10 Graduation Photography Tips

Photograph your grad's big day in style.


Graduations are an important life event for the participants and their families, and a cause for celebration (especially for the parents, if it's a college graduation, since they can now look forward to solvency).

The following ten graduation photography tips can be followed no matter what digital camera you're using, whether it's a DSLR, MILC, or compact digital camera. A mid-range zoom lens (28-70mm equivalent) is sufficient, although if you have a longer range lens that's fine, too. If you're shooting indoors a larger-sensor camera is better than a small-sensor compact. That said, you can capture excellent graduation photos with most digital cameras if you follow the following suggestions.


1. Tell A Story

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 that's worthy of coverage. Tell a story: It could be a half dozen or more photos that include the actual ceremony, portraits, abstracts, all of which can be ultimately tied together in a photo book that you and your grad can have as keepsakes of the event.


2. Get the Gown

What are your grad's school colors? My high school's were blue and orange, and seeing this color combination years later gives me a nostalgic twinge. A photo of the gown, which is most likely going to include the school's colors, could be a lead photo in a sequence of images. A shot like the one above can be lit by a window for soft, natural light. Fill the frame with the gown, include the tassle for a contrasting element, and shoot away. If you want to get fancy, place a reflector opposite the window to kick in more light. Think about your composition: Leave room to add words, so you can use this as a cover shot of a sequence of photos about the day. Photo © svengine/iStockphoto.com

3. Get a Formal-ish Portrait

You expect to take a portrait shot. Your grad is expecting it, too. Make it a good one! Use a larger aperture to blur out possibly distracting background details, and shoot at a telephoto focal length (70-105mm is the ideal range) to get the most flattering results. Get close, and crop out anything that might be distracting. In the above photo, although there are people in the background, the photographer chose a wide aperture that provided enough blur to literally focus attention on one person. Photo ©andresrimaging/iStockphoto.com

Make sure the light is even and any shadows are evened out via reflected light or on-camera flash. If you are using your DSLR's pop-up flash, be sure to soften it with a modifier such as the LumiQuest SoftScreen. If you have a shoe mounted flash, use a diffuser such as the Lumiquest ProMax Mini Softbox to reduce the harshness of the direct light.

4. Show the Joy

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. Photo © andresrimaging/iStockphoto.com


5. Open Shade is Your Friend

A cloudy day is best for good portraits, but there's no guarantee the weather will cooperate. Outdoor graduations can be tough, visually, if the sun is beating down on the graduates. The mortarboard throws 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! Photo ©andresrimaging/iStockphoto.com


6. Pose Your Grad With His/Her BFFs

During your graduates time at her school, she most certainly made friends, many of whom she will stay close with for the rest of her life. Take photos of her BFFs! Be sure lighting is even so you can see their faces (add a bit of flash if necessary) and choose an uncluttered background. You could ask them to toss their hats (see below), do fist pumps, or jump. It's their graduation day and they're excited! Capture it as they enjoy the moment and each other. Photo © andresrimaging/iStockphoto.com.


7. Show the Ambience

There will be times—during the processional, all those speeches—when you may think it's time to put down your camera. This is actually the best time to look around and get generic photos that, in bits and pieces, capture the atmosphere of a graduation. Use them to spice up the story you are telling about the day, and consider them ingredients for your photo book or image sequence. Photo ©dhavatar/iStockphoto.com

8. Indoor Graduation Challenge

Indoor graduations pose their own unique lighting challenges. The light will be low, but that doesn't mean you should use flash. In fact, 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 in post-processing.

The other possibility is mixed light sources, which is what happened above. Fluorescent light appears greenish, and incandescent light is warm. This is a judgement call, but try in advance to determine the primary light source, set the appropriate balance for that, and let the other colors fall where they may. It's not ideal, but when you're not in control of the lighting, there's not a lot you can do. Photo ©shoo/iStockphoto.com


9. Use The School as a Backdrop

If the architecture of the school is distinctive, and graduation is taking place at the school, be sure to get a formal or informal shot with those distinctive elements in the frame. Portocos are great spots to do this since they are in open shade and the lighting is nice and flattering for any subject.  Photo ©phildate/iStockphoto.com


10. Get 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. It's OK if the hats are in shadow. 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 as in the image above is a great final image in your sequence. Photo ©KoKimk/iStockphoto.com

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