Back to School Pictures: What I've Learned Along the Way

August 20, 2018

This article was originally published on August 17th, 2016 and has been updated to include current information.

It's always such a big day, the first day of school. The kids are excited... or not. They are one year wiser since last year. They may not have seen many of their classmates in months. And we parents have gotten them a new outfit, maybe a new backpack, new lunchbox, maybe a new haircut, or heck, maybe they are going to school in clothes that don't have a stain or hole in them. Regardless, it's a big day, and we all want good pictures of our kids to mark this momentous occasion.

As a mom to a now 13-year-old and 10-year-old, I've learned a few things along the way about taking back to school pictures. Let me share my journey.

Here, at my household, we have a couple of traditions surrounding the first day of school. They go a little like this:

  • Wake up maybe 10 minutes later than we really should have since we're not used to getting up and getting ready for the day quite so early.
  • Run out the door with maybe one minute to spare before the kids HAVE to be heading toward school lest they be late.
  • Grab my camera and beg, scream, PLEAD, for the kids to go sit on the doorstep and let me take their picture.

That's the tradition. Usually. Hey, I'm just keeping it real.

I realize though, that this isn't ideal. Ideally, you would give yourself more time, so let's just start with that. The night before school, get your camera ready. Make sure you have a charged battery and a memory card with sufficient space.

Keep in mind that if you want to take pictures at home prior to school starting, you're going to have to give yourself a little bit more time. Rushing to take pictures at the last minute means everyone is stressed. It doesn't make for the happiest of smiles. Allow yourself five extra minutes to get your back to school pictures before getting your kiddo to school.

I always try to get a picture of the kids sitting on the doorstep. It's neat to watch the progression as they age, and it's just about the only real tradition we have about the first day of school (except for the me-yelling-at-them-to-PLEASE-do-exactly-what-I-say.)

My doorstep is not only a nice place to take back to school pictures since it places them in front of their house, but it also doesn't have any harsh light shining on the doorstep. This is important. Choose a place to photograph your child(ren) that has good light. If you are newer to photography, I'd suggest an area of open shade, as it offers nice, even lighting. Porches often have wonderful light since at certain times of the day, they block direct, harsh sunlight. Since the kids are facing toward the brighter, uncovered area, they have good light in their eyes.

If it's raining and you must stay indoors, try using a flash like the 470EX-AI that will keep your pictures looking natural without that direct harsh flash look.  The flash seeks out walls and ceilings to "bounce" the light off of, making your flash photography look great with little to no effort on your part!

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 50mm, f/1.8 II   |   1/640th sec, f/2.2, ISO 400   |   Back to school 2010
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 24-105mm, f/4L IS lens at 45mm   |   1/200th sec, f/4.0, ISO 800   |   Back to school 2011
Canon EOS 5D Mark II EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens at 26mm   |   1/160th sec, f/2.8, ISO 400   |   Back to school 2012
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens at 35mm   |   1/320th sec, f/3.5, ISO 800   |   Back to school 2013

2013 marks the year that I wasn't getting a certain someone to sit on the doorstep. It marks the year that I gave up trying to get happy expressions from him on the first day of school. As a parent, I know you know that we have to choose our battles. I made a decision that I would do my best to get pictures of my kids on the first day of school, but I let go of the notion that it would always be perfect. And do you know what?  I find that some of my favorite pictures of my little beast boy are when he's being himself, which for better or for worse, is a child who usually isn't thrilled about the first day of school. It shows his personality, and let me just admit this: I adore his personality.

So, my advice? Allow your kids' personalities to shine. It may not be Pinterest-perfect. But not every back to school picture needs to be the smiling child eagerly awaiting their first day of school.

By 2014, my kids were going to different schools that started on different days. It was easy to get a picture of my daughter, because she's just sweet like that.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens at 35mm   |   1/400th sec, f/2.8; ISO 200   |   Back to school 2014

I always try to get a few closeup shots of them, if time allows. And porch light doesn't disappoint here. Look at the light in her eyes! Get closeups of your kiddo on the first day of school!

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 50mm, f/1.4 lens   |   1/640th sec, f/2.2, ISO 200

My daughter was just so agreeable for her back to school photos. My son? Not so much. I didn't even try to sit him down on the doorstep. Heck, I was probably running too late to even try. But do you know what? I got some of my favorite back to school pictures when I decided to step out of the box and just document his arrival to school.

I loved being able to capture his walk to school. He'll remember what his school looked like with this picture, and I love that.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens at 16mm   |   1/1000th sec, f/4.5, ISO 100  |   Back to school 2014

You may be wondering if he suddenly got all gung-ho about letting me take his picture since I didn't force him to sit on the doorstep. Let me answer that for you with a picture.

Speak to the hand, Mom.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 16-35mm f2.8L II lens at 16mm   |   1/320th sec, f/3.5, ISO 250  |   Back to school 2014

By lowering my expectations of what I think I'll get, and being good-natured about how he acts, I get pictures like that. And I don't know about you, but to me, it's the best back to school picture I've ever taken. He was so pleased at me taking a picture of his hand, I got this picture right afterwards.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 16-35mm f2.8L II lens at 16mm   |   1/320th sec, f/3.5, ISO 250
A word about lenses

You'll notice that I used a lot of different lenses for these images. I used whatever lens was most tickling my fancy that day. If I had to choose one lens for everything, I'd probably choose one that can go from wide angle to zoom. I used the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS lens with the following pictures. It allowed me to get up close and personal for photos like this, shot from above.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 24-105mm f/4L IS at 24mm   |   1/200th sec, f/4.0, ISO 3200

It also allowed me to use the telephoto end of the zoom to get this picture from outside the door when the teacher wouldn't let the parents into my daughter's classroom.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 24-105mm f/4L IS at 105mm   |   1/100th sec, f/4.0, ISO 3200

Bottom line, when taking back to school photos, remember the following tips, and you'll be golden:

1) Have your camera ready with a charged battery and memory card with sufficient space.
2) Allow yourself five extra minutes to get your shots. If you know you won't do this, take pictures another day, when there isn't so much pressure to get out the door.
3) If you want a picture at home, choose a location where the lighting won't be distracting. For beginning photographers, I'd recommend an area of open shade.
4) Allow your kids' personalities to shine. The more you stress over things, the worse your pictures will be. Enjoy their quirkiness. You'll miss it someday.
5) Get shots that showcase the school if you're photographing on campus.
6) Get closeups!

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