a sea of backpacks on kids with their moms walking a wooded trail on their way to school

How to take better back to school photos

School starts again next week here in Northern Virginia. Its always a rough week that begins with a compulsory, celebratory photo. I’ve included my best documentary photographer tips below to help you make the best of it!

Anything I know about taking “first day of school” photos comes not from art school but from my dad. Each year he photographed us in the same shady spot in the front yard, my sister on the left and myself on the right. He used the manual camera I borrowed from him to take my first photography class in colllege, a Canon AE-1 that I still own (and have since named, “Bessy”).

When my own family moved to our current neighborhood, my son walked through a wooded trail to get to his elementary school. I knew that the steps to the trail would make the perfect shady spot, shaded by the side of the house. I didn’t realize, that first year, that he would eventually want to bike to school without me. I greatly appreciate the progression before and after the bike made its way into the mix: it felt like a big step for me, going from walking him to school to waving goodbye from the trailhead. Can you tell which year was COVID? Putting the computer in the shot was his idea. 😊

Now that he is in middle school and taking a bus I switched it up – the trailhead doesn’t make sense anymore, he walks up the street. My dad kept us in that same spot elementary through high school but each family gets to make their own choice.

I hope this list of do’s and don’ts below helps you to document big changes over time and that it encourages you to leave more in your photos to reminisce upon later. They’ll remember that outfit, those shoes, that bike, that backpack, the house, that bus stop. (And yes, he gets to keep the ear buds in this year.)

And even if they scowl at you, it’s a win! Your friends on social media will love it even more, like when a parent posts a picture of a Santa holding their screaming baby.

If we’re honest, we’re all dying to see (and tell) the truth about beauty and chaos.

The “Do”s

  • Pick a spot in full shade so you don’t get weird shadows or squinty faces. Repeat this spot year after year – keeping the background somewhat consistent as the kids grow will emphasize the changes in them.
  • Share your intent to take this photo ahead of time, especially if school is something new. Cooperation is more likely when it’s not a surprise and is presented as part of the process.
  • Allow them to keep backpacks, patrol belts, headphones, ear buds, bikes or whatever they actually take with them to school in the photo…trust me, its going to be a great conversation piece later!!!
  • Watch for placement of things like wreaths and doorknobs so that they aren’t sticking out of a head or body when you review your capture later.
  • Get a shot of them walking away, or photograph your partner walking away and holding their hand. Any part of this departure process, particularly in those early days, that you are able to document will be treasure later on! I don’t know if you can tell but in the photo above, he is sad to leave his stuffies, left behind on the couch.

The “Don’t”s

  • Stress out if you don’t have the latest trendy prop handy! These are really cute when they’re little but its not going to fly later on anyway so no worries, seriously.
  • Take too much time with it or make it public or otherwise embarrassing – this only adds to first day jitters (and possible scowls) Force smiles… If the little one is cheesin’ while your teen gives you side eye, that’s the perfect shot in my book.

Are you digging this approach to family photography? Are you in the Washington, DC area? Check out more of my work because, in addition to taking family photos where parents are part of the visual memories they pass down, I love to be a resource so that you can document your journey well, even when I’m not around!

Have an awesome school year ahead, everyone!!! ✏️ 🚌 📕

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