Graduation portrait season has sprung

Student and local professional photographers satisfy the high demand for graduation portraits

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Student photographers and professional photographers like U.Va. graduate Brittany Fan meet the high demand for graduation photos every year. 

Courtesy Brittany Fan

Once the weather warms up, it’s pretty hard to find the the Lawn without students in their caps and gowns, taking advantage of the Rotunda’s beauty as a backdrop for their graduation portraits. 

“I’ve been on the Lawn from roughly 7:00 to 8:45 a.m. or 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. pretty much every morning since April 1,” professional photographer Hunter Sheldon said. 

Sheldon, a University alumnus with a degree in Biomedical Engineering, did 35 graduation shoots last year, photographing 92 graduates in the class of 2017. By the end of this semester, he expects to have done 36 shoots, photographing 89 graduates of the Class of 2018. 

“I fell in love with Charlottesville as a first-year, and knew pretty early on in my college career that I would love to stay in town after graduation,” Sheldon said in an email. “Not only did I just want to stay, but by the time I graduated, I already had begun establishing the Hunter Sheldon Photography brand in Charlottesville, and had a lot of momentum with current UVA students when it comes to Graduation photography, so it made sense.” 

An incredible number of graduation photographers, both student and professional, are demanded for the roughly 4,000 member class that graduates from the University every year. However, the large number of photographers — both students and professionals — needed to meet that demand can pose a threat sometimes. 

“The market is saturated so you can’t necessarily charge for what your work is worth in some cases which I know has been hard for some people,” said Sarah Dodge, a fourth-year College student and photographer. “If I wasn’t in a college town I would probably be charging a lot more than what I do now.” 

Dodge charges $100 for an hour-long session for an individual. For groups of three or more, she charges $50 per person. 

Sheldon agrees with Dodge, who admitted that last year he had a sort of “scarcity mentality.” 

“Every time I saw someone else doing a photoshoot, that meant they weren’t doing it with me,” Sheldon said.

Sheldon has done senior photoshoots for high school students but he and his wife, Sarah Sheldon, currently focus on photographing weddings and University graduates due to the high demand of his work at the University. In fact, Sheldon admits that he feels pretty “overbooked” at the moment and is now happy to see other photographers there on the Lawn with him. 

“Everyone is graduating and I think everyone should get graduation photographs,” Sheldon said. “I love what I do and being out there and being able to serve so many U.Va. students.”

Sheldon charges $120 per person for groups of one to four people for a 55-minute session. For Sheldon’s “large group” 75-minute sessions, he charges $30 per person. 

Not every graduation portrait photographer is the same — in fact there are a number of factors that differentiate photographers from each other. Some are full-time, while others are part-time. Sheldon, unlike many graduation portrait photographers, treats his photography like a full-time business and thus devotes more time to it than some do. 

“I think that’s one of the things that separates me from even the other professionals, is just the volume that I’m able to do,” Sheldon said. “Also, that the students feel like they’re interacting with a business.” 

Catherine Cura, a fourth-year College student and photographer, on the other hand, is more of a videographer and has just recently started picking up photography. Cura’s photography opportunities have stemmed from her videography assignments and her friends’ desire to have high-quality photographs taken. Cura primarily advertises via word of mouth, although she also has a Facebook page which is how many of her customers found out she was doing graduation portraits. 

Cura charges $35 per person for an hour-long shoot and $25 per person for groups of four or more. She was unable to get into a photography class at the University, however, she took the initiative to pursue her interest by teaching a digital media class at HackCville. 

“Teaching photography to other people has helped with my learning,” Cura said. 

Similar to Cura, Brittany Fan, a professional photographer who graduated from the College in  2015, also said “word of mouth” keeps her busy. As an undergraduate, Fan started taking pictures of people and enjoyed it and eventually “just kind of slipped into being a photographer.” 

“I stayed in Charlottesville after graduation for a year-long fellowship program that I was accepted into, and also to work full time as a graphic designer in a downtown firm,” Fan said in an email. “Since then, I've become deeply loyal to individuals, organizations, and communities in this city, so it's become a special place for me in an even fuller and richer way than it was college.”

Fan differentiates her prices based on the duration of the shoot. She charges $300 per person for an hour-long “full session” and $150 for a 20-30 minute “mini-session.” Katie Carr, a fourth-year in the College, is a hospitality intern at the Center for Christian Study and chose Fan to take her portraits due to her exposure of her work at the Center.

“I just really like her style,” Carr said. “And she takes a lot of pictures for the Center for Christian Studies, so I’ve seen her pictures a lot around the STUD and have seen her doing portraits for other people.” 

Although the demand for graduation portraits is very high, the University and the Charlottesville community are able to supply a variety of photographers that can meet all needs and price ranges of the graduates. 

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