Written by 6:00 am Lighting

3 Back to School Portrait Styles: Which One is Right for You?

Start studying because the kids are heading back to school, which means you’ll have to act fast to get the first-day-of-school shot you want. As part of this preparation, you need to decide which style is right for your family or the family you’re photographing for. Here’s what you need to know to ace these 3 school-themed shoots.

Start studying because the kids are heading back to school, which means you’ll have to act fast to get the first-day-of-school shot you want. As part of this preparation, you need to decide which style is right for your family or the family you’re photographing for. Here’s what you need to know to ace these 3 school-themed shoots for the perfect back to school portrait.

Back to School Portrait, Lesson 1: Before-and-Afters

Before-and-afters are always fascinating because you’re either seeing how someone aged or comparing family members. Here are the different types of before-and-afters:


Classic: First day of school vs last day of school.

Photo album prints of girl age 2, 4, 5 and 6

Archival: First day of school year-over-year.


Generational: Parent’s first day of of school vs kid’s first day of school (or one sibling compared to another).

Since before-and-afters are always a winner, you can get away with taking mediocre images that are still cherished – even with just your phone. However, here are some tips on how to get more than just a passing grade:

• Pick a camera that you can use consistently over time, preferably one that is high enough quality so that the results don’t look dated after 1 year.

• Use the same lens, or focal length, for your before-and-afters. If using a zoom, write down what focal length you used. If you’re doing something generational, try and guess the focal length of an old photo. Online focal length comparison tools might help!

• Write down your settings (or remind yourself of your settings in your EXIF data before taking the “after” picture). You’ll want to use similar settings again. If your “after” picture is turning out darker or lighter than you want, a quick fix is to adjust your camera’s Exposure Compensation Setting.

• Shallow depth of field portraits tend to be more flattering. Use an aperture at f/4 or wider and focus on your subject’s eyes. Pick a simple background.

• Choose a shutter speed of at least 1/125th of a second in case your subject suddenly starts moving/laughing – you will want to freeze their motion. Good rule of thumb: Keep your shutter speed at around the same number or higher than the length of your lens to reduce camera shake. For example, if you are shooting with a 100mm portrait lens, you won’t want to shoot any slower than 1/100th of a second.

Gear We Love for Before-and-Afters

Canon 50mm f/1.2L Lens
Nikon 50mm f/1.4G Lens
Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 Lens
Manfrotto CROMA2 LED Light
Fuji X100F Conversion Lens Travel Kit
Sony RX10 IV
Manfrotto 055XPRO3 Tripod Legs

Back to School Portrait, Lesson 2: Narratives

Narratives focus less on the child and more on the day. This takes the pressure off of you to get 1 winning shot and instead gives you the freedom to capture the emotion of going back to school. Here are the common types of back-to-school narratives:


Journalistic: Capture the day candidly.


Environmental: Allow the setting and emotion of school tell the story.

An environmental back to school portrait is less a “portrait” and more of a mix of candids, staged portraits, and small details. This is particularly effective if you’re allowed to go on the bus/into class with the child (typical only with little kids). If you’re both the photographer and the parent, this style gets tricky because the morning goes by so quickly! Here are some tips so that you don’t miss a valuable moment:

• Shoot with a wide-to-normal length zoom so that you can capture the environment and portraits with 1 lens.

• Consider shooting in Aperture Priority Mode (Av – where you control the f/stop and the camera does the rest) or Shutter Priority Mode (Tv – where you control the shutter speed and the camera does the rest) rather than in fully Auto or fully manual mode. It will give you enough control to be artistic or to better learn the camera but not so much control that you’re messing with settings and missing the action.

• Choose a camera with high ISO capability so that you can easily go from light to dark environments without having to significantly lower your shutter speed to maintain your exposure.


Gear We Love for Narratives

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM II Lens
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G AF-S ED Lens
Leica Q (Typ 116) Digital Camera
Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM Lens
Panasonic Lumix LX100 Digital Camera
Fuji X100T Digital Camera with 23mm f/2 Lens

Back to School Portrait, Lesson 3: Stylized

Stylized portraits are the most difficult of the back-to-school styles because they require advanced planning and, likely, some off-camera lighting. While these are often in the realm of the professional, they are not beyond reach for a new photography pupil.


Lighting will be your biggest challenge with stylized portraits because they tend to be very staged and formal. Here are some tips to get started. Do you homework! Stylized portraits take planning and practice.

Natural Lighting

Build your “set” near a large window so that natural light comes in either to the side or in front of your subject. Have a thin, white diffuser (like a bed sheet or curtain) on-hand to soften the light and aim for shooting in the morning. If you’re shooting outside, pick a golden hour time to shoot and position the sun behind your subject and the open sky behind you.

We Recommend: Impact 5-in-1 Collapsible Oval Reflector. Reflectors help harness the natural light around you and bounce it back into the dark parts of your scene. Hold it up with the help of a Manfrotto 175F Justin Spring Clamp and a simple light stand.

Continuous Lighting

We have a variety of LED lights that mimic natural light and don’t require any complicated syncing with your camera system. Simply turn on and position around your subject!

We Recommend: Westcott Flex 1-Light Daylight Kit. This flexible, water-resistant, and portable light provides a fun introduction to the world of LED lighting. It’s also incredible bright, allowing you to rely less on cranking up your ISO.

Flash Lighting

Strobe and flash lighting is complicated only because there are so many ways to do it and so many settings and compatibilities to think about. For example, you can choose to fire multiple off-camera flashes optically or use radios to fire strobes, which require different ways of connecting the light with your camera.

We Recommend: If you’re brand new to using a strobe light, a beginner’s favorite is the Impact 400W/s LiteTrek Monolight Kit. It can be used outside with the included battery pack or inside with the AC adapter. It comes with a simple sync cable that connects the strobe to your camera directly (provided that your camera has a PC-in port). The controls are intuitive and the light head is very portable.

Other Lighting Tips

• If your child wears glasses, aim the light directly above them and pointed downward or position the light so that it hits the portion of the face that is closest to the camera. Learn more in 8 Portrait Lighting Setups Every Photographer Should Know.

• Remember the basics! Learn more in Easy Lighting Laws to Boost Shooting Performance.

• Not ready for off-camera flash? Keep your flash on your hot shoe and simply point it at the ceiling! See how this 1 easy trick can make a huge difference when photographing kids.

You are now ready to ace a creative and unique back to school portrait!

Tags: Last modified: July 7, 2021