Friday, October 08, 2010


School Pictures

We got The Boy's and The Girl's school pictures this week.

Admitting my own bias upfront, it's still fair to say that these are two good-looking kids. TB is the class heartthrob, tall with a winning smile, and TG is a brunette cherub with a mischievous gleam in her eye.

But you wouldn't know it from the pictures.

In these pictures, our beautiful, wonderful, sweet children look, well, kinda goony.

It's not their fault. They often photograph well, and they smiled obligingly. Yet these shots are worthy of a driver's license in their awkwardness.

Why does that always happen with school pictures?

I have to admit, many of my school pictures as a kid were horrible. The fifth grade pic was uniquely awful, with a sneer that made me, improbably enough, the class bad boy the day it came out. (It didn't last.) None of them looked the faintest bit natural or flattering, and several of them were just mean.

Photography, as an art form and as a technology, has come a long way since then. Yet school pictures are still goony. You'd think they would have improved by now.

I can isolate a couple of factors. The backgrounds are always awful – either 'sky' or 'rumped monochrome.' And the poses are ridiculous. “Lean over. Crane your neck. No, like that. Lean farther. Now, try to have fun!” Sheesh.

Who becomes a school photographer? That seems like some sort of 'community service' punishment for a photographer who did something awful. Train them in Ansel Adams, then loose them on fourth graders. It's just not right.

My Dad used to consider himself a serious photographer, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. He'd spend minutes composing a shot while my brother and I quietly seethed. (The pics usually reflected the seething.) To this day, the one piece of advice I'd give any photographer is “shut up and shoot.” In the age of digital photography, when you don’t have to worry about wasting film and a single card can hold hundreds of shots, I say shoot first and ask questions later. The one thing you should never do, especially with children, is ask them to hold a pose. When a camera could only hold a couple dozen shots and each one was a real cost, there was some excuse for perfectionism. Now, not.

Nowadays, at the end of the school year, teachers present slideshows of candid shots they’ve taken in the class over the course of the year, always accompanied by the Green Day song that goes “there’s something unpredictable...” (Why it’s always that song, I don’t know.) The candids are always far better than the official portraits. They show kids looking like themselves, wearing clothes they’d actually wear, doing things they actually do. They look like life. Honestly, I’d rather have copies of those than of the Official School Pictures. But the official pics live on.

Is there a trick to making school pictures suck less? And just who, exactly, winds up taking them?

Amen, brother. And what's with this scam of making you pay for the pictures before they're ever taken? I'm pretty sure when I was a kid, we'd bring the pictures home for approval and bring back a check and the pictures our parents didn't want. Now, I'm asked to choose a "package" of pictures sight unseen and send a check the day the pictures are being taken. If you ask me, it's extortion, is what it is. Makes you wonder if the gooniness of the picture is in inverse proportion to the size of the package you order.

So we buy the $15 package--the smallest offered--and give the pictures away to distant relatives at Christmas. For real pictures of my kids, I'll take my wife and her DSLR over a professional photographer any day.
Who takes them? Sadly not a local photography studio with better rates and incentive for repeat business.

Instead it's the out-of-state conglomerate who gives kickbacks to the school from its exorbitant packages all for the privilege of its photo-mill approach.
I started getting my pictures taken at Sears or Kmart after some particularly horrible school photos. Cheaper, and you get a better product.
We've actually had experiences with two photo studios with our son (who, for the record, is three, and school pictures start in daycare, folks). The small local photo studio had the "pay up front, see your photos later" deal, while the big evil national corporate chain let us view the proofs first and then select which packages and shots we wanted, if any.

We never saw how many shots the local studio took, but the big national chain definitely took the "more is better" approach, with lots of different shots and poses.
I feel your pain. We're actually shocked when the kids bring their school pictures home and they're even halfway decent. We still always buy the pictures, but we always choose the cheapest package since they're usually so poor.
Why are schools in the business of taking pictures of students anyway?
One of the reasons that schools take pictures of students is to catalog them. As a high school yearbook adviser, I was regularly contacted by the police when they needed a picture to track down a wayward student. When police need pictures of school age perps without a prior arrest record, they use school pictures.

Another reason has to do with school security. Student pictures also usually end up on student IDs which allow school personnel to recognize who belongs on the school campus and to remove students who don't belong. Keeping out students from other schools helps cut down on security infractions.
Yearbooks require pictures that are the same size and pose, as do IDs.Add in the requirement to take pictures quickly, and you get the assembly line.
Honestly? Most good photographers won't touch a volume contract like school photos with a ten-foot pole. Creativity requires breathing space. You don't get that when you have to photograph an assembly line of children.

The hierarchy of photographers is as follows:

1. Established family and lifestyle photographers. Very consistent in quality and experience, with an extensive portfolio to back it up. Google "Your Town Family Photographer" to find a double dozen of these. Then comb through their portfolios and blogs to identify one that's in line with the style of photography you want.

These people have a lot of experience working with children and will insist on meeting you in locations where your children are comfortable and able to have fun. This could be your home, a park, gramma's house, etc. The portraits they create will be beautifully composed, well-lit, happy, and show your children being themselves. They use professional grade equipment (no, the Canon Digital Rebel that Uncle Bob just bought doesn't compare) and they're deeply invested in their business and in retaining you as a repeat client. They're serious about what they do and they're good at it.

