A Photographer's Guide to a Quick & Easy Setup for Amazing School Portraits / by Erika Sneeringer

A couple times a year I’m honored with the job of photographing spring and fall portraits for a couple of local preschools in the Baltimore and Towson areas.  I'm going to share my process with you on how you too can achieve these amazing results with limited gear and an easy portable set up. 

I love my job!  Seriously, what’s not to love when you get to photograph these adorable little smiling faces?  

Price it Right

My favorite part about doing this, is that I mark my prices down from what the big companies charge, making it much more affordable to the families.  Not only do I offer better prices, but I also provide a sibling discount of buy one package and get one half off!  I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but as as a parent, I’ve been through the process of paying too much money for school pictures.  I’m proud to be offering more reasonable prices while providing professional quality images.  

These little kids are so stinking adorable that I just love the entire process.  Packaging the prints and delivering to the daycare is the best part, especially when the teachers get to "ooo" and "ahhh" at all the cute faces!  

Behind the Scenes Setup

Now, I’m going to show you some behind the scenes shots of how I setup my lighting and backdrop for the portraits.

There are many different options for backdrops.  For school portraits, I personally use a blue and white multicolored mulsin backdrop.  It is impossible to iron out all of the wrinkles. Most certainly impossible for me since I honestly don’t know where my iron is and don’t even own an ironing board.  I don’t even bother.  The backdrop stays balled up in a corner in my at-home studio (aka a small corner in my basement).  Here’s why…. with the right lighting and setup, you don’t need to do anything to get the wrinkles out of the background.

Setup option 1 (no fill light)

Setup option 1 (no fill light)

lighting the backdrop

lighting the backdrop

setup option 2 (with fill light)

setup option 2 (with fill light)

This is a behind the scene of my go-to set up.  The backdrop is clipped to a backdrop stand and lit with one speedlight.  Now you may be wondering why my backdrop is a wrinkled mess.  With this set up, the subjects are going to be positioned far enough away from the background that with a wide aperture the background becomes nice and blurry.  I like to use the 85 f1.8 lens, which compresses the image and really helps the subject pop off that background.  The idea of ironing wrinkles out of a backdrop, really - who has time for that?  Certainly not me!

The diagram to the right shows another setup that I use.  It is virtually the same setup, however, this one adds a fill light camera left with a reflective umbrella.

As you can see in both of the setup options, the subjects are lit with an off camera flash with a shoot through umbrella.  Setup option 2, I add a fill flash camera left with a reflective umbrella. I position the light on a stand fairly low to the ground to be on the children's level and then the reflective umbrella pointing slighting upward.  That way, the fill flash fills in the shadows under the eyes.  If you don't have a 3rd flash, you could always use the white side of your reflector or even a white poster board. That will use bounce flash for fill light and work just as well.

The above picture was taken with the same setup as the behind the scene example, however, I added an additional light (camera left) as the fill light.  

Take a look at the two images above and compare the shadows on the face.  The left picture had no fill light and the shadows are darker on the left side of the face.  Whereas, the picture on the right that used a fill light has no shadows on the face.  For a setup including a fill light:  the fill light was off camera with a reflective umbrella. The fill light was low to the ground and pointed upward, to fill the shadows of the preschooler’s face.  The fill light was on lowest power setting so that it was just enough to kiss away some of the shadows without overpowering the main light source.

Camera & Flash Settings

My go to camera settings for this is shutter speed 1/200, ISO 400 and f/4.  Since I like to use speedlights, I prefer to bump my ISO when possible for a faster recycle time with my flashes.  I like to use between f/2.8-f/4 to make sure the entire face is in focus but still a wide enough aperture that the background is blurred out.  Typically, with this setting without flash everything is going to be dark, which is perfect because I want to cancel out all of the ambient light and have full control of light with my flashes.  

The background speedlight is usually around 1/32 power.  The fill flash is at its lowers power setting, 1/128 and the main light source is usually 1/16 or 1/8.  Of course, these are starting points and you will need to adjust to fit your scene as necessary. 

Working with Young Children

Now that you have the technical stuff nailed, let’s talk about posing and getting the children to cooperate. Keep teachers in the room to help you so that you never have to touch the children (for some reason touching the children in anyway is an unspoken rule -- just a big no no). Preschool age children have a hard time following instructions on posing so keep it simple.  Hands at their side, hands in pockets, cross arms, hold cheeks.  Keep it simple and if it doesn't work that’s ok, try something different.  I think as long as you get them looking at the camera and smiling then the parents will be thrilled!

Some tricks that I use to get a nice reaction out of little ones is to be crazy silly and have fun! I like to grab a puppet or toy that I find at the preschool and tell the kids that the puppet is my helper.  With some kids, I tell them that their smile is magical and when they smile it makes the flashes go off!  Most important thing to remember is to be patient.  Don’t let any kid leave until your camera captures a smile.  Now that doesn’t mean hold them hostage.  For example, my last preschool session there was one little boy was so scared and teary eyed that anything I did made him upset.  I put my camera down, squatted to his level and just talked to him.  I had the little boy take a break and told the teachers to bring him back at the end of the shoot to try again.  Sure enough, trying again later I got an adorable smile from him that his parents loved.  

Breakdown of Gear & Supplies

Now for those gear nuts that want to know exactly what brand of everything that I used, here is the breakdown.  I like to keep things really simple, portable, easy and affordable!

Canon 7d mark ii
Canon 85mm f/1.8

2-3 YN560 III Speedlights
Flash trigger
Shoot through Umbrella
Silver Reflective Umbrella
2 Lightstands
Backdrop stand
Lightroom (for editing)

PASS (for digital photo delivery)

Picture Day Reminder Stickers
Pixma Pro 100
Canon Photo Paper
Bags & Boards
Batteries (for speedlights)