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Tips for Taking Great Graduation Pictures

Graduation PhotosGraduations are an important life event for the participants and their families, and a cause for celebration.  This is not the day to experiment with photography techniques for the first time!  No matter what kind of camera you are using, be sure to have extra camera batteries on hand and a clear memory card before the big day arrives, so you won't miss any special moments.

Don't simply look at a graduation as one or two stand-alone photos, but rather as an important event in your grad's life. Consider telling a story with your photos. Photos could include the actual ceremony, senior portraits, a picture or two next to the school's signage, football field or another important area from your child's school years, and maybe a few pictures by the school lockers.

What are the schools colors? A photo of the graduation gown with the tassel could also be a nice memory. Graduation is a happy occasion and a moment of pride for the graduate and his family. Get a photo of the grad alone or with friends smiling, thumbs up, fist pump, jumping for joy.

If the graduation is taking place at the school, be sure to get a formal or informal shot with some distinctive features of the school in the frame. Porticos (a porch leading to the entrance of the building, or a roof structure over a walkway) are great spots to do this since they are in open shade and the lighting is nice and flattering for any subject.

Posed Graduation Shots

Make the posed graduation shot a good one.  Try using a larger aperture setting to blur out possibly distracting background details.  For the most flattering results shoot at a telephoto focal length (70-105mm is the ideal range). Get close, and crop out anything that might be distracting.  Use natural light if possible, but if you do use a flash, try to diffuse the light.

The best time to take graduation pictures is before the ceremony. This way parents, grandparents and the graduates have not started crying, hair has not been mussed, and the cap and gown are still intact. Take both individual and family portraits before heading off to the ceremony site.

Before snapping photographs, whether indoors or outdoors, check to make sure the lighting is adjusted so the graduation cap does not cast a shadow on your student's face. If it does, change your location or tip the cap up slightly for photographs.

A cloudy day is best for good portraits, but there's no guarantee the weather will cooperate. Outdoor graduations can be hard if the sun is beating down on the graduates. The grad cap may put those smiling faces in deep shadow. The best way to even things out is to move your subject into open shade—look for the shady side of a building, in a portico, or under an awning. Or, if it's partly cloudy, wait for a cloud to block the sun, and shoot away!

Take a group family shot before leaving for the ceremony.  Use a tripod and timer or have a family friend take a few photographs for you.

Take shots of your grad with their friends.  Choose an uncluttered background and capture their excitement as they enjoy the moment and each other.

The Ceremony

The graduation ceremony may be difficult to photograph, depending on the seating and lighting situations, but here are a few tips:

  • Sit as close to the stage as possible
  • Use your zoom lens and flash
  • Take a few shots of the processional and recessional
  • Let your child know where you are sitting before the ceremony begins, so he can be looking in your direction
  • Adjust your camera's aperture settings instead of just shooting in "auto" mode
  • When it comes time for your child to cross the stage and accept his diploma, be ready. As your student moves to the front of the line, make your way down the center aisle.
  • Set your camera settings to take more rapid, multiple photographs. This way, you won't miss a moment and there will be more options to choose from later.
  • The closer you are to your subject, the better your chances of getting a decent shot.  Move quickly and quietly out of the way after your child has crossed the stage, so that other parents and relatives can take photographs of their graduate too.

Indoor graduations pose their own unique lighting challenges. The light will be low, but that doesn't mean you should use the flash. This is a time to use the highest ISO your camera will let you get away with so you can choose a hand-holdable shutter speed. If you're shooting in a gym, you will probably be dealing with Sodium Vapor lights, which are tough. Choose auto white balance and hope for the best, or shoot RAW and balance the lighting after in a photo editing program.  Another possibility is mixed light sources.  Fluorescent light appears greenish, and incandescent light is warm. Try in advance to determine the primary light source, set the appropriate balance for that, and do your best. While it is not ideal, there is not a lot you can do.

After the graduation ceremony is over, and before your senior takes off his cap and gown, get a few photographs of him with his diploma. Remember to snap a few shots of the family and the diploma too.

It may help to write down certain poses or people you want to get photographs of your child with before the reception ends. Grandparents, best friends, siblings and long-distance relatives usually top the list.

The Hat Toss

Sooner or later, the graduates will toss their mortarboards in the air to celebrate their graduation. Some may even find them and re-enact the toss later. It's a great moment to catch if you can. Find a low angle and shoot up, exposing for the sky.  Leave plenty of room in the frame so you get the flying headgear. In fact, just showing the hands of the graduates at the bottom of the frame is a great image to save and remember the event.

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