Quick Tip: How Irving Penn Made Group Portraits Look Dynamic

Posted by on Thursday July 12, 2018 | Uncategorized

©Chris Patey
Lighting Group Portraits: Chris Patey Shares His Techniques

The stars of the Marvel Universe at San Diego Comic-Con, photographed for The Hollywood Reporter by Christopher Patey. ©Christopher Patey

Like other photographers who excel at shooting group portraits, celebrity photographer Christopher 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 in our story about his group portrait techniques.

Penn made 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, Patey explains. “Everybody’s always well represented in his 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.”

Because subjects faces are at different levels, Patey is careful not to put 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.”

Celebrity photographer Jesse Dittmar also says he learned from looking at Penn’s work that the trick to making dynamic group portraits is “getting people on different levels of height.” He has photographed the casts of Downton Abbey and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, among other celebrity groups. Like Patey, Dittmar uses a mishmash of things for subjects to sit or stand on, and hides those things under a big backdrop cloth “like Irving Penn used to do it.”

For more about how Patey and Dittmar shoot dynamic group portraits, see our stories “How Chris Patey Composes and Directs Dynamic Group Portraits” and “How I Got That Shot: A Downton Abbey Group Portrait, In Camera.

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Lighting Group Portraits: Chris Patey Shares His Techniques
Wrangling the Cast of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” for a Group Portrait



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