Top 10 Tips for College and High School Graduation Photo Shoots

Be authentic and get close to the camera for top-grade images

Emma E. Conway

After countless early mornings, late nights, papers, exams, and quizzes, the class of 2023 has clearly put in the work—now, it’s time to celebrate! Commemorating graduation day is important. Whether you are taking the photos or the one graduating, there are a few simple ways to accurately capture the special day from the morning of, to the ceremony, to the afterparty. As a part-time photographer who has had the opportunity to work with many University of Wisconsin-Madison graduates over the past three years, here are 10 tips and tricks for top-grade graduation photos.

  1. Be yourself.

If you hate heels and want to wear sneakers, wear sneakers. If you don’t like your big, toothy grin and would prefer to smile softly, smile softly. If you never wear your hair down and always keep it tied up, keep it tied up. Today is your day to be completely you. For a genuine photo experience, embrace who you truly are, quirks and all.

  1. Lighten up.

It can be awkward having your photo taken. Oftentimes, the person being photographed asks “What do I do with my hands” or “How am I supposed to stand?” These questions are valid, and the simple answer is to try and loosen up. It’s not every day you have a photo shoot devoted to you, so take in the moment and have some fun. As the photo shoot progresses, you will slowly become more comfortable in the limelight, embracing who you are and what you have accomplished.

  1. Move and move some more.

People are rarely still in real life, so you should not remain stagnant in the frame. Get loose by moving! Shake out your body, take some deep breaths, and try to relax. Have the photographer snap shots as you walk toward the camera, sway from side to side, and pivot to face the photographer. This trick will make you look less stuffy and more natural.

  1. Talk to the photographer.

Do you feel stiff? Break the ice by talking to the photographer from behind the camera. My favorite photos result from making a client laugh or smile by giving them a compliment. After I say how beautiful they look, how fun they are, or how proud I am of them, I often get a more comfortable and confident smile from them.

  1. Get closer.

Your self-conscious side may want the photographer to stand as far away as possible. But I challenge this notion and get up close and personal with the subject for the shot. Even though the shot may feel too zoomed in, standing close centers you in the frame and produces sophisticated headshots.

  1. Don’t be afraid to ditch the cap.

While some shots should be in the God-awful cap and gown, ditch the dang thing for most photos. There are other ways to incorporate the mortarboard, such as throwing it in the air, holding it by the corners in front of you, and resting it outside the frame altogether. This way, you highlight your achievement memorably without casting a large shadow on your face.

  1. Go to the places of significance.

Where have you spent most of your high school or college experience? These top one, two, or three places are important. Whether it’s the field, the library, or a common space, go there and take photos at these spots, so you can reminisce upon these significant locations in the years to come.

  1. Soak up the sun.

If you can get outside close to sunrise or golden hour, do it. Some of the best photos are taken at these times, and give a glow that cannot be copied in a studio.

But say it’s rainy on graduation day—you still have options. If you are taking photos inside, stand close to a window with the photographer’s back turned toward the light source. This way, you can capitalize on the light and get a natural look.

  1. Make sure to grab some photos with your loved ones.

Nobody graduates alone. There are many family members, friends, mentors, teachers, and professors who helped you get where you are today, and they deserve to be recognized, too. Some of my clients’ favorite photos are with their moms, dads, and significant others. These people are equally a part of this achievement, and they deserve to strike a pose alongside you.

  1. Embrace the chaos.

I had a client who had overslept and showed up late to their shoot. They arrived disheveled, hadn’t shaved, and were worried about the wrinkles in their button-up. Instead of freaking out, we welcomed the mayhem.

To make the graduate feel more comfortable, we walked downtown, bought a razor from the local drug store, and let them shave in the bathroom. I snapped shots of them before, after, and with the razor. The moment was so simple, yet so authentic, and we still laugh about the photos to this day. Rather than freaking out about the mess, capture it—they may just be some of your favorite photos.

At the end of the day, it’s more about the moment than the photos. Embrace who you are, who you are with, and this once-in-a-lifetime moment. Congratulations class of 2023 on your accomplishment!

Emma is an editorial intern studying journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her love for storytelling stems from her hometown of Cannon Falls, Minnesota. In her free time, Emma loves watching college sports, spending time up north, and sharing food with friends and family.