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I've been asked to take a picture of my church (the people, not the building we meet in). They're renting a lift I can use to get adequate height to fit all ~250 people into the frame, but I'm kind of puzzled on what settings to use to ensure the sharpest posible image.

I'll be shooting with a Canon Digital Rebel T5/1200D with the wonderful EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 lens. I've rented the lens once before and was astounded by its sharp images--definitely L-grade glass, even captured by the cheapest Canon DSLR.

The print will be small, probably no larger than a 17"x11", so I'm not worried about my Canon 1200D's 18MP resolution not being up to the task.

Given the size of the courtyard and previous years' examples, I'm assuming people will be standing in a group between 25 and 40 feet deep. I haven't been able to drag out a ladder and frame the scene, so I'm not sure what focal length I'll be using, but suspect it to be around 25-30mm to fit the sides of the crowd in.

I'm having trouble deciding, using the depth-of-field calculator, whether I need to use f/11 or can get away with f/8 (or even f/5.6!?) to keep everyone's faces reasonably focused, but work around the diffraction caused by 18MP squeezed onto an APS-C sensor. It seems that this is the only feasible option and that focus stacking a crowd would be nearly impossible.

Does anyone have experience with shots like these? Do I try my best to calculate it ahead of time, then do some quick variations the morning of and take the best result? Is getting as far away from the front of the group as possible and using the longest-possible focal length the easiest approach?

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    I like to think of DOF as a function of magnification. Magnification is a function of your distance and the focal length. So one of the things you need to figure out is how far you're going to need to be as well as what focal length you'll use. Then you can calculate the DOF. You'll also want to focus 1/3 midway into the crowd to take advantage of the DOF in front and behind the focal plane. Since you will be up high you'll also be able to cheat somewhat in that your focal plane doesn't have to be perfectly vertical. – rrauenza Nov 4 '16 at 5:35
  • 250 people is a lot of faces. Can you borrow (or rent) a medium-format film camera? It doesn't have to be an SLR. If so, take that along as well and get the film scanned professionally. You may be pleasantly surprised. If you can recruit the help of a friendly medium-format enthusiast, so much the better. – Mick Nov 4 '16 at 10:49
  • @Mick Man, I'd love to rent a medium-format camera for this! I even looked into it, but the powers that be are more interested in the event than the final product itself. Especially since they plan on making such a small print. I was just want to ensure that I make the most of the limited tools at my disposal. – Eric L. Nov 5 '16 at 4:24
  • @rrauenza So I should focus 1/3 of the way into the group instead of halfway to ensure the front row of the crowd is fully in focus? Are you saying that being higher up helps me adjust the angle I'm shooting to make the focal plane tilt diagonally and bring more of the crowd into focus that's standing where that diagonal line is crossing? – Eric L. Nov 5 '16 at 4:31
  • If you look a dofmaster you'll see that there is an area in front of your focus point that is also in focus. On the other hand, if you look at dofmaster you'll see f8 is probably good enough to get the whole group even if you just focus on the front row. – rrauenza Nov 5 '16 at 6:13
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Well. In reality you do not have too many options. Let me summarize what will happen.

  1. Forget the focal length. Just use it for the composition.

    Normally a smaller focal length keeps more into focus. But put you ladder in a safe place, close enough that you can scream and give instructions to the group and far enough you do not have much distortion on the sides.

    Where I would be worried is about possible distortions on the edges, so stay a bit further away as possible. (All depends on the composition) so you are not forced to use a very wide focal length.

  2. Use the highest ISO you can have without visible noise. Could something like 400 or 800. Make some tests on your camera. This is a real preparation you can do.

  3. I hope the photoshoot is in daytime. An exterior on a cloudy but bright day will be nice, so you have good light.

    If it is outside and on a sunny day - do not shoot at noon. Put the sun behind the crowd. (Or schedule the shoot at the correct time.)

    If it is inside, bounce several flashes to the celling so you can have the highest amount of light possible. Watch the color temperature of the celling.

  4. At the possible focal length you can get away with a 1/60-1/100s.

  5. Now all you have left is the aperture, that will depend on everything else, so in reality you do not have much options. So take several shots and put your focus on the middle row.

  • Very interesting. Sorry, I forgot to mention this will be an outdoor shot in an open courtyard. It was scheduled for 10 AM. The crowd will be facing south. That's pretty close to solar noon. What happens to the shadows when shooting an outside group close to noon? Faces get obscured? – Eric L. Nov 5 '16 at 3:38
  • Harsh shadows if the sun is too high. – rrauenza Nov 5 '16 at 6:21
  • I would think that 10am in southern California in the winter would be fine. – rrauenza Nov 5 '16 at 6:22
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Are you limited to just one shot? If not, take several at different apertures , and check the rear of the screen making sure that everyone in the extremeties is in focus. Something like f/8 would be a good starting point. You can then ensure the DOF is ok rather than taking one shot and finding out the calculation from the calculator was off.

You will probably be wanting to shoot at the narrower end of the 17-55 purely to avoid distortion caused by shooting wide angle. Due to this rather than renting the 17-55 have you considered a 50mm prime? Could be cheaper, and there would also be a trade off with improved IQ.

Obviously the problem with a narrower aperture is the less light will be hitting the sensor, meaning you will have to increase shutter speed/ISO to compensate for the lack of light and as well eliminating camera shake and any motion blur from the multiple subjects. Depending on the amount of light available to you, it may we worth renting some lighting as well.

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    ...I think you meant to suggest to shoot at the narrower/longer end of 17-55? – rrauenza Nov 4 '16 at 17:18
  • Hmm, I do have the new 1.8 STM 50mm prime. I couldn't tell a difference in sharpness from the 17-55 compared to my 50--it's that good! I wasn't sure how much room I would have to maneuver the lift around the edge of the courtyard where the shot's taking place, so I chose a flexible lens that could go wide, if needed. Since this is a Canon APS-C, that's a 27-88mm equivalent lens on a full frame body. But good call, setting it to 30mm will have the same perspective as a FF 50mm image and won't subtly distort the edges of the crowd. – Eric L. Nov 5 '16 at 4:13
  • @rrauenza whoops! Edited. – Crazy Dino Nov 7 '16 at 10:10
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Since you're planning to rent a lens anyway, you might get a Tilt/Shift lens. That will let you lay the focal plane across the faces of the crowd, getting everyone in focus virtually independent of the aperture.

(You might like to experiment with the lens a bit before the big day, to learn how you need to set it.)

  • This is a great suggestion! I forget that the same properties that make TS great for architectural shots could help out in this situation, too. I'm not sure if I could pick up on the subtleties of those fascinating lens in a few days to use it correctly on the day of the shot. But if I'm ever tapped to do this again, I'll definitely give it a whirl. LensRentals showed the tilt-shifts when I was comparing the wider-angle lenses and I was pleasantly surprised by how cheap they are to rent. – Eric L. Nov 5 '16 at 4:40
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You could buy/borrow a plenoptic camera and set whatever regions desired to be in focus. It's a pretty cool gadget.

But as CrazyDino hinted, do a few calculations beforehand, and take a couple dozen shots with different aperture/speed settings. That's the nice thing about this newfangled digital stuff: there's no added cost to taking 50 instead of 2 shots.

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While you're up there taking a shot with your camera, you might also consider taking a panoramic with your phone. If the people don't move too much, you shouldn't get too many weird stitching issues, and it might turn out better than a single shot.

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