QA: Lighting a 1,300-Person Group Shot [Magnum Opus]

Reader Albert Yee asks, via Twitter:

Ever shoot a group of 1,300 before? Trying to wrap my head around a possible assignment: Teachers and staff in a basketball arena.

1,300? 1,300. Hmm.

Lighting 1,300 people indoors is a Herculean task, no matter how you slice it. Can you do it? Do you wanna do it? How would you charge for it? Lotsa questions.

Let's jump in.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an epically long read. Basically a brain dump of everything that would go through my head if faced with this assignment. I wouldn't even start it if you are over 45 years old. Might not have the time left.

The Easy Way Out

The slick move for this would be to go available light. And if it is a decent, modern arena, it is lit for sports. Which might be just fine for your group shot. Say it is lit to 1/500 at f/2.8 at ISO 1600. We'd just trade shutter speed for f/stop and ISO. Let's say you want f/11 for nice depth of field. And ISO 400 for a balance of quality and speed.

That'd be an eighth of a second at f/11. Maybe better to go 1/15 at f/8. On a tripod this is totally doable. Just let people know they need to stand still. Remember, they are far away and tiny in the frame, so modest movement won't show. And shooting from up very high in the bleachers would put the gym lights just about the right angle of approach for a group portrait.

Rent a Nikon D800. And maybe a 45mm Tilt-Shift to put the plane of focus across the crowd. (That's what the tilt is for. They don't make those lenses for Laforet's fake minatures.) That'd buy you some aperture/shutter/ISO/whatever you wanted to spend it on.

But you'll need some serious pixels. Your D200 is not going to cut this. It would be nice if each person got more than one pixel.

Go to the gym and bring a good tripod, a cable release and an assistant. Shoot RAW. See if you can work it out.

Seriously, Dave, available light?

Yes. Do not go looking for trouble. Because that is what is waiting for you if you try to light this. But you look like just the kind of guy who is looking for trouble...

Did I say lighting this would be a Herculean task? Let's go with Spartan instead. Because any lighting rig will be a spartan approach to lighting 1,300 people. You'll be cheating every variable. This is a big task, and something you obviously have not done before. Hell, I haven't done it before.

Step one: Channel a little Gerard Butler and psyche yourself up. You'll need it, because rather than battling Persians you are going up against the laws of physics. And physics is undefeated.

Step two: Hit the calculator.

No, not to figure out your vast fee. Yet. That comes later and maybe this big crowd can work for you there. Our first stop is a quick visit to the square root button. Quick, what's the square root of 1,300?

So that quickly tells you that you are looking at about 36 rows of about 36 people. Not tiny by any means, but probably better looking than that vague mass of humanity visual that was that was keeping you awake at night. But it's still a butt-load of people.

So, 36 x 36. Or 18 x 72. Or whatever ratio you choose, driven by shape. The ideal shape will be more sophisticated than that. But we'll talk about the shape in a minute.

Next you'll need some height. Which means you'll need to make sure the bleachers will be extended if they have any chance of being retracted when you show up. (Again, dunno your arena situation for sure.)

You cannot snap your fingers and make that happen. But someone in your group of 1,300 staff and faculty can. Figure out who that is, and make sure they will have the bleachers set up, and have the arena/gym ready for you and your assistant two hours before the shoot.

(Here, I am assuming you have already run through a lighting scout to see if this is actually possible.)

Two hours on the day of the shoot is the minimum amount time you'll want to pre-light it. If they say it is not available, then tell them you are not available. If they want their art-teacher-who-has-a-REALLY-nice-camera to shoot this, that's fine. But if they want a professional quality photo, you need to have access be there early to light it.

And again, I would go earlier on a different day and do a run-through pre-light to see if you have enough light to pull it off. Because this may require some serious light rental — as in possibly trunkful of Profoto 2400s.

Besides, this demonstrated preplanning will help to connote that your hefty fee is not just about you parachuting in and snapping a button.

Next place I am going is to my trusty pad of quarter-inch graph paper. I am going to plot out a shape that looks not unlike a shot put field, or a radar sweep:

Conveniently, each square on the graph paper can be mapped out to represent a person. A typical sheet of quarter-inch graph paper contains 1290 squares. That's right at our magic number of 1,300. And holy crap that is a lot of people. Did I mention that. Getting real concrete now, isn't it.

I have an idea. Why don't we back out.

No? Okay.

I'd lay it out on two sheets as shown. This is a rough estimate, but the idea is that you wanna include about half of the squares on two sheets of paper. This will give you the person-unit dimensions of the space you'll need.

Why this shape? It's like a section of an arc. A radar sweep, if you will. It'll look better than a rectangle from your camera position. Each row is equidistant across the row. But more important, it will elegantly control the distance between the closest row and the furthest row. Meaning, it will get you the most bang for your depth-of-field buck.

You could do a rectangle. Or a square. Or a fan (spread sides, but no arc on the front and back lines.) Whatever. Just a thought. But you'll need more depth of field to handle it.

Now you have your shape and your unit dimensions. Figure out how much linear space you need for each person. Physically line some friends up and measure them. Now you have a graphed shape that you can scale and project out on the gym floor.

Do the math and weep. Reconsider going available light, shooting RAW and spending an afternoon in post. I would.

Because that scale projection is what you'll have to solve to see the space needed to herd all of these people prettily. You'll plot it out in real life and gaff-tape the corners of the sweep in the gym. And gaff a few dotted lines of the sides and the front and back arc. Now everyone will know where to go. Um, I'd bring a few rolls of gaff. Easy to Photoshop out.

