Back to School Photos / First Day of School Portraits

There are weddings and graduations and births and back-to-school. It’s just one of those classic childhood, family moments made for photographic memories. And it’s also something that happens fairly quickly— it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Often times, a fairly straightforward shot will do. But so many photographers have put their personal spin on it that it’s nice to see what others have done before the big day.

And if school has already started for your kids, it’s not too late to learn something. Sure, it’s nice to have your school photographs taken on that first day, but pictures of students at their school with their teachers and friends can be taken almost any time during the school year.


photo by Nicole Pratt McDermott

This time of the year millions of photographer parents are “telling” the story of the first day of school.  In one picture, whether they realize it or not, they’re trying to sum up an experience that for the young student is often unforgettable.  The feel of the new shoes and the cartoon characters on the lunchbox will live for decades in their memories.  If we as photographers can eloquently capture those details using light and composition and timing the pages of our scrapbooks and photo albums become the family treasures we are all striving to leave behind.




Let’s examine the portrait of the little girl on the school bus.  Is this a photo contest winner?  No.  But if you’re the girl in the photo and the year is 2030 the picture is priceless.  At first glance it appears to be a generic picture of a student, but let’s look at the story telling details.

A little girl is wearing what appears to be new clothes.  Her bright white sneakers are pristine.  Her dress, shoelaces, and lunch bag are color coordinated.  The yellow frame of what we instantly recognize as school bus yellow tells us it’s a school day. (If we could see the entire school bus would the picture be better?  Probably not.)  The clothes tell us it’s a special school day, probably the first day.  Her body language captures a range of feelings.  The smile on her face suggests that she’s happy and proud and the awkwardness of the raised heel hint at the normal insecurity and anticipation of someone beginning a big adventure.

Pop quiz question!  Without looking at the photograph, how many people are in the picture?  The answer of course is two. There may be only one face but the driver in the background adds life to the picture.  The lucky coincidence of a blue sweater on the driver and blue straps on the girl’s backpack help tie the whole picture together.  Stephanie may not be alone in the photograph but with careful cropping the day is clearly hers.

Consider everything in the frame. If the cars in the background aren’t helping you tell your story they’re probably hurting it.

Consider everything in the frame. If the cars in the background aren’t helping you tell your story they’re probably hurting it.

The photographer has gotten close enough so that even in a 3×5 inch print you can still see everything that’s important.  When you’re shooting a picture, ask yourself what is the final size of the image.  As a professional, I’m always asking myself what size the picture I’m shooting will be seen.  It’s a major consideration.  Is it going to be as big as a postage stamp?  Will it run across two pages? These are the questions that will lead you to successful page design.

Should every picture of the first day of school be taken on the first step of a school bus?  Absolutely not.  Maybe it’s at school with the teacher as you’re dropping him off. (My first-grade teacher’s battle-scarred face lives only in my memory. I’d love to have a photograph.)  Maybe it’s a simple picture of your future Nobel Prize winner holding her first spelling assignment.

I don’t want you to think I’m telling you how to photograph any given situation.  I’m simply asking you to follow your heart and carefully include the details that tell the story that you want to tell and remove everything else.  Your pictures will tell simple, graphic stories that come right to the point and have punch.  What’s most important to you?  What’s most important to the people who will look at your photographs?  Only you know.

photo by Katie Trokey

A good solid creative photographic solution that you can keep coming back to year after year is practically guaranteed getting you good photographs in the can. A piece of chalk board that will let your student tell the world how he’s feeling is simply brilliant— as long as you can find a chalkboard next year. And what an opportunity for extracurricular creative writing!

And it doesn’t have to be a blackboard. There are plenty of opportunities for make at home art projects that everyone can get involved in every year. What a great idea—a project to fill a couple more boring hours of summer before school starts.



photos by Missy Shew Johnson

The transition from first day of school to last day of school is simply amazing. A school year is made for a simple before-and-after series.



photo by Brianna Borem

Wardrobe may not be the most important thing happening at school but it’s impossible to ignore and can be ridiculously expensive. This young girl won the “Who Can Put Together the Cheapest Back to School Outfit” contest with her friends. She spent five dollars at a local thrift store! The lessons began before school starts.



photo by Angela Mitchell

Boys and wardrobe— not so much. At least that’s true for this young man with his pockets full of Legos. That little bit of information makes a wonderful caption when you send this photograph off to the friends and relatives. Always keep your eyes and ears open for words that will take your pictures over the top.




photo by Jodi Behm Bondy

This is one of my all-time favorites. The little girl grew up and became the teacher; it’s her first day of school. If you put this photograph together with all of those other first day of school pictures, you’ve created a family masterpiece. Another idea is to photograph your now grown-up student taking his or her student to school on the first day. Not all of us are lucky enough to have a teacher in the family.


photo by Kerry Gibson

Nothing says back to school like a bright yellow school bus. Mom and dad are both reflected in the windows as summer ends and she says goodbye. Lucky? Sure. But that’s what happens when you have your camera ready and you push the button a lot. All of the best photographers are lucky.


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



  1. Kelly Utter

    I was discussing this with a friend and wanted to share it with her because it was a special day when you gave me my signed copy of the book and I saw my daughter on the cover and my son in the book. but due to a flood I have lost this book and wish to have it again as Amanda is graduating high school this year.

  2. Janelle

    I have a couple of favorites … I get the kids as they first wake up, eating their breakfast, in the car and in the classroom.

    One of my real favorites is going with the kids when they discover which class they are in. The school posts the class assignments on the wall a week before the first day. I caught the kids with their finger pointing to their name. The teacher’s name and many of the other students names can be seen too.


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