Parents love milestones. If you are a parent, the chances are pretty good that somewhere in your photo album you have photos of all the milestones — first bath, first steps, first solid food, etc. And you probably also have a few "first day of school" images. But what about the day to day routine of primary school, learning, and school related activities like field trips and plays? Sometimes these activities become so routine and ordinary that we forget to capture them. And there's nothing like looking back at your grown child's album of memories and realizing that one of the most important chapters in his life went seriously under recorded.
The truth is that it can be hard to get adequate photos of school activities for a couple of reasons. If you are a full-time working parent, you may not spend a lot of time on campus, which means you wouldn't have a lot of opportunity to photograph those school activities. And another problem that can arise is restrictions on photography imposed by the school itself. There are a few schools in England, for example, that have gone so far as to place a complete moratorium on photography of any kind. The reasons for those rules are complicated, but have to do with the potential for photographs of children to be misused by the wrong people. Now, you may see this as a bit of an overreaction and in many cases it kind of is — although for certain activities such as swimming in public places it tends to be a little more understandable. So it's always a good idea to find out what your school's policy is on photographing kids, and then make sure you adhere to it. Some schools might make you register your camera or apply for a permit to photograph events, or they may just require simple verbal permission. What's important is that you make sure you know the rules and follow them, and then you should have no trouble getting those precious school days captured with your camera.
Most schools have special events of some kind, from end of the year award ceremonies to school plays and sporting events. These are usually the easiest to photograph because they tend to be the events that most parents actually do want to capture. When shooting a special event try to cover it in a more interesting and unusual way — for example, don't just take pictures of the kids on stage during the school play, also try to capture some photographs of the kids collecting their flowers after the show or setting up the props. Remember that special events, especially those held indoors or after dark can be difficult to photograph because of problems with the light. For stage plays, when there are bright lights on the performer but the stage is otherwise dark, use spot metering. Meter for the student's face so you will get a good exposure where it's most important, and don't worry too much about the stage and props coming out perfectly exposed. In low light events, where the lighting isn't quite so starkly different from one part of the scene to the next, consider raising your ISO. You may get some noise in your images, but that is going to be infinitely better than capturing an image that has motion blur, which is what can happen if you shoot in low light with a slow shutter speed rather than a higher ISO.
Schools often look for parent chaperones for field trips, however, you may not always have the option of being a chaperone depending on what your own schedule looks like. If you find yourself unable to join the field trip, that doesn't mean that you can't capture some photos before and after your child departs. When you drop her off in the morning, try to capture some photos of the kids getting ready. Let's say they're going snowshoeing—this is a good time to get pictures of them being fitted for boots and bundling up in their snow gear. Try to also get pictures of them with their friends. Chances are there are going to be excited faces all around, and that can make for some great portraits. Many schools will designate a parent as a photographer—as a last resort you can always ask that person to capture a few shots of your child at the event. Sometimes this is the only way to get good photos when you can't personally be there.
Drop off time is always a great opportunity to get pictures of your kids in the classroom settling down with their morning work or just hanging out with friends before the bell rings. If you can spare a couple of minutes, try to be a fly on the wall for the first few minutes of class time (with the permission of the teacher, of course).
Even if you're not the sort of parent whose schedule will allow you to be in the classroom every week, you can still take a vacation day to be a volunteer. Bring your camera along with you, but make sure that your photography doesn't take precedence over whatever activity you volunteered to do, or you may not get invited back again. But spending a day in the classroom can be a great way to be a fly on the wall. Eventually the kids will get used your presence and not even notice that you're snapping pictures.
And let's not forget that school comes home with your child, too — it's called homework, and it's just as much a part of that school experience as actually physically going to school and coming home again. Try to capture a few photos of the experience of doing homework, especially those big projects that kids usually have to put together at the end of the school year. Remember again to shoot from your child's perspective — over the shoulder photographs work very well for capturing what it's like to be a kid and have that piece of homework in front of you. If there is frustration involved with homework, try to capture that too, but of course do it with some sensitivity — most kids don't appreciate being the subject of a photograph when they are deeply frustrated by whatever's going on on that homework sheet. So snap a picture or two, and then take some time out to go over the homework with your child and help him snap out of that frustration.
Remember to shoot from different angles. Kids in particular are best photographed from kid height, so kneel down and try to take some photographs from a child's perspective. That's going to give your viewer (which may even be your child when she becomes an adult) a connection with the experience of being a kid in that classroom. Candid photography is going to be best for capturing the essence of your child's day at school, so it's a good idea to hang back and use a little bit of zoom so as not to call attention to yourself. Don't use the flash even if you're indoors — instead, turn up your ISO. It's OK to capture a little bit of noise because that's going to be preferable to disturbing everyone when the flash is going off constantly. And flash photos just aren't very attractive — you don't want a bunch of red eyed demon children in your photograph, you want them to look natural, and that means using the available light whenever you can.
There will also be opportunities for posed portraits, and those that can be great additions to the album as well. Halloween costume dress-up day is a great example of when you might want to get photos like this, but keep all of the usual posed portrait tips in mind when you do. Pay attention to the background, for example. If you can bring your subjects away from the busy and cluttered background that classrooms always tend to have and use a wider aperture you're going to have a much nicer photo. If you can't get enough distance between your subjects and the background in a small classroom, consider waiting until recess and then capturing your portraits in a much more open space. Use a wider aperture to help get some blur on that background. And don't just tell your subjects to "say cheese," it may be the de facto way to get a kid to grin but it almost never looks natural. Instead, try asking them what kind of candy they hope they're going to get while trick-or-treating, or ask them to talk about why they chose to dress up as that particular superhero, sports star or monster. This is a great opportunity to get photos of kids with friends, too, in fact that should be one of your goals whenever you're taking posed portraits of your kids at school. Friends are a big part of the school experience and you're going to want plenty of pictures of your kids with the people who meant the most to them during their school years.
School days are just as important as any milestone, so don't depend on that once-a-year posed school portrait that you pay way too much money—make sure you capture plenty of memories on your own as well. The key is to make sure that the teachers and administrators always know what you're doing, and that they understand that the photos you shoot are for you and your family alone. Most of the time you're not going to encounter resistance from school staff if you're just taking family photos, but being open about your photography activities is the best way to make sure that you have the freedom to get the shots that you want. I think 20 years from now when you look back on your child's school experience, both you and him are going to be happy that you captured all of the memories that you did. School days are fleeting, and even if your child thinks he hates them now, he's going to love remembering them once he's an adult.
- Special events
- Tell the whole story (beginning, middle end)
- Use spot metering for stage performances
- Field trips
- Volunteer to chaperone
- Come early and photograph the preparations
- Other opportunities
- Drop off time
- Shoot from kid-level
- Capture candids and portraits
- Capture relationships
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