Graduate Beyond Point-and-Shoot: How to Take Better Pictures During Commencement

Graduation ceremonies are among the more difficult events to capture. You are often in large, dark gyms or out on a football field in the mid-afternoon sun – nightmarish shooting conditions! Here are 5 tips for taking better pictures of a commencement and of your graduate.

1. Scout Ahead of Time and Arrive Early – If you can get access to the place where the ceremony is occurring, visit it ahead of time and take some shots with a variety of lenses. This will allow you to get to know the gear you might not be used to shooting with, such as telephoto lenses.

Picture1©DerickSantosYou don’t need a lens quite this big to shoot a graduation – you have to consider other people, after all. However, a long lens will be beneficial, especially during diploma/degree acceptance. ©Derick Santos

2. Plan with Your Graduate – In a sea of like-dressed students, finding yours will be difficult. Form a plan with your graduate so that they jump during a certain time (when appropriate, text each other). Tell them where you are going to be sitting so they know where to look and where to wave.

Picture2©DerickSantosThink of clever ways to make your graduate stand out in the crowd. Form a plan together. ©Derick Santos

Picture3©ScottRoederWhen appropriate, text your graduate and tell them to wave – even if for just 1 shot. ©Scott Roeder

Picture4©ScottRoederDepending on the mood and revelry of the occasion, family members can develop creative ways for grabbing your graduate’s attention. ©Scott Roeder

Picture5©AmandaLongLet your graduate know where you plan on sitting in the audience so they know where to wave. ©Amanda Long

3. Weigh the Pros and Cons of Certain LensesLong lenses allow you to get close-up shots of the ceremony without interrupting it. However, make sure you aren’t interrupting the audience while you’re shooting.

Picture6©ElizabethFriarShoot with a long lens but don’t break your back. Something like a 70-200mm will give you versatility as well as reach. ©Elizabeth Friar

Prime lenses, or lenses with only 1 (fixed) focal length, tend to be better for low-light situations and for pleasing blurry backgrounds (“bokeh”) by virtue of their wide f/stops. However, being stuck at one focal length means you have to actually approach your subject rather than just “zoom” to them with your lens. Examples of these kinds of lenses include the Canon 50mm f/1.2, the Nikon 35mm f/1.4, and the Sony 50mm f/1.4.

Picture7©BeckyRavenburgMinimize your background with the creamy “bokeh” produced from wide-open f/stops. A good example is the Canon 85mm, which shoots as low as f/1.2. This is also helpful in low light or shooting in pesky shadows. ©Becky Ravenburg Reed

Picture8©BeckyRavenburgHere is another example where shooting at a low f/stop to produce a blurred background effect is beneficial in minimizing a distracting background while still keeping your scene in context. ©Becky Ravenburg Reed

4. Mind Your Background – Graduations are frenetic and it is hard to get a clean shot without tons of people milling about in the background. To combat that, shoot in areas where there are not a lot of people, such as alcoves. Also, don’t be afraid to crop in tight for your shot. Close-ups make for nice keepsakes and they minimize the background.

Picture9©CaseSandburg_AmandaLongGo ahead – get close! It minimizes distractions and emphasizes your grad. Left: ©Case Sandburg, Right: ©Amanda Long

5. Get Creative: Fun Poses and Candids – Jumping, laughing, walking – capturing the action of the day is key, even if they don’t feel like very traditional shots. Odds are, these kinds of shots will end up being your favorites over the ones taken during the ceremony itself. Shoot with a faster shutter and you’ll be set to freeze any moment!

Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony 2011Listen for burgeoning battle cries, school chants, and explosions of applause – these candids make for great memories.  ©Elizabeth Friar

 Picture11©ScottRoederFind a nice spot on campus to shoot a couple of fun jumping scenes. ©Scott Roeder

Picture12©CaseSandburgLooking at the camera is not always a requirement. Candids like these feel real and in-the-moment. ©Case Sandburg

Picture13©ScottRoederThink of yourself as your graduate’s photojournalist for the day. ©Scott Roeder

Picture14©DerickSantosThe most important advice of all: have fun! ©Derick Santos

We hope these tips help you get the most out of the event you are shooting. Plan ahead and seize opportunities no matter what the conditions are to capture your new favorite picture to have printed, put on a card, or made into a favorite keepsake.

Visit Shutterfly for stylish graduation announcements and invitations.

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