Graduation season is approaching and the excitement in the air is palpable. The amount of teenagers I have seen swarming the formal gown section of West Edmonton Mall has been insane, but when I see this, I know that spring is approaching. One of the pivotal decisions many graduates face is whether to get traditional school-sanctioned graduation photos or to hire a photographer on the day of their graduation. While both options hold their own charm and significance, navigating the differences between them can feel like a daunting task. A little-known fact about me is that I worked as a school photographer at Lifetouch for a year, and then as a Grad Retoucher and Quality Control Manager for 10 years at a small local School Photography company. I think it’s safe to say you can trust me when it comes to offering advice on the subject. Let's embark on a journey to uncover the nuances of each, shedding light on their respective merits which should help you make an informed decision that best suits your needs.

In graduation photography, two distinct styles seem to take center stage: the classic, posed portraits offered by schools, and the spontaneous, candid shots captured outside the confines of traditional settings. School grad photos often provide a polished, timeless aesthetic, with carefully arranged poses and backdrops. They offer a sense of formality and adherence to tradition, ideal for commemorating academic achievements in a structured manner. Candid grad photos on the other hand invite a sense of spontaneity and authenticity. They capture moments of joy, laughter, and camaraderie. These shots often unfold in natural settings, reflecting the graduate's personality and journey beyond the classroom. Ultimately, the choice between the two styles hinges on individual preferences and the desired tone for commemorating this significant milestone. But if I may, I would like to provide you with the pros and cons of both.

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grad poses, grad photo ideas, grad studio photo
grad poses, grad photo ideas, grad studio photo
grad poses, grad photo ideas, grad studio photo

Traditional School Grad Photos:


1. No Photographer shopping: A lot of time goes into finding the photographer that is right for you. You need to not only consider style, but their schedule, personality, and cost, since there is no standardized pricing. Getting photos done at school removes the stress of shopping. You are usually provided with a sitting fee and then pay for a photo package. Simple.

2. The look: For the most part (I’m glaring at you hazy out of focus staring into the future 80s pose), school grad photos are timeless and the same. This allows your family to have the unique experience of ordering the same pose generationally, which can create a sense of belonging and family. It’s a special occasion that the whole family can enjoy and look forward to.

3. Everything is streamlined: Now this can be a good or a bad thing depending on who you are. If you were like me when I graduated, I didn’t want to be involved in photos at all. I like being behind the camera, not in front of it. So everything being very cookie-cutter and simple made things easier for me. I just sat down, got the photos done, and handed the photographer my order form that they had pre-filled out. Nowadays the ordering is done online, but other than that, everything else is largely the same. And why? Because why mess with something that works. I have been in meetings where we discussed ways to change the photos. The craziest it gets is offering new prop options and planning pre-designed poses with those items. Woo…wild. So enjoy the simplicity of a well-oiled system.


1. There is no real chance for personality: It’s not that personality is discouraged, but you have a limited time slot, and the photographers cannot have a session go over, or their whole day falls behind. So bringing in your own props and ideas may not always be welcome depending on the photographer and/or the company they work for. To get around this I recommend wearing an outfit that represents you and getting one or two casual photos done. It’s a fast way to express yourself and most photo companies allow 1-3 casual shots. 

2. Time: You have a very tight schedule when it comes to school photo companies. The policy of the company I worked for was if you were more than 10 minutes late you had to reschedule or wait until retake day. Imagine getting your hair and nails done, but the salon was behind, and now you’re behind, and you got all that done for photos and were being told that you have to reschedule. Pretty frustrating right? Now don’t get mad at the photographers. They're just following policy, and the policy exists for a reason. Let's say a photographer gets to see 4 people an hour, gets a 30-minute lunch break, and can only be at the school while it is open. If they start taking photos at 9 am and stop at 4 pm they are taking 26 graduates photos. If any of them are more than 5 minutes late it becomes impossible to make up the time, and if they did accommodate every late person they would be cutting in people's classes, extracurriculars, and leaving late in the evening after the doors have been locked to the school. All this to say be on time for your appointment, and if you struggle with time management, school photos may not be for you. 

