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May 8, 2009 1 Comment
My sister, Sarah

My sister, Sarah

It’s a day you spend years working towards. And in the case of college, you spend thousands of dollars paying for. But for the average family – graduation photos don’t always turn out quite like you had hoped.

Last weekend I watched my beautiful baby sister graduate from college. And I was determined to make her graduation photos turn out better than my own. It’s not that my parents don’t try, but they’ve never dedicated much time to learning to take a great picture.

It’s not their fault. My parents took scores of pictures when my sister and I were young, but as we got older, they became so involved in our lives that most days they forgot to bring the camera. At my college graduation there are plenty of uncentered, poorly lit photos – and I wanted to avoid that for my sister Sarah.

Over the last few years I’ve started giving my parents little training sessions when I can. I’ve always been the family photographer, but now that they live half way around the world, they have to document their lives all by themselves.

So here are my tips for a stress-free, successful graduation photo shoot.

Plan ahead:
The biggest way to avoid stress when it comes to taking pictures of any important event is to plan ahead. If you’ve ever been to a wedding, you’ve probably noticed that many professional photographers actually keep a list of every picture they need to take. Here’s some things to consider before the big day…Are you taking pictures before or after the ceremony? Are you taking the pictures inside or outside? And figure out who needs to be included in pictures with the graduate. Even if you don’t write it down, keep a mental list of friends and family that will make an appearance.

I think film cameras are part of the reason people take terribly framed pictures. Instead of risking chopping off someone’s head in the photo, most people just zoomed out and hoped for the best. That meant you always ended up with a tiny person in the center of the photo and lots of space around the edge. Well, in the age of digital photography, you can get that perfect picture – so zoom in or take a step closer. You want your subjects to fill up the majority of the picture without a bunch of white space.

This is a huge concern since most graduations happen inside an auditorium. The lighting is always bad. The best advice is to get there early and take some test shots. At my sister’s graduation I spent about half an hour taking shots from different angles, using different settings on the camera. That meant that when the big moment came, I was ready and I already knew what the pictures would look like. When you’re taking pictures after the ceremony, make sure you use a flash and go outside if you can. Natural lighting always looks better than artificial lights. Also, make sure the light is coming from behind the photographer and shining on the face of the picture subject. If you stand the grad in front of window or with the sun behind their back, the picture will be back lit and your grad will turn up dark in the middle of a bright background.

Even professional photographers take the time to edit their photos. Thanks to editing software you can fix those framing issues and even some lighting problems. I suggest using Picnik.comto edit photos. It’s free and makes it easy to apply some fancy editing. For example, my family looked a bit washed out in some of the photos from a bright flash, so I went into Picnik and added a little bit of warmth to our skin. I also added some effects like frames, faded edges and fixed some red eyes. Editing is the secret weapon of all great photographers.

And of course the most important tip – take more pictures than you need. Even the best photographers don’t rely on one photo to get it right. They take hundreds, narrow it down to the best ones and then edit those until they are perfect.

Even though I feel I have some tips to share, I still have a lot to learn about taking great photos. Feel free to share your photo tips as a comment below!


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  1. Dawn says:

    another great tip is to try not to use direct flash. Use a speedlight and bounce the flash off from something if you can so the pictures dont look flashy. 🙂

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