Back to School Photos / Telling Stories

We want you to share your back to school photo stories with us. Use the hashtag #backtoschoolstories when you post on our Facebook wall, or on your Twitter or Instagram feed, and let’s share in all the emotions surrounding back to school. But first, let’s look at how I approach storytelling in general.

Going back to school is a simple story; many of the best stories are. Almost every aspect of the student in your life going back to school has been told and retold millions of times. There’s really nothing new here but that doesn’t demean the story at all. The success of your back to school photo story rides on what YOU bring to the table. It’s all in the telling. It’s the way you tell your photo stories that makes all the difference.

The temptation for me is to hold your hand and point you in the direction of WHERE the good photographs are and at first glance that’s what my list above appears to do. But please take that graphic as a source of inspiration; I’m trying to show you HOW photographers think and not WHAT to think. Believe it or not, your photo stories are about you and not the subjects in your pictures. Your stories are all about what you have to say about your life. Without that, your pictures are simply record shots of moments in time. Good photo stories are much more than that. They are extremely personal comments on the world around you. Done properly, there is great joy to be found in telling stories with photographs.

I’ve looked at a lot of back-to-school photos in the last couple of days. Almost all of them can be quickly categorized. There are photographs that are based on situation—waiting for a bus or shopping for new school clothes, for example—or there are shots that are all about body language; a little glance at the camera, reaching for a hand, or waving goodbye. And there are photographs that are made or manufactured like writing a child’s name on the blackboard to be photographed.

Here are a few photographs I’ve taken over the years and why I think they tell a story—or help tell a story.

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This may be my favorite back to school photo I’ve ever taken. It shows you how Teddy feels about starting a new grade. His body language—that hand desperately clinging to the outside world—says so much about first day anxiety and trepidation. I’ve tried to make a universal statement about a very personal family moment. I think the best story telling photos do that.

Body language may be the secret sauce of telling stories with photographs; so many successful photographs are built on it. You just never know when it’s going to happen, however. It can be as subtle as a head leaning in a special way against the inside of a school bus window, a hand in space reaching for some emotional support, or a tilt of the new teacher’s head as she introduces herself. I can’t teach you this—you need to sense it. Understanding this and feeling it as you shoot is key to shooting good photo stories. I’m asking you to be an artist.

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Yes, only we know this was taken on a first day of school. But that face with Alexander’s signature The Grinch that Stole Christmas grin will always be a priceless memory of our then third grader’s life.

It’s practically mandatory that you shoot the traditional full-length shot of your young student showing the new clothes, the new shoes, the new backpack, and the lunchbox. That simple photograph is loaded with memories. (Is anyone else thinking of their Zorro lunch box right now?) But spend a few moments alone with your subject—and this can be after school— to get in close and document what they looked like on the first day of whatever grade it happens to be. I promise you, if you did this every year from kindergarten through college it may in the end prove to be the most valuable set of photographs you ever shoot.  I shot this picture in our garage— one of the go-to places in our house with beautiful light.  It doesn’t say school, it says Alexander at a certain age.

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Food will always be a major part of the school experience. If you’re lucky enough to have someone like Alexander give you a visual way to record his reaction to it, you need to run with it.

Closeups details make such a difference in any collection of photographs. Notice how this picture just feels so good next to all of the other pictures on the page. It’s safe to say that virtually every scrapbook page or photo album will benefit from the visually variety of closeups being juxtaposed next to wider more overall shots—it just feels right. It helps keep the viewer engaged. And when the picture tells you how someone feels about something without even showing you the person you have a winner. (I’m thinking that Alexander isn’t going to be eating a lot of hummus at school this year.)

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It’s no accident that I chose the most picturesque ice cream parlor in the neighborhood for our family tradition of after school ice cream. Hey, why not?

 Ask yourself if you have any family traditions related to the start of a new school year. This is the stuff that personal memories are made of.  It could be something as simple as standing on the same street corner with the same old neighbor kids every year waiting for the same old bus.  Many families go out to eat at their favorite restaurant on the first day of school—that’s a photograph. And if you can’t think of any traditions, it just might be time to start one; they always make for good photographs.

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The unexpected and the unpredictable are gifts to the storytelling photographer. This is Teddy’s kindergarten teacher at a home visit the weekend before school started. No one could’ve seen this coming.

 You need to be on your toes when life’s little surprises happen in front of your camera; it’s easy to become emotionally overwhelmed and forget that you’re shooting a photo story. (It’s also okay to stop being a photographer and set our camera down and enjoy your life, but that’s another blog.)  I’ve caught myself so many times with the camera hanging around my neck not taking pictures when a wonderful photograph was happening nearby. I think that’s part lack of concentration, part human nature. It happens.  Keep your antenna up but keep a balanced outlook, too.

Now is your turn … share your photo stories with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and use hashtag #backtoschoolstories so we can all see it!


For even more Back to School photo tips and ideas, click here for our dedicated Back to School page.


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