How to Take A+ Back to School Photos


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3 elements

The three most important elements to a successful Back-to-School photo are 1) lighting, 2) the story you want to tell, and 3) your child.

When I teach photography classes for parents, I spend a lot of time on the importance of lighting. After all, photography is basically capturing light. In fact, the word “photography” is derived from two Greek words meaning “light” (photos) and “drawing” (graphe).

Ask yourself where you plan on taking the photos and what kind of light is available in that location. Will you be outside? What time of day will it be? Where will the sun sit in the sky? If you’re inside: where is the main light source, and what kind of source is it? Is the light fluorescent or a household lamp? Can you add more light if it seems dark, by opening up blinds or bringing in more lamps? A full assessment of the lighting situation will allow you to choose the correct camera settings and ensure a well-lit, beautiful photograph. For my own yearly First Day of School photos, I’ve decided to take them outside on our front porch. The morning light there is bright, but not harsh and if it happens to be raining, the kids are protected from getting wet.

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Tell a story with your photos

My approach to photography completely changed when I was taught that photography is simply another approach to storytelling. Once I grasped this concept, I spent less time frustrated with the technical details and any need for perfection in my photos. With Back to School photos, I am documenting the ages of my children, but I am also recording how they feel, the person they’ve become in this stage of life and all of the little details that are pulled together to create the day. If someone’s mad because their dress has a spot or crabby because they stayed up too late with excitement, I’m going to capture that feeling because it is part of our story. Think about your favorite photographs of your children, the ones that really touch your heart, are they smiling perfectly in all of them? Most likely not. Parenting and childhood are not perfect, so our photos shouldn’t be perfect.

Limit distractions

Ever since the release of Pinterest, parents everywhere have been attempting to outdo each other with their Back-to-School photos. I’ve seen printed signs and chalkboards used to display the child’s grade level or age, stacks of books, apples, and even desks in the middle of fields of wildflowers. Props are fun. and we don’t need to throw them aside, but if you’re spending hours finding the perfect font to copy onto your miniature chalkboard, you may want to rethink your focus.

Those chalkboards are great, and you shouldn’t have to set them aside, but remember that every element introduced into the shot has the potential to become a distraction. The stack of books you placed so carefully just off to the side suddenly will become your child’s focus, because kicking them off of the porch steps is more fun than smiling for you. The chalkboard you so lovingly wrote “Kindergarten” on will become a weapon to use against a little sister. Simple photos simply work better, especially for younger children.

Preparation is half the battle

Your morning is going to go more smoothly if you remember to do certain things well in advance. Charge your battery, put the memory card into the camera and choose your location ahead of time. Feed the kids a filling breakfast, and pack backpacks/lunch the night before. Make sure you also leave enough time for temper tantrums and unforeseen delays. Good luck!

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Jessica has lived in Rochester since 2000 with her husband, Mike, and their two children –Benjamin (2005) and Lucy (2010). After spending time living abroad in southern England and experiencing a truly walkable/bikeable city life, she became frustrated with the car-centric design of Rochester’s streets. Since then she has become very active with volunteer groups in the community. She can often be found commuting around town coaxing her oldest child to confidently ride on the streets of Rochester and with her youngest strapped to the front of her beloved orange commuter bicycle. When not biking or advocating for biking, Jessica enjoys giving back to the community in many ways. She teaches a digital photography community education course called Momarazzi Photography and recently had a leadership role in a community impact project with her Leadership Greater Rochester class to install free mini libraries in the yards of 40 Rochester homes. She works full time at Mayo Clinic as a Program Manager in Education. You can follow her thoughts on all things #rochmn and #bikerochmn on Twitter and Instagram.