10 Actionable Graduation Photography Tips

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photo of graduates.

Graduation Photography

Graduation is an event of a lifetime and we have 10 graduation photography tips to help you get great shots! Graduation is a significant life event for the students and their families. It’s a time for ceremonies, recognition for achievements, not to mention parties and family gatherings.

Graduation is also time to take pictures your family will cherish for a lifetime. No matter what type of digital camera you’re using, we have some tips to help you capture excellent graduation photos.

1. Use a DSLR or Point & Shoot Camera

We use smartphones for a majority of social events. Images taken with smartphones are sufficient for sharing online and on social media, but they don’t produce the best prints or enlargements. For graduation, you’ll want images that you can print and frame. That being said, we recommend using a Digital SLR (DSLR) or worst case, a Point & Shoot camera. 

The main advantages of using a DSLR instead of a smartphone camera are picture quality and versatility. As you review our tips on graduation photography, you’ll see some of the recommended settings are simply not available on a smartphone.

2. Know your Camera Settings Inside & Out!

You need to be prepared for different lighting conditions and fast moving subjects (like the cap toss). Take some time and get to know your camera well ahead of the graduation ceremony. Don’t procrastinate on this. Graduation day is probably not the best time to figure out your camera and memorize camera settings.

Locate the camera manual and earmark key pages if necessary. If you’re going to buy a new camera, try and purchase it a week or two ahead of time. Practice using your new camera before the ceremony.

camera settings.

Be sure you know how to adjust the ISO and set the camera on full automatic, aperture priority, shutter priority, or program presets (indoor, outdoor, etc.). Familiarize yourself with the flash as well (both automatic and manual).

Flash photography may be prohibited during the ceremony, but you can still take photos with the flash off. More experienced users will want to set the white balance and use manual mode. In that case, be sure you know control the aperture settings, shutter speed, and how to use the built-in light meter.

3. Be Prepared

Be sure to fully recharge the battery! Pick up an extra battery if you can, just in case. Transfer old images off your memory cards and reformat the cards for the big day. Better yet, pick up an extra memory card just in case something goes wrong. Don’t forget to clean the camera lens using special photography lens paper and cleaner (no, you can’t use your t-shirt).

If graduation ceremonies are being held in a huge venue with hundreds or thousands of attendees, (and you’re using a DSLR) consider renting a telephoto lens. Just be sure to practice ahead of time and use a higher shutter speed.

If possible, coordinate with the graduate ahead of time and develop a small strategy so you get all the shots you want. Let the graduate know where you’re sitting so they can look at the camera as they pass by. Have the graduate talk to friends about posing with classmates for pictures before and after the ceremony.

If you need some posing ideas and inspiration, go to Pinterest and search “Graduation Photo Ideas” for some really clever photo ideas.

4. Shoot High Resolution Images

Shoot at the highest resolution possible (preferably RAW format). Normally, the photos you take using a digital camera are saved using the JPEG compressed format. Data from compressed JPEG files is lost and cannot be recovered. Also, JPEG’s can be edited afterwards using photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, but there are limitations.

RAW image files on the other hand are uncompressed and produce higher quality images. They also create huge files sizes, so be sure you have enough memory cards. The major advantage to shooting in RAW is the ability to correct mistakes. It’s always good to know you have the option of salvaging what could be a great shot if it comes out underexposed.

With RAW you can make fairly significant corrections to exposure, shadows, saturation, colors and much more. While you can make some of those same adjustments using a JPEG, your options are limited.

5. Establishing Shots

graduation chocolate cake.

In filmmaking, an establishing shot establishes the context for a scene by showing the relationship between its important figures and objects. These opening shots are used to tell viewers, amongst other things, where scene is taking place. Consider taking images of a graduation announcement, the cap and gown on a hanger (see the next tip for more), the school sign, a decorated table before the party, or a cake.

If possible, take pics of the auditorium or stage before the ceremonies. Taking establish shots will help you tell the story of your special day and will come in handy if you want to create a multimedia slideshow.

6. Photograph the Gown

Graduation cap and diploma isolated on a white background.

Every school has their colors and if your loved one is graduating with special honors, they will be wearing colorful honor cords to recognize their special achievements. So get a photo of the gown with the school colors in full display. You can take a shot by a window, next to a lamp (don’t forget to set your white balance) or with a flash.

Get some close-ups of the tassel with the year charm and honor cords. Get creative with your composition and shoot from different angles (a reminder to check Pinterest for some cool ideas).

7. Graduation Ceremony Shots

graduation ceremony.

Taking photos during a graduation ceremony can be a challenge. Sometimes you’re better off letter the designated professional photographer do the honors. However, if you’re up to the challenge, you’ll find that lighting is not always the best and you’ll probably be too far away from the podium for your flash.

You’ll probably need to set your ISO to at least 400, and possibly up to 1,000+. You may be able to get some great shots at the beginning and end of the ceremony. Try and position yourself in an aisle seat so you can take photos of the graduate entering and exiting. Sometimes Graduation Photography is about being at the right place at the right time.

Don’t forget to set the white balance. A lot of gymnasiums use tungsten or sodium vapor lights, so the white balance range is between 2,500 to 3,500K. Take a couple of test shots before the ceremony and test different white balance settings. When the time comes for the graduate to walk across a stage and receiving their diploma, be sure you’re ready to go.

If the setting is available on your camera, try setting the shutter to shoot in a continuous burst mode so you can take multiple photos as you hold down the shutter button. Everything happens in a matters of seconds, so shooting continuously will ensure you get plenty of shots.

8. The Hat Toss

graduates tossing caps.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, most graduates will toss their caps in the air to celebrate their final graduation. It’s a tough shot, even for professional photographers. Be prepared and do your best to try and capture the action. It all happens in the blink of an eye! Try increasing your shutter speed and use continuous burst mode to take multiple photos.

9. Post Graduation Ceremony

Congratulations! You made through the ceremony and hopefully got some awesome shots. Now you can relax a little and take photos with family and friends. If you moved from indoors to outdoors, don’t forget to reset your white balance. If you’re outdoors, you can shoot at a lower ISO for better quality images. Use your flash outdoors to fill in shadows. Hopefully you picked up a few clever posing ideas from Pinterest.

10. Graduation Party Time

Once commencement exercises have concluded, the graduate will probably be in a rush to head out the door for Grad Night! Don’t forget to take pics before the graduate takes off their cap and gown. A photo holding the diploma folder and flowers make for memorable shots. If you can get to the party early, get shots of decorations, balloons, signs, close-up’s of cards, etc.

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