Tips for Shooting a Graduation

I am a teacher by training; I’ve been doing it for the last eight years. That makes eight graduations, plus my own two (high school and college). Before that I attended graduations for friends and family. There are lots of memories to be made at graduation ceremonies. There are moments that need to be captured.  Special memories made that will last a lifetime, made with family and friends.


122mm, 1/60 sec, f/2.8, ISO-3600

I am also a photographer. Because I have been through so many graduations, I recognize the importance of getting graduation pictures right, some people only get one graduation. I have to get good pictures, no exceptions. When I first started getting into photography and shooting events for the schools I work for, I tried to do research on how to take pictures for a graduation. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information out there on graduation specificphotography. If you try to Google “Graduation Photography,” most of what you’ll find is actually “senior portraits.” There is a ton of information for event photography; but most of it is either concerts or conventions. Depending on the school, graduation photography can be one of the most diverse shooting categories you’ll encounter. It isn’t just an event, it isn’t just a portrait shoot, it isn’t just a concert. And yet, it can be all of those at once.

Class of 2011

18mm, 1/60 sec, f/3.5, ISO-1800

This post was designed to offer some suggestions on things I’ve encountered, and lessons I’ve learned shooting graduations. I need to clarify from the beginning, I do not consider myself an expert photographer. I get white balance and exposure wrong all the time, I get blurry images, I kick myself every time I realize I’ve pressed the shutter a fraction of asecond too late and have missed “the moment.” So please recognize that this post is just to try and help people who can’t find any good resources in preparation for shooting a graduation.


18mm, 1/30 sec, f/3.5, ISO-1400

Tip #1: Plan your shots thoroughly in the conditions you’ll be shooting. It helps eliminate the unknown.

The first thing I want to know about a shoot is what it will look like when the program is running. I try to get to the location over an hour early and have the AV director put everything as it would be during the program. I am usually able to get some great test shots and plan out how I want to shoot the event.  This extra time is a fantastic way to get to know the room if you aren’t familiar with it. I use this time to get my settings figured out before the graduates are moving down the aisle and my pictures turned out wrong. I also use this time to plan out where I will want to shoot from, what angles I’ll want, how close I’ll need to be to the stage & graduates, as well as spotting potential spacial conflicts. Sometimes there are other media crews competing for the same space. The school I work for has a solid media program, they train students to film and do an online live stream of the program. So I have to be aware of the video team as I move around the room taking stills. Being aware of where the video team will be positioned a head of time is essential.


195mm, 1/125 sec, f/2.8, ISO-3200

Along the same line of thinking, I usually work with a team of 2-3 photographers for shooting a large graduation. I like to get into the graduation location early to plan where I want my team of photographers to be during the program. This year I had a diagram of the gymnasium where graduation was going to be. I had a copy of the program with specific portions of the program assigned to certain photographers to cover.  It is a lot of work, but saves a lot of the “oh I wish someone was in position to get this shot” type of moments.

It is also a great idea to have an extra person nearby to pretend to be a graduate. You can meter for the aisle or walkway that the graduates will come down, but until you have an actual human with light on it – you won’t know how that light is going to effect skin tones. So get a practice model! Hint, if you are family of a graduate, or have been paid to take pictures of a specific graduate, try to get them in there with their cap and gown. This will ensure you have a perfect picture of your grad.


Tip #2: Look for “moments.” Anticipate them before hand, be ready for them when they happen.

No matter if it is College /University, High School, 8th  Grade, or Kindergarten (yes, that is a thing now) graduation ceremony, there are “moments” that always happen. Moments that you can count on happening. Sometimes they are built into the program, other times it is a subtle as a facial expression on the graduate’s face. Knowing when and where these moments will take place is crucial to capturing them.  For example, there are a few moments just before the graduate’s name is called when a whole range of emotions can be captured. You can almost feel the anticipation in the graduate. Then the name is called, and they begin to move toward their diploma. Joy. There is sometimes a fear of tripping, a practicing to get the correct hand into the correct recipient hand. Celebration.


