If you are reading this, I can nearly guarantee that you are close to one incredibly exciting milestone! So… in case no one has told you this week… congrats, grad! You are ALMOST THERE! While this is an incredibly exciting season, I also know that it is sure to be incredibly busy! As you work through your final projects, exams, meetings, and classes, I know prepping for your grad session might just be the last thing on your list.
That said, you deserve to be celebrated and if you are investing in custom portraiture to commemorate such an incredible accomplishment, you deserve to get the most out of your experience!
I have years of experience as a Baltimore grad portrait photographer, and today, I wanted to share a few of my top tips to ensure that your grad session prep process is easy, seamless, and purposeful. Because I know you’re busy, let’s jump right in with the good stuff (AKA my top tips for prepping you for your grad session!).
For many grad and portrait photographers, especially those of us that do weddings, spring is one of our BUSIEST times of year! In order to ensure that you are able to work with the photographer of your dreams… and have first pick on their schedule, I recommend reaching out to schedule your grad session sometime in January or February of your grad year if you have a spring graduation date. For grads in other seasons (Think: winter and summer grads), I usually recommend booking your session 3 months in advance. There’s nothing that makes me happier than welcoming a new grad to the CKP Family… and nothing that breaks my heart more than telling someone I am unavailable! So… do yourself a favor and start the inquiry process early.
Purchase your cap and gown in advance (if possible)
I know all schools have different availabilities for caps, gowns, and other graduation attire pieces… some are available to purchase, some are rented for a personally designated period, some are rented for a pre-designated period… and all of that factors into scheduling your grad photos! We’ll review each of these options in just a moment, but the reason the timing of acquiring your cap and gown early if possible is the same across the board: you need them for your photos and gowns are usually wrinkled when they arrive and won’t be photo-ready right out of the bag.
First, let’s chat about purchasing your cap and gown:
If you are lucky enough to have your cap and gown available to purchase at your student bookstore, do it early, and don’t wait! I promise I’m not trying to rush you towards graduation… seriously, savor every minute! BUT, by purchasing your cap and gown early, you ensure that you’ll be able to take it out of its packaging early, allowing enough time for the material to relax. Additionally, you’ll also be able to try it on with the outfit and accessories that you would like to wear for your session with plenty of time to make any changes that may be necessary.
Now for those of you renting your graduation attire:
I find this to be more common for masters and doctoral grads, but if you will be renting your graduation attire, you will definitely want to factor in the range that your attire will be available when it comes to scheduling your grad session. If you have any control over the length of the window that your attire is available for, it isn’t a bad idea to extend the window a bit on the front and back end to ensure that you have plenty of time to prep your attire and will have a little wiggle room in case rain is in the forecast. If you do not have control over when your graduation attire will be available, this is when early booking becomes even more important! Inquire early to ensure that you can book your session while you have your grad attire available.
Hang up your gown (and other hanging pieces) and steam the week before
Once you get your cap and gown, remove all of the pieces from their packaging, including any gowns, stoles, and hoods. This will allow the material to relax a bit before steaming/removing the wrinkles. I find, more often than not, grad gowns are folded and aren’t made of the highest quality material meaning they wrinkle easily and hold onto them with a vengeance. By hanging gowns up early, a lot of the wrinkles will naturally release. For the rest, I recommend following the manufacturer’s guidance to remove them. Steaming works wonders for most grad gowns and is what I typically recommend across the board. That said, grad gowns come in all different materials, so do yourself a solid and double check the manufacturer’s suggestions prior to applying any heat or product to the material. I have heard a few nightmare stories of friends putting holes in their gowns with irons, so I would definitely recommend avoiding direct heat.
Try your entire outfit on from head to toe in front of a full length mirror (Including grad attire, session attire, hair, and makeup)
I still have yet to encounter two grads that feel the exact same way about their grad attire! Some love their gown and hate their cap… some love their cap and hate their gown… some like their gown zipped, some like their gown unzipped, some love their cap but only in their hands… really, there are endless combinations and it is up to you to determine your preference. About a week or two out from your session, I recommend trying everything on from head to toe… including your hair and makeup! This test run allows you to double check hemlines and take a peek at how accessories may hit with the neck of your gown while also getting a feel for how much time you’ll need to bank to get ready.
Stand in front of a full length mirror, first just in your session attire and ensure that you are in love with the outfit with your hair and makeup. Then? Add your cap, gown, hood, cords, and any other items that may be part of your graduation wardrobe. Experiment with your pieces and layers— try your cap on… do you like it with the way your hair is styled? Try your gown zipped and unzipped… are you okay with where your hemline hits and how the gown sits overtop what you may have underneath? Repeat this process with a combination of all of your accessories until you find your preference! While we may play with your attire and accessories, having a general idea of what you prefer will take the pressure off when I ask you during your session as you’ll already be confident in knowing what you prefer.
Bring comfy shoes
I know you probably have a super cute pair of shoes picked out to wear with your grad attire! When it comes to your grad session, 100% bring these along for your time in front of the camera! That said, also bring a comfy pair of shoes with you. I find slippers with a hard sole, flip flops/slides, Crocs, or Uggs are wonderful for saving your feet! Between college campuses, the Lincoln, and everything in between, I have yet to find a grad location that doesn’t require a significant bit of walking. I promise… you’ll thank me for this tip later!
Don’t neglect your nails
While your nails won’t be the star of the show, you will be holding your cap in your hands and may also comb fingers through your hair. While you don’t necessarily need to rush out and get a manicure (though I will never say no to treating yourself!), you do want to put some thought into your nails. Neutral polish often photographs beautifully as does a clean, unpolished nail. Whatever you do, try to stay clear from chipped, dark polish as this draws the eye and will distract from your natural beauty.
I love the semi cured and gel stickers from Dashing Diva for a quick and long-lasting fix.
Plan for a headshot
While we’re celebrating your graduation and academic accomplishments, most, if not all, of my grads find it super helpful to bring along a few pieces to style a professional headshot. Bring along a blazer, cardigan, or other outerwear piece to wear over your session attire. This professional photo can then be used on LinkedIn, in job applications, during speaking engagements, and more! You’re already dressed up… why not make the most of it?! Intentionally taking an updated headshot during your session is the perfect way to take a confident and fresh step into the professional world with your brand new degree.
Bonus for Lincoln and National Mall Grads
While I now consider myself a Baltimore grad photographer, I often work down in DC and never want to gate keep the information I’ve learned over the last couple of years! For DC grads, all of the above tips ring true, but you’ll also want to add the following to your list:
- Ensure you have a permit for your photography session on NPS Property
- Opt for sunrise… I promise, it will be worth it! While it may be early, it greatly reduces the number of tourists, tour groups, and visitors that will be joining you in the background
- During peak grad season (Think April-May) be prepared to wait for some of the big spots. We may move a little slower during our time together, but the end result will be worth it!
- Be ready to walk! Those comfy shoes? Yes, you are definitely going to want to pack those! The Mall is expansive, and having comfy shoes will save your feet, promise!
PS Future grads dreaming of a session at the Lincoln Memorial should note that it’s currently under construction until 2026. Don’t worry, though! There are plenty of alternative locations in DC that offer equally stunning backdrops. This session features one of my recommended itineraries for grads to use throughout construction. You can check out the project details and explore other options here.
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