When we can’t physically be somewhere, how do we get an idea of what that place is like? You can comb through the internet and do some research, but a quick way to gain an insider view is through visual mediums— mainly, photography and video. 

Similarly in higher ed marketing, we heavily rely on photography to tell the story of a college or university. For viewbooks, websites, emails, and social media content, adding a visual medium is that extra step in helping a prospective student get to know your institution. 

Interested students need to not only see themselves at your institution, but visualize thriving there. In higher ed marketing, lots of campuses have brick and mortar buildings, state of the art labs, and a beautiful fountain to top it all off. What sets a college or university apart from the others is their student body. 

Schools are much more than just their majors. Showcasing an engaged and energized student body can encourage that potential student to see themselves on that campus and inside that photo.

Re-Evaluating Higher Ed Photography During the Pandemic

Our ability to photograph both the inviting and the authentic is at a crossroad. We’re still in the trenches with the COVID-19 pandemic. Masking is mandatory in a majority of public spaces, and as of 2022, even the type of mask you wear may not be enough to stay completely safe. 

In marketing we aim to show the best in people and situations, so how do we reckon with masks when they cover up what makes a subject engaging?  

As advertising and campus lifestyle photographers, we treat that question as a quest with pro and con solutions. 

Please note that The Parish Group firmly stands with CDC Guidelines on masking and this article is not meant to negate the effectiveness of masks in protecting individuals against COVID-19. 

The Benefits of Masks in Shooting Higher Ed Photography 

Beyond the health benefits from wearing masks, there are some advantages to capturing the use of masks in higher ed marketing. 

One obvious benefit is the safety message the photo relays: we’re taking this seriously and the health of our staff and students is of the utmost importance

In a time where the country is divided on this issue, showing students and faculty wearing masks could sway an individual who is worried about virus exposure and wants a university that pays attention to and enforces safety practices. 

We also have to think about our audience: Gen Z. A  U.S poll found that 62% of Americans ages 18-23 will always wear a mask in public spaces.

They are socially conscious, progressive, and digital natives that have grown up with technology all around them. Meaning: they’re able to cut through the digital advertising noise. 

If our goal is to present the higher ed experience as accurately as possible for the incoming student in 2022, masking is a crucial part of that display. Masked photography shows soon-to-be college freshmen exactly what life will be like when they enroll. Rose-colored glasses off. 

The Drawbacks of Masked Photography in Higher Ed Marketing 

Our lead photographer, Bill Parish, once said “Our images send their minds. Their bodies soon follow.” 

What happens when these images invoke moments of stress, uncertainty, and well… unprecedented times? While it may be realistic, masked photography is a grim reminder of the collective societal trauma we’ve endured over the past two years. 

And how realistic is it actually? With many colleges and universities opting for online learning & Zoom classes, photographing masked subjects is potentially as unhelpful as unmasked photography and could be, in a way, considered false advertising in the hopes of capturing the current college experience.  

We’ve lost a majority of our face-to-face interaction and replaced it digitally, which doesn’t accurately fill our need for human interaction. What physical human interaction we do have is limited. Shared spaces still feel isolating. 

This poses a photography issue. In marketing, never do we want to photograph someone by themselves when what we are selling, as a part of the college experience, is community and the lifestyle that goes with it. 

How do we define a lifestyle alone and with a mask on— a photo that might beg the question: is this going to be our lifestyle forever? 

Additionally, it’s difficult to capture emotion and energy when the subject’s smile is concealed. No matter how fit you are, masks consume energy, alongside interaction and engagement. 

Further, masked photography may prove to be a waste of resources. Many shots taken for marketing campaigns can be repurposed further down the line. But photos of masked students only prove poignant for this specific period of time. If you’ve seen one mask, you’ve seen them all. 

The Parish Group’s Recommendations for Higher Ed Photography in 2022

As you can see, there’s no one right answer. But there are ways for colleges and universities to adapt to the conditions to get the product they want: 

  • If you do opt for masked photography, find energy in your subject’s eyes. We can still tell when someone is smiling while wearing a mask, because their eyes emote that same energy. 
  • Explore new avenues and find new uses for existing assets. For example, using longer lenses can help overcome social distancing barriers between subject and photographer. As well, pre-pandemic photo archives can provide a sufficient glimpse into college life. Without much change in the fashion, these photos can be timeless. 
  • Consider waiting for a major shoot. The Parish Group went from shooting 150 days a year to only a couple. By relying on local, event-oriented photography, we’ve been able to capture that same energy. 
  • Photos with energy sell better than documentary style pictures or ones that “record the scene”. Go in and find engagement points (the energy between two people, for example) then move within that spirit. 

When deciding how to communicate visually and explain what makes your institution unique, we always recommend and counsel on proper use of imaging that is consistent with the missions and target audience for our partners. 

Yes, we are photographers. But more importantly, we are client advocates and will take into account the unique needs and desires of our partners.

Want to learn more on how photography can boost your admissions? Contact us at success@parishgroup.com or call our office 828-505-3000.