3. Disconnection: As you can imagine, photographing hundreds of kids a month could become a blur. As a school grad photographer, you only have when the grad first arrives and you are fitting them with a robe and a hat to get to know the grad and make them feel comfortable. What ends up happening is the photographer will ask the same questions to every grad to get to know them. It won't be the same for every photographer, but it’s usually something like “What are you planning to do when you’re done school?” “What are your summer plans?” “What’s your favorite class?” They’re questions to help you feel comfortable around them, while also not being too personal. Why? It comes back to time. They do not have the time to get to know every student/ This can create feelings of neglect and make the student feel rushed and like they are an inconvenience. I swear it’s not the goal of the photographer. They are probably just stressed and rushing to keep on schedule. 

4. Quality of the images: One of the reasons it’s a “little known” secret that I worked in the school photo industry is because I have made it that way on purpose, so I can avoid upset parents. EVERY PERSON has a school photo they hate or knows someone who hates their yearbook photos. A little-known secret about the school photography industry is that not every photographer hired has experience as a photographer. Because there are only 10-20 poses per session (depending on the photo company) the photo agency does not need to hire good photographers. What they look for in the hiring process is people who are ideally personable or at least sociable, who are fast learners, and preferably will work for next to minimum wage plus travel costs. If you are lucky, they hire someone with all these traits, but that is not usually the case. You may get lucky and get someone like me, who was a newly graduated university student with a degree in photography that just needed a guaranteed income, or one of my coworkers who had been taking grad photos for decades. But you can’t guarantee that. You may end up with someone who interviewed well and is helping alleviate some of the workload until the grad season slows down. 

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Candid Grad Photos with a Professional:


1. The look: You can shop for a photographer that has a style you like, which in turn can show a reflection of your taste as a grad at the time. Furthermore, you will have something unique from your friends that will stand out from the traditional gown photos on the mantelpiece.

2. Comfortability during the photos: When you hire a photographer for candid grad photos, they are going to do everything in their power to make you feel comfortable around them. They’ll take the time to get to know you, understand what you do and don’t want for your images, and can adapt to any hiccup that comes their way. They want to make it so photos are not one other thing to worry about during graduation, and that is something worth investing in.

3. Time: Unlike a school grad photo session that has a limited time slot that is non-negotiable, working with a professional grad photographer can allow you to custom-build a package that is right for you. This includes things like the amount of time you would like them to take photos. 

4. You can be yourself: Because you are free to move around and do things outside the confines of a travel studio, you bring things to help you express yourself. Bring your pet, pull out a couch to drape yourself on, or smash a guitar! The limit is your imagination. 


1. Pricing: hiring a photographer is often more expensive than getting the school to do it. When you use the school photographer you are using a cookie-cutter system. The school pays to have the company there, which alleviates some of the costs for the families, and the photo company gets discounts on printing because they can get their printing done in bulk because of the number of orders coming in.  When you hire a personal photographer you are investing in something that will be with you your whole life, and you’re getting it custom-done by a professional with years of experience. I like to think of it as supporting a local business (a personal grad photographer) vs supporting a corporation (think Lifetouch, which is an international school and grad photo company.) Your local person is going to charge more because they do not have the same way to cut down on costs as big companies do. But the local photographer will appreciate your sale more than the big company.   

2. Turn around times: With school photo companies there are benchmarks that the company expects its workers to keep the orders at. For example, the company I was at expected grad orders to be done in no more than 6 weeks, but it was normal for grads to be returned around 4 weeks. Every order was sorted into individual files, and those files were sorted by the number of weeks since ordered and were all tracked in a computer system to make sure they were returned by the promised deadline.

With a personal photographer, they are usually a business of one. This means the person who photographed your images will also be editing them. If the photographer has a lot of work going on when they take your photos, it may slow down the return of your images, just because they don’t have the manpower and set deadlines that a corporate company will have.

Both candid and school grad photos hold unique appeal, each offering its own distinct advantages. Whether you opt for the timelessness of posed portraits or the authenticity of candid shots, what truly matters is capturing the essence of this achievement in a way that resonates with you. Just remember that the essence of graduation lies not just in the photographs, but in the memories and the stories they tell for years to come. So, embrace the opportunity to celebrate your journey in a style that feels the most you, and let your graduation photos serve as a cherished memento of this moment in your life.