Updated: Dec 18, 2021
Graduations are one of those unique and special experiences in a person's life, and so the pictures that a photographer is hired to capture will be looked at for a lifetime by the graduate and their family. This means that the pictures we take have to be perfection, and it's not fair to the graduate to come unprepared or without a plan. This means that you must know your locations in advance, bring the right equipment, and anticipate the unexpected.
Rishi, Rutgers University Camden
1) Knowing Your Locations In Advance
One of the most important aspects of being prepared is knowing the details of your locations before the shoot. Unless absolutely necessary, you should not plan a location if you have never been there before! Too many unexpected problems could arise, and you'll look like an amateur while you scramble to find a good angle, good lighting, or avoid things like crowds of people or ugly background distractions. You'll be wasting your own time, and even worse you'll be wasting your client's time.
If you have never been to the location of your planned shoot, I suggest that a few weeks before the shoot you take a friend to the location and have a casual photoshoot to make sure that you can get great photos there. Now that you have had personal hands-on experience at the location, you will be much more prepared on where to pose the graduate client who is paying you and expecting great results.
The ultimate suggestion I can give is to use the same locations repeatedly for multiple graduation shoots. For example, many of my friends who have graduated from Rutgers University Camden over the past few years love getting pictures at the Walt Whitman Center and at the Camden Waterfront (giving a view of the Philly skyline and Ben Franklin Bridge). Every shoot feels more comfortable than the last because I go through a similar routine each time, and each graduate can look at my past photos and know exactly what to expect. We can both enjoy the shoot without stress!
Rana, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital
2) Bringing the Right Equipment
I can't sit here and tell you that you need a ton of different cameras and lenses to be a good photographer, because you don't! One camera and one lens is all you need for a successful business. However, I can say that different lenses will provide different angles and help to tell more of a story during your photos. A wide lens can help you capture the graduate along with a wonderful view of the scenery. A telephoto lens will allow you to zoom in tight on the graduate and create a painting-like perspective of the background. Whatever lenses you are bringing, just know where your subject will need to stand and which angles you should shoot from to create the best overall image.
One thing that I can HIGHLY suggest bringing is a flash that you can use off-camera (and knowing how to use it). I can't tell you how many great photos I've captured would have been impossible to take without using a flash. At the very least, it can help boost a mediocre shot to an absolute winner.
Here's an example of why a flash can be so helpful. Let's say you plan a shoot for sunset, and want to capture the glowing orange sun behind your subject and get all of the colorful sky in great detail. The problem is that when you expose for the sun, your graduate will appear in complete darkness since there will be nothing lighting their face. So without a flash, you can either A) expose for the subject but completely blow-out the sky and ruin the point of the sunset altogether, or B) expose for the sky and then need to fix your subject in editing (trust me, it won't look pretty). With a flash, you can still expose for the sky AND get your subject lit perfectly.
Final tip on flash: Use a wireless trigger to fire the flash off-camera as you shoot, and either use a light stand or have an assistant hold the flash. This will help you get more dramatic angles of the lighting, instead of it just coming from the top of your camera.
Samantha, Rutgers University Camden
3) Anticipating the Unexpected
Most likely you'll be planning your graduation photoshoot outdoors, meaning the weather will be extremely critical to your success or failure. For about a week leading up to the shoot, keep an eye on your weather app like a hawk to make sure that there's little-to-no chance of rain on the day of the shoot. If rain is possible, make sure to be in communication with the graduate to make plans for rescheduling as early as you can. As annoying as it can be, rescheduling will be a much better option than risking a shoot on a rainy day which would be a waste of everyone's time. For example, a few of my shoots this year had to be rescheduled 2-3 times each to avoid the rain, and it was absolutely worth it. Be as nice as you can with your client about rescheduling, and don't charge anything extra since it's totally out of their control.
If your shoot is going to be in a popular public area, try to make sure that no large events are occurring during your shoot time. This could include parades, festivals, protests, large social gatherings, etc. The last thing you want to do is have the perfect photoshoot planned and come to find thousands of people in your location, taking up the space and probably the parking if you and your client are driving there. This once happened to me on a styled photoshoot where approximately 20 of us were planned to meet together for the shoot, but a parade that I did not account for made traffic and parking an EXTREME challenge.
Many graduates will have special items related to their field or their personal life that they want to incorporate to the photos. For a nursing student it might be their stethoscope, for an international student it might be a family heirloom or flag from their home country, for a music student it might be their favorite instrument. Make sure that you talk to the graduate well in advance of the shoot so that they know to bring these special items. It will make their photos more personal and unique to their own life and accomplishment. Depending on when in the year you are doing their photos, they might already have their diploma framed which would also be nice to include! For extra fun, some people like to bring confetti-poppers or bottles of champagne to burst (just make sure you use these in a safe location, and clean up afterwards!)
2019/2020 graduates in New Jersey and Philadelphia
A graduation photoshoot should itself be a fun experience that the graduate has a strong memory of years in the future, helping connect their time with you to the photos you captured. As they move on to bigger steps in their life like higher education, starting a family, getting married and more, they will remember how great of a job you did with their photos and come back to you for those other important moments. Creating a great experience for the client is a major part of the photographer's job, so make sure to be friendly and encouraging to the graduate and their families.
To inquire about booking a photoshoot for your graduation or for a friend/family member, please contact me (Chris Bray) for a free quote! Visit www.chrisbrayphotos.com for more details and examples of my work. I am frequently available in the New Jersey / Philadelphia area and am willing to accommodate whatever you need for your shoot!