Commencement exercises
June 24, 2011

Graduation photography is a slight tangent from my key interests, but its relevance can be found in similarities with wildlife photography. That is, of course, if you are able to visualize the stage and podium as a giant tree and each individual with a hat and tassel as an owl of some sort. If this is the case, then the scenario can be simplified to action photography. Make that "stressful" action photography. I'm well aware this is a profession for some, and maybe given those circumstances, my experiences would be different. Instead, my exposure to the event is similar to that of every other ordinary viewer, and the achievement of the anticipated image is not guaranteed.

As of this summer, I have successfully photographed five commencement exercises. I partake in the challenge each time because I believe it will be more fun than the last. More realistically, I know someone graduating, and so I make myself believe it will be fun. Clearly, I am misinformed and by now should understand that the fun to be had lies with those who are graduating. Then again, it's a good thing to see the happiness and excitement in a graduating class.

Now, the process of photographing the commencement is stressful for a number of reasons: people fight to grab a good seat in order to secure their desired location, it's tiring, there are erratically moving obstacles between me and the subject, and the need for a telephoto lens in a social setting.

As many of you know, graduations tend to have many people, whether it involves high schools, colleges or universities. This guarantees the problem of finding a good seat. Eager family members line up as early as possible, and when the gates open, engage in full body dives and aggressive arguments, all for the prime row of folding chairs. Somehow, I have been lucky in each event, due to strange circumstances, to get a suitable location. This is without consideration to the incredible distance between me and the subject, as I am never the official photographer for the event. Thus, from my seat, behind the faculty and/or the donors or other V.I.P., the view is somewhat obstructed.

At three of the five commencements I have attended, I photographed the entire class. The logistics included: a vantage point that didn't obstruct others, me standing up the whole time, and finally needing to handhold the lens without a support system. I probably should consider more intense workouts before undertaking future insane tasks, especially if I don't intend on using a monopod. To make things a bit more complex, there are so many obstacles moving in between my camera and the stage. This isn't all that bad though, even if I don't manage to avoid them all as they add to the scene of bustling graduates with unrestrained happiness. The one to avoid, however, is the official photographer. Sometimes he/she is dressed formally, and may blend into the shallow foreground. Other times a vest is sported that indicates the officialness of their business, successfully making them visually detached from the foreground.

The last point to note is the need for greater focal length. So the job could be done with a 70-300mm f/4-5.6 or maybe a 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6. The problem there is the bokeh (the quality of out-of-focus areas), which is dependent upon the combination of the camera's distance from the subject, the subject's distance from the background, as well as the lens's maximum aperture. There's a few solutions: the choice of an angle that provides a contrasting and deep background, a choice of a seat as close to the stage as possible, or a super telephoto prime lens. Having tried all, I conclude that solution A+B+C works best. Of course, maybe a selection of just one is more practical, and in that case, solution A turns out to be the most useful and convenient method.

Here are some notes from the last commencement I attended. Between the subject and myself were rows of students standing up and moving toward the stage in an orderly fashion. Harsh sunlight unshielded by the canopy above bounced off the somewhat sheeny graduation cap making them glare (note the bottom of the attached image). To contrast this, the stage was under a tent which significantly lowered the amount of available light. After propping up the ISO a bit, I averaged about 1/300s shutter speed. It turns out, due to the large class size, that students had to briskly move across the stage, and the 1/300s couldn't stop the action. With added noise, I wanted to be sure to correctly exposure the images, and settled for spot metering instead of manual adjustments. Manual exposure would have yielded superior results had the subject walked through more constant lighting.

So, the next time, I'll try something different (given a similar scenario). I would start with a rain cover to deal with the baking sunshine as well as the falling caterpillars from the canopy above. Then, I'd go as high as ISO 400 in attempt to freeze the walking, shaking of hands, and smiles. And finally, not trust the weather forecast that predicted clouds instead of sunshine (I do actually prefer a rainy commencement simply because it tends to be cooler).

What are your experiences regarding commencement photography?