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Communications planning

Guidelines for a college photo shoot

May 13, 2016   //   Zehno

By Jason Jones, Jason Jones Photography

A two- or three-day admissions shoot can be incredibly productive. However, unless the quality of the work is to suffer, the client, art director and photographer must be extremely well organized to accomplish so much in such a short time. Here are some guidelines that I’ve found helpful in shooting a couple of hundred viewbooks in the past 20 years.


Outdoor shooting requires early morning or late afternoon light. A rough guideline is sunrise to 10 am and 4 pm to sunset; specifics may vary depending on location and season. Because these windows of opportunity are fairly narrow, the initial group of students must be available, dressed appropriately (see below), with props (ditto), when shooting begins. If the idea of rousting your students at sunrise doesn’t seem destined for success, focus on campus “beauty shots” until 8 a.m. You can schedule additional groups of students every 30 minutes to an hour. It’s a good idea to have a site reserved for interior shooting, too, just in case the weather is less cooperative than the students.


Indoor scenes should be shot during the 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. period that is inappropriate for outdoor photography. They nearly always need to be lit, and lighting takes time. Some rooms, at just the right time of day, offer fine natural light, and require little supplemental equipment. In most cases, however, careful lighting must be added to compensate for overhead fluorescent fixtures. Allow 45 minutes to an hour to set up and shoot the average classroom, lab, dorm, et cetera. Gyms can require an hour or more to light even a portion of a volleyball or basketball court. These set-up times should not include getting to the site, if the photographer must cover any considerable distance between locations.


Bright jewel tones work well; black, gray, tan and white do not. Yes, this includes the ubiquitous white tee-shirt, unless it’s partly covered with a vest, jacket, whatever. Advertising “Harvard” on sweatshirts is also discouraged, unless you, in fact, happen to be at Harvard. You can’t control what most of the students on a campus wear during a shoot. For this reason, it’s important to have some willing souls who won’t mind taking off their baseball hats, doing the same walk in front of the Admin building six or eight times, wearing their coolest flannel shirt instead of their bathrobe, all at eight o’clock in the morning. Shooting “candids” is seldom productive, given the unlikelihood of combining the right students wearing the right clothing at the right time of day in the right place.


People with nothing in their hands look… dumb. Book bags, books, musical instrument cases, sports gear, gym bags, laundry baskets, you get the idea. Ask them to bring stuff!


Consider classrooms with good natural light or unusual features. Labs, from simple biology classrooms with an array of microscopes to complex chemistry labs with Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Doodads, as long as something visual is going on (taking a test is not visual). Libraries, especially if they include attractive reading areas, computer terminals, or wooden shelving. Hangout places, mailboxes, student centers. Cafeterias, but only if they look like places where the average 17-year-old wants to be. Weight rooms that don’t look too smelly, dorm rooms that don’t look too small, or too neat — try to find a dorm with some character, some density, some sense of being someone’s personal vision of home. And don’t worry too much about clean — we can clean a cool room if we need to, but we can’t make an uncool clean room cool! Faculty offices with character, and loads of books, and maybe even the almost palpable smell of pipe tobacco are always worth doing.

Golf carts

Nothing makes a shoot more productive than the availability of a golf cart to scout exterior locations and haul around the 200-plus pounds of equipment used to light interiors. Steal one from the physical plant, or ask one of those coaches to walk for a change!


When it comes to shooting faculty, look for faces with character, people with energy. Try not to worry about covering political bases –endless pictures of deans, financial aid officers, Vice-Presidents for Institutional Integrity, etc., have absolutely no appeal to a high school kid! (You were in high school once: were you ever thrilled to turn the page of a college publication and discover there, in breath-taking full-color, a career counseling interview?) Seek out animated people, whether teaching or learning. Students with drive, intelligence, vitality, youth! You need a nice balance of regular-looking people and kids who would be modeling for J. Crew if they didn’t have this college thing to do.

A special note on casting

 The fastest and easiest way to sabotage your photo shoot is to ask a work-study student who reports to an intern who sometimes comes in on alternate weekdays to line up the “cast” for your shoot. They will pick the same seven people they party with for each and every planned session, which will assure two things: one, the appearance that your institution has a total student body of seven, and two, that any ideas you might have about diversity, balance, ratios, etc. go completely out the window. Photoshop is a useful thing, but unless you want to be featured on the cover of The Chronicle for Higher Education for your creative use of retouching, make sure the most import element of picking and choosing representative participants is done by someone who knows how serious those choices really are.


Some balance between over- and under-scheduling the photographer’s time is ideal. A talented photographer can do an admission campaign’s worth of shots without any schedule at all, provided you can afford the six or eight days that it will take. If cost is a consideration, a reasonable plan might include an hour or two of open shooting at the beginning and end of each day, plus a series of appointments at 45-minute to one-hour intervals throughout the remainder.


For a photographer to achieve the greatest possible level of productivity, an assistant is a must. While a local person can be brought in if necessary, someone who works full-time with the photographer and knows the work flow, the equipment, and the Starbucks preferences of your shooter will tend to make life easier for everybody. Two hundred pounds of equipment is substantial, and none of us is getting any younger.

Lunch and length of day

Your chosen photographer will work hard. They need you to schedule in a real lunch. Thirty minutes is the minimum. Asking them to work more than about 10 hours a day may be counter-productive — even the most conscientious soul will be prone to forget about any ideas you or they might once have had about creativity after eight or nine hours. If you need evening shots, simply schedule in a one- or two-hour break around dinnertime.


Be sure to ascertain in advance what your specific rights are relative to the images that your shoot will produce. Some photographers will have a pretty open policy regarding your ability to use the photographs in various media, over an unlimited period of time, for any application. Others, and this is particularly true of photographers who are used to working in conventional advertising markets, will expect to be paid additionally for work which goes beyond a specific publication sent to a certain number of people at a very particular time.

The seven-step path to great photos.

Now here’s a quick summary and checklist. Feel free to print it out and give it to everyone involved in your next photo shoot:

  1. Have groups of six to ten colorfully-dressed students ready to shoot, indoors or out, depending on the weather, at half-hour intervals beginning about 8 a.m.
  2. Ask them to bring something to carry.
  3. Have similar, but different, groups available at 4, 4:30, 5 and 5:30 p.m. for general outdoor shooting, or cover sports and recreational activities during this time.
  4. Schedule a series of interior shots at 45-minute intervals beginning at 10 a.m. or so, in places that will interest a 17-year-old who’s been watching MTV all his or her life. Add 10 minutes or so to get from building to building unless they are adjacent.
  5. Get a golf cart.
  6. Book in a 30-minute lunch.
  7. Find out in advance when the photographer and assistant must fly out on the last day of the shoot so you can schedule accordingly.

Jason Jones is a freelance commercial photographer specializing in college recruitment campaigns. His work has won dozens of ADDY awards in several markets, and he has contributed to more than 30 CASE Gold Award-winning projects. His work has also appeared in the pages of Rolling Stone, US News & World Report, Time, Sports Illustrated and Women’s Sports and Fitness. Originally from New Orleans, he now lives in Toronto. He can be reached at

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