But also, having these real-life dimensions will help you plot distances that you can plug into a guide number calculator and see how much bang you are gonna need, after adding in the lights' estimated offset distance from the group.

This might scare the crap out of you. Be ready for that. You might need way more power than you (or I) think. Did I mention available light as an option?

Camera Position

Obviously, you'll want to be up in the bleachers. You need the height. I'd frame it shooting from a little ways up the bleachers at mid court, with the group symmetrical on the center court line.

You're not all the way up because while you want to be visible to everyone, you also to leave more height available for your key light. Plus, and this is very important, you'll be balancing your lighting distance very carefully.

More distance gives you more evenness, but robs you of illuminating power. That's your balance, which you'll find out as you go to set your key light. In fact, you could just pre-test that light because the others (fill and rim) have a little wiggle room.

On a full-frame camera, I'd be looking to shoot this on a 50mm or a 35mm. Or that Tilt-Shift 45mm.

Remember, the 45TS could put your plane of focus right across everyone's faces and in theory make them all sharp even wide open. Still, I'd go to 5.6 minimum.

But either way, the lens choice will drive the camera distance decision. Wider than that and you'll make the front folks too prominent vs. the back folks. Longer than that and you will invite depth of field issues. Just a hunch.

Wait, Depth of Field Issues?

Yes. And let's talk about them.

Here is your ideal: You can light everyone to, say, f/11 at ISO 200.

But that's not gonna happen unless you have a small thermonuclear device for a key light. So you have to decide which kid to throw under the bus: f/stop, or ISO?

Gear Pack

The absolute bare minimum that MIGHT make it work (but probably not) is:

1. A good (FF 35mm) camera and a sharp 50 and 35 to go on it. D800 and 45TS being pretty ideal here.

2. Four Paul Buff Einstein e640s or equivalent. (Actually, make it five.) That's a sketchy minimum. More power would be better. If you can source only one Big Gun, like a Profoto 2400, you'll want that as your key light and support it with e640s, maybe. Also, you could gang 640s for the key. That's the 5th flash I am suggesting. Getting ugly fast here.

3. Stands and standard reflectors for each. Or maybe 11" high-output reflectors as seen below.

4. A 30-degree grid or two for feathering control. But they eat light. Oh crap.

5. Power for the e640s (VMLs or long AC cords and known locations of power outlets.)

6. A remote or a short sync cord. Both is safer.

7. Two assistants.

Backup: Extra Einsteins, extra VML batteries, extra camera with a mid-range zoom lens. (If not needed for emergency, the added lights would allow you to double-gang your key and gain power where you'll most need it.)

Mind you, this is cutting every corner. Paul Buff has an expected output calculator to help you get the GNs with various reflectors.

A GN calculator (if you don't like math) tells you an e640 in an 8.5" high-output reflector (GN 234) at ISO 800 will get you f/5.6 at 118.2 feet. Switch to a 11" high-output long-throw reflector and you get GN 394. So you can expect f/8 at 139 feet at ISO 800.

That sounds better (still marginal though) and it is at the expense of beam width. They only have a 28-degree beam spread. That's basically your 30-degree grid right there, but through beam concentration instead of robbing light. But that might work for you as you feather the light off of the closer people anyway. The issue might be the width of the beam left to right.

Frontal Attack: First, the Key

Stick your key light up and high camera right (or left, but I'd go right) higher than you in the bleachers as shown:

Remember your distance--balance compromise. If you have to, move it in. And be a little afraid.

Crank it to full power and set your camera to ISO 200 at f/11 at your sync speed. (Hey, you can dream.) Have your assistant get in the back row, far corner on the opposite side as your light. Aim right at him with your light on full power and with a 30-degree grid (not critical, but this may really help as you'll see in a minute.)

Can you expose him way over there at f/11? If so, winner, winner chicken dinner.

But you won't. And the very dark frame you'll be looking at will illustrate the gulf between what you have and what you really needed.

You'll likely miss this mark by three or four stops (or more) of light as a shortfall. For each f/stop you miss by, you have to compromise on your ideal of ISO 200, F/11. Here is your priority list for deviating from the ideal of f/11 at ISO 200:

• First stop loss: I'd go to 400 ISO. No brainer.

• Second stop loss: Probably drop to f/8. Your camera-to-subject distance will hold your DOF here, I think. But control the depth of your layout to help this if you anticipate a problem.

• Third stop: Tough call. I'd probably go to ISO 800 depending on the camera.

• Fourth stop: Go to f/5.6

• Fifth stop: You should have brought more light. Start quietly crying.

Okay, so you've lit your guy on the far corner. as well as you can You are shooting right from the key light position here. No need to move back to your final shooting position. So it'll be quick.

Now move your guy (or use the second guy) to the near corner. Pop a frame. The exposure will be a little hot. Feather the light (aim it) up, above the head of near-corner guy, until he looks good, too. A grid will rob you of power, but allow you more control on the feather. Everything is a compromise. Best judgement. The 11" HOR might be just the trick here.

Now go back to the back corner and make sure you can still hold an exposure on him. Your key light, and working exposure are now set. Turn that light off for now.

Next, let's set the fill. Go to your shooting position and place your second e640 (or whatever) to be right next to the camera, same height, on the opposite side as your key. This will make sure that whatever the camera can see will not be in deep shadow from the key.

Follow the same procedure as above, except open your camera up a stop and a half. This is fill, remember.

Guy in middle of back row. Adjust power. Move him to back corner. Check exposure. Other corner. Check. Front row: check and feather the light up until he is lit well at the new fill aperture.