The down side? You're going to pay about $100-$250 for a sitting fee, and more for prints and digital files. (It's a shocker, but as with everything else in life, you get what you pay for.)

2. Budding photographers. Desperate for experience and work, many will work for almost free. Quality is unpredictable since their portfolios tend to be thin and non-representative. Still, they can be a good option for cash-strapped families. Their follow-through can be weaker than the top tier photographers because they're not as invested in their business yet, but this isn't as big a concern with family photography as it would be with, say, wedding photography.

3. Your wife/uncle/cousin who owns a DSLR. Huge variance in quality, but hey, it's free. (If they're actually good at what they do, chances are that either you're so close that you don't even need to ask the for photos, or that they're going to charge you for the session.)

4. Monkeys.

5. Mall photographers. This includes sears, wal-mart, etc. type places. These people are not photographers. They're people who are hired on and "trained" to press a shutter. They have relatively little leeway in their jobs, and the work is consistently crappy, featuring kids in front of backdrops with cheesy props, stiff poses, and bad lighting. These things are volume businesses and make no apologies for this. If the photography doesn't make you want to claw your eyes out, you'll get the best balance of price versus expected quality here.

5 a. School photographers. They're employed by conglomerates who bid on school system contracts. They have the same training as the employees at the mall photography places.

Full disclosure: I am a pet photographer in Denver, CO. Although I don't photograph families without pets, I do believe in the value that good photography brings to a family's portrait collection. I apologize if I sound like a shill for the top-tier photographers; it's hard to discern just how much of the kool-aid you may have swilled in the process of joining the profession.

P.S. Many apologies for the comma proliferation and other horrible abuses of the English language. I always feel self-conscious when I leave comments on academia-related blogs.
Heh. Years ago, right before landing a part-time teaching gig in an expensive city half-way across the country, the next best option was going to be working for a school photography company. The base pay was terrible, but I was told I could pretty much count on tons of overtime because of having to drive all over the state. And yeah, it was completely outside my area of expertise; they were more than happy to train.
Just in case you fear that bad photography might be heritable ...

Two top tips are:

1) Look at the background, before you look at the subjects. Helps avoid the person with a telephone pole for a hat that you don't even notice in the preview.

2) Get a "speed flash" and shoot multiple shots per second and/or quickly (with a wide zoom, cropping later) to get those candid pictures. You'd be surprised how much better people look just a half-second after the first picture is taken.

For video, make a big show of shooting some particular scene, then just leave the camera on when you set it back down on your knee. After 10 minutes, everyone will act normally. (This can be either good or bad.)
I try not to think about school photography much; my own photographs were a source of much pain and suffering, since I had exactly the same results as your kids. Except, of course, I was already dorky and unappealing to look at, which made things much worse.

Incidentally, this topic jogged my memory of one of the cleverer academia-flavored Onion articles:,1217/
This is how you make all school photos better:
How to make those school pictutres better? Work through the PTA to purge the system of the annual portrait shakedown, opt for a group class picture, and remind yourself and other parents that they/you/we don't exactly lack other opportunities to have presentable mug shots made of our offspring.

OTOH, as someone who (briefly) worked for one of those school-portrait franchises (AKA making school money, I'll say that circumstances seldom work in favor of capturing students at their best for these "official" school pictures. Most turn out "okay," a few really work (when the pupils cooperate) and as for that last tem percent...well, that's why there are (sometimes) retakes scheduled. It's a little like quality control in products bound for mass-merchandising stores: it's more efficient to go for volume and fix the worst mistakes afterwards than to fiddle-in-pursuit-of-perfection with every shot.
I think it's an evil coup among all agencies in the photography business. They're all in cahoots to make school pictures awful for all generations. I think this secret organization uses rigged cameras, tainted printing techniques, you name it. But I digress...

Thoroughly enjoying your blog; glad I found it!
Well sometimes schools are over when it comes to student concerns like the school pictures without considering of course the burden to parents. Aside from the cost, I think quality should also be taken into consideration especially so that you are talking of a school picture which as much as possible is something to be worth displaying.
They still take pictures in schools? This seems like one of those costly items that is still done "because we always did it that way"...

Are there any families out there that wait for school picture day every year to get updated photos of their kids?

If the pictures are poor quality, contracting is a hassle, and there is other ample opportunity to capture your children's stills... shouldn't school picture day be one of those items that go the same way as the powdered wig?

docdave has a good point. This seems like the type of thing that the PTA can tackle to remove from the budget and schedule.
Heh. When I was a kid my mom would never let me get school picture packages - she was an art teacher and she took her own photos of me and made me wallet sized ones to give away to my friends. Hers always came out awesome, and the school ones always came out awful, but I still hated the fact that my photos were "different" from everyone else's. Wonder how many kids end up convincing their parents to let them get the school pics for this reason. :-)

My high school senior portraits came out wonderfully, but that's because our school contracted with a local photographer with a private studio who actually took time and care with the process.

BTW, it's not just kids that come out awful in these photo-mill operations. Our church recently had a directory made - just for fun; we're talking about families dressed in costume or in drag, etc. here - and still, people who normally look amazing looked awkward, uncomfortable, washed out, and tired.
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