Tips for taking great back-to-school photos

  • By Jamie Davis Smith Special to The Washington Post
  • Friday, August 28, 2015 3:23pm
  • LifePhotography

Summer is winding down, or even over, for kids everywhere. Families are completing reading requirements, dusting off backpacks, sharpening pencils, selecting back-to-school outfits, and checking class lists.

Getting ready to head back-to-school is a process that requires a lot of preparation and involves a lot of excitement. Yet, many parents only think to photograph their child holding a sign with their new grade to document this annual milestone. As the mother of three children in school, and a storytelling photographer, I try to think broadly and capture all of the steps involved in going back to school, as well as how my children are feeling about the transition.

By taking photos that tell the entire story of going back to school parents are able to share the story of moving up a grade or going to school for the first time. Going back-to-school starts well before the first day and is so much more than standing on the stoop smiling the first morning. If you haven’t yet taking the final walk to school with your young ones, here are 12 ideas for capturing the back-to-school story beyond the typical smiling-in-the-morning shot:

Shopping for school supplies: Chances are your family has back-to-school shopping tradition. Most parents don’t think to photograph picking out school supplies but it’s a part of the process of transitioning from summer to school. I love having photographs of my children going from picking out crayons to picking out headphones for computer classes. One year I was reading from the list and the next my son was reading it on his own. These changes are subtle, but signify so much, and should be documented.

Picking out the first-day-of-school outfit: For many children, choosing the prefect first-day-of-school outfit is part of the excitement of going back to school. Watching my daughter lay out her favorite dresses the night before school starts is something I always want to remember. My son, on the other hand, grabs the first shirt and pair of shorts he can find. But the night before school starts, he puts them on his dresser so he can get dressed quickly in the morning. It represents the change in routine that comes with school, and photographing his clothes waiting for him to wear them to school for the first day is a special memory I want to keep. One year my daughter will want to wear jeans instead of a poufy pink dress and my son will no longer sport a character on his shirt for the first day of school. I will be glad to have a record of changing tastes and fashions as my children grow up.

Checking the class list: There is always a bit of trepidation mixed with excitement that comes with the release of the class list. Children hold their breath for a moment when they are about to find out who their teacher will be and which friends will share their classroom for the year. Photographing your child checking the class list or hearing you read it out loud to him will become an important memory and is an essential part of your child’s back-to-school story. Take a shot of the class list itself as a way to remember who was in your child’s class each year. The shot will be even better if you catch your child pointing to a friend’s name.

Morning routine: For my family, the hardest part of going back to school is getting ready in the change in our morning routine. The kids need to be woken up for the first time in weeks, breakfast is waiting on the table in the morning, an assembly-line is ready for combing everyone’s hair, lunch boxes are lined up on the kitchen counter, and backpacks sit by the door. All of these changes signal back-to-school and are worth documenting.

If you can’t quite work in photographing your family’s morning routine the first day, try to photograph it during the first or second week of week of school when it’s still new. Or, commit to photographing one part of your morning routine a day, such as breakfast, getting backpacks on, getting to the car, for example.

Seeing friends: It is likely that before your child reaches his classroom he will see some of his friends for the first time since June. They will compare new backpacks and lunchboxes. They will tell each other about their summer vacation and talk about who is in which class. Be sure to photograph these interactions. They tell so much about the fun side of going back to school and will help you and your child remember who their friends were years from now.

The classroom: Children spend hundreds of hours in their classroom over the course of a school year. Looking back, your child will love seeing what his classroom looked like each year. The first day is a great time to get a shot of what the class looked like at the beginning of the year. Take a shot at the end of the year to compare. Some children will need your full attention as they walk into their classroom for the first time, but if you are able, snapping a shot of your child greeting his teacher the first day, finding his desk, and exploring his new surroundings are great memories to capture.

After school: What the kids do after-school the first day is just as much a part of the story of back-to-school as the morning of. Are your kids excited to tell you about the day? Are they worried about something their teacher told them lies ahead? Do they look exhausted and just want to go home to rest on the couch? Do they want a play date with a kid who is in their class for the first time this year or with an old buddy? Do they love their new backpack so much they don’t want to take it off? Capture it all.

Traditions: Do you always make a special breakfast on the first day of school? Do you go for a treat after school? Do you rush home to look through your child’s backpack to see what the teacher has sent home the first day? If there is something you do every year on the first day of school, whether it’s big or small, be sure to snap a photo.

Details: When it comes to back-to-school there are many little details that you want to remember whether it’s the note you left in your daughter’s lunchbox to wish her luck, a special backpack key-chain that got moved from an old backpack to a new one, shoes left carefully by the door, or your child’s careful packing of his school supplies. Take some close-ups.

Changes: Although I usually discourage photos of children looking straight at the camera and smiling (primarily because these usually capture little of the child’s personality and usually come out looking forced) it is nice to have photos of your child in the same place or wearing the same clothes from the beginning and end of the school year. I’m always amazed at the changes that take place over the course of the year and having photos of kids in similar poses and places at different times highlights the changes in the children themselves.

Your child’s emotions: Throughout the process of going back to school your child may feel many things: excitement about making new friends and learning new things; worry over new expectations; sadness about the summer coming to the end; and joy over seeing friends after a couple of months apart. Watching for a smile as he chooses school supplies or a furrowed brow when looking over new books will help tell the complete back-to-school story. Don’t be shy about asking your child questions as you are snapping away to capture genuine emotions.

You: Back to school is a process for parents as well. If you can, ask a friend to take a photo of your saying goodbye to your child at her classroom door on the first day or walking out of the door with her to head to school. If enlisting the help of someone else is not possible, use the self-timer on your camera or phone to get a photo of you with your child before school starts. Once your children are at school there might be something you have been looking forward to doing all summer once school starts, even if it’s as simple as enjoying an uninterrupted cup of coffee or going to the grocery store alone. Getting a photo or two of your back-to-school day will add detail to your family’s story and your children will enjoy knowing how you spent the day as well.

Remember that the best camera is the one you have with you so whether you have a DSLR or a camera phone, you should capture all of these memories any way that you can. Also, remember that your family’s back-to-school story is longer and richer than the few minutes before school starts the first day.

Take a few weeks to capture these memories if that’s what it takes. You won’t regret it.

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