ten years old and you can get it for around $600 used, two Yongnuo YN-560 II flashes (about $75), a PocketWizard, and a 43-inch Westcott bounce umbrella priced at around $20.
Taking inspiration from Annie Leibovitz for his lighting setup, Harley was able to achieve the lighting he wanted by lighting smaller groups of his friends by themselves and then later compositing everyone together into a larger group in editing. By doing the group photo this way, Leibovitz wouldn’t need all lighting gear it would take to light the entire group of his friends. He could use his two lights and focus on the different sections one at a time.
First, he planned out everyone’s positions and shot a few test shots where he properly lit different sections of the background.
Then, Harley grouped his friends into small groups and shot and lit them using his flashes and his umbrella mounted to a C-stand. He then shot both small and big groups lit multiple times in different ways.
After he photographed all of his friends and a photo of just the scene itself without anyone in it, Harley composited his friends into the blank background photo. He then finished the group photo of with some grading and retouching.
What you can learn from Harley’s project and Annie Leibovitz-like group photos is that it’s sometimes better to take things in small steps at a time. Rather than lighting the entire group, Harley kept it simple and focused on individuals. It makes the project much more manageable if you take it in steps. That’s true for both photography and videography.