Group Pictures—Commercial Techniques

By Gary Bernstein -

The past two columns I’ve detailed recent shoots—one for Diva Diahann Carroll, and the other for the new young songstress Carly.  Usually we cover a little bit of my older photography as well.  I always let current events dictate the images I pull from.  This month is no different…

One of the major entertainment channels is running an hour special every few days on the successful series “Who’s The Boss?” starring Tony Danza, Judith Light, Alyssa Milano, and Danny Pintauro, for which I created most of the photography and advertising.  The commercials for the show are using my photographs, and others appear throughout the broadcast.

Television show structure has not changed much through the years.  In fact, the casts seem to get bigger and bigger, so a photographer has to know how to put groups together if he’s going get a network gig and hold on to it.  It’s also nice to know for those family get-togethers.  However, we’re not talking portraits here—that’s the subject of another column.  However, many of the elements that are important in group portraiture hold true in commercial shoots as well—and I’ll point those out.

This column details commercial sessions only.  So let’s take a look at a variety of group shots from The Bernstein Archives.  I’ll give you my stream-of-consciousness take on each setup:

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Shot 1
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Shot 2
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Shot 3
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Shot 4
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Shot 5
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Shot 6
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Shot 7

SHOT 1 - The first shot of the “Boss” cast was made early in the series history (when we were all young).  It was taken with a 35mm Nikon ( on Kodachrome ( and an 85mm short tele lens.  I used 3 lights: 2 on the background at 45-degree angles (to even-up the blue seamless paper)  creating a shadowless environment; and one main light on a boom that was directly above my camera lighting all the subjects evenly.  Can you make this shot with one light?  Absolutely.  Just make sure the light is high enough (or your background is back far enough) to allow the shadows to fall on the floor.  Did Tony and my subjects want to make this picture?  Probably not.  Did I jump around, yell and scream and act like a total fool to get them to respond this way?  You know the answer.

As a sidebar…

I’ve had more than 200 celebrity clients…and I can assure you, that they really “love you” if you make them look good.  If you don’t—you don’t shoot them again.  Simple really.  Consequently, you have to do whatever it takes to make them look good.  Fact:  Most celebrities do NOT like still photography.  That’s not true.  Most hate still photography.  They’re used to emoting in front of the camera, and that’s shaking and moving basically—not sitting still.  Another thing about group shots… Everybody has to look good.  The more people—the more shots.  Of course with digital—things have gotten a bit easier in that regard—switching heads and all.

SHOT 2 - A more sedate look in this image—shot on a Hasselblad with a 150mm Zeiss lens, on Ektachrome slide film.  Again I used 3 lights—2 on the background, and one main light on a boom stand.  I don’t really have rules as such…but I think it looks best when the eyes of the subjects are all at different levels in the image.  Also…I usually try to keep composition moving toward the center with heads pretty much equal distance from each other.

SHOT 3 - Back to an active shot with Judy and Tony…again with a Hasse and a 150mm lens on Ektachrome 64.  Close scrutiny will reveal that in all the portrait images in this column I used a small, silvered reflector exactly like my own Gary Bernstein-Chimera reflector kit (  It’s the key to the extra brilliance you see in the shots, the extra sparkle in the eyes, and great-looking skin tones.  Of course, the reflector also fills in the shadows for a better-balanced image.  For more tips on reflector lighting—catch my last two columns for

SHOT 4 - Same thing—as far as the reflector goes.  This shot, however—of Frank Telfer, Kay Sutton York (love of my life), and Susan Scott—was made in my New York studio for a hair salon.  Consequently, all that’s important is that you see the hair styles (sorry about that, Frank).  The image was made on a Hasse ( with an 80mm lens on Kodak Plus X at E.I. 125.  My aperture was set for maximum depth of field at f/22.  One light with a 4-foot wide piece of seamless paper taped to the wall did the trick.  Amazing what you can do with 1 light and an array of spectacular faces and bodies J.  Now that’s the key to beautiful photography!

SHOT 5 - The dynamic foursome is Margaux Hemingway, Prince Egon VonFurstenberg (he married Diane and made her a “princess”), Errol Wetson, and Pat Amari…on Margaux’s first day in the Big Apple more years ago then I care to discuss (but it seems like yesterday).  It was taken at my NYC studio right before we went out for a great dinner.  But I digress.  Again, a Hasse with an 80mm, two 1200-watt-second strobes on Kodak Plus X.  Again at f/22…against a piece of white no-seam that I painted clouds on using a can of black spray paint.

No…Margaux and Errol were not comfortable…and indeed it was difficult for all of them to hold this pose…but it wasn’t about comfort.  It was about getting the shot.  We were all friends…and we all wanted the picture.  Even if you’re not friends, it’s still all about getting the picture!  Again—in the above two black and whites…it’s a story of lighting, and placement of eyes and bodies within the composition to create interest.  Do you want to look at this picture?  If you do—I did my job.  True—the great faces help.

SHOT 6 - This Thanksgiving Dinner shot was made for the NBC show (I think it was NBC—can’t remember) Sister Kate with Stephanie Beacham (a great lady) and a cast of youngsters—one of whom—if you check closely—is a young Jason Priestley.  Once again, the tool of the day is a Hasse with a standard 80mm…and a lot of lights—try 8 electronic flash units.  This shot was studied and nailed down—done for TV Guide…

It was hard on all of us.  I was on a ladder…and it was shot on the lot at 20th Century Fox on their set—art directed by Chuck Panama and Cynthia Lieberman.  This was pre-digital days…but we had Polaroid backs on them thar Hasses…and man, did it come in handy on this shot.

SHOT 7 - Naturally, the easiest group shot of all is when you’re working with three woman who are all sisters…and all over active.  Just put a motor on that camera and crank some film.  This is Vanity (of Prince fame) and her real-life sisters shot in my Culver City studio…

Again a Hasse was the tool of choice (darn—they should pay me for this article or at least give me a camera or two)…with an 80mm on Kodak Ektachrome; 3 lights—one main—two on the background…

…Shot for Black Elegance Magazine.  Do you still need to direct this shot?  Of course…it’s never a matter of luck.  Trust me.

See you next issue and at my homes away from home and – the only website in the world broadcasting television style shows about photography 24-7.  And for those great belated Christmas gifts—don’t forget about our DVD’s: How to Take Great Pictures, and our current super-best-seller from Rolando Gomez, Glamour Made Simple—both available at

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