Nick’s Photography Tips: This holiday season, find the groups within the groups

by Nick Kelsh

posted Tuesday, November 25, 2014 at 6:24 PM EST


Some things are so painfully obvious they need to be said out loud. That’s another way of saying "here’s how my brain doesn’t work when I get excited".

When you shoot a group shot, you’re the star of the show. You’re in charge. And as silly as it sounds, even when I’m arranging the crowd at the family reunion, I get some butterflies in my stomach. That’s a little pathetic, but I’ve come to deal with it. The problem is that my thinking goes a little cloudy, and I often don’t take complete advantage of all of those people gathered in one spot. I’m trying to shoot a great group shot and all my energy is focused on that -- that’s a mistake.

Even with a group of four people, there are groups within the group that you can photograph and end up with meaningful photographs that have never been taken before. There are mothers with ten children who have never been photographed with just their daughters. No photograph exists of me alone with any of my grandparents, and very few of me alone with either one of my parents come to think of it. In fact, my dad died a couple years ago, and right now the only picture I can think of with the two us together was one taken with my iPhone as he lay dying.


Here’s why I think these little groups within groups don’t get taken, and why photographers don’t take advantage of all those people in one room. When you shoot a group shot it’s a big expenditure of energy by the photographer. When it’s over there’s a sense that the task has been completed, and you can now walk away.

Here’s my suggestion. Make a list of the little groups you want to photograph. Write it down. Shoot those little groups BEFORE the big group shot. Then, when you’ve finished the group shot, you really are done and it’s Heineken time. (Oh, who am I kidding, it’s Yuengling Premium time.)

All of the pictures above were little groups within the big group that I was about to photograph. I highly recommend that you pull these little groups as far away from their mouthy relatives as you can, so you can direct them the way you want to without comments from the Peanut Gallery.

Let me show you what happens when you don’t write it down. A few weeks ago, I photographed a family with triplets -- two girls, a boy, and mom and dad. I photographed mom and the girls, and dad with the boy. I photographed mom and dad, and each of them individually. I photographed just the sisters together, and each of the triplets alone. Believe it or not, I did not, however, photograph the triplets together. I forgot. I did not have a list.I did not write it down. If I had had a list, I would not have forgotten to take what may be the most obvious photograph to shoot when you’re photographing a family with triplets. There you have it -- true confession.

A note from Dave:

I'm so happy with this article, to welcome Nick Kelsh to IR's pages! As you'll see over the coming weeks and months, Nick's a really exceptional educator, as well as a world-class photographer. He has a unique style, and a real gift for being able to boil things down to easily-understandable tips that stay with you. That last is important; I can't count how many articles I've read about composition, lighting, exposure, etc., etc. Honestly, after a while they seem to all just blur together; my photography improves over time, but it often feels like pretty slow progress.

By contrast, when I saw this article, I immediately thought "Duh - the groups within the groups!" That simple concept and the great way Nick fleshed it out will really stick with me, and I can't wait for our annual friends/family Thanksgiving gathering this coming Thursday, for a chance to try it out. This one article will bring a lifetime change in my photography, and probably result in hundreds of memorable photos I never would have taken otherwise.

Talking about a "lifetime change" may sound a little overblown, but I honestly think that's it's true. It was really an epiphany for me, an "aha" moment. When I read something like this, I so want to be able to share it with our readers, and in this case, am delighted that I'll actually get to.

Nick and I have been bumping into each other at photo trade shows for a year or two now, always saying "yeah, we've got to do something together." It's finally happened, and we'll be featuring articles and tips by him regularly going forward.

If you've enjoyed this little taste of Nick's style and wisdom, and are interested in making a low-risk investment in your photographic abilities, head on over to his site, to see the great online photography courses he offers. They're very affordable, and most are available in two versions; one that's self-study, and one where you get Nick's personal feedback on all your uploaded photos, as well as those of your fellow students. Either option is pretty cheap when compared to almost any kind of gear.

If you appreciated this article and want to do even more to improve your photography, sign up for one of Nick's courses now!