135mm, 1/750 sec, f/2.8, ISO-4500

Other potential photographic moments could include: 1) The graduation venue & decorations 2) The graduate processional 3) That moment when they’re all on the stage- before they sit down- when they’re all standing as a class and parents are squeezing off a million pictures 4) During the program itself (the diploma pile, Caps/tassels, music performances, speakers, awards/acknowledgments/scholarships) 5) Just before they walk to get their diplomas 6) The posed diploma shot & tassel turning 7) The graduate returning to their class can be a moment of personal celebration with pals 8) The class presentation- if its a high school, the junior class as they become seniors is usually a memorable event in itself 9) The recessional 10) The reception or family/friend time after the graduation. Be ready for “moments” at each of these parts of the program.

It also helps to know the graduates. As a teacher this is pretty easy, I’ve been working in the classroom with them every day of the school year, so I know what to expect out of my students. Everyone has certain quirks they do when they’re nervous or excited, try to pick up on these things. If you aren’t connected with the school, try to spend some time with the graduates before the program starts so you can get a feel for who is introverted or extroverted. See who has a lot of energy. Get to know them as much as you can – as quick as you can.


Tip #3: Have the right gear

Duh – This tip is true of any photo shoot. If you don’t have the right equipment, rent it! I’ve been using for the last three years, and have had excellent results. Their gear is quality, and their customer service is fantastic. It also helps that they are local for me & I can just pick up any gear in about 20 minutes. For graduations, I shoot with my Nikon D800. It is a lot more flexible than my old Nikon D90 was. I can get away with shooting all the way up to 6400 ISO with minimal noise. Because of its dynamic range, some under exposed shots can still be usable. Over exposed images are a little more challenging to fix. Up until last year, I shot with a Nikon D90 and still had excellent results. You just have to know your gears limits.

112mm, 1/180 sec, f/3.3, ISO-1250

112mm, 1/180 sec, f/3.3, ISO-1250

As far as lenses go, I recommend using 1) Wide angle for crowd & environment capture, or for pictures of the stage and class. I usually use the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G.  2) I also recommend using a zoom lens for graduates’ up close moments. I use the Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8G about 80% of the time at a graduation.  3) Any lens with a low f-stop number is going to be essential, because most graduations include poor lighting. This year I used a Nikkor 50mm 1.4G for the processional pictures, the lighting was perfect and the depth of field really helped eliminate distractions from the background.

24mm, 1/250 sec, f/2.8, ISO -3200

24mm, 1/250 sec, f/2.8, ISO -3200

One last gear tip in preparation for shooting a graduation, you must have a tripod! After shooting 80 seniors marching slowly down an aisle for 15 minutes all while holding a heavy telephoto lens… your arms get pretty tired.  When your arms get tired, they start to shake. Shake is the enemy of all low light photography, you will get blurry images. For long walk ins & exits, I recommend using a solid tripod when you can. Sometimes there isn’t room, or you can’t get a nested position. But if you can find a place to set up for a fixed position it is totally worth it. If you want the stability but still want mobility, I’d recommend going with a monopod.


135mm, 1/45 sec, f/2.8, ISO -3200

135mm, 1/45 sec, f/2.8, ISO -3200

Tip #4: Know your gear

At “The Art of the Head-shot” presentation by Google +, headshot photographer Peter Hurley quoted Abraham Lincoln in reference to preparation saying “If I had four hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend two hours sharpening my axe.” Hurley’s point was to know your gear. Know what settings you’ll need for what conditions. They should be second nature to you. Because a lot of graduations are in low light settings, you may not be able to see your settings & buttons, so know where things are by memory. If you are renting a camera body, spend some time with it before the event. You should be able to adjust settings in the dark without looking at your camera.

Another part of knowing your gear is knowing its limits. You should push your gears limits to know where it performs best under what conditions.  Know what your lenses optimum sharpness is. Know what slow shutter speeds you can get away with shooting handheld. Typically the rule is, never shoot with a slower shutter speed than your lens #mm. So if you’re shooting a 50mm lens, any shutter slower than 1/50 of a second is going to put your image at risk of blur. It all depends on how stable your arms are, how stationary the subject is, and what the lighting conditions are. But you should test your gear & know what you can get away with.

One last aspect of knowing your gear, is knowing what ISO you can get away with in different conditions. You need to be willing to sacrifice having a little noise if it means you’ll have a usable picture. I don’t advise shooting beyond 6400 ISO on a Nikon D800, but if it means having a picture that isn’t blurry – it is worth a little extra noise.


135mm, 1/125 sec, f/2.8, ISO-3200


Tip #5: Don’t Nest!

