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.
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About the author

Stan brings to the site a long career in the photo industry from working as a professional photographer to 13 years with Kodak to his present position asDirector or Marketing with Advanced Photographic Solutions color lab.Having spent all his adult life in the photo industry, Stan discovered the wild world of digiscrap through wife Jenn (better known as ScrapKitty Design). Even 12 years of teaching Photoshop and digital imaging to photographers didn't prepare him for the wild and wooly world of digi-crops, so he sticks to teaching classes and writing about photography and PS/PSE on their blog www.scrappersworkshop.com/blog. Stan and Jenn are transplanted Yankees in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and would not live in lake effect snow again if you paid them.

34 Comments

  1. Chari says:

    Great article! I do purchase school pictures, even though I don’t always love them. For one, I do support professional photographers. Two, I HATE getting family pictures done… too much stress. (note to self: havent had family pics in over 2 years:)
    Love getting the “class” picture for the scrapbook.
    And mostly, because I remember growing up being one of the only kids that didn’t get pictures and wallets to give to my friends. My poor kids need their pictures!

    • Jenn says:

      that’s so true, Chari. Can’t underestimate the glee factor of getting handed one of those envelopes in class! One year we thought we’d be smart and let Stan print our son’s photos at work (since a division of his company shot them) and not place a regular order. He was SO SAD when he didn’t get an envelope! We learned our lesson, and everyone ALWAYS gets at least some trader wallets for friends and family!

  2. Jenn says:

    Interestingly, you might want to note that each of our children’s portraits was taken by a different photographer:
    1. Becky – Local school photographer Advanced School Imaging.
    2. Sammy – Regional school photographer Bob McEachern Photographers.
    3. Kaedee – National school photographer Lifetouch Studios.
    This has been the case for several years now, and inevitably we get the best results from the local or regional photographers.
    So ask your principal how they choose your school photographer, and make your wishes known. After all, you’re paying for them! Don’t let them tell you that because that company does your yearbook they have to shoot the photos, they don’t. Trust me, I’ve been doing school yeabooks for 11 years now :)

  3. Julie says:

    This is so interesting! Wish I had known that when my kids were in school. The other thing I found frustrating were the “packages…” It never seemed like one actually fit what I wanted, you know?

    There were a couple years where my kids had lousy pix so they did retakes. And then the retakes were bad, so.. After a couple years of that, I started just taking them to Walmart for photos, but then there was that whole not getting an envelope in class. It’s a hard thing for parents!

    • Jenn says:

      packages are tough. You can’t please everyone! More photographers are doing ‘pick three’ type things where you choose what to put in your package, I like that idea. That said, I like to purchase a CD and copyright release when I can, then I can print what I want!

  4. Purplejamie says:

    Having been a school principle for 15 years I have to respond to this. Having been allowed to set my commission rates between 25/50% I alawys choose 25% knowing the cost would be passed onto parents. Every few years I brought all of the sales packages I had received to my parents committee and they choose the photographer and packeges offered. Finally – yes it is a fundraiser, why else would schools offer it? They are in the business of educationg children, if parents wanted photo sessions of their kids that is not a schools job to arrange other than where that can support the educational process (in this case by providing much needed funds). Having the photographer in is a huge amount of work for school admin staff and causes huge disruption to classes – the pay back in terms of the overall benefit to pupils has to be worth it.
    There are two (or maybe more) sides to every story and just as every photographer is not the same nor is every school!

    • Jenn says:

      I wish more principals were like you and brought it to the parents. Many don’t even acknowledge it’s a fundraiser, which seems silly to me. People might be more willing to purchase if they knew the school was getting money back. But our district, for instance, limits the schools to two fundraisers a year, and if they acknowledged that the photos were a fundraiser, then we’d be canceling the carnival or the auction or something else that makes real money. I agree, it SHOULD be a fundraiser for the school, and should be marketed as such!

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  7. Stan says:

    @purplejamie

    Hear Hear! I’m so glad you commented as I think the school picture industry as a whole doesn’t really understand the principals / school admin side. A few of our photographers have had great success in increase funds donated to the school by going into their principals and letting them select the commission rate instead of going with “what everybody else is offering”. Principals always select the lower rates and the sales to the school skyrocket because the packages are more affordable.

