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Capturing your convocation moment

Expert advice on grad photography

- May 9, 2014

Don't hesitate to go with a fun pose to mark the moment. (Nick Pearce photos)
Don't hesitate to go with a fun pose to mark the moment. (Nick Pearce photos)

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in May 2012, and was updated in May 2013.

Nick Pearce is a photographer with Dalhousie Creative Services. He has been shooting Dalhousie convocation ceremonies for 10 years.

When it comes to life’s big moments, graduating from university is up there with being born and getting married.

And while you can’t really take a bad photo of a newborn baby, and you usually trust your wedding memories to a professional, taking photos at convocation sometimes becomes an afterthought: part of a hectic and confusing day with a thousand people converging on a two-hour ceremony, then streaming out en masse.

So from our photography team to whomever’s entrusted with capturing your graduation moment, here are a few tips to make the most of the day.

See also: Convocation website

Halifax ceremonies

Before the ceremony

There are plenty of good photo opportunities before the ceremony even begins. The graduand has to be at the Cohn almost an hour early to get a robe and hood, and then find his or her place in line. Take this time to gather some shots of the building, the stage, the signs, the flowers for sale — anything that will add some context to the rest of the photos.

During the ceremony

Dalhousie has a very informal photography policy at convocation. Attendees will be invited to applaud and cheer as their loved ones cross the stage, as well as move to the front to take photos. Graduands will cross the stage from the right, and the degrees will be conferred by the chancellor at centre stage. It’s a tricky shot: there are no great angles to shoot from. If the photo is really important to you, there is a professional service that offers this shot, but you need to sign up before the ceremony.

After meeting the chancellor, the graduate proceeds left off the stage where the registrar will present the actual paper degree and is happy to pose for a quick photo. You’ll only get one chance, though: the next graduate won’t be far behind.

After the ceremony

Following the ceremony, there’s a reception in the lobby of the Arts Centre. It gets crowded, so photos here aren’t ideal. After enjoying a snack, consider moving outside onto University Avenue, as all along the street there are great photo locations.

The university sign at Robie Street: A very popular spot for taking photos, this large sign at the intersection of University and Robie is a great location for group shots or individuals. Using a telephoto (zoom) lens will help isolate the sign from the busy background, but you’ll have to take the photo from across the street. Alternately, using a wide-angle lens, close up, will add some grandeur to the sign. Depending on the time of day, take the photos with the sun behind you.

The boulevard on University Avenue: Pretty much anywhere along University Avenue where there are trees for shade is a good spot to take photos. Right in front of the Arts Centre you’ll find the sculpture “Marine Venus”: this often misinterpreted artwork offers a unique photo setting that only Dal graduates can truly appreciate.

The Killam Library: Grab a coffee and a muffin and do some fun shots posing on the colourful chairs near the Killam Library. Another option is to head into the library atrium and get a shot standing in line for a sandwich or pretending to return a big pile of library books. The hood and gown can make for some fun, goofy action shots in the library itself too; why not get some final photocopies in full academic regalia?  

The middle of the Studley Quad: There are some great photo locations to be found here, including the bench near the sundial, where the Hicks clock tower makes a great backdrop for a fun photograph of graduates jumping in the air. The well-kept flower beds also make great photo backgrounds — have your subject sit on the grass well in front of the flowers, then move back using a telephoto lens to blur the flowers out.  

The MacDonald Building: One of the oldest buildings at Dalhousie, it’s a great location for more traditional graduation photos. Use the steps and pillars creatively to add a sense of tradition and accomplishment.

The steps of the University Club: A favourite photo location of Dalhousie President Tom Traves, the steps of the University Club can be used similarly to the MacDonald Building, but also provide a great perspective of the Henry Hicks (clock tower) building in the background.

Other ideas and tips

The campus is very large. Find a spot that is unique to the graduate’s experience and take formal or fun shots there.

Be familiar with your camera settings. For example, you’ll need a flash inside the Cohn. You’ll need to know how to compensate for backlighting outside. Learn how to make use of the camera’s creative controls to enhance your photos. Many of today’s cameras have either specific scene settings, or will allow you to adjust features like aperture, white balance, and exposure compensation manually.

Explore interesting angles by getting low or high for a new perspective. For example, sitting on the ground and shooting up at the graduate with the blue sky behind looks fantastic. Throw in a fist pump or big smile and you’ve got a frame-worthy photo.

Invoke emotion. It's a happy time and your photos should represent that feeling. Don’t let the busyness of the day overwhelm. Stay positive, have fun, and enjoy every moment that you’re capturing.

Truro ceremony

With its picturesque surroundings, there's no shortage of great places to take photos of your graduate on the Agricultural Campus. Here are a few key destinations:

Alumni Gardens: The Alumni Gardens is a very popular spot for wedding and graduation photos. Both inspiration and instructional, the gardens' beauty owes a lot to students from a variety of programs including landscape horticulture and engineering. Choose a wooden bench, its famous Gazebo or one of the century-old oak trees for some added interest.

Rock Garden: The Rock Garden is one of the campus’ most valued features and is arguably the largest and most diverse rock garden in the Maritimes. Extending over a half-acre of hillside, it brings a unique sense of diversity to the campus grounds and a natural green space that can be enjoyed by all.
The Garden contains 450 tonnes of local red granite and features a cactus bed, dry stream bed, a cliff face, natural rock steps, a collection of dwarf conifers and alpine and saxatile plants as well as two cedar bridges constructed by students in the wood construction techniques course. There are many opportunities for unique and fun group shots on the large, red granite rocks, on the cedar bridges or in the flagstone courtyard.
Cumming Hall: Historic Cumming Hall is the oldest building on campus and is a great location for more traditional graduation photos. Use the stairs (both inside and out) creatively to add a sense of tradition and accomplishment.




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