Student Opinion: Grad Photos – Here’s Why You Should Bother

Graduate photo of 5 white women in dresses standing on the road.
Graduate photo of 5 white women in dresses standing on the road.
Photo by Rory Miner

By: Rory Miner


DAVIS, CA – When I first started in photography, portraits were my least favorite thing to shoot. Nobody likes photos of themselves. It is incredibly difficult to capture someone’s essence, and people make for far more finicky subjects than, say, a landscape. Funnily enough, these reasons are exactly why portrait photography has become my shoot of choice in more recent years, with graduation portraits easily my favorite.


But for every stole-swinging, tassel-turning, elated graduate I have photographed, there have been plenty of seniors who would rather retake OChem than smile at my Nikon lens while throwing their cap in the air. Some folks do not get the point of grad photos, instead seeing them as an unnecessary waste of time and money. On the contrary, I believe that grad photos are a meaningful, rewarding, and positive experience– one that every senior should be given a chance to have. 


Take a scroll through your camera roll right now, do you have any photos of just yourself that are  high quality, decently appropriate, and more importantly, that you genuinely like? For most people, the answer is no. 


Grad photos are a perfect opportunity to have some nice photos taken of yourself. They capture a memorable time in your life, are a great way to celebrate your accomplishments, and will be something tangible to look back on in years to come. And they’re fun!


Furthermore, college graduates will find it useful to have decent photos of themselves at hand. Professional headshots are crucial for job applications, email avatars, or even just a LinkedIn profile, where a photo that is “professional-ish” and “represents you well” can have a big impact. For graduates, this is a time for taking the next big steps in their careers and lives, and a good photo means starting off on the right foot. 


While plenty of photos during a graduation shoot will feature the essential cap and gown, it’s also a great time to get some more versatile headshots of yourself. Grad shoots can vary in number of locations, outfit changes, and hours of shooting, so I recommend talking to your photographer about what you’re looking for from the shoot. 


Even if the graduate themself could not care less, they should consider other people who would love to see their grad photos. Whether it be a significant other, a grandparent, or a supportive coworker, someone is bound to appreciate the documentation of this momentous occasion.


Sure, you can take photos on the day of your actual graduation. In fact, I encourage you to do so! Document the day in all its crowded, sweaty (thanks Davis heat) glory. Just kidding. Sort of. 


While photos from your actual graduation ceremony are great to have to commemorate the exact day, they usually end up being lower-quality photos. Surrounded by hundreds of other graduates, it’s impossible to get a picture without photobombers in the background. After hours of sitting and waiting for your name to be mispronounced, your grad cap is off-kilter, your hair flat, and your clothes wrinkled. 


I encourage every graduate to take both sets of photos, take photos on the day of the event  for the memories made that day and take more polished photos beforehand to have one less thing to stress about day-of.


The focus on your graduation day should be on toasting your accomplishments, not getting the perfect angle. One New York Times article put it well: “Especially this year, it’s been particularly victorious with all that we’ve overcome. We should celebrate.”


Now, grad photos can be pricey. That’s because they’re usually more than worth it. But if it’s the number that’s the obstacle, then I recommend grabbing a fellow graduate, a smartphone’s high-quality camera, and the search results for “Grad Photoshoot Basics.” While I definitely argue for supporting student photographers and their hard work, in the end, what matters most are the photos themselves.


And I know, the last quarter is a busy one. You’re telling me! But my advice is to carve out some time for a shoot and slow down to take it all in, because it’s something you will be grateful for later when all the hard work has paid off.


Now that you’re convinced, there are a few things to keep in mind about grad photos. Reach out early to your photographer, as everyone else who is also suffering from senioritis will be trying to book in their last week, too. Whether you want more formal poses or prefer to show off your personality by sharing the shoot with your Aggie Band-Uh instrument, get some ideas on what kind of portraits you’re looking for– speaking from experience here, your photographer will appreciate a heads up on footwear if you’re hoping for photos with the Davis cows.


Taking grad photos is an incredibly rewarding experience. There’s nothing like watching someone’s reaction when they first see the final product. They get to see what I see on my side of the lens: an accomplished graduate, absolutely glowing. While these photos pale in comparison to a student’s real accomplishments, they’re the next best thing. And they’re worth it. 


I’m graduating too, in just a few months. This class lost half our second and all of our third year of college to a pandemic. This time the last two years, my mask was fogging up my viewfinder as I shot grad photo after grad photo. I squeezed in as many as I could, knowing that these pictures would be treasured all the more given the circumstances: no ceremony and a senior year online. Things are better now, but I stand by what I told my subjects in years past: this is one moment you’ll want to remember. 


I’ve lost track of how many grad photos I’ve taken over my roughly ten years of photography. From the group of five sorority girls who made me promise to stay while they projected their joint grad photos in their shared living room, to my best friend’s reshoot in a new college t-shirt after she did not go to CU Boulder after high school, to the U of A graduate who finally decided to just take hers on our campus thanks to the pandemic, I’ve seen it all. But I’ve never seen someone regret taking them.


About The Author

Jordan Varney received a masters from UC Davis in Psychology and a B.S. in Computer Science from Harvey Mudd. Varney is editor in chief of the Vanguard at UC Davis.

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1 Comment

  1. Alan Miller

    So, this is an advertisement for a student with a photography business?

    More power to ya, Rory.  Free advertising is great, when you can convince an entity to do it for you for free.  I’m a small-c capitalist: pro-small business, anti-corporation, anti-evil-developers (not that all developers are evil, just the evil ones).

    If I need a photograph taken, I’ll look you up.

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