Now move him and check your back row again from this position. This is much quicker than it sounds. Next, I'd turn on my key and go back to my full working aperture and quick test the key and fill together. Now your frontal lighting is all set.

(Incidentally, I would probably sync-cord to my nearby fill light and slave everything else for this shoot.)

The Rear Guard

Rims, AKA separation lights, are pretty important here and are what will make the group shot pop and look very crisp.

Obviously, you'll want to be set up on bleachers in back, on the corners but not too far back for light-robbing reasons. Show an assistant (if s/he doesn't know already) how to power the light up and down, and how to aim it. You'll aim each light at the opposite side of the front row to start.

Same process as above. You are at camera, testing and chimping. They are aiming, adjusting power if necessary. Grid may be very helpful here, but will cost you light. Test with a person at various corners, etc.

When you shoot the group shot, you can use your two assistants to stand in front of your camera at either side and block your rims from flaring.

But good news is, you are now pre-lit. Camera goes on tripod and is locked down. Have someone stand in center one third of the way back and focus on them for best hyper-focal position for optimal depth of field for the whole group. You may want to tape the focus.

Now move them to the various front and back corners. Are they still sharp? Good. If not, you may need to sacrifice ISO for depth of field. Sorry.

One last thing: The unlit areas of the court might look a little black-ish. Open up your shutter until the unlit areas of the court look subdued but good. If the ambient light color is whacked, subdue it a little more. It'll be fine. Remember, tripod for sharpness and frame-to-frame consistency.

Now that you have tested the crap out of your setup, stop worrying about it. Trust your prep work. You'll need to put it out of your mind for the important part still to come.

You're Not There Yet

So that's all bare minimum. You are buying a sh*t-ton of planning and worry and stress. And renting some big guns. Either charge them out the wazoo, or walk away. Happily.

Figure in your rental, all of your pre-planning time. My pre-planning time (J/K I'm free for you LOLZ). The important thing is make all of this worry well worth your while or don't do it. Let some other idiot get burned.

One thought: You could leverage the value of giving an 8x10 (too small to see yourself) or an 11x14 (better) to all 1,300 people ($3,900.). 11x14s are $3 a pop, but they convey more value and add-on margin. You could design a nice commemoration message in the margin very easily in PS, etc.

For instance, for $10k you could do everything, rentals, assistants and an 11x14 for each person and net $4-$5k. Leverage your base. Maybe you include a big-ass print for some public display. Just spitballing here.

But the more I planned this out, the tighter the ol' aperture got. If you get my drift. So quote them a price at which you would happily do it.

But honestly, I would get in there and quietly test the tripod/D800/45TS and see. If available light won't work, I'd just tell them to light this whole gym for a 1,300 group shot would be akin to Sports Illustrated lighting an arena. Which it is.

Tell them to figure $15-$20k and see what happens. Basically, you want to scare them at least as badly as they are scaring you.

Now, let's say they agree…

Let Them Come.

The Big Day is here. You are prepped, set and tested. Now Xerxes and his army are filing into your gym. And yes, it is your gym right now. Never lose sight of that. You need to be in control. Loud. Friendly. Confident. Running the show.

Rent a megaphone or get mic'd to the gym's PA. Seriously, this is 1,300 people.

Bring them in to the feed lot you have taped off on the floor. Sort them by height:

"If the person in front of you is taller than you are, switch places. I want all my shawtees up front!" Have fun with it. And own them. You gotta.

Next, make them all aware of the light and the camera. No people hiding behind others.

"Make sure your entire face can see the camera. I want your whole face. Not just your forehead."

Everyone needs to hear this.

"Also, this light over there (point to the key). Make sure you can see both it and me with your whole face."

Quick-scan the room to make sure you have no problems.

Important: You are locked on a tripod. So if you need to swap out a bad face on an important person, it'll be easy in Photoshop.

Kill the General First

Here is my best piece of advice for a large group shot: Mess with the big boss to get everyone else loose.

I have done it several times, including while shooting for Fortune 500 companies. Heck, I did it my first week out of college as an newspaper intern, shooting a 200-person employee group shot that included the newspaper's publisher right down front.

(Wow. 200 seemed like a big group. 1,300? You sure you want to do this?)

I just went to him beforehand, introduced myself as his new intern, and asked if I could mess with him a little during the shoot to keep everyone else loose during the group photo.

Shoot a few safe frames first, just to burn them and get people (and you) into the flow. Then uncork something like, "Where's Bob Smith?" (Or whoever the Big Cheese is.) They'll be down front, of course, and raise their hand.

"Oh, sorry — I didn't even recognize you. Wow! It's great to see you back in men's clothing!" (Or whatever you can come up with. Keep it clean but a bit scandalous.)

He knows it's coming, but everyone else doesn't. And assuming your finger is on the button, you'll get a great moment. Let it develop for half a second and then grab it, because you'll only get one chance due to flash recycle times.

Have fun with them. Be in total control. Roll a little. Work a running patter about the universal lie of "just one more picture."

Check back often to the "Can every body see both me and that (key) light with their whole face? Thank you!" Be quick. Find people trying to hide from you in the back and call them out.

Remember, you have tested and locked down everything. So the actual photography part is a five-minute party of unexpected fun. At the end, make sure you get something looking at least a little sedate, just in case. (Wait, wait — "Just one more picture!")

It's All Important

The lighting, camera, prep work — all critical. But nail that stuff down and then put it aside.

Because when the rubber hits the road, the psychology and rhythm and fun are also critical. And you only want to be concentrating on one worry at a time.

