Whether they take place at preschools, high schools, or colleges, all commencements are high-stakes occasions for graduates and the amateur photographers who love them. There are countless ways for a graduation photo to go wrong. Indoor ceremonies mean dim lighting and grainy photos. Outdoor ceremonies mean variable weather conditions and unexpected shadows. Nearly all ceremonies feature a chasm between graduates and their celebrants, often filled with at least one celebrant blocking the view.
Despite all of these factors, you can take a great graduation photo. Even if you’re an amateur photographer, you’re an expert on your child. You know the story of how he got to this day and what it means for him to be here, which makes you the best equipped person to capture the day from his perspective. If you think of your job less as photographing the day and more as telling your child’s story, you’ll get the great photos you’re looking for.
How to Take Great Graduation Photos
Leave the stage-crossing to the professionals
The people being paid to photograph your graduate are in a much better position to capture the wide smile of accomplishment as your graduate crosses the stage. Putting your camera away leaves you free to enjoy your child’s moment, and leaves a clear view for the celebrants sitting behind you.
Instead of photographing your graduate, focus your lens on the celebrants. Is your graduate the first in the family? Capture the pride of his immigrant grandmother. Is your graduate an adult with a family of his own? Take pictures of his kids as they see him get his diploma.
Take a graduate’s-eye-view
You’re trying to capture your child’s story, so snap from her point of view. If you’re taller than your graduate, move your camera toward your chest so you’re not looking down on her. If you’re shorter, move your camera up so you’re not giving her double chins. Shooting from the graduate’s eye level makes all the action center around her.
The best opportunity for a great graduation shot is the post-ceremony moment when your family finds your graduate. That mile-wide smile from mom or that tear-filled congratulatory hug from dad will be way better than any posed photo. Follow a parent, spouse, or best friend out of the ceremony and catch that person catching their graduate.
Once the hugging is done, most families will want to take a series of one-on-ones and group shots with the graduate. These shots are often terrible, because photographers try to zoom in on just their graduate, only to find later that someone has walked through and ruined the shot.
Instead of trying to get that perfect family pose, back up a little and capture the crowd of people around your family: a cap here, the hem of a gown there, families hugging in the background. Stepping back ensures that you’ll see any major photobombs coming while capturing the spirit of the event. If every sibling, aunt, and grandparent is shooting photos too, zoom out even further and photograph the photographers. You’ll be surprised at how relaxed your subjects look when you’re not looking at them.
One of the best tricks for getting a great group shot is to pose people casually and wait for them to start interacting with each other. But in a busy graduation photo free-for-all, when everyone wants a photo right now and graduates have to return their caps and gowns, you may not have time to let your subjects get comfortable.
Props can speed things up. If the school distributed pompoms or noisemakers, you’re golden: just ask everyone to play with them while you “set up” (of course, you’ll actually be taking the shot). If you don’t have ready-made props, you can create your own. Programs make good fans or umbrellas. Phones can also make great props if you ask everyone to take photos of the graduate at the same time.
Experienced photographers instinctively know to work with their environment. They avoid trees, cranes, and street lamps that, when photographed, look like they’re sprouting from subjects’ heads. They make sure their subjects aren’t squinting in sunlight. They check for any embarrassingly-cropped signs.
When you’re an amateur, it’s hard to keep all these things in mind, especially when your subjects are getting tired, sweaty, and hungry. Fortunately, one solution to all of these problems is to shoot from lots of different angles. Keep the family where they are and move yourself around. That way, you’ll have lots of options to choose from later.
Get in the picture
You may be in such a rush to take photos that you don’t get a photo with your graduate. But you can put yourself in the picture. If it’s raining, shoot slightly up from under your umbrella to keep your camera dry and to put your stamp on the photo. If it’s sunny, get your shadow in the group shot. If you’re near a building, take the photo in front of doors or windows so that your reflection is there too.
Stephanie Loomis Pappas is a professor turned stay-at-home parent committed to debunking all of the bad parenting advice on the internet. She started snackdinner to remind Googling parents that whatever they’re doing, they’re doing just fine.