High school graduation only happens once in a young person’s lifetime. As a photographer, you should recognize the importance of getting those graduation photos just right, despite the challenges of the typical graduation setting. It isn’t an event, a portrait shoot, a wedding or a concert, and yet a graduation shoot can have elements of all of these at once. There can be issues with timing, white balance, exposure, blurry images, or missing “the right moment.” There are a lot of distractions and variables at play during a high school graduation, but here are some suggestions to help you take graduation pictures both students and parents will love:
1. Plan and PrepareIt may sound like a cliche, but being prepared is the best defense against the unknown. You’ll be able to better handle the variables of a graduation if you are aware of the constants; try and go to the location ahead of time to get the feel of it. On the day of the shoot, arrive at least an hour early to get your bearings. Ask the AV director any questions you might have. Try some test shots and plan your approach. Get to know the room and figure out your camera settings well before the graduates arrive. Decide where you will stand, what angles are best and how close you’ll have to be to the stage and graduates. Anticipate potential issues and create solutions; find out if there will be other media crews competing for space. Stake out potential distracting elements such as microphones, music stands, the podium or other people, and reposition as necessary.
2. Bring a TeamIdeally, you should work with a team of one to three additional photographers, especially when shooting a large graduation. Use your planning trip to decide where each member of your photography team will be posted during the program. Get a diagram of the auditorium (or make a rudimentary sketch) and a copy of the program. Assign specific locations as well as portions of the program for each team member to cover. Have your team practice a bit by taking turns posing as the graduate at the venue during your planning phase.
3. Anticipate “Moments” and HighlightsIf you can anticipate those priceless moments of a graduation, you can be ready for them when they occur. At most high school graduations, there are certain moments that you can count on. They might be built into the program, or more spontaneous like a facial expression at a key time. Knowing where and when those moments will happen is crucial to being able to capture them. In the moments before a graduate’s name is called, a range of emotions and expressions can cross their face. There is anticipation before their name is called, and then — pure joy. Other potential shots could include:
- The venue and decorations
- The processional
- The moment right before they sit down on stage
- The diploma pile
- Closeups of caps/tassels
- Musical performances
- Awards and acknowledgments
- The tassel turning
- The graduate celebrating with pals
- The recessional
- The reception with family members
4. The Right GearYour camera, lenses and lighting equipment should ideally allow for maximum flexibility. Rent a backup camera if you don’t have a second one to bring along — much like weddings, this is not a situation where you want to be stuck with a malfunctioning camera and no backup. As for lenses, use a wide angle for crowds, environments, the stage and group shots. Bring a zoom for closeups and a lens with a low f-stop to compensate for the inevitable poor lighting at most graduations. Bring equipment you’ll be able to handle in low lighting — if you’re renting gear, spend some time with it to become fully familiar. Don’t forget to bring a tripod or monopod. Also know the limits of the gear, such as what your optimum lens sharpness is and how slow of shutter speeds you can use without a tripod. (Generally, you shouldn’t use a slower shutter speed than the mm lens number.) Find out also what ISO will work in the graduation venue conditions. You may need to settle for bit of “noise” in a photo to ensure it isn’t blurry.
5. Stay FlexibleAs the evening progresses, be sure and stay flexible and adaptable. Don’t get too attached to any one position at the shoot. You can have a post set up where you can easily access gear for lens, memory card and battery changes, but be ready to change positions as needed. If you do your homework, bring equipment you’re comfortable with, set up a professional photo backdrop, anticipate lighting and navigate distractions, you’ll be well-prepared to create once-in-a-lifetime graduation pictures and cherished memories for your clients.
Have you photographed a graduation ceremony? What other tips can you give a new photographer?
-Backdrop Express Photography Team
Interested in learning more tips about photographing high school seniors? Check out How to Create Standout Senior Pictures in Studio!
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