Win them over. Give them an excuse to have some fun. Be fast. Shoot lots of frames. Be finished before you lose them. (Because you won't get them back.)

And then wrap it up: "Thank you all very much. Now get out of my gym."

Between You and Me

I'd test it for available light. I suspect it could work out just great. Lighting is gonna give you a world of hurt and worry. Think long and hard about accepting this if you have to light 1,300 people.


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Blogger Unknown said...

Excellent post. Never had the oppurtunity to shoot such a large group, but their was an inner voice saying "bring it on" despite the words of warning. Great job.

July 22, 2013 2:13 AM  
Blogger Jimi Ennis said...

I love the walkthrough on how to control that big a group of people but when it comes to the lights i cant help wondering, are you working in the right direction, psychologically?

Would it not make more sense (since its such a large group) to use the ambient exposure as you working exposure, and then add in the lights as needed from there, rather than the other way around? To borrow a phrase you used in a previous post "let the ambient do the heavy lifting)

July 22, 2013 5:08 AM  
Blogger Shailesh said...

It's so rare to see such high quality mentoring.
I hope the shoot goes well.
Thanks, and to our gutsy photographer, all the very best:)

July 22, 2013 5:20 AM  
Blogger Michael Quack - Visual Pursuit said...

Groups like this are similar to large industry plants, with one difference: There might not be enough power if you bring the big lights. I recently ran into a place that sported several 32A outlets, all with separate fuses. Great! At least that was what I thought until I learned that you could use only one at a time, because the main line would only give us 50A. Industry plants tend to have more generous supply in power than sports gyms. Bouncing several heads attached to power packs rated 1500/2400/3000 Ws and hidden behind machines over the ceiling was never a problem there.

Ceiling color was more of a problem, and that the ceiling would often show in the pictures because of the sheer size of those plants. Solution: Second shot with ceiling properly exposed and compose that in.

July 22, 2013 6:07 AM  
Blogger Mr Mila said...

My heart rate is up just from reading that.

July 22, 2013 6:44 AM  
Blogger Stuart Little said...

I shot 900 staff, guests, and hanger's on at the Turnberry Golf Resort, Scotland in the late 90's.

Thankfully the banqueting manager was ex-household calvary and had all the staff rehearsed beforehand. I used 6 Bowens Monoblock lights and 15 mins before arriving I had lost control of my car and nearly put in a ditch.

A quick shot of whisky courtesy of the bar manager and I was good to go. Only time I have ever drunk on the job, but it was for medicinal purposes ;) Great read and solid advice there David.

July 22, 2013 7:01 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Here's a BTS video of a project like this, lighting an entire freshman class at night:

July 22, 2013 7:06 AM  
Blogger bqp said... could rent 1300 speedlights and give everyone...nevermind! Great post. Lots-o-details to be worked out for such a complex shoot. Thanks for laying it all out.

July 22, 2013 8:37 AM  
Blogger Linda and Mike's Garden said...

Interesting! I hope to never have an 'opportunity' like this. I have shot much smaller groups, around 100 individuals, with mixed results. Your article here about managing the extreme, provides great tools and methods for more conventional situations.
Thanks for doing what you do,


July 22, 2013 8:52 AM  
Blogger hotshoeless said...

Alternatively, you could light it with approximately 64 or 128 LumoPro 180 flashes. While expensive, you could tweak it so that it would light everything really evenly.

July 22, 2013 9:16 AM  
Blogger Don Boys said...

Excellent discussion of the process. I need to do more analysis starting with the basic knows about our equipment, in this case the GN, or the manufacturer's specs as in the table. Thanks for bringing this analytical technique to our attention. This could provide some interesting problem discussion in a high school math class. I'm going to forward it to a hs math teacher (also leader of the photography club) I know.

July 22, 2013 9:58 AM  
Blogger Todd Miles said...

Our company shoots large groups quite often but not 1300 - mostly groups of 400 - 500. What we find works is to shoot all the light off the ceiling and it pretty evenly illuminates the crowd. We use a D800 to give more pixels and use a 20 foot ladder

July 22, 2013 10:09 AM  
Blogger Cher Ping said...

I'd go for available light - not that I'm chicken or not up for a challenge, but they'd have to be paying me a lot to get me to do this.

(or they could be the blood-brother/sister and best best friend of my girlfriend, and she gets me drunk enough to agree to it)

.. I was wondering - wouldn't it be theoretically possible to mark out the area where groups are supposed to stand, shoot them separately, and eventually merge it in PP? I seem to remember that Zach Arias did that once at GPP.

If cheating with PP is not allowed, it would be good if Joe McNally is be able to loan his photon-nukes out. Or help to arrange some of that awesome lighting power. I assume that for someone who is able to light a scene after reflecting the optical signal off a quarter + jumbotron, calling down a tactical photon strike would be no-sweat work. (We'll just have to make sure that we are working with photons instead of higgs particles..)

July 22, 2013 10:11 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

I think the real follow up question is, how many speedlights would McNally use?

(yes I know he uses studio strobes, too.)

July 22, 2013 10:29 AM  
Blogger Peters! said...

As an assistant if one of my clients brought this to me my response would be "I need a boat load of Profoto 7a's and a dump truck full of bi tube heads."

July 22, 2013 11:28 AM  
OpenID achifaifa said...

I might be thinking too out-of-the-box, but I'd simply use a large format camera, go to a stadium and ask them politely to turn all the lights on.

Scan it in a drum scanner and there you go, a perfectly lit 2000+Mpx image. The client should be happy with that.

