How to take First Day at School photos

It’s almost that time of year again isn’t it? Instagram and Facebook will soon be filled with photos of children dressed in brand new, too big school uniforms, shiny, un-scuffed black shoes and they will be stood awkwardly in front of a door (causing much hilarity as we see yet another cute #frontdoorpic).

It’s such a momentous occasion for us proud parents and I still look back with teary eyes on our first day at school photos. In fact several years ago I wrote a blog for parents on how to take better images on that first school day and I found it again today, so that I could re-post it. In the intervening years I’ve photographed my beautiful great niece, using all my own tips so I’ve updated the imagery and re-visited some of the advice too.

I originally wrote this blog for people using cameras but of course smartphone cameras have improved so much over the years that you can get great results with those now. There’s still lots of great practical advice that you can use whether you are shooting with a camera or phone.


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Image from 2014.

Image taken 2017. Note that Bella is standing in the doorway – right on the threshold, not inside the hall. This gives the most beautiful light – natural daylight from outside falling onto her and the doorway providing top shade. 55mm f/1.8 lens. 1/200, f/2.5, ISO 320.

A child’s first day at primary school is a momentous occasion and one we proud parents want to remember and treasure with photographs. I did the usual thing of photographing my two as they left the house, with just enough time to pose quickly in the garden and then a few more shots grabbed in a rush outside school. I wish I’d thought of doing a mini shoot instead!

I came across this idea, as with many other wonderful ones, on Pinterest and finally found time to do it. Ewan starts school at the beginning of September and his mum was more than happy for him to “model” for me. It was so simple to set up and took about 30 minutes. Here’s some tips for doing one of your own.

  • Don’t leave it until the Big Day, but do it once you’ve got all the school uniform. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t got school shoes yet, no one will notice and lots of shots aren’t full length anyway.
  • Plan ahead as your 4 year old will only be patient for a short while. I got my props ready and set my camera up beforehand.
  • You only need a few simple props to suggest a school theme; here’s a few ideas: an apple for teacher, some books, paper and crayons, a little desk and chair and perhaps an easel or blackboard if you have one. I also had an old-fashioned school room map of the British Isles (it’s actually just a sheet of wrapping paper).
  • It’s always easier to do a shoot in the shade outside, as the light will be even and better than indoors. Avoid setting up in bright sunshine.
  • I set my camera in Av (aperture) mode and around f/3.5 to help blur the background, but if you aren’t confident using that yet, you can use AUTO or Program Mode. You just need to make sure that you have a shutter speed of around 1/125 or 1/250. If it’s too slow, then you need to increase the ISO. Take a look at my blog about getting the right exposure and shutter speeds and also How to go from snapshots to great shots.
  • The best lens to use is a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens (also known as the Nifty Fifty) as it gives lovely soft focus backgrounds and lets in lots of light.
  • Once I’d got my camera set up, I could forget about the technical side and just enjoy getting cute shots. Ewan was fantastic and didn’t get bored, as we constantly changed his props and the things we were asking him to do were great fun! What child wouldn’t laugh trying to balance an apple on their head?! He really enjoyed writing his name on the blackboard, drawing himself in his uniform and pointing out where he is going on holiday on the map.

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  • I cropped in nice and close to him for most shots, to exclude any unnecessary stuff in the background, took some of the pictures on an angle to make them less static and made sure that his face was towards the sun but not in it. Here’s what happens if you take the pictures in bright sunlight and shade.

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  • Asking the kids to role play works really well as they really enjoy it. In the images below of Bella I asked her to pretend to leave the house and to then arrive home excited after her first day. This worked brilliantly as you can see from her enthusiasm!

Note that if you are taking shots like this with a very bright background behind your child you should use flash. Otherwise the front of your child will be in dark shadow. I shot these without flash but used some advanced shooting and editing techniques.

I’m not suggesting that these photographs are instead of the ones on the actual day, I would still do those to capture “the moment” and emotions, but this staged shoot  is a lovely way to mark this very important stage of  growing up. Here’s a few tips for the Big Day itself:

  • Allow 10 minutes extra for the photographs. This shouldn’t be a problem as kids are usually bouncing around like beans from dawn on their first day at school, desperate to put on their uniform and get going.
  • Set your camera up in advance and use settings you are confident with. This isn’t the time to use Manual for the first time! Or of course just use your phone.
  • If it’s not raining head out into the garden and pick somewhere in the shade. Do some full length shots and also some cropped in on just the face and upper body.
  • If it’s wet then get your bouncing bean to stand facing a big window (you’ve got your back to the window). Try not to block the natural light with your own body, switch off your flash and the electric lights for a much more natural and flattering look.
  • Take your camera with you and get some pictures walking to school and outside the school. If it’s a sunny day and you can’t shoot in the shade, then switch your flash on.

Wipe away the tears and enjoy the moment too! And don’t get so carried away with the importance of the occasion that you lock yourself out the house, like we did on my daughter’s first day at school!

(And see how we got it a bit wrong in terms of light and shade! Still cute pictures and great memories though! And I wasn’t a very good photographer in those days 🤣).

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My daughter’s first day at school in 2005. I’ve learned a bit since then and she’s grown quite a lot too!

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If you’d like to be able to take better photos with your camera or smartphone please take a look at my workshops. if you’re not sure which would suit you the best please just get in touch.

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