This section is from the book "Complete Self-Instructing Library Of Practical Photography", by J. B. Schriever. Also available from Amazon: Complete Self-Instructing Library Of Practical Photography.
Backgrounds. The average photographer usually gives more consideration, and practically all of his thought, to his subject, while the background is only slightly considered. It is seldom brought to his attention until he sees the print. While there may be little or no interest in a background alone, it must be appropriate and should play a restricted part. It is safer to have a perfectly plain ground - for instance, the wall of a studio which has been painted expressly for this purpose-than to run the chance of including extremely objectionable features, which are often apparent when a stock background is employed. A mass of foliage with few penetrations of the sky, except in one or two places, and at the side, but never in the center, may be safely used for the majority of groups. If the attraction is too great, however, the group will suffer. The background must, therefore, lack interest, be simple in its figures, and should have a place of exit for the eye.
515. In out-door groups it will often be found that backgrounds are employed which one would never attempt to photograph for their own value. These are, however, especially adapted for a group. Natural backgrounds, too interesting in themselves, must be avoided, as they are inappropriate and distracting. Remember, that while the subjects of the group are the first consideration, the background is, of necessity, a part of the picture, and must receive proper attention to produce a harmonious whole.
The Accessories. It is possible to procure a series of regular grouping stools from any photographic stockhouse. They are made in various heights, to assist the photographer in arranging subjects. These grouping stools, however, are not easy to handle, nor do they give as good results as one might at first think. When employed there is a certain set arrangement at once apparent, and as the object of portraiture is to reproduce the likeness and characteristics of the subject in as natural a manner as possible, the use of regular grouping stools is to be discouraged. After some experience, ability to arrange a group in the most pleasing manner will be acquired, using only the regular chairs and other furniture of the studio.
517. To give a practical idea of simple methods of handling groups containing from two to eight figures, we have selected five accessories which are common in any studio: One high and one low back chair, an arm chair, a settee and a small table. In making the various arrangements some of these accessories will be employed, forming seats of various heights, so that in giving a variety of poses to a row of heads full advantage is taken of the conditions offered. Seldom will a large number of figures be in a group, without the presence of children, people of short stature, and others extra tall. These really make a group much easier to arrange. Such conditions must, of course, be taken into consideration.
518. The most difficult numbers to group, where the figures are nearly all of one size, are the even numbers,
1 and 6; but, by taking advantage of the different seats, groups may be easily and harmoniously arranged, avoiding the usual stiffness. Odd numbers are always easier to group, yet generally there is a tendency to pose the heads in too stiff a pyramidal form. The general appearance should be pleasing and the group should look as if the subjects had been carelessly placed, rather than give the effect of heads piled up like so many cannon balls. Be careful, therefore, not to be too geometrical; but rather build up the group with smaller pyramidal groups that give variety, yet lend unity to the whole. Thus a group of five might well be a group of three and a group of two, yet still it is a group of five. In a similar manner larger groups may be constructed.
519. As the group is made up of smaller combinations, so is the whole built up of individual figures, and their individual arrangement must not be overlooked. Each figure must be individually posed while being placed in the group.
520. Positions in a group should be chosen to show each individual to his or her best advantage, deciding whether one appears better standing or sitting; whether the feet are too large for the latter position, or the height unsuitable for the former; whether another should be placed in the middle of the group - with full face - or at the end of the group, in profile or three-quarter face. In short, study in every possible way what is best for the individual, and so achieve what is best for the group as a whole.
521. A figure placed in a standing position should have something to lean against, for instance, a chair, settee or table. This affords perpendicular support to the composition and also serves as an actual support to the figure, a very important feature, if the exposure is very prolonged. This is equally important when photographing a single standing figure, for then the balance afforded by the other figures in the composition is lacking, and with the larger image movement will show more plainly. There are, of course, many variations of pose and numerous heights which may be adopted for posing the single figure. The relationship between the figure and table, chair or settee, may be altered both for full-length and three-quarter figures. First, thoroughly understand the pose of individual subjects before expecting to successfully arrange and photograph groups. When properly managed, however, the work of grouping is not a difficult task.
522. Three-quarter length pictures for both single figures and groups have their advantage when the space is limited, or when some awkward part of the composition should be eliminated. A group of four, for instance, which is necessarily rather uniform in height and breadth when taken full-length, is rendered in better proportion when taken in three-quarter length, as an oblong picture is formed.