Do You Know How School Pictures Work?

Within the past week we got all three kids’ school pictures back. Being as I’ve been in the photo industry for over 30 years now, I’ve always valued the pictures we got done during “School Picture Day” and we’ve written about how good a value school pictures are. Jenn and I often go back and look at how the kids have grown and matured through these pictures. Do you buy yours? A lot of parents don’t – they’re too expensive. And you know what – for the most part, I agree. They are expensive – but do you know why? Let me give you an insiders view of the school picture business.

Yup, they’re expensive. The photographers must be getting rich. Rolling in cash – oodles and oodles of money. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many years ago, in order to book a school, some photographer offered the principal or school board a commission. A donation. A kickback. And this escalated over the years so that now, in some areas, a full 50% of the price goes back to the school. Did you know that? Name me another business where I have to give half of my gross for the privilege of doing business. The more forthcoming schools actually tell you that school pictures are a fund-raiser. But a lot of schools don’t so us parents are ignorant of how much the photographer is giving back.

The market is controlled, in large part, by one company. Lifetouch / National School Studios, based in Minnesota, dominates the school photography business. Because they are privately held no financial data is available but it’s estimated that they control more than half to as high as 70% of the school photography marketplace. Wow. That’s a lot of control. They often dictate a lot of what happens in the industry. Because the school photography market is very seasonal (pictures take place in the Fall) and they are so big, Lifetouch has to hire a lot of temporary photographers. And I think the quality of photography and the school picture day experience suffers. Further, because they are so big, they can “buy” a school by offering the principal additional money, digital cameras, even bikes and prizes – and then pass along the cost to parents. The other portion of the market is controlled by a few regional companies and a smaller number of local studios who only do a few schools. They often can’t compete on “buying” a school and a lot of school administrators see only the draw of additional money. Don’t be short sighted here – I think a better picture and experience for the kids and parents as well as supporting a local business is more important than a quick few extra bucks for the school?

Freebies. Everybody loves a freebie – whether a free product sample at your local store, a try-before -you-buy software, etc. And schools are no exception. Most of the time the photographer has to give the school IDs for the kids, school administration CDs, yearbook CDs, sticky prints for teacher projects and on and on and on. But everyone knows nothing is free, right? All those freebies are reflected in a higher cost to the school and us parents. Sadly, a lot of the freebies go unused too. A lot of photographers will oversell the school and tell them “you’re going to get this and this and this and this” without really learning what the school needs. I don’t know how many school administration CDs end up as coffee coasters in a principal’s office – because he doesn’t use the thing!

The last oddity of the school photo market is that the photographer has two customers – and they both have different and sometimes conflicting needs. What do I mean? When was the last time you chose your school photographer? Oh right, you didn’t. The school chose for you. The photographer has to sell the principal or school administration first to use them, and then sell the parents and kids the actual pictures. And that can add conflicts. The school wants the least amount of disruption to the school day (least amount of time per child) – but the parent wants a good picture. ( A good picture takes some time – so lots more time). So how much time do I spend on each child to take their picture? The school want the most amount of commission (it’s a fund-raiser, remember) but we parents want affordable prices (it’s a recession, remember). So how’s a photographer to make a living? And a note to photographers – especially Lifetouch which did Kaedee’s picture here – I’m not your free advertising. Don’t put your logo on all of my pictures, certainly without asking first!

School pictures still represent a great value. How easy is it to dress your kid up a little, send them to school like normal, and a few weeks later get back a beautiful portrait to treasure? A lot easier than trooping to the mall or Wal-Mart and waiting with a lot of screaming kids. School photographers give money back to our schools for valuable programs or sometimes just the little stuff like pencils, markers and paper that schools are so hard pressed to afford these days. And it makes the kids happy. Kids all over the US, Europe, Australia and elsewhere look forward to the excitement of “picture day”. And that’s great in my book.

Do you buy your school pictures? Why or Why not? Leave a comment and pass along / tweet / email this post to someone – I’m really interested in everyone’s thoughts!

Disclaimers: I work in the school photo marketplace for a large photo lab. A portion of my salary is due to the school photo business. These are my opinions and do not represent the views or policies of my employer or any other companies mentioned in this post. I scanned these school pictures of our kids for illustrative use in this post. While this is considered fair-use under U.S. Copyright law, it is illegal for you to scan your school pictures for your own use or scrapping without a specific copyright release. Your mileage may vary. No animals were harmed in the writing of this post.

One Response to Do You Know How School Pictures Work?

  1. I never thought of the fact that a school photographer has to first sell the school’s administration on their services before selling the parents themselves. I can see how this would make their job more strenuous. I imagine that a school would be more prone to hiring the services of a photographer if they were recommended by several of the parents around the area though.


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