July 22, 2013 11:44 AM  
Blogger Tom Lim said...

Always love reading your posts. Not just informative, but entertaining too! Almost makes me want to try this setup to see what it looks like.

July 22, 2013 12:14 PM  
Blogger Mark Bohland, M.Ed. M.Photog. said...

$10,000.... no no no. You'll only be there an hour or so and we just want a file with a copyright release. Besides schools are non profit so we're hoping you'll give us a break on your hourly rate. How does $45.00 sound ??... This should give you great exposure and actually help your business.

You may want to avoid the temptation to reply that teachers only work 6 hours a day for 3/4 of the year.. but it might actually help the administrator understand that you (like teachers) have a lot invested that the public doesn't see and ...... etc.

July 22, 2013 12:31 PM  
Blogger Steve Nelson said...

Whenever I start to daydream about blogging myself, I encounter a corker like this one and just quietly despair about measuring up. What a fantastic post! So many valuable nuggets. "If they say it is not available, then tell them you are not available." :-) Really, the self-sorting-by-height technique is gold. But for all the excellent technical camera/light advice, my favorites (the tips one NEVER encounters elsewhere) are the tips for how to interact with a crowd. How to engage and entertain them. Groups of people NEVER show up for the sole purpose of populating a photo. They come together to network or catch up with old friends at a reunion. The photographer is an interruption. Getting and keeping a crowd's attention is huge. Priceless material here.

July 22, 2013 12:38 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

If he's in a gym, does he have access to the catwalk? That can be a good place to hang lights where they are closer to the back row.

As somebody who does lots of groups (I have a planning meeting today for a group of 4,500) I like the available light option! Indoors, you're going to need every light that's available...

July 22, 2013 1:04 PM  
Blogger wraith said...

No sweat. Art Streiber lit something similar here:


And all he needed was 57 Profoto heads, 34 reflectors, 10 assistants, 5 Pocketwizards, a Hasselblad H2, and one giant pair of cajones!

Ohhhh, but that was only for a group of 116 people...

July 22, 2013 1:13 PM  
Blogger Jean-Baptiste Guiton said...

great post.
once a year i usually have a big group shot to do for AREVA (a french nuclear company) we do it after the sporting event they sponsor. i usually have there logo to do: a big A... so there's a lot of math to do, to make sure everyone fits in and that there aren't to many empty spaces. my baseline for the math is that i can fit 4 people per square meter. son once i know how many people i have to do divide by 4, and that tells me what surface they will occupy.
for this shot they where 1400 (did 1900 this year but didn't edit the video yet) so the logo needs to be 350 square meters. so after doing some geometry, i figure how big the logo will be... taking into consideration that there's perspective to deal with since i'm far in the roof of the Stade de France.
since it takes me 25 to 30 minutes to get up in the roof, and that the clients wants the photo to be done 15 minutes maximum, after the event, my assistants need to be well briefed to do the logo on the field. there is no room for error.
for this shot there is no need for lighting, as it's still day and that i have the stadium lights on. just need to be careful with the depth of field (the first time i did this group photo i had brought 6400j of power... but being so far i ended up just lighting the pollution and all the little particles in the air... so won't be doing like that again)

all in all things go usually well, and it looks like this


July 22, 2013 1:37 PM  
Blogger Joaquin said...

Hello there, well, I had to do a group shot of a little more than 500 people for a well known chain of groceries store, I shot it at the time with a D200, outside in front of the corporate office, so it was available light on a sunny spring day, they rented a crane for me so I could go really high and shoot from above without any problems at all, the photo shoot took about one hour to do and they were very happy with the results. Oh, I forgot to mention that I had include a giant shopping cart with a banner with the name of the company.

July 22, 2013 1:59 PM  
Blogger Tim Smalley said...

If you have access to some old school flash bulbs - yes, those big blue lightbulby looking things that granddad used to shoot Christmas photos with, you're golden. You also need assistants with a gloves (flashbulbs are very hot after being used)to swap them out after each exposure. Bigger flashbulbs 25Bs and larger have one heck of a lot more power (and a lot cheaper) than big strobes. Check out flashbulbs dot com for giant flashbulbs and guns to shoot them.

July 22, 2013 2:08 PM  
Blogger DerekW said...

Random thought....

If its a pro or college stadium..

Don't they usually have strobes already built in for the pro sports shooters? If so, could they be used somehow for fill?

July 22, 2013 2:17 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

FYI, I'm 47 and I read the whole thing. So there.

July 22, 2013 2:21 PM  
Blogger Baseball Frank said...

I was hoping for an actual image to awww over. But, great info anyhow.

July 22, 2013 4:03 PM  
Blogger J. Michael Thurman said... wife is a teacher and she works enough hours during the school year to turn the 2-month-long summer into comp time.

I'll second (third) the notion of shooting a big indoor space the way SI does: using the ceiling as a big ol' soft box with added rims and a little kicker in the key light position.

Gosh. I think I'd be renting a Phase One, although the idea of a drum-scanned 8x10 sounds cool.

After all, Client, don't you want the best possible image for your $20k?

Thanks for the mentoring, Sr. Hobby. That's why I love this blog.


July 22, 2013 4:21 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Great post, maybe the best strobist ever.

But I would run from this as fast as my little legs would carry me, no matter what the fee. Because it is just too scary, stressful and generally a brutal job.

July 22, 2013 5:47 PM  
Blogger p. said...

Please think twice before you follow any DH's advice here since there are Reddit readers that question the actual amount of light and and megapixels needed to pull of this simple shot.

