Professionals offer tips for great graduation photos

Chris Koleno
April 15, 2019

You’ve done it! You are about to graduate from Penn State!

Here’s your chance to capture one of the happiest chapters in your life, so don’t forget to make the most of this opportunity to freeze time with images you will cherish for the rest of your life.

Professional photographers Michelle Bixby, Christie Clancy and Patrick Mansell from Penn State's Office of Strategic Communications have some ideas on how to make the most of your graduation photos.

General tips:

  • Plan ahead, have an agenda, but adjust your plan as the day goes on and consider other options.
  • Go at odd times of the day for prime locations, especially the Nittany Lion Shrine.
  • Consider the rule of thirds for your photography, your subject does not always need to sit in the center of the frame.

    Penn State commencement

    The rule of thirds guideline proposes that photographers should consider placing the subject of a photo in the imaginary line segmenting one third of the photo. This particular commencement photo also shows the benefits of shooting a subject from below.  

    IMAGE: Patrick Mansell
  • Consider the environment you will be shooting in — time of day, weather conditions, direct sun, indirect sun. Don’t be turned off by an overcast day.
  • Get wide, medium and tight shots. Don’t be afraid to get a variety of the same pose.
  • Try using creative angles from different vantage points. This includes shooting off to the side, above, below and even behind your graduate.
  • It goes without saying, consider the background before placing your graduate in the shots. 

    Graduates in front of Old Main

    Of course, the background of a graduation photo can be the key element in a great image. Nothing is more iconic to Penn State than a photo in front of Old Main or at the Nittany Lion Shrine.

    IMAGE: Christie Clancy
  • Think about whether flash is really needed; a well-lit area is preferable.
  • For outdoor shots, the best natural light occurs during the “golden hours,” which is an hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset, so consider taking your posed graduate shots during those times.
  • Sometimes action shots make some of your best photos.

    Graduate on bike

    Sometimes action shots make some of the best photos. This image of a Penn State graduate riding a bike, with the Nittany Lion Shrine in the background, offers a unique slant on commencement photos. 

    IMAGE: Michelle Bixby
  • Don’t forget the family shots. Hand the camera to someone else to include family members — often the photographer — in the photo.

    Penn State graduates

    Commencement photos with family, friends, advisers, professors or other individuals who nurtured a graduate's academic experience can help capture the memories of this chapter in their life. 

    IMAGE: Michelle Bixby
  • Be ready for the candid shots, away from the pomp and circumstance of the graduation ceremony. Some of the best shots are sometimes unplanned and just unfold before your eyes.
  • It’s the graduate’s day. Make sure they are enjoying themselves.

Commencement ceremony:

  • The graduate and any friends in close vicinity to the graduate are your floor photographers during the ceremony. 

    Graduates take selfie

    Graduates themselves on the floor of the commencement ceremony are some of the best photographers during the event. 

    IMAGE: Michelle Bixby
  • Arrive early at the venue for the best seats. The closer you are, the better the photos.
  • For seats further away at the Bryce Jordan Center, consider the scoreboard video to shoot your graduate as they cross the stage.


  • Some of the top spots at University Park include: the Nittany Lion Shrine, Old Main, We Are sculpture, The Pennsylvania State University sign outside of Beaver Stadium, Allen Street gates off of College Avenue, area around the Hintz Family Alumni Center, and the Arboretum.
  • Buildings, classrooms, along with props, etc., specific to a student’s field of study, club, sport, other university affiliation or just a general college experience can customize your graduate's photos.

    Commencement group photo at the Nittany Lion Shrine

    Using props during graduation photos is a great way to personalize the experience. 

    IMAGE: Michelle Bixby
  • Various parking decks around the University Park campus give nice aerial views of campus, which makes a nice background for graduation photos. 


  • Be polite.
  • Make sure you have permission to take photos in nonstandard areas like classrooms, labs, offices, etc.
  • Especially when taking shots at some of Penn State’s iconic spots — Old Main, Nittany Lion Shrine, etc. — take time to get your shots, but also be considerate of others in line behind you.

    Penn State graduation

    Graduates should expect lines to take photos at the Nittany Lion Shrine on the University Park campus.

    IMAGE: Chris Koleno

One final note, tag some of your photos with #PSUgrad, for a chance to be featured on Penn State's official social media.

For information about Penn State's commencement ceremonies at University Park, go to

For information about 2019 spring commencement at all of Penn State's campuses, go to

  • Penn State mortar board

    A Penn State graduate holds their mortar board in the air outside of Old Main on the University Park campus.

    IMAGE: Patrick Mansell
Last Updated May 08, 2019