Friday, June 5, 2015

Photographing a graduation - Tips and tricks to get the best photos

Yesterday was my daughter's high school graduation, and of course, I was there as a proud father. But since I am a photographer, I also wanted to photograph the big day to remember this occasion.

After going through the images today and editing the best photos for the family, I thought I would write a blog to help those of you who are about to attend your own graduation. My goal here is to give you hints on best equipment to use and also best locations and techniques to get great shots.

I came with my Canon 1Dx (but any decent DSLR would work here) and the new Canon 100-400mm II lens. Knowing that I was going to be sitting in the stands and far from the students, I knew that having a long zoom would be the difference between getting a good shot and not. Unless you happen to be sitting near the graduates, bring your longest zoom lens to get up close to them.

Starting at the beginning of ceremony, I waited for Ali and her best friend to walk out on to the field. Using all 400mm of this zoom lens, I shot numerous photos as they made the long walk down the field. Assuming that you are shooting with a digital camera, don't be afraid to shoot a lot of photos to get that one moment that stands out from the others. I was using a 64GB Lexar Professional 1066x CF card and had plenty of headroom for lots of photos. I shot at least 15 photos of their walk, and loved this one where I could see both girls and they had great smiles on their faces.

Once they got to their seats, I sent my daughter a text message and asked her and her friends to turn towards the family and I. Ah, the beauty of technology. :) Once again, I used all 400mm to get this shot of them.

Here is a tighter crop of the same photo. Amazing quality from this new zoom lens!! In case you are wondering about my camera settings...Since it was still bright outside, I set the camera to ISO 160 (cleanest for Canon), aperture of f/5.6 and still had a shutter speed of 1/1000th sec.

Half way through the ceremony, it was time for them to hand out diplomas. As the first graduate received their diploma I realized that we were sitting on the wrong side of the field to get a shot of the diploma exchange. The graduates would face the other direction towards the school photographer. Uh oh! So...I quickly got up, made my way through the bleachers and walked swiftly around to the other side of the field. Just in time to get this shot.

Another crop from the Canon 1Dx shot (also at 400mm).

This is another crop from a larger photo. I chose to crop it this direction to avoid all the distractions on either side of them. You may also notice that the background of this shot is much cleaner from this side of the field, with just the dark fence behind the presenter and my daughter.

As they were continuing to hand out diplomas to the other couple hundred graduates, I sent Ali another text and had her turn around for another shot. Yeah, I know, the crazy photographer father!

I really like that everyone else is facing forward and just my daughter is turned towards me, I did a tight crop of this photo for my daughter, thinking this would make a really cool Facebook banner for her page.

Once the last diploma is handed out, you should be ready to shoot the cap toss. I zoomed the 100-400mm lens out to 100mm, prefocused on the kids, and waited for the big moment. This was the best of the photos.

I was hoping for more caps in the air, and so, just for the fun of it, I decided to use Adobe Photoshop to clone the caps and add a lot more to the shot. It is cheating, but I was just having fun to see how many I could put in the photo. My daughter was rolling her eyes behind me as I edited this.

Knowing that, after the ceremony, I would be taking photos of the kids up close, I brought along a Canon 24-105mm lens. As soon as the ceremony was over, I switched lenses, knowing that I would not need a long zoom any more. I also brought along a Canon 600 EX-RT flash and mounted that to the camera. Even though I was shooting photos outside and in reasonable light, I like to use a flash (turned down by one stop) to add a touch of fill light to my subjects. If you don't know how to adjust your flash power, check your manual. It is worth knowing how to do this.

I saw a ton of people photographing their graduates in mix light (harsh light and shadows). I moved my daughter and her friends into a shady spot to get nice even light on them. I know it is a bit of a pain to move people from where they are congregating, but it is worth the effort to get nice keepsakes.

Since I am rarely in any family photos, I asked one of our friends to take a photo with me in the shot. I prefocused the camera on my daughter, had him stand in the same place I was standing and had him shoot this photo. This not the best background, but since my daughter was having me follow her all over the grounds to get photos, this was the best location for the moment. Even if you are the family photographer, make sure to get yourself in some of the photos!

I shot almost all of my portrait photos at f/4 to blur the background. As always, I was focusing on their eyes to get the best focus. You will also notice that I like to shoot in tight on their faces. I see so many people taking photographs of their kids from head to toe. I prefer to see more of their faces and smiles.

This photo was taken very near 8pm as the sun was setting. I decided to turn off my flash and use the golden light from the setting sun to light Ali and her friend, Jamie. If you compare this photo to the previous photos, you can definitely see the different in the lighting.

Beware taking photos in direct sunlight unless the sun is really low like this. Usually this will cause your subjects to squint and not have a natural look on their faces.

Would I change anything that I did yesterday? Yes. I forgot that I had a Canon 5Ds camera and could have used that instead of the Canon 1Dx. Having 50 megapixels would have let me crop in even more with greater detail. Hey, even I make photo mistakes. 

I hope this helps you when you have your next big graduate moment.


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Unknown said...

Great post as usual. I had the pleasure of seeing our son graduate from college recently. Unfortunately his graduation was indoors, so the available light forced the use of high ISO. Luckily I know several of the faculty and asked ahead of time for suggestions on best area to sit to take photos. As well as from which direction the graduates would be walking to receive their diplomas. I have posted the photos on my Flickr site:

There were actually two ceremonies. Each college has a ceremony where the graduates are recognized individually and walk across the stage. The next day is the University wide ceremony where all graduates are present and there are several speakers. The graduates remain in their chairs and each college stands up separately when they are officially declared "graduates".

Susie Lacy said...

That info was soooo helpful! I have to admit I was chuckling as I read it because I would totally run across the other side to get the shot once I figured out that I was on the wrong side. The difference is I am a crazy Mom, not a professional photographer so it's not received so well by my kids! LOL My most fav pic of all (there are many, you are amazing) is the one where your daughter is the only grad looking. I LOVE that! I plan on showing it to my daughters and saying "she how nice she is, her Dad texted her & she looked"! :)
Thanks so much!!
Susie (I went to HS w/Annette)

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