Graduation ceremonies involve tight schedules and inconsistent lighting--two things even professional photographers dread. Knowing your camera's capabilities and taking some time to check out the lighting beforehand are both important if you want to get the best pictures. While many people focus on that golden moment when the graduate receives her diploma, this is often one of the least interesting shots you will take. After the day is over, you will find the photos taken during the reception when the graduate is with her friends and family become the most treasured in your collection.
Before the Ceremony
Get to know your camera well ahead of the graduation ceremony. The day of an important event is not the time to learn the settings on a brand new camera. If you plan to buy a new camera, get it at least a week ahead of time and practice using it every day before the ceremony.
Make sure your camera battery is charged and that the camera is working correctly. If you are using an external flash, make sure it has fresh batteries too. Upload any photos already on the camera to your computer so you don't have to worry about running out of storage at the ceremony.
Set your camera to take pictures in RAW mode if possible. RAW images retain more digital information than photos in JPG or other formats, which gives you more options later for salvaging a great photo out of an underexposed shot.
Purchase an extra SD card if your camera accepts them. A typical SDXC storage card has 64 gigabytes of storage space, which holds more than 4,500 photos in RAW format. An 8GB SDHC card is much less expensive and still holds more than 600 RAW-format photos.
Arrive early and take a look at the stage area. In most cases, the podium and seating should already be set up so you can find the best location close to the stage to shoot your photos. Keep in mind that the lighting will probably change when the ceremony begins, with spotlights on the podium and the location where the diplomas are distributed, so don't focus on lighting as much as being able to stand at a good angle for the shot.
Get a seat close to an aisle so you can quickly get to your position near the stage and back to your seat again. If you have a telephoto lens and a reasonably powerful external flash, you may decide a seat close to the front is sufficient. However, the flash that comes on most cameras only illuminates about 10 feet.
During the Ceremony
Take plenty of photos to capture different expressions both during and after the ceremony. You are bound to get photos you don't want to keep, but these can be deleted later.
Get ready for the shot before the graduate walks on stage. Graduates are generally allowed to pause for a couple of seconds after receiving the diploma for a photo but you won't have time to take many shots.
Use the flash while taking pictures of graduates to illuminate their faces. If you see a lot of red-eye effect, try alternating between taking a picture with the flash and then taking one without it.
Keep an eye on the lighting during the reception after the ceremony and move into positions where the light adds to the photo instead of hindering it. For example, don't photograph the graduate in front of a window or trophy case. Glass reflects the camera flash.
After the Ceremony
Go through each of your shots and delete the ones that didn't turn out right. There is no reason to hold on to bad pictures, especially if you have a few dozen that look great.
Edit the photos using a good photo-editing software. Most cameras today come with photo editors. Remove the red eye, crop photos as needed and then select the ones you like best for sharing with friends and family.
Print your best photos. Graduation photos make wonderful mementos for the graduate and relatives -- especially those who weren't able to attend. A framed photo on high-quality paper can last a lifetime, whereas digital photos tend to be forgotten on a computer's hard drive and run the risk of being lost if you don't have sufficient backup copies.
Photo Credits: Alexa Smahl/Demand Media
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