Making the Most of a Simple Shoot

Making the Most of a Simple Shoot

I was hired to shoot graduation photos for a client recently, a particular job that certain photographers may be at odds with accepting. Simply put, it’s one of those gigs that can be hard to get motivated for if it isn’t your style. As a working photographer however we must all make decisions with our career and in my case, work is work regardless of the genre. So how can you take something as simple as a graduation shoot and turn it into an experience? Here are a few tips.

Break Away from the Obvious

When it comes to graduation photos, you are obviously going to need shots of your client in their cap and gown, on campus, looking like someone who was just freed from an extended 4-year burden. This goes without saying and it is important to capture their last moments as a student.

I would also argue however that it is as important, if not more, to capture the essence of that person at that moment in time. As someone who is now 13 years out of college, I can attest to the fact that who I was then is not the same person I am now. One of the best ways to achieve this is to photograph them in their comfort zone.

I discussed this concept with my client and she was excited to do a two location shoot-one on campus followed by one in an environment that was special to her for a variety of reasons. We agreed to meet at the HOPE Outdoor Gallery in Austin, TX; a massive art installation featuring graffiti and open to the public. It wasn’t until we got to this location that the fun really began. She was able to be more “herself,” in the moment, and on several occasions recounted times she had been there with friends and family. It was this decision that made the shoot a success in my opinion and allowed me to solicit a higher rate for doing so.

Ask your client what makes them tick? Do they have a special place in their heart that they believe is unique to them? For example, are they into kayaking or outdoors sports. Take them to their favorite waterway or outdoors location and ask them to dress how they normally would when visiting that spot. Take candids with them smiling, having fun, or just doing what they normally do there. It is this sort of spontaneity that allows someone’s true self to shine through in your images.

Shooting at the graffiti park really brought out the fun in my client. She enjoys power lifting so I asked her to flex underneath the "Crushin It" scribble. Combined with a low angle and the juxtaposition of the wall, we had an interesting and unique shot

The possibilities were everywhere at this graffiti park. I asked my client to pose in this perfect frame while she gazed up at the eerie face sculpted into the wall
Mix Up Your Shots

Think critically about your composition and shot selections. Shooting at eye height is typically how humans view the world which is, for lack of a better word, boring at times. Get low, get high, stand back far, get up close. Don’t get too caught up in posing and trying for a forced look because that rarely results in good images.

Here are two examples of this concept. For this first shot, I noticed they had not yet removed the rafters from the graduation ceremony. These were not normally present on campus and while note necessarily the most photogenic of structures, they were unique and provided some interesting shots. For one in particular, I had my client stand on the very top and asked her to do whatever felt “fun.” Coupled with the beautiful architecture in the background and the wide, low angle, we had a shot that signified the grandeur of the moment as well as her triumph.

These rafters are not normally present but go well with the theme that a graduation had just taken place. The trees provide a framing of our subject and the wide, low angle with our subject dead center create a sense of triumph

Using the same location, I decided to climb up and see what else we could work with. Instead of being far and wide, I went up high and asked her to sit low across the rafters so I could shoot down. Here we have a tight framing of our subject with very little extraneous distraction and diagonal lines which add action and guidance to our image. All in one location.

Instead of staying wide or shooting at eye height, I decided to get and look down. The diagonal lines of the rafters provide strong compositional addition to the image

Capture Intimate Details

Our minds are hardwired to absorb the complex world around us and simplify it in a way that is manageable on a daily basis. This is often at the expense of bypassing the smallest details in our world which can become very apparent in photography as our minds tend to shoot only the client, full or mid length, over and over again.

Instead, pause and take a minute to look at everything around you. Colors, shapes, minor details such as pins, shoes, buttons, or tattoos. Get in close to these details as they often tell a story that can be quite dramatic and specific to your client.

Here are two more examples I noticed almost immediately. Shoes. Instead of wearing a standard heel to our shoot she opted for a pair of bright red converse. This is a very specific detail and something that made a statement about our subject. So on more than one occasion I made a point to get in close and shoot them in their environment.

The vibrance of the shoes works well with the overwhelming color of the scene yet the shallow depth of field helps make our point that the shoes are the subject of this image

Another, perhaps more obvious detail, was the 2017 tassel on her cap. For this shot I had her hold the cap with the tassel tangling and I focused precisely on the 2017. This is an incredibly important aspect of the shoot as it an instant reminder of the year at that time-something that may not be so easy to recall 20 years down the road.

A somewhat obvious detail but one that is important for this type of shoot


While graduations may not exactly be commercial work, they can still generate plenty of opportunities for creativity and more importantly, they are a source of income that is recession proof. Put some thought into the planning of your next shoot and come up with a list of shots you can try. Scout out the locations if you can and get familiar with your surroundings. Coordinate dress with your client and meet with them before hand to get a feel for their personality. As I have written before, planning well in advance will go a long way to enhancing the overall value of your work. Here are a few more of the final edits from the shoot. Enjoy!

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Monashee Alonso's picture

Great tips. I think these types of shoots really give a photographer the chance to explore and get creative. Focusing in on the details and the big picture to capture the essence of a person or the concept of a shoot is imperative, and these tips will really help with that.

Mark Bowers's picture

Hi Monashee! I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. I tend to write articles that (hopefully) inspire new photographers to get out and enjoy the experience of shooting regardless of what situation they are presented with. I also think it is important to emphasize that not everyone shoots big commercial jobs and at least IMO, sometimes we pick up work b/c we need to do just that. Stay in business! Cheers and thanks again

Neha Gera's picture

Great Monashee! Your tips is very unique and simple. I am really appreciate your post. I am learn good tips in your post

Chris Adval's picture

Hair tie.