Photos of a graduation ceremony are likely to be among your most treasured possessions. How to take great ones…
• Use a real camera with an optical zoom lens. Cell-phone cameras “zoom” by cropping images digitally, so the quality of zoomed-in images typically is abysmal. Even nonzoomed cell-phone photos usually don’t stand up well to printing in a size larger than a postcard. For an event as meaningful as a graduation, break out the big guns and bring your SLR or compact zoom camera so that you have a good-quality optical zoom lens.
A long telephoto setting (higher zoom number) will let you capture the ceremony from a distance, and a wide-angle setting lets you capture both broad views and posed groups. Be sure that batteries are completely charged and that your memory card has plenty of space on it.
• Arrive early and choose a seat at the end of an aisle so that you can roam. Ask where the class will enter the event, and scout a shooting position that lets you grab candid shots as your graduate passes by. Use preceremony time (or long-winded faculty speeches) to wander and find interesting vantage points—the top row of bleachers is a good spot to get overall shots—or stand near where the graduating class is seated to get a good hat-toss shot (get down low and shoot up).
One of the best shots you’ll get is your graduate running back to his seat waving his diploma, so try to anticipate where that might happen.
• Study the lighting. Your built-in flash won’t help you with distant shots. A built-in flash is helpful up to about 15 feet. Instead, crank up the ISO speed (the camera’s sensitivity to light—higher numbers are more sensitive), and be sure that your camera’s vibration reduction (if it has the feature) is turned on. Most indoor venues have multiple light sources, so setting the “white balance” on your camera for accurate color balance is tricky. Simplest solution: Select the auto white balance mode (typically “AWB” in the menu), and let the camera set the best color balance.
Daylight ceremonies are less challenging to shoot, but bright sunlight creates a lot of contrast that causes squinting and deep facial shadows. Try to shoot with the sun at your back or to your side rather than into it.
If possible, stage portraits and informal group shots in areas of open shade where the light is softer. Set the white balance to “cloudy” (recent cameras have this setting).