In the spring of 2016, I accidentally became a graduation portrait photographer.
Leanna had asked me to take some cap and gown photos for her, and I said I would do my best. I posted this photo of her on my Instagram in late March, which is pretty early in grad photo season. At VT, the grad photo peak is early May-- because organization is hard, and warm temps are nice. After that photo, people began messaging Leanna and I to organize grad sessions around campus. I shot about 15 grad sessions through final exams, and eventually through the entire 2016-2017 school year as well.
Since I unwittingly brought my business to Blacksburg, I have shot around 25 graduates, a wedding, a vow renewal, an engagement, a few professional portraits, and even some families and puppers in this amazing town. What started as being a Virginia Tech graduation photographer pivoted into being a Blacksburg photographer--and that is something I am going to pursue as a long-term focus for my business. I will always be looking for reasons to get back to Southwest VA!
Thanks to my two years of photographing all around town, looking silly, dodging cars and weird weather, I’ve created a simple guide to choosing a portrait spot in Blacksburg. This list shares my top six locations with specific wheres, whens, and random tidbits of 'need to know' info that have enhanced or hindered my experiences there in the past. Even if these spots are familiar to you, you might find something handy or nostalgic in this list!
PS--all of these places are free!
1: In and around the Moss Arts Center
When to go: Mid to late afternoon. This time of day creates really cool lines and harsh shadows, that end up making simple portraits looking really dramatic. As a bonus, you can hang out inside the building too!
Need to know: Use the stairs, both inside and outside! The lobby spaces are amazing and provide really soft light--you can see it in the grid of 8 photos below (top row, second from the left). Don’t be afraid of direct sun.
2: Hahn Garden
When to go: Early morning or 2 hours before sunset. The early morning is wonderful at the gardens, because they are completely empty, and full of light. However, although I am pretty against sunset shoots in crowded places, I make an exception for Hahn because they turn on the little twinkle garden lights and they make the whole space look so magical.
Need to know: Don’t go right at sunset, because there is heavy tree coverage that doesn’t let much light in if the sun has already set. You can see things in bloom anytime of year, but my favorite is in late March when all of the tulips bloom! Also, don’t forget to take advantage of the stone steps built into the hill, and the cute Adirondack-style chairs that you can lounge in next to the pavilion.
3: In and around the trees on the Drillfield. Mostly in.
When to go: Early evening, when the sun is setting but hasn’t gone below Burruss.
Need to know: Take your allergy medicine. These trees are at their best in the spring, when they all produce these gorgeous pink blooms that make photos really pop. The best part is that if you want photos that are more Blacksburg and less VT, you can take advantage of the landscape and trees without having any buildings in the photos. But if you want to, it’s possible to get both Burruss and the Pylons in the background. It’s so versatile! It’s also fun to climb trees.
4: The Wright House + super tall flowery bushes near the Duck Pond
When to go: Late morning or late afternoon. This spot doesn’t get great sun in the early morning unfortunately.
Need to know: I don’t think the Duck Pond itself photographs well, but these spots right next to it are two of my favorites. The Wright House is the white house directly across from Hahn, but on the pond side. The tall bushes (not exactly sure what they are) are green throughout the year, and bloom into multiple shades of pink in early May. You can get some portraits that are a bit cooler architecturally with the white siding and brick in the house, and then head over and take a few near the flower bushes. There is also a nice porch you can use for some varied posing.
5: The Pylons. Yes, really.
When to go: Sunrise
Need to know: The Pylons are classic Virginia Tech, and provide an open, clean space for beautiful portraits. To me, the Pylons can never be overused because they are just so simple and beautiful. Go at sunrise! You’ll have them to yourself. Don’t forget to take advantage of the stairs on either side, and the really cool shadows from the sun peeking through the leaves in the trees. I avoid this place at sunset like the plague, especially in graduation season. Not only is it crowded, but when I first started shooting there and would go at sunset, I ended up feeling like a huge amateur because there are some photographers there with insane cameras and gear. That’s not what I need on my mind when I’m working with someone--I want to feel confident and focused, and I want my client to feel relaxed and not like a million people are in the way or watching them.
6: The Summit of Bald Knob
When to go: All year, any time of day.
Need to know: This spot is about a half mile hike to the summit. It’s a pretty low-effort, high-reward hike that provides spectacular views and has ample space to walk around and explore at the top. The hike is steep, but only takes about 15-20 minutes. Below the rocky summit, you can go to the right and take a walk through some open fields overlooking the mountains. It doesn’t ever get super crowded except at sunset, but there is plenty of room to share the space.
Other places I love:
The Ag Quad, Pandapas Pond, the Smithfield Plantation, Heritage Community Park, the walking path on Prices Fork road near the Nicholas Anderson Observatory, and the Huckleberry Trail.
No matter which spot I'm at, regardless of the time of day, photographing people in Blacksburg is one of my favorite things. Did your favorite Blacksburg spots make the list?