July 22, 2013 6:58 PM  
Blogger Alex the Photo Guy said...

Great post! You should have a guest post after they do the shoot! I'd love to see how it turns out!

July 22, 2013 7:57 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@P. - My estimate that it was "borderline possible" was based on published guide numbers and estimated lighting distances.

But I certainly defer to anyone who reads Reddit.

July 22, 2013 8:30 PM  
Blogger Alex Soon said...

Hi David,

Could you use focus stacking to solve the DOF issues? i.e. if you needed a few more stops of light, open up the aperture and take a few exposures (refocusing after each one) and combine them in post.

May have some motion blur or some lighting inconsistencies depending on the quality of your strobes though.

(posted the same message earlier but had problems, so apologies if this comes through twice)

July 22, 2013 10:02 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


No. Focus stacking is for bugs that have been all tranq'd up with freezing air. Not for 1,300 people.

July 22, 2013 11:02 PM  
Blogger Dylan Buyskes said...

So much great info on this one. Never been asked to shoot a group this large. Just got asked to shoot a group of 40 business conference, 2 days before the shoot they said someone "In house" is going to do it. Sure good luck with that.

July 23, 2013 8:19 AM  
Blogger John Frye said...

I did a shoot a couple of years ago with 900 girl guides in a Rugby stadium, the occasion demanded that the shot be done at 20.10 on the 20th of the 10th 2010 - a centenary I think, so late October in London, outdoors, full dark and cold- and no question of getting the stadium floodlights on either- the girls were arrayed in the stands, camera position in the middle of the pitch, like your self we counted seats to work out the coverage at a walk through, and decide on a 35mm (f2 Zeiss on a D700 ) and for light, rented 3 X 2000 joule Elinchrom packs. One at camera position the other 2 about 30 M either side.
The lighting wasn't subtle, but it was pretty even, at these distances the inverse square law is your friend- there's not so much fall off.
Main problems were as you'd expect, the length of power cables- we bought and borrowed several of different lengths, and getting the furthest lights to sync- only had 1 PW, having assumed the optical slaves would do it, and ended up with 2 x 250 joule heads facing back toward the outer lights, positioned to pick up the flash from the centre and light up the triggers of the others, that worked but meant yet more power cable.
We also purchased some 2M lengths of steel tube as makeshift extenders for the lighting stands, to get the heads up to about 4 M .
Being an active sport field , turf- we also had numerous plywood squares to put under stands, tripod etc to avoid damage.
This gave us about. 1/60th at f11 , BUT very slow recycling, so the packs were pulled down to half power , and ISO doubled .
The shot went well, except that you obviously can't see what all 900 people are all getting up to - little girls at that- and communicating with them was down to an assistant with a megaphone!
It was an exciting experience , and I wouldn't hesitate to do it again, albeit having learnt a few things to do differently next time!

July 23, 2013 8:22 AM  
Blogger DC said...

haha. The Laforet poke was awesome.

July 23, 2013 9:08 AM  
Blogger Chris Rowe said...

Hi David
Thanks for this brain dump - it's exactly what I needed to improve our school leavers year group shot I do every year. May I ask a quick question if you have a minute? I am lighting a "slightly" smaller group (250ish in 11 rows of 22-24ish standing in banked theatre seating) with every light I have (four Dlites + 3 speedlights). I have the light and me on the stage. Would you put the lights next to camera and face them out or away from camera facing the opposite side. And would you bother to fire them into umbrellas to "group" the lights? Ok that was two questions - sorry :-) Thanks so much.

July 23, 2013 10:21 AM  
Blogger hazizul said...

do share us the picture =)

July 23, 2013 10:48 AM  
Blogger Gary Dates said...

I just wanna say that, to me at least, the most valuable tip in this thorough examination of how to shoot 1300 people, is DH's advice on speaking to the Big Cheese ahead of time and screwing with him during the actual shoot. That is GREAT advice!! As daunting as the technical challenges are, what good does technical prowess do if the final result is a crowd looking bored or disengaged. Technical imperfection can be forgiven (to a degree) if everyone in the photo is smiling and energized......all 1300 of them! AWESOME!!!!

July 23, 2013 11:28 AM  
Blogger MG said...

Silly question (and apologies if this was already mentioned and I missed it), but...

Does it have to be done as a single shot? Might this not be a case for taking several shots (either front to back - solve the DOF problem - or right to left) and stitching them together?

Just wondering. :)

July 23, 2013 4:49 PM  
Blogger robm001 said...

Great post as usual. Why not nuke it with some 12000 watt Arri lights if you are gonna rent anyway. Hot lights seem to be easier here maybe?

July 24, 2013 1:01 AM  
Blogger Paul Lundquist said...

POSTER'S NOTE: This is an epically long read. Sharing an experience and lessons learned. Part 1.

I shot about 300 this summer. Certainly no 1300 people! The pre shoot estimate was 400-500 people. Is was very fun. I didn't a need megaphone. If you use a megaphone leave it to an assistant to use, you'll need to focus on your equipment, improvising after your equipment fails (because this type of situation is when it happens) and people composition. Have your 1st assistant help with or even direct composition of the crowd. For me the client provided an assistant with cell phone directing another 2 or more "in the crowd assistants" with cell phones to coral the crowd. For the most part people could hear me, if not, people that did hear me passed the word to the relevant people that didn't.

