There are some general ‘rules’ of group portraiture that have been around since Rembrandt. Never line up the faces vertically or horizontally. The reason for this rule is that curves, triangles and diagonals create a more dynamic flow and are more pleasing to the eye.. Straight lines are static and tend to line up with the edges of the picture. Another rule is never to have faces look straight into the camera for if they do, unsymmetrical features are more easily apparent and the eyes take on a stare. Now, rules were meant to be broken, but first you have to know the rules.
While couples can be considered a group, I will start with a group of three. The easiest of numbers, three people make an automatic triangle. Heads can be placed in an uneven triangle, foundation side down. Spacing should be varied, but similar in distance. Other successful patterns are the inverted curve with the middle person highest, a diminishing, flatter curve with the smallest person nearest the camera, and a stacked triangle in a vertical format. Groups of three generally look more together when the outside persons face in to the center. Enough body should be included in the composition so an not to appear bodiless. A general rule is to leave twice as much space above the heads as below the feet or hands in the picture. Spacing between heads are measured from the center of the eyes, not the edge of the head. Please do not crop off at the wrists and ankles.
Hands play an important part in the language of the portrait. To look graceful and slender, hands should present their edges to the camera. Oppositely, to appear strong, the backs of hands should face the lens. Never allow the arms to hang down vertically, but find something for the hands to do so the arms are bent at the elbow. Arm rests, furniture and other people are handy tools for creating a dynamic angle for the arms.
Shoulders look best when placed at a slight angle to the camera. Views across the back play up the curve of the spine and the jut of the jaw instead of the breadth of the shoulders. Too much of an angle will make the near shoulder appear too large, due to foreshortening.
Groups of four present an interesting challenge. You don’t want to place one head in each corner, making a square. People are basically made up of curves, not straight lines and appear mechanical and lifeless in this configuration. So what can you do with four people? An inverted curve can be formed with the two highest people in the middle. Make sure one is higher than his neighbor. For a more compact composition, overlap the shoulders, fitting them together like a jigsaw puzzle. This places the heads closer together without dead, empty spaces in between shoulders. Remember to turn the outside faces toward the center for a cohesive look. Other shapes that fit the quad portrait are an off center vertical diamond or rhomboid, a staggered vertical or horizontal zigzag line and an inverted curve of three with the smallest below in the center. Be aware that vertical faces should never be in line.
Five is an interesting and easy number to pose. Spacing becomes more important, informing the viewer of the warm relationship between family members. Basically, the faces place themselves in two triangles, the lower middle person sharing the triangles. A vertical composition stretches the space vertically and compresses the spaces horizontally. Six faces can be grouped as two uneven triangles, one slightly higher than the other. The classic oil paintings of large groups of people contain masterful examples of group posing.
Environmental settings play an important part in the balance of a portrait, creating a foil of shapes against the more important faces. If there are masses of light areas, they must be balanced with the appropriate mass of darker areas elsewhere in the picture. The eye travels an omega curve, starting in the lower left corner and wandering through the centers of interest (faces) until exiting out the lower right corner. The centers of interest should fall along this comfortable line.