The traditional higher ed photography project is a compromise approach for gathering authentic images. It’s quite rare an institution is willing to risk their limited marketing resources on chance. As a result, set ups are arranged to give the perception of authenticity. They are very difficult to pull off successfully, no matter how skillfully constructed. The actors in these reconstructions are students and faculty, not skilled models.
Now, I want to suggest a better solution. First, trust the skills and intuition of the photographer you hire. You most likely chose him or her based on their portfolio. If the strength of the photographers work is catching moments, it makes sense to construct a photo shoot that will give the best chances for the photographer to find those moments and minimizing set-ups .
Second, when set ups are necessary, create situations that can work. If the goal truly is authenticity, be sure to prepare your student and or faculty models with information about what you are trying to accomplish. Throwing students together with a professor they do not know leaves too much to chance. Making strangers comfortable with each other takes time. If the shooting schedule is tight, consider it good fortune if that kind of set up works.
The picture above was not set up, but it’s easy to see how it could have easily have been selected as a great setting.
Third, do not overuse your talent. It is easy to ask a group of cooperative students to participate in a photo shoot, but limit how many set ups they are in. Expect that you will only be able to use one shot, even if you placed them in three different situations. Perhaps consider holding back some of the images for later use if you use the same talent multiple times. It erodes the authenticity to use the same students, dressed in the same clothes, with the same people in the same publication multiple times.
A good higher ed photographer armed with clear goals and access on a college campus can and should provide more authentic images without an over reliance on set ups. After all, isn’t the goal to give perspective students a sense of what life is like on your campus? High school students can spot a fake a mile away.