Photography for Memory Books

Let me preface this article by saying that I am an amateur photographer. I love taking photos, but I am not a great photographer. You will not find articles about aperture and shutter speed on this website, unless someone else writes them. You won’t find a whole lot of editing tips. What I am hoping that you find is some helpful hints on how to take photographs specifically for memory books.

I am designing the memory book (yearbook) for my daughter’s middle school, for the second year in a row. Last year we operated with a skeleton crew of myself (doing the design), one photographer, and the rest of the PTSA board filling in and shooting photos when they could in the middle of running events. We were all exhausted. The memory book turned out fine, but after it was all finished, we all had some things we would like to see done differently. Most of those involved the photography process. We rely solely on photographs & titles to tell our school’s story. We don’t have articles or captions on the photos. Yes, those would both enhance the memory book, but we don’t have the resources to do it. First, we need a better process in place for organizing photos and photographers. Second, we need more photographers. One, or even four, photographers can’t photograph every event. Third, we need to involve the parents & students in the photography process.

One of our big problems last year was trying to get coverage for all of the memory book events. We were able to recruit SEVEN adult photographers this year. I am so excited, I can hardly stand it! I am already convinced that this memory book will be better than ever due to the diversity of photographers we have! This year, we used Sign-Up Genius to organize photographers. Looking at the school calendar and the memory book ladder (plan), I created a Sign-Up for each event we need covered. All of the photographers were invited to see the Sign-Up and have committed to events. We still have some holes, but it’s much easier to see what still needs to be covered. Also, we are involving our PTSA Student Board in the memory book this year. They will help with sales and photography. Some of our teachers remember to let us know if their class is doing something interesting or exciting. Some don’t. Our teachers are busy and work really hard to provide engaging experiences for our students. We want to celebrate not only our students but we want them to remember the amazing things their teachers did for them. This is one area where our student board can help fill in the photography holes. Most of them have a cell phone. With the teacher’s permission they can snap photos of the lab or project the class is working on.

We are using LifeTouch to create our memory book. They have an online yearbook builder that will work great for a novice designer, or if you are having students help create your memory book. They have an online photo storage system that allows you to customize your photo organization. The online yearbook builder really is great, but it is limited in its functionality. As someone who is used to working with the newest version of Photoshop, I couldn’t handle the online yearbook builder. Technically, I could still use the LifeTouch photo organization system, and download the photos to my computer, but the resolution of the downloaded photos wasn’t that great. So, I set up a DropBox folder where all of the photos will live until they are incorporated onto memory book pages. All of the adult memory book photographers will have access to the shared DropBox account. Within the DropBox folder, there is a sub-folder for each event that needs to be photographed. Photographers have one week after an event to upload their photos to the correct sub-folder. We also have a gmail address specifically for memory book photos and communication. Parents and students are encouraged to email photos that they have taken to the gmail address. This can be a HUGE help! For example, last year, our school participated in a 3-on-3 basketball tournament. We had our one fearless photographer there taking photos, and our PTSA president and secretary were taking photos, too. We thought we were covered. As we were looking at the layouts, prior to submitting the yearbook, we noticed that we were missing a photo of one of the winning teams. The PTSA president was able to track down a mom who emailed in a photo she had taken of the missing winning team. We were so thankful that mom was taking photos that day! Open lines of communication and teamwork with teachers, parents & students can definitely enhance the depth of your memory book.

So, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty details of memory book photography and how it affects the layout of a memory book.

Each school will probably have a slightly different process, but this is what works for us. In order to keep a cohesive design throughout the memory book, I pre-design the page layouts in Photoshop. The entire memory book is typically designed by mid-October. You may think that since you know how many photos will be on the layout, you can just take that many photos and you’re covered. You would be wrong. There are a lot of reasons that photos might be discarded as unusable. The most common reasons I discarded photos last year were:

  1. Photos are blurry or too dark (our school does NOT have very much natural light)
  2. Photos were taken at too low of a resolution
  3. Gang signs… yes, even in our quiet little suburban area kids were throwing signs that could have been gang signs. No hand gestures of any kind are allowed in the memory book.
  4. Photos were the wrong orientation. Using both horizontal and vertical photos on your layout keeps the design interesting. When all photos are taken vertically, it makes it very difficult to use them in horizontal photo openings. In fact, it’s actually easiest if all memory book photos are taken in a horizontal orientation.
  5. Photos were cropped into squares. I am not sure how this kept happening, but some photos taken on cell phones were cropped to squares. When I am trying to put this photo into a rectangular photo opening, it just doesn’t work.
  6. Photos were too tightly cropped. Yes, we want photos taken with the rule-of-thirds in mind. We love interesting photos, but we also need a little bit of room around the subject to make the photo fit within the layout template. Many cameras take photos in different aspect ratios, and they may not all fit in nice little neat photo boxes without some cropping. But please, let the layout designer do the cropping.
  7. Too many photos of the same kids. We tend to get the same students participating in events over and over. And while we want to reward that, take a minute to seek out the less-photographed students.

Our humble memory book may never win any awards, but we are happy with it, and our students love to pore over the pages looking for themselves and their friends. Our goal is to incorporate as many students as possible into the memory book. Here are some tips for our photographers, that you can hopefully also use to help with your memory book creation.

  1. Use natural light as much as possible. When you are indoors or in low light, and the situation allows it, either use your flash or a tripod. I can do some color correction in Photoshop.
  2. Check your camera settings, on both your DSLR and your phone.
    1. Check to be sure that your camera is set at a high-enough resolution that the photos will be usable for print. Many of us have our phone cameras set at a low-resolution so the photos don’t take up too much space. Or if we aren’t used to printing cell phone photos, our resolution may be low.
    2. Check that your cell phone camera isn’t set to take square photos.
    3. Turn your cell phone horizontally and hold it steady to capture the best images.
    4. Check out this article on Cell Phone Photography for Yearbooks for more helpful hints.
  3. Check your surroundings. Be sure that students are using any type of hand gestures. Make sure that they aren’t wearing inappropriate clothing. This shouldn’t be a problem during the school day, but may be an issue at any after-school events.
  4. Take most of your photos in a horizontal orientation, leaving enough room for the layout designer to crop photos as needed.
  5. Capture a wide variety of students. Sometimes the kids who don’t seem to be quite as involved will become involved if you invite them to get a photo taken for the memory book. Your child’s friends will naturally gravitate towards you and ask for photos to be taken. Absolutely capture those photos, then seek out the less-involved students.
  6. Upload your photos to your school’s chosen photo organization system as soon as possible. At our school, I’d really like to be able to have those photos within a week. If you need to take longer, contact your layout designer and let them know. I had a couple of experiences last year with obtaining late photos once the layout was already submitted. I received GREAT photos that I couldn’t use.
  7. Shift your perspective. Many times, we are taller than the students we are photographing. Get on their level. If you are photographing something on their desk, get your camera at eye-level (or even below eye-level) with the desk.
  8. Capture reactions and emotions. If you are photographing a science experiment, photograph the reaction taking place and the students’ reactions. If you are photographing an assembly, get some great shots of the presentation and then spend some time photographing the student reactions and emotions. If you are photographing a cooking lab, get the student reactions as they bite into something they created. Sports, art and music classes are great places to photograph emotion. Not every photo in the memory book needs to be a group of students clustered together smiling at the camera. Think like a photo-journalist and try to tell the story of the event, not just a photo display of who was there.

Throughout the memory book creation process, I’ll be adding articles to this series. I’ll also be creating some layout templates that I’ll be sharing. Some will be free, some will be available in my store. I hope they are helpful to you as you go through this journey!

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