On any given morning or afternoon during spring quarter, just around 6 a.m. or 7 p.m., you’ll be able to find hordes of graduating students – all dressed to the nines and sporting royal blue and gold sashes – scurrying around campus taking graduation photos near iconic spots while everything is washed in golden light.
Many students with a flair for photography utilize their talents by taking graduation pictures during winter and spring quarter. While some advertise by word of mouth, many others post in the UCLA Free & For Sale Facebook group.
Graduation photo shoots can cost anywhere between free – with a donation to a club or charity – to upward of $100, depending on the photographer or number of people included in the shoot. Many photographers use props like confetti or champagne to enhance photos in front of Royce Hall and Royce Quad, Powell Library, the Bruin Bear statue, the Inverted Fountain and other iconic locations on campus.
Andy Wong, a third-year political science student, has been taking grad pics since his first year. This year alone he has shot 50 sessions, has another 10 scheduled and is still taking reservations. His packages start at $80 per person for individual shoots, between $225 and $250 for groups of two or three and he tries to be flexible in pricing when it comes to large group shots.
He has done so many sessions that he has it down to a science.
“I say I do six locations, but in reality, we just walk around and find beautiful spots on campus,” Wong said. “I try to end around Royce when the sunset is just hitting everything, right smack in the middle. I end with a champagne shot, confetti or a splashy photo in Shapiro Fountain. Then we’ll go to Janss Steps.”
At the conclusion of his sessions, Wong immediately backs up his photos to an external hard drive. Sometimes, he’ll even back them up to a second and third hard drive to make sure that no files are lost.
Then, he edits all his photos in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom with a personalized setting to make sure all the photos are edited in the same way. He’ll do crops and specific light tweaks on an individual basis before taking the photos to Photoshop. There, he edits out distractions on an individual basis, like people in the background or brightly colored light pole banners on Janss Steps. He said it generally takes five to six hours to edit all the photos from a single session, but he can do it in three if there is less Photoshop work to be done.
When he’s finished, he sends all of the files to his clients. His packages include files of all of the photos he takes with basic light editing – he only fully retouches the best.
“I’ve delivered as many as 357 photos,” Wong said. “We’d have to be walking really slow throughout the session for (my clients) to receive less than 100 photos in the end.”
Wong often shoots twice a day – one session at sunrise, one at sunset. He also works around 40 hours a week at a separate job and is a full-time student, but he said he finds the time and motivation to shoot up to 10 sessions a week and edit photos.
“I consider myself an entrepreneur, a small business owner,” Wong said. “When you are building your business, you have to have that mindset (of staying motivated). You might fail. This is an opportunity to make a new friend, to build a relationship, to practice your skills. I want to do photography full time after graduation and continue growing in it, so this is like a trial I have to pass. You have to tough it out now so it can be better later on.”
Anthony Gong, a fourth-year sociology student, started taking grad photos in January as a way to hone his photography skills since he wishes to pursue photography as a hobby after graduation.
Gong charges $40 for a session with three students. Additional heads cost $10. He chose his price point both in recognition of the fact he does not own professional lighting equipment and also because he wants to provide students an affordable alternative to professional grad photos, which can be two to three times more expensive.
Gong uses the Apple Photos app to edit his photos. He said it generally takes an hour to edit around 100 photos individually. His photo package includes 10 edited photos, and clients can purchase the rest of the RAW files for $10.
When editing his pictures, Gong focuses on reducing distractions from clients’ faces and bodies. Often times this includes adjusting the lighting so that faces are enhanced and not left in the shadows. This approach enhances the types of photos he likes to take.
“(I try to) go for the most candid shots, like when they are preparing to take a photo,” Gong said. “That really shows the natural side of (my clients).”
For Sonny Bui, who graduated from UCLA in 2013, grad photography is also all about showing the natural side of clients. Bui generally does 20 sessions per graduation season.
“I love to capture those happy moments so one day when they look back at those pictures, they remember the sweat, tears, happy moments, sad moments about their college life,” Bui said. “After all, photography is all about preserving precious memories.”
Bui charges $85 dollars for one student, while groups of two cost $140 with an additional $30 per extra head. He generally spends three hours editing photos in both Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.
Deran Chan, a first year pre-business economics student, also said he takes advantage of this industry. He gained experience with photography in high school, when he took pictures for his yearbook and took senior graduation pictures for classmates.
At UCLA, Chan charges $40 for an hourlong session in a package which includes 10 edited photos. If a client wants to do a group session with their friends, he charges $10 extra per head. He also gives clients the option of buying all of the RAW photo files for an additional $10.
“Clients are all different,” Chan said. “It’s challenging at first when you don’t know them directly. (I’ve worked with) more reserved clients and kept that in mind during the shoot. You have to cater to the person and their style while also staying true to your own style.”
Chan likes to take advantage of natural light during his shoots. He prefers to shoot during golden hour – the hour after sunrise or before sunset – to create backlit photos where the sun is behind the client, outlining them in golden light. He doesn’t use artificial lighting in his photos.
“The best tool to get a good shot is your feet,” he said.
After a shoot, Chan uses Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to edit his photos. He edits each one individually and usually picks one per location to edit for his client. It can take between 10 and 20 minutes per photo to edit photos in Photoshop and five to 10 minutes to get the lighting just right in Lightroom. This adds a significant amount of time to the process, which many clients do not consider or think about.
“There is a balance between enhancing a photo and staying true to the client,” Chan said. “When you edit, you want to enhance the photo, but not take away from the client, who they are and what makes them unique.”
Chan said he would never edit out things like birthmarks or beauty spots on clients since they make the person unique. He stressed his desire to stay true to both the client’s physical appearance and their personality.
“I love catching moments people want to hold on to,” Chan said. “Lots of people only graduate once – it’s a huge responsibility to take these photos. I want to deliver the highest quality photos, and capture what they are all about.”