If you're the parent of a teen, this is the time of year when you inevitably find yourself wishing you knew more about cameras. As the school year draws to a close, you're suddenly presented with a number of epic photo opps—prom night, graduation ceremonies, don't-forget-to-call-us-when-you-get-to-college hugs and kisses. And, if only you'd done your homework, you'd be prepared to capture those moments in the light they deserve.

After all, how hard can it be to use red-eye reduction?

Well, the good news is that it's not too late for a crash course in portrait photography. With a few choice tips, you can dramatically improve those graduation pictures. At the very least, you'll be less stressed during the photo session. And, you know, that's really important, because you want your subject to be smiling.

This is a photo of a girl getting ready to go to the prom
With an SLR or mirrorless cameras, you can shoot with a shallow depth-of-field, focusing squarely on the face.
Photo: Terry Sullivan

It's not easy to create a natural-looking portrait. In fact, even the great late 19th-century painter John Singer Sargent struggled with the challenge. "A portrait," he once said, "is a painting with something wrong with the mouth."

But prom and graduation pictures present a unique test. For one, you're dealing with teenagers, who don't often view picture-taking with Mom and Dad as a source of great fun. Now add to that the fact that those teens are out of their element.

Yes, your daughter looks dazzling in that dress, coiffed hair, and makeup, but that's certainly not what she's accustomed to wearing. And that tuxedo on your son? There's a good reason it's rented.

So keep that in mind. If your models are stiff and awkward, they're justified in feeling that way. It's your job to put them at ease.

This is a photo of a girl in a pink dress for a story on prom and graduation pictures.
On cloudless, sunny days, find a patch of shade to avoid speckled sunlight on your subject's face.
Photo: Terry Sullivan

Know Your Gear

Before you start taking prom and graduation pictures, make sure you’re familiar with the camera, particularly if you’re using an SLR or mirrorless model, which offer more controls and settings than a point-and-shoot. (For more information on each category, check out our digital camera buying guide.) Yes, you can photograph your subjects in auto mode, much like you do with your smartphone, but for a photo like this, you ideally want to have more say in composing the final image. So take some time to understand the tools at your disposal.

A friend of mine who's a professional photographer once told me it's smart to think of a camera as a foreign country. To truly understand how to speak its “language,” you need to spend some time in its midst. Page through the instruction manual, then shoot some test shots, experimenting with the settings.

To raise up your portraits, play around with the depth-of-field. That's a great way to direct all eyes to your model's beautiful face, as I did in the photos above. By choosing a shallow depth-of-field, I brought the imagery in the foreground into sharp focus, reducing everything in the background to amorphous blobs of light and shadow.

To do that, you’ll need a lens that has a wide aperture (that is, f/stops such as f/2.8 or f/2). And that in turn means you need to know how to adjust the aperture on your camera.

You should also familiarize yourself with any accessories you have. If you own an external flash, which generally slides into the hot shoe on top of your SLR or mirrorless camera, you’ll want to know how to change the amount of light the strobe emits. (Some built-in pop-up flashes allow you to make those adjustments, too.)

And don't forget the basic stuff: Make sure the camera and flash are fully charged in advance of your shoot. If they use disposable batteries, have a fresh set handy.

This is a boy ready to graduate junior high school
Look for backgrounds that are simple, but elegant.
Photo: Terry Sullivan

Know Your Subjects

My guess is that most of you reading this story already know your subjects quite well. They’re your sons or daughters, nieces or nephews, the children of close personal friends. And if you know them, you know their personalities, too.

Think about what makes them happy—and what annoys them! That’s important when you're shooting a portrait, because your subject’s emotion is hard to hide from a camera. In almost every instance, making your model more cheerful will result in more pleasing shots. So talk, goof around, make light-hearted jokes.

When you’re shooting a group portrait, the potential for pitfalls increases. As I've learned from wedding photographers, you're better off letting people congregate as they please. It's okay to tell them where to stand, but don't try to line them up in a certain position. Besides giving you a more organic composition, this saves you from that fateful mistake of putting Uncle Billy next to Uncle Bert, who've hated each other for 20 years.

Granted, Uncle Billy and Uncle Bert are long past their prom days, but you get the picture. No one wants to be photographed next to a stranger or someone they simply don't like.

These are three kids blowing bubbles
If you know how to make your subjects happy, you can get some really great photos.
Photo: Terry Sullivan

Study the Light

Good lighting is essential to a great photo. If you’re shooting outdoors, be very aware of the direction and quality of the light. At high noon, the sunshine can be very harsh and unforgiving. You're better off waiting until late afternoon, when it's soft and warm. Early morning works well, too.

Oddly, you might find yourself wishing for an overcast day at times. If you’re shooting on a cloudless, sunny afternoon, try to avoid direct sunlight, or worse, the patchy sunlight that streams through the leaves of the trees.

And, before shooting indoors, experiment with the flash. By changing the direction of the lamp, as most external flashes allow you to do, you can bounce the light off the ceiling or the walls, creating a more natural-looking portrait.

When all is said and done, that's what you're looking for: a snapshot that captures your son, daughter, niece, or nephew in the way you see them. No squeamishness. No shadows. Just a striking subject enchantingly illuminated in a beam of pride.

This is a girl in a green dress for a story on prom and graduation pictures.
Sometimes, a serious pose, with the model looking off camera, can produce a wonderful shot.
Photo: Terry Sullivan