Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

The Golden Hour: Graduation photography businesses boom


The Walk of Champions is sticky.

The plaques celebrating Alabama football’s national and SEC titles, which fall in a neat row stretching from the base of Bryant-Denny Stadium down to University Boulevard, serve as a Tuscaloosa landmark and a symbol of the University’s athletic prowess. Right now, however, the Walk of Champions is sticky as a result of bottle after bottle of champagne being popped in celebration atop its hallowed ground. While strolling the path, you might even find that your shoes adhere to the saccharine concrete. Puddles of shiny confetti, too, smatter the walkway, leaving the 2015 National Championship plaque in an especially glossy state. 

As it turns out, champagne geysers and confetti showers make for memorable photographs. Each spring, beginning mid-February and up to graduation day in May (as well as during the coinciding dates of the fall semester), graduating seniors flock to Bryant-Denny Stadium and other picturesque campus locales like Denny Chimes and the President’s Mansion in search of the perfect image to commemorate their collegiate years in Tuscaloosa. Champagne lends itself to be an amusing prop at these photoshoots, symbolizing a graduate’s celebratory “toast” to four years, more or less, well spent. 

“I always end up pretty sticky,” said Mary Kathryn Carpenter, a journalism graduate student and studied student photographer, of the champagne shoots. “There are right ways and wrong ways to do it. When we’re doing the champagne shots, there are a lot of trials, a lot of errors, a lot of successes, a lot of failures. I didn’t do one because my southern Baptist grandma would’ve rolled over in her grave; she’s not dead, but she would have died and rolled over in her grave.”

Graduating seniors tend to hire other students like Carpenter to serve as photographers for these special occasions, rather than full-time professional photographers. As displayed by the droves of senior-photographer pairs that occupy campus during spring evening golden hours, the graduation portrait industry is big business. And student photographers are capitalizing, both creatively and commercially, on the demand for personal portraits. 

Carpenter, whose photography Instagram account ( boasts more than 6,000 followers, has both the business and creative sides of her craft down pat. Her popular portrait style is characterized by deep colors, windswept confetti storms and customizable shoots for individuals. It’s so popular that she’s booked almost 60 graduation shoots for this month alone – she averages about three shoots a day. 

“My goal is: create something other people want while still making it unique to each person’s personality,” Carpenter said. 

The artistic gratification that comes with photography is almost immediate for Carpenter, who began her photography career while working at her local newspaper, the Natchez Democrat, as a way to pay for gas in high school. When it comes to the actual workload of performing a graduation shoot, however, a lot of the hours put in are spent in the editing room. The same goes for other student photographers: Their rates encompass not only photoshoot time, but editing time.

“You can spend anywhere from 30 seconds to three hours editing one image,” Carpenter said. 

The demand for graduation photos has seemingly skyrocketed in recent years. When Carpenter first began taking graduation photos, she recalled knowing 10 or so others who were doing the same thing as her. Now, if you search “graduation photos” in the Alabama Student Ticket Exchange Facebook group, close to 30 photographers appear, all of whose photos project a similar level of professionalism and quality. 

“It’s weird to see how this market has changed because a few years ago it was nonexistent,” Carpenter said. “And now it’s kind of thriving. Once you see your friends do something, you want to do it, too. Once people began getting grad photos and that became a more popular thing, everybody was like, ‘You know I want something nice to commemorate my time here at UA.”

Lane Stafford, a journalism graduate student and photographer, assigns social media as some reasoning for the spike in demand for graduation photos. 

“People love to keep their Instagram looking nice, and they want those professional-looking photos,” Stafford said. 

A lot of these student photographers follow the same path when it comes to getting their start in graduation photos. Many photographed a friend’s senior portraits first, and then they told their friend, and then that friend told another. For Olivia Carter, a junior majoring in marketing, word of mouth played a big part in initiating her graduation photo career. She snapped photos of one student from her hometown of Athens, Alabama, and then word spread. 

“I was a senior [in high school] whenever I started, so I took her pictures and they were pretty good,” Carter said. “I mean, at that time, I was literally shooting for two and a half hours and charging $30, like literally just so cheap, and I still spent a ton of time editing them and everything. From there, it just kind of turned into one referral from another, and I started a Facebook page.”

Today, Carter operates her business primarily from her Instagram account,, where her service is described as “natural light wedding, engagement & lifestyle photographer.” Natural light is a key phrase in graduation photography. Carter, as well as Carpenter, rely often on what in photography is called the golden hour, referring to the warm, dusky time just after sunrise or just before sunset. Carter describes her natural light style as light and airy.

“Lifestyle kind of encompasses everything else, but I’m mainly projecting myself for wedding and engagements,” Carter said. “So they’re definitely my favorite, but if there’s a need for it, I’m more than willing to shoot stuff. So I’ve done everything – tons of graduation portraits. I love grad portraits because it’s a good way for me to meet people, and sometimes it’s easier to connect with someone who’s graduating from the same university that I’m attending and is closer to my age than it would be to connect someone who’s like my mom’s age.”

That connection is key in graduation photography, too. Subjects don’t always feel comfortable in front of the camera, so Carpenter employs a take-it-as-you-go attitude when working with graduates who may feel a little shy. 

“I always check into who they are and what they’re interested in just to kind of understand how they feel comfortable, and I go into it and say, ‘Look, I’m not going to pose you, I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable, I don’t want you to look silly – I want you to stand how you feel comfortable.’”

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