Family photography with a view camera is challenging. You don’t get many chances to get it right and you depend wholly on the complete co-operation of your sitters.
These are my tips for a perfect group portrait with a view camera
1. Stop Down
Depth of field is always limited with large format and when you are shooting family photography it makes sense to have a zone of focus in front and behind your sitters. I often find myself moving my subjects slightly after I have closed down the lens and loaded the camera ready to shoot. I recommend shooting at f16-f22 for group shots.
2. Use a Fast Film
The down side of shooting with a small f-stop is often a slow shutter speed. I would recommend shooting with a 400 iso film if you are shooting somewhere like the UK. This will give you 1/250th @ f22 in bright sunlight but also an entirely usable 1/60th @ f16 in the shade. It’s easy to underestimate how much people actually move even when they are trying to stay still! They usually sway slightly if they are standing, and outdoors hair and clothes can catch even a slight breeze. I have found that once you get down to 1/15th second you can often find a slight lack of sharpness in your shots if you look carefully.
3. Get set up
It is always better to get you camera set up, your metering done and to frame your scene before you call anyone over. It is easy enough to roughly compose the image, get the camera in approximate focus and to take a meter reading before you call your clients over. Think of it as setting the stage before you get people to perform. Every group portrait has a time window, where you need to get your subjects’ interest and hold on to it. Leaving a group of people standing around while you fiddle with your camera is a recipe for disaster. Get as ready as you can. If you need a stand in and don’t have an assistant generally use the person who hired you – they have the most invested in making the session a success and are usually the most co-operative.
4. Take Control
One one the cardinal sins of family photography is not being assertive enough and not communicating what you want from your subjects. This is doubly true in large format photography when you don’t have enough shots available to get lucky. You have to get people’s attention and hold it. Speak clearly, assert yourself and you’ll hold your group’s attention. Be too passive and their attention will wander, along with their gaze. Remember to chat and joke with your sitters.
I have built up a patter over the years that works, and I can repeat it with each new group of people, almost like a script. Generally, I have found it is best to be confident and slighter larger than life than you are normally. People are reassured by your confidence and put at ease with a few jokes, if you appear nervous or flustered it’s very easy to lose a group’s attention. More than anything else, portraiture is a people business.
5. Make sure everybody knows where to look!
One of the real advantages of shooting with a view camera, or indeed any camera on a tripod, is that you can step away from the camera and talk to your sitter directly. This is especially true with large format cameras. Unlike what you see in the movies, you can’t see through a view camera loaded with film. You have to stand behind it or more usually to one side. Instictively, your subjects will look at you rather than the camera so make sure you get them to look at the lens.
Think of a portrait as a piece of theatre. You are the director and your sitters are the actors. You need to coax a performance from them. A view camera is useful in this scenario because it creates interest and contributes to the drama. It’s not just any old camera, and clients treat a sitting as a real event and give just that little bit more of themselves. Even the dog behaved!
Toyo 45C View Camera
- 210mm F5.6
- Manfrotto 055 Aluminium Tripod
- Kodak Tmax 400
- Large Tripod
- Dark Slides
- Handheld meter
Shots developed in Xtol 1:1
Conditions: Bright overcast, late afternoon