It may not feel like it to the graduate, or audience, but graduations can be pretty fast paced. Even though graduates are told to walk at a slow and steady pace, they usually race down the aisle.  Sometimes you will have one graduate right on the heels of another. Getting a picture of both graduates can be a challenge.  You may need to move to a better angle, one that allows for more space between graduates. Because of this, I recommend that you don’t nest. What I mean by nesting is not being so attached to a position that you lay out all of your gear and create a nest that can’t be moved in a hurry. Nesting can be a useful way of accessing your gear quickly for lens switching or changing memory cards & batteries. But always be ready to move where the action is. So if you do nest, do it in a central location that is accessible.


Tip #6: Watch for distracting elements

Distractions can come from the environment the graduation is being held in, props – like microphone or music stands, podiums, or people. You may need to reposition so the distracting elements aren’t in your shot. If that isn’t possible, consider shooting slug shots before or after the program of the area just in case you need to Photoshop a better background in.

Photo courtesy of Ryan Becker Photography

Photo courtesy of Ryan Becker Photography

Tip #7: Watch the lighting

This could also go in with the planning section, but because AV technicians have a mind and job of their own, the conditions may change from what you tested before the program. I shot one graduation where the guy running the lights turned off a crucial light that hit the graduates as they walked down the aisle. He said he turned it off because he thought it was useless and just shining in the audiences face. Reality was it was intentionally set so that it would offer the best light for photographers & video as the graduates passed in front of it. Always be aware of what the light is doing in the room. Identify the direction, intensity, and color of the light you’re working with. Watch out for flairs & haze as the light bounces off of your lens. It can be a cool intentional effect, or it can look sloppy. Watch for dead lighting zones, areas where there isn’t enough fill light. Also pay attention to areas where the light is really intense, creating extreme highlights on the graduate’s faces.

14mm, 1/180 sec, f/2.8, ISO-3200

14mm, 1/180 sec, f/2.8, ISO-3200

Tip #8: Beware of white balance issues

A lot of times there will be gels over spot lights that create a certain tint to the light. It is a cool effect for the audience and graduates, but this can result in skin tones can look unnecessarily orange, blue, or green depending on what gels they’ve use. It is a nightmare for selecting an accurate white balance. In order to correct this you will probably need to go full manual in selecting your white balance, don’t stick to your camera’s presets. The alternative is to fix it in post. But when editing over 1500 images, you don’t want to spend more than a few minutes brushing in tone corrections. Try to get it right the first time.

120mm, 1/180 sec, f/2.8, ISO-3200

120mm, 1/180 sec, f/2.8, ISO-3200

Graduations can be a once in a lifetime event for some people. As a photographer, I want to create pictures that will retain the feel of this special moment for a long time. I hope that someone finds this post useful as they prepare to capture memories of their own.

130mm, 1/125 sec, f/2.8, ISO-4500

130mm, 1/125 sec, f/2.8, ISO-4500


9 thoughts on “Tips for Shooting a Graduation

  1. Amazing post, love it! It will be my first time to shoot graduation ceremony and I was looking for some tips that I may have forgotten and this was useful!

  2. Excellent, thankyou for doing this, I’m sure it will come in handy to many more people as time goes on.
    I work in photo retail and a girl asked for a quote for someone to shoot her graduation. It was too expensive for her and seeing as I had her number I thought stuff it I’ll do it! So I’m pretty good with light, and I must say the depth of field with your equipment wide open at 2.8 is fantastic. I certainly don’t have access to equipment that fine, more like a pretty standard canon 1100D with a kit lens 17-55mm 3.5 – 5.6.
    I noticed you haven’t used a flash, I thought this was something I would certainly be using. I have access to ISO 6400 hundred but it’s going to be noisy above 2000 from experience. Do you think I can still do a decent job with my equipment limitations? I don’t have any money to hire either, that’s why I’m doing this job! LOL

    • Hi Chris,

      It sounds like you have a great opportunity in front of you! I know some people really struggle with noise, obviously we want as little as possible! However, if it came down to having a usable image and having blurry images I would bump that iso up every time 🙂 I actually have both Nikon and Canon bodies, I’ve found both to perform quite well in almost every event setting I’ve done. As far as gear goes, I rent from they are super easy to work with and have excellent gear for a very reasonable price. I hope that helps!

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