Earlier this summer, GapKids captured the imagination of parents and kids alike with their Everybody Belongs back-to-school campaign. Inspired by the children’s book of the same name, written by the author and Down syndrome advocate Heather Avis, the campaign celebrates the interests, abilities, and talents that make every kid unique. As part of a “digital talent show,” the brand also invited families to share their own photos and stories using the hashtag #GapKidsBelong.

The days of cheesy back-to-school campaigns are over. In 2022, brands (like Gap) are celebrating the diversity of their audiences, telling true stories that resonate with families far and wide. These days, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach to BTS advertising, and every company owes it to its followers to produce content that reflects their real-life experiences.

In turn, commercial photographers are looking beyond the clichés, widening the lens of inclusivity, and showing us the importance of proper representation. When casting your back-to-school sessions, look for people who represent the diversity of your community and make it special. Here are five themes and topics to consider incorporating into your Licensing sessions this time of year.

Spotlight on: Micro-moments

Another standout back-to-school campaign this year came from Nike Kids; created by Soursop, the campaign featured short films featuring families having fun while doing mundane tasks. In each film, everyday chores are transformed into games: soccer in the backyard, tennis in the laundry room, a dance party in the living room, and a race to the ice cream cart.

The families featured in the campaign were all real, not actors: some were family members of celebrities, and some were street-cast. While the idea of storytelling through “micro-moments”—small scenes that feel relatable to everyone—isn’t new, Nike Kids reminded us once again that even the most ordinary moments, like gardening or doing laundry, can also be the most magical.

When photographing back-to-school content, consider the moments you usually overlook. “Document a morning ‘in the life’ of a parent getting their child ready for school, a college student arriving at their campus dorm, a custodian prepping classrooms, or a university professor setting up a presentation,” the 500px team suggests. “There are a lot of these subtle, everyday stories to tell when addressing the Back 2 School theme. Avoid stiff posing, and focus on documenting real moments.”

Spotlight on: Tech

Last year, research from the Pew Research Center revealed that, during the pandemic, a growing percentage of adults (49%) agreed that schools have a responsibility to provide technology (laptop or tablet computers) for their students to complete their schoolwork at home. From hybrid/remote learning to digital field trips, the last two years have shifted our understanding of the relationship between technology and education.

“Stay up-to-date on technology and its current usage in education,” the 500px team suggests. Using generic devices without logos will help you avoid any intellectual property issues (more on this later), while also keeping your photos timeless. In a similar vein, it’s usually best to avoid devices or gear that are likely to feel outdated in the near future.

Spotlight on: Mental health

According to Deloitte’s annual back-to-school survey, now in its 15th year, mental health is emerging as a priority for parents, with 50% of consumers saying they are concerned about their child’s mental health and 36% saying they’ve purchased services or products to address the issue.

Mental health resources for young people are vital in 2022. In May, a survey from the National Center for Education Statistics found that seven in 10 public schools have seen an increase in the number of children looking for services, while 76% said that staff and faculty have shown concern about the trauma, anxiety, and depression their students have navigated since the pandemic began. While the survey revealed that only about half were able to effectively provide these necessary mental health services, two-thirds reported having increased the type or number of services offered.

While the traditional stock photo might depict a carefree, smiling kid raising a hand in class, this visual no longer represents the lived experience of many school children. Instead, consider how today’s young people nurture and support their mental health, whether that means seeking help from a professional, finding supportive communities that offer a sense of togetherness, or participating in healthy activities, from sports to meditation and beyond.

Spotlight on: The great outdoors

According to a recent survey by OnePoll and Claritin, more than half (55%) of parents in the US are concerned that their kids aren’t spending enough time playing outside. What’s more, 78% said their favorite memories from childhood involved playing outdoors. While we might associate activities like water balloon fights, swimming, or hopscotch with summer vacation, the back-to-school season also presents opportunities for outdoor photo sessions.

Consider kids playing on the playground or school yard during recess, playing sports outside a primary school building, visiting an apple orchard as part of an elementary school field trip, meeting up with friends at a local skatepark, or even playing catch in the backyard after school. It can be as simple as documenting a scenic walk to or from school. Outdoor sessions pose the perfect chance to work with natural sunlight (aim for the golden hours around sunrise and sunset) and capture candid moments, while also creating back-to-school content that goes beyond the traditional classroom setting.

Spotlight on: Age diversity and adult learning

In 2020, lockdowns inspired an increase in online learning for adults, and over the past two years, institutions such as universities, community colleges, nonprofits, and online learning platforms have continued to rethink what adult education can look like. GetSetUp, for example, specializes in empowering older adults through learning; Oasis Everywhere, meanwhile, offers virtual online classes for older adults.

When photographing the “back to school” theme, consider people of all ages, including K-12, primary school children, college students, grad students, and those exploring continuing education. “For some, this year will be the first day of school or their first time entering a school; for others, it’s been years since they have been in a school setting,” the 500px team says. “Some may still be doing online learning or homeschooling. Some are heading to university or college; adults are taking night classes. There are so many ways to interpret ‘Back 2 School’ and set your photography apart.”

Parting thoughts

When creating commercial content with people, make sure you have any and all required model releases, which are necessary for any recognizable person in the frame. If you’re photographing kids, the release will need to be signed by a parent or guardian. Property releases are required when photographing on private property, including houses, apartments, and school buildings, so contact the owner, manager, or appropriate person to get those signed in advance. That’ll also apply to education buildings such as libraries or workshops.

Additionally, avoid any logos or design details specific to a certain brand; this mistake is common when photographing tech devices but can be avoided with proper staging, framing, and retouching. When it comes to tech, trademarked details can also include design details such as the cameras on the backs of mobile phones. Screens should be blurred or blank to avoid any issues. Clothing is also another area where logos can sneak into the frame, so choose generic wardrobe items for your models.

Finally, enjoy your time on set, and collaborate with your models to create images that represent their real lifestyles. “To avoid posed shots, try to have your models go through a scene, and capture them candidly in action,” the 500px team urges. “Change up your framing and perspectives to create a more immersive atmosphere and capture natural movement. Photograph children by themselves, as well as children with their families. And, of course, include models of all different ages, gender identities, abilities, and backgrounds, and show how they connect with each other in the classroom and beyond.”

Not on 500px yet? Click here to learn about Licensing with 500px.