Pre-shoot I made signs using an extra fat black marker and the white side of wacky colored mat board I somehow acquired over the years. I had written on the mat boards 1-5 word sayings and funny sayings relavent to the insurance company people I was shooting. Some had just a smiley face, some said to the effect of "Be strong and stand still". Had about 24 cards. 2 assistants from the client displayed the signs during the shoot. Because people lose their interest quick it helps to keep the crowd entertained during the shuffle in and composition. Maybe have music playing. Hire assistants that are friendly and patient. As for the people, for the most part, they line up automatically quite well. Don't lose sleep over that. BTW I slept well the previous night. Still, as per above article, do the math, do your homework.

For the crowd assistants, rule of thumb, tall people toward the back. As per above advice, the more camera height options you have the better. If you can't, scan & look for the mops of hair and eyeballs over shoulders, point those out to the assistants, bring them forward. But with 1300 people, don't get too worried about it. Remind the client team to allow access for handicapped & special needs people, encourage them to the front or wherever appropriate.

Scout the scene at the time of day the shoot is expected to happen. Maybe even bring and do a setup of your lights and camera doing test exposures with stand-ins randomly standing throughout the expected area. I can understand Michael Quacks earlier post, test the electrical, make sure it works! I didn't question that it might not work. Mistake! When I scouted the scene, outside, 5pm sun behind the group, I felt I needed a speedotron 2400ws with 2 socked beauty dishes feathered upward and outward, just above camera to fill in. Since this was outside, in case of wind I did not need the trouble of an umbrella "sail". Regardless, weigh down your light stands, tape down your cords with wide yellow/black tape.

July 24, 2013 10:28 AM  
Blogger Paul Lundquist said...

Building management showed me location of exterior 120v outlets. Nice! With a 150 feet of hi amp extension cord, I'd be golden. Not so, turned out they were below voltage needed. Power packs never reached charge. Had to forgo fill flash. BTW, inside the building the outlet my laptop was plugged into did not work either. The laptop battery carried me so that was cool. The building did have some areas with construction contractors working. Make sure cell phones are not in a dead zone. Do a walk thru with building management, get to know them, remember their names, get their cell numbers, tell them everything you intend to do. Ask that they be there. Ask about pathways for handicapped & special needs people.

As for post shoot, don't let your crowd be barely anything but over-sharpened mush on final output. Using a Canon 5D or Nikon D800? Well, think more pixels. If possible use the most pixel laden phase one/hasselblad camera you can get the client to rent for you. Make sure your location insurance is up to date for a $4X,XXX.XX priced camera. BTW - make sure your business liability insurance to up to date. Or after some serious practice, use an 8x10 film camera and scan the film later with an epson v750 or microtek i900 later. In my situation, the client requested a panorama. I panned the crowd (and stitched together later) 5 separate vertical exposures using my 5D. A different type of panorama group shot but I used the same technique here shooting 12 vertical shots from right to left within 10 secs:

My equipment list, folks love equipment lists, me included - 2403 4803 speedotron packs, 102 106 heads (meh, pointless), 5d MII, extra 5D MII, a range of canon L zoom lens, 10' tall Bogen 3058 w/3039 tripod, 6' ladder, a canon TC-80N3 cable release (that fell apart just after the first good exposure - WTF!) and a Stroboframe "camera rotating system" (hint: I've removed the bracket and only use the "camera rotating system" part as standard equipment on my tripods/monopods, it rotates on the lens axis, that way when a client requests at the last minute, "oh yeah I also need a vertical", rotate and Shoot!), I setup and composed with the camera horizontal, with enough zoom factor to zoom in when I rotated my camera vertical for the pan. A moment before each exposure, with cable release in hand, raise your arms up like a big smile, big toothy smile on your face as well, so the crowd knows the critical moment. Keep one arm up as you pan the camera with the other. Or use a gigapan robot and keep both arms up.

During the shoot I also rotated the camera back to horizontal between pans so I could give the client immediately after the shoot an image they could post to their Facebook account. Using a photoshop action that drops the hi-rez CR2 to a web version in seconds. They had wifi so I emailed to their smartphone, they then posted. Boom! Bang! Good chance the client group will be stressed, this is a big deal for them as well, you'll need to keep it cool & calm.

My client being an insurance company, had the group on a sloping hill, they were uncomfortable with me or anyone at any height. I would have loved a scissor lift ala the freshman Duke Photography shoot video mentioned in a earlier "unknown" post. An excellant shot BTW! Other than the electrical fail, (that's 1 reason you shoot RAW format, anything else would never have handled the contrast range, in my case bumping up "fill light" in bridge saved me completely from the fill flash fail) the shots looked great. Here's one: Do your preproduction homework! Chin up! Get in there! Do it! Since reading Davids article I've had a dream of him being ushered into a space with 1300 people with the "Strobist, Cheap Camera Challenge DigitalRev TV" assignment - - his facial expression? Priceless.

July 24, 2013 10:32 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

In the days of film, I'd always hope for a hazy or overcast day to do groups of 100 on the steps of an old and historic church and then hope I wouldn't get hit by a car as I balanced on a ladder in the middle of the street. With my studio flashes, it got easier.

A few years back I was asked to shoot a group shot of my old elementary school, 650 kids, outside. This was a cake walk relatively speaking. All the kids were on the ground and that was the longest part of the project. I used my truck as a shooting platform and a shift lens to shoot the two halves. Lighting was two 12 inch soft reflectors and 1000 w/s each head powered by my generator.

The school faces to the northeast and the shot was in the morning so squinting wasn't a problem

Once the kids were in place, it was shoot, shoot, shoot for five minutes tops and then it was over.

In the scheme of things, it took perhaps an hour total to set-up, check the lights, shoot the photo and head for the studio for post.

