Lines of Sight

The business side of photography

Toronto Photographer: 416-540-5494

Photo Groupies

A group of Circassian men, circa 1880. (US Library of Congress)

A group of New York Rangers hockey players, 1999.

Most of us have the deep need to be part of a group. A sense of belonging is a human emotional need that’s been with us for a very long time. Being part of a group is for more than survival and security.

But there’s a paradox here. A group of people are more effective when they’re treated as individuals rather than as members of that group. Also, the bigger the group, the more a person wants to be independent from that group. The larger a group becomes, the less creative, less coherent and less efficient it becomes.

Interestingly enough, not being part of a group can be very important for creative people.

A group of businessmen in Washington D.C., circa 1905. (US Library of Congress)

A group of company directors in Toronto, 2013.

Business Group Portraits

How many group photos do you see in a newspaper or magazine? Almost none? There’s probably a reason why.

Most editors and photographers know that group photos rarely draw reader interest because there are too many (small) faces competing for attention. There’s usually no point of interest in a group photo, no entry point for the viewer.

How many group photos do you see on company web sites? Quite a few. There’s probably a reason why.

A group portrait is used when a company can’t think of what else to do. A company will sometimes choose a group photo when it wants all their employees to feel like an equal part of the team. This is a nice sentiment but it’s not the best marketing. An exception is for very small groups like the co-owners of a business, partners in a small law firm, etc.

A photo rule of thumb is that an odd-number of people usually works better as a group. Perhaps by coincidence, studies have shown that groups with an odd number of members tend to more effective.

A group portrait, circa 1891. (US Library of Congress)

A group portrait in Toronto, 2007.

Group photos are often used by small companies wanting to look bigger: “Look how many people work at our company!”

Group pictures might be important for historical record to show who took part in an event such as a business conference or workshop.

Downsides to group photos

• Group portrait photography requires a large space hopefully with a suitably photogenic background.

• Group portraits require attention to the body language of each person relative to themselves, to each other and to the group. The overall shape of the group is also important.

• Group pictures can be difficult to use, especially when someone leaves the company. Although if you plan ahead and have each person photographed separately, the group photo can be a composite image where it’s relatively easy to add or remove a person from the picture.

• Larger group portraits have low impact in public relations and news media use.

• A large group picture is hard for the viewer to “read” especially at smaller reproduction sizes.

• Group photos are less memorable.

• A group portrait is the least used type of portrait.


Nurses at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, circa 1898. (US Library of Congress)

A group of healthcare administrators in Toronto, 2007.

Better Group Photos

This is not to say that you shouldn’t do group photos. But rather have another plan for your primary photos – the pictures that tell your story – and use a group portrait to supplement that story.

For this to be really effective, abandon the idea that a group photo is people lined up in rows, tall people at the back and short people in the front. It shouldn’t look like a sports team photo.

A group of US officers from the 15th cavalry, circa 1916. (US Library of Congress)

A group of federal cabinet ministers in Ottawa, 2003.

A stereotypical group photo is nothing but an inventory picture. It’s just a visual list of who works at a particular company. This is meaningless to everyone except your employees and their mothers.

Instead, try having a group photo show an attitude, company culture, team spirit or whatever you want to call it. If you can somehow show why or how rather than just who or what, then you’ll certainly get your customers’ attention.

Your group portrait should be a telling photo. Perhaps it tells how your employees work together to help your customers. Perhaps it tells of the various individual talents of each person. The point is that your employees are not just a group of people but rather they’re wonderful individuals who work together in a coherent group.

Always think about what your customers need to see or know about your company. Then use that to plan your photography goals.

A group of prisoners in Siberia, circa 1880. (US Library of Congress)

A group of entrepeneurs in Toronto, 2017.


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