With high school graduations all over the place this next week, it seemed like a good time to give out a few tips for friends and family trying to get the best shot of their graduate in these typically less than ideal lighting scenarios.
1. Choosing your shutter speed/aperture/etc.
Well, I can tell you all of my settings, but that still might not help. Different sensors interpret light differently, so spewing a bunch of technical jargon might not get you any closer to getting the right settings for your camera.
My biggest advice on this one – do NOT trust your camera on automatic.
Here’s what my speaker shots would look like if I followed the camera’s sensor (for the techies, this is on matrix metering).
Not only is this photo blown out; the shutter speed is low for a long lens. If you aren’t pretty steady with your hands, you could end up with a glowing, blurry grad.
The camera is trying to compensate for all of the darkness surrounding the stage, but that’s not the important part of the frame.
You have two options from here. If your camera is capable of spot metering (looks like a little dot in the center of a rectangle), then you can use that to tell the camera to expose for a specific part of the frame.
The other option is to just close your aperture and raise your shutter speed. I found that for this one, the exposure I wanted was closer to this.
Obviously, a pretty dramatic difference. I have a quicker shutter speed to compensate for holding a heavy lens and any quick movement by the people on stage, a smaller aperture to give me a wider plane of focus with a long lens, and a more accurately exposed image.
Compensating for the bright stage lights means a better image, and means it’s a lot easier on consumer level DSLRs. Don’t forget to take a few test shots during the opening remarks. Either check your histogram or just zoom in and make sure that everything looks right before your grad walks across so that you can have the perfect exposure on those important photos.
2. Know your limits
Sometimes, it’s just too dark. Even with a professional camera, once the stage lights go up and the floor lights go down, it can be pretty tricky to get anything of the graduates. I managed to snap a few frames of the grads reacting to one of the student speakers, but I had my camera almost all the way to its limit. I intentionally shot this a little bit underexposed just to maintain the shutter speed, but you can see the grain starting to really degrade the image quality.
3. Be courteous
This one’s pretty obvious, but it’s still an issue at almost every commencement. Everyone is trying to get a photo of their grad, and with 300+ kids graduating at each ceremony; it gets crowded fast. Kneeling along the sides of the floor during the processional is almost always allowed, but staying out there during the speeches is a no-no. Not only does it hinder the view for the people in the stands, but it also blocks the walkway. If you can’t get a good photo from your seat, just relax and enjoy the experience. School photographers are set up at all of the important checkpoints when diplomas are handed out and, in the age of smart phones, your grad will probably have a million photos of their own.
Congratulations to all of the grads, and happy shooting!