Photographer Interviews

How Chris Patey Composes and Directs Dynamic Group Portraits

November 16, 2017

By David Walker

Like other photographers who excel at shooting group portraits, Chris Patey says he owes much to the influence of legendary photographer Irving Penn. “He was one of the masters of composing group shots, and I find myself pulling references from him almost every time in a creative conversation with an editor about group shots,” Patey says.

Penn’s soft lighting of portrait subjects “is something everyone tries to mimic,” but what Penn has taught succeeding generations of photographers is how to make group portraits dynamic by putting subjects in a variety of poses, and at different levels in the frame—on the floor, on boxes and stools, standing on platforms and ladders.

“Everybody’s always well represented in [Penn’s] portraits. The composition is always very well balanced, and everybody has their own space, and is doing their own thing in the photo, and I think that’s what makes them so great,” Patey says.

The challenge, though, is convincing celebrities and executives to position themselves lower than others in the portrait, never mind sit on the floor. “It’s not easy to tell someone to sit on the floor because of what they automatically assume it will look like,” Patey says. At the same time, publicists are often pushing hard to get their clients positioned in what they consider the prime real estate of a group portrait: front and center.

© Chris Patey

A behind-the-scenes look at Chris Patey with his subjects and crew on set. © Chris Patey

Patey has several strategies for getting his subjects to sit where he wants them. He explains, for instance, that subjects sitting on the floor have the advantage of being closest to the camera. And he points out that the center isn’t always the best position, because in a horizontal magazine photograph, subjects in the center could end up lost in the gutter.

But the best way to get people to sit where he wants them, he says, is to show them a comp of the final photo as soon as they arrive on set. “You explain to them and show that there isn’t really a bad spot in the frame,” he says.

Patey uses his assistants as stand-ins to make those comp shots. And it’s the positioning of the stand-ins, not the lighting, that Patey spends most of his time on during the three to six-hour setup time he allots for group portraits. Some stand-ins do stand, while others sit on the floor or on a variety of chairs, stools, and boxes so everyone is at different heights. “Give them each a semi-comfortable place to stand, sit, or lie down without struggling to see the camera,” he advises. He adds, “Turn people in different directions in a way that makes the frame less uniform.” And if you’re shooting for a magazine, position people with the layout in mind, include text and the location of the gutter.

Besides compositional balance and natural-looking poses, Patey’s objective is to avoid putting anybody’s head directly above or below anyone else’s. “That is an important aspect: giving everybody enough space so they’re not hidden behind someone else. And so there are no hands coming out of awkward areas of the person in front. We try to avoid obstructions that would be distracting for people.”

He has to make multiple test shots because he has a crew of only six or eight people (including stylists). So he positions these stand-ins in successive sections of the frame, tweaking their positions until he’s satisfied by how they look. Once he finishes the test shots for all the sections, he stitches the shots together and, using a printer on set, he prints out the composite.

That’s how he handled a group shot at Comic Con of more than 20 actors from a couple of Marvel movies for The Hollywood Reporter. Patey printed out several copies of the composite test shot, with the names of the actors where their stand-ins appeared, and gave a copy to each of several editors on the set. “As the actors came in, the editors would show them the comp, walk them to the space, and show them were to sit.”

Patey says he starts shooting quickly once everyone is positioned. As he shoots, the subjects have to stay where they are, but Patey asks them to make small movements after each shot: a turn of the chin, a shift of weight from one side to the other, putting their hands together, or bringing their hands higher. “I tell them to change it up a little bit for every frame.”

In any given frame, most of the subjects look good. But one or two will usually have their head turned the wrong way, or they’ll be blinking, or looking awkward for some reason. That’s where Patey’s retouchers comes in. “I find a frame [where] that person looks good, and see if we can composite them into the better [selected] frame,” he says. Despite all the preparation he does and direction he gives, “there are usually three to eight head swaps to make sure everybody looks their best.”

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