The two frames (left and right) matched perfectly and post took little time. My old school (from 40 years ago) and community were quite happy and it's still hanging in the office today.

July 25, 2013 10:59 AM  
Blogger David Thelma McConnell said...

Hi David, I enjoyed reading that, nice one......I wanted to do a shot of X1000's of people with there hands in the air, being at a rock concert "with the best band in the land" I knew, that the lead singer / front man would near the end of the set, in only one song he would say (Lets see those hands) knowing that ALL the white lights come on for 5 seconds, so with camera held high in the air, turn round take my 3 shots, 29 years I have been waiting to do that one shot..10k people in that night, hope this link works

July 25, 2013 7:24 PM  
Blogger dddman said...

Excellent article
Just had a thought about resolution.....

How about using dual or triple cameras located next to each and triggered off one wireless remote? Then stitch in PP.
At that distance perspective difference won't be an issue,
You can hire the2nd, 3rd lens/camera to match yours for less than a top end MF/ lens and your resolution would be superior.


July 27, 2013 9:14 AM  
Blogger dddman said...

Excellent article
Just had a thought about resolution.....

How about using dual or triple cameras located next to each and triggered off one wireless remote? Then stitch in PP.
At that distance perspective difference won't be an issue,
You can hire the2nd, 3rd lens/camera to match yours for less than a top end MF/ lens and your resolution would be superior.


July 27, 2013 9:17 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

My aperture may never recover.


So after I thought about it for a few minutes, my imperfect solution might be to borrow a buddy from the local SWAT team to man a flashbang or two.

2 million candelas at one foot? I'll leave it to the math wuzzzzarrds to calculate how many will be needed to light the group, but I think I can manage the eye and hearing protection counts. Think they'll mind everyone wearing safety glasses and ear muffs?

July 30, 2013 3:17 AM  
Blogger Kyle said...

We do large groups (300-500, not 1300) quite often for sports. Mostly outdoors shot from up high. depending on the hight of the camera, we stagger the rows 10'+ deep. Works great. I second the power checks in large gyms. Lots of times, there are plenty of power outlets, but often times only 2-3 20 amp circuits. Be prepared to only be able to use limited light. You will likely need to underexpose the ambient due to color shift in the house lights. They never cycle the same, so custom white balance is a waste of time. High ISO will work to your disadvantage with crap house lighting. Remember your lights need to be the prominent light.
Perfect lighting for a crappy layout/subject does nothing as well. I second/third/fourth the keeping the subject attention posts. That's why DH is king. Tools are one thing, talent and experience are something completely different.


August 02, 2013 2:06 PM  
Blogger Vladimir said...

Great post. But too complicated! How about lighting lighting one row at a time and then stitching together? :)

August 04, 2013 4:34 PM  
Blogger Matthijs van Heerikhuize said...

By no means am I a professional photography lighting expert, but I am a professional theatre lighting designer and enthousiast theatre photographer. At the start of the read (I read everything, including the comments) I immediately thought 'available light or film equipment' and if you really have to do something this big and want to light it: go for the film stuff. Sure you need some budget to spend but it would be worth it. If you're in a venue that has to hang stuff on a regular basis they propably have a lift or other reaching equipment you can use to suspend lights with or stand on as a photographer.

A good thing about either film or theatre lighting equipment is that it can be focused and manipulated easily. Also rental companies have all the rigging, cables and power distribution readily available. Remember that from a photography standpoint this is a HUGE thing but in film or even theatre 500+ is definately a possibility. Consult with a motion picture lighting expert if you need to, they are experts on evenly lighting large spaces.

What I'd personally do in my very non-professional opinion is: scout the location at the time of day you will shoot at, find the best place to place the crowd, rent a lift or huge ladder and go with the available light.

I'd love to see the results of a shoot like this....

August 21, 2013 2:18 AM  
Blogger Jeff Kash said...

Just completed a group photo that was planned for 1000, final turnout was about 650 or so. I used available light, Nikon D800 with 14-24 lens. over 200 meg uncompressed tiff was the final image size.
Final image Info 21mm, exposure f/11 @ 500 ISO 400 no room for a tripod on the cherry picker, camera about 20' high which seemed to be the sweet spot. The big tip that helped was using Cue cards with smiley faces, I did'nt have a bull horn, camera in hand so could'nt use anyway. Here is a link if anyone would like to take a look.

Another big tip is to have all your insurance papers in order. Keeping the lighting simple really helped me focus on composition and directing, this was actually a group effort ofcourse. 15 minutes to round up the group and 3 minutes to take the photo. Would have liked to taken a few more images but it was 90 degrees and the crowd just was getting impatient, 1pm facing SW. The logistics of moving people around and working quick was really the biggest challenge of this project.

September 03, 2013 1:17 PM  
Blogger Paulius said...

I was one of those people that you referred to in Lighting 101. I called myself a 'purist', when really I was terrified of flash.

I'm over my 'fear' now...but it still takes me slightly out of my comfort zone when I pull out the speedlights (but that's what practice is for).

A small group of people makes me slightly nervous. I think 1300 would give me a heart attack.

October 10, 2013 7:35 AM  
Blogger Morton Rich said...

One of my prize-winning images was used without my permission by an art dealer in Budapest. I asked for a credit, knowing they would never pay. No response. I once spent $8000 with them. They owe me.

October 18, 2013 2:46 PM  
Blogger Royce Bair said...

I love Paul C. Buff's long throw reflector. It's a life-saver when I'm light painting big landscapes at night for my NightScape photos

February 24, 2014 6:50 PM  

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