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5 tips on how to photograph a graduation ceremony

The National Gallery in London was the stunning backdrop to graduates from David Game Higher Education this week - and we were there to capture every smile.

It's one of those emails you get and keep staring at. "Would you like to come to the world-famous National Gallery in London and take photographs of our graduation ceremony?" I mean, how could you say no? Event photography. In real life. With a room full of smiling happy people celebrating years of hard work! It's one of the reasons why I love this kind of thing.

David Game College was established in 1974 and, through David Game Higher Education, enjoys a global reputation for high quality higher education learning.They pride themselves in their diverse, inclusive and professional academic community - and their graduation ceremony showcased that diversity of talent. London is a global city and DGHE's graduates reflected a vast array of cultures and backgrounds that is hard to find elsewhere. Their achievements were even more of a credit because, as the college's Registrar noted as she announced the awards, not only did they graduate in the middle of a pandemic, most graduated having studied in a second or third language.

How to remember the day

As experienced event photographers, Paul Phipps-Williams Photography supplied DGHE with a team of two photographers so we could capture the day from a variety of angles. For arrivals and candids I was armed with my trusty Sony A7iii, with my Sigma 85mm 1.4 backed up by a Sony 24-70mm 3.5-5.6. Mark had his favourite Nikon and Sigma 35mm 1.4. This kit allowed us to keep our ISO at around 800 and flash at a minimum. For more posed photos, the Magmod Sphere is a wonder when used with a flash and the Rotolight Aeos again proved its versatility in group shots where battery powered LED lighting is a must.

So, if you're the ones organising an event, and your budget runs to getting someone in to take shots for you, then going down the professional route is definitely something to consider. Graduates get their own gallery and can download full resolution photos at the touch of a button. World-beating prints, far beyond the high-street quality, can be ordered and arrive within 48 hours. Leave the stress to someone else. But what if you're an enthusiast attending a family members' graduation? Here are some tips to get the best photos you can.

1. You don't have to own professional kit - borrow it instead!

If you have a mirrorless camera or a DSLR, there's a lens for every event you can think of - but there's a catch. They can be often be more expensive than the camera itself! So why not look into renting something that'll suit what you want to do for that particular day? Places like Wex Rental do special deals where you can hire something for the weekend for the price of one day. You'll need a credit card with enough on it for the deposit, but as long as you don't do anything silly, it'll all be refunded back. For the graduation ceremony itself, we used our old friend the Sony 70-200mm f4, which got us the results we needed with an acceptable ISO, along with the Sigma 35mm at the front for close ups.

2. Pre-focus if possible

You've only got one shot to capture the person you're there to see but, unless you're really unlucky, you'll have the chance to get some practice runs first. The Sony A7iii has a touch screen focal point. By setting the focus point on the presentation area, and using back button focus that activates when your person arrives on stage, you can get that split-second shot you're after. Continuous shooting mode is your friend here, but don't go too mad!

3. Get as close as you can

Obviously the biggest zoom you can get your hands on will be a help here. Ideally you'll want to stay in your seat. Whilst moving around the venue to get the perfect shot is ideal, it can be incredibly annoying for other people attending the event - who are also trying to get photographs of their loved ones. Arrive early. Pick the best seat. That'll solve 90% of your problems. If you arrive a little later, pick a seat on the aisle - that way you can move around in a subtle way without disturbing anyone.

4. Use flash with caution

It may very well be dark. It may very well be tempting to automatically reach for the flash. Before you do, check where you are, who's around you, and how powerful your flash is. You are far more likely to get a bright picture of the bald bloke in front of you than the person on stage.

Instead, be more confident in your camera settings. If the photo you want is your loved one standing still being presented with their award, you can decrease your shutter speed and increase the light that way. Raising your ISO will make your camera more sensitive to light. Remember what I said above - unless you're really unlucky and your loved one is first, you'll have time for a few practice runs. If push comes to shove, try to relax, and remember your community will also be taking pictures. If there's a professional photographer there, they're being paid to get the shot you want.

5. Over the shoulder

Unless they're particularly grumpy, most photographers won't mind you standing behind them as they pose students for group shots - just don't stand in front of them or close to the side (we tend to move around a fair bit and our peripheral vision isn't great when we're peering into a viewfinder!) Leave the directing and posing to them and you'll be able to grab a decent shot. If graduates are going to throw their hats into the air, remember that a high shutter speed freezes time, so you'll get a clearer picture. It will make your photo darker, though, but remember the tip above about flash. Your flash going off may affect the professional photo, so just be careful in its use.

Hope this has been useful. Well done to everyone at DGHE. For more information on event photography in London, fill out the form below. If you've any more tips and tricks, let us know in the comments.


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