    And reading over my post I think I spoke without clarification about the school administration / principals. It is a blessing they let photographers into the schools in the first place. It is a huge disruption out of many other disruptions and extra work on teachers and especially support staff (secretaries). What keeps me going is that little kid and parent remembering the experience and keeping that picture for years to come.

  8. Susan says:

    For the past 4 years I’ve bought the CD because even though it was more than some of the packages I didn’t like what was offered in the packages. Yes, we’ve had a few turn out less than stellar – but I attributed that more to “when” the pictures were taken (ie. after the kids had been to PE). Being a teacher and a parent after one of those sessions I went to the principal and said – “Hey I know they may like to take the classes by teacher in alpha order but as a parent, I really really dislike the pictures that have been taken after my kids have been to PE.” No ONE had ever talked about that with the administration and the photographers.

    With that said, I have been pretty happy with 90% of the school photos. I think we’ve only requested retakes once – it was a particularly BAD photo. The photographer didn’t catch a wardrobe issue and since this was the yearbook photo….well….it had to be redone.

    This post came at a very good time to answer a question I had been mulling over. In the past one company (Regional company) had done all the elementary schools in our district. This year I noticed my campus was using a different company than the campus my daughter is at. Now I know why. Our son’s pictures are this week we’ll hope for a good one.

  9. Chris A. says:

    Great topic for a post. I was aware that school pictures are a fund raiser for our school (don’t remember if they’ve told us that or not). I will buy the pictures if they are good. Unfortunately, with a teenage boy, he doesn’t always bring me the proofs (LOL) because he doesn’t like his picture taken. A lot of times it is hard to purchase the school pictures (twice a year), in addition to all of the sports pictures that they are involved in. I like to support the school because they have done a great job in watching their budgets.

    This year in September they did something different that I really liked. Using a local school photographer they had a Fall Sports Senior Recognition Night at one of the football games. In addition to honoring the senior and parents before the game, they took a photo of the senior with their parents, and for $10 we received an 8×10 and 8 wallets – great deal. Since we don’t have any family photos since my son was 3 years old, I was thrilled. Like Susan, I don’t like the packages that they had available, and I ended up buying the CD. It was more expensive but now I can print out the size and quantity of prints that I want and use it in my digital scrapbooking (not to mention that I can bring it into PSE and crop it, etc).

  10. Zanne says:

    Since I don’t have kids I don’t buy them. I found all this info interesting & really never knew this. Has this always been the case?

    My mom bought some of ours, but as we got older she stopped. I think between the expense & the fact they weren’t typically that good she just decided to spend money elsewhere.

    Thanks for the informative post!

  11. Fran says:

    Our school uses a different company and I do not care for the package options usually. Thanks for the info, I didn’t know most of that.

  12. egads! Four kids here and a mom who is clicking pics at every milestone…we as a family decided one year, we didn’t buy the pics, why dress up? We are a family of laughter and funny ideas. So that year, my boys made funny faces and wore wrinkly clothes, I think my youngest didn’t comb his hair at all!
    My girls crossed their eyes, and wore their hair in funky ponytales. Oh we laughed at dinner! I mean, tears of laughter. They loved it!
    Sadly, come Christmas, the class projects included little angels to hang on the tree with their pictures (a freebie to the teachers) and there in living color, my goober children!!
    Those little paper angels go on the tree in hilarity now, 6 years later!

    and now we are homeschoolers! bha ha ha ….everyone breath a big sigh of relief!!

    • Stan says:

      Your comment really points to the dilemma schools and photographers have – that of time. Given more time, most photographers would want to do more causal, fun pictures of the kids – just to get a better picture and because they could sell more. But that’s an even bigger disruption to the school and learning.

      At least your kids stood out from the crowd!

    • Sharon Beetem says:

      Love your idea! Think I’ll have my boys try it. It would be much easier for any caliber of photographer to capture their true nature. Especially since the poor photographer only gets about 45 seconds to get a child in front of the camera, get them to “pose” in some half-way decent pose, shoot, then shoo them away and start on the next kid.

  13. DawnMarch says:

    Very interesting – I am a former portrait photographer but never really knew how school photos worked since I never worked in that area. I take dozens of photos of my kids every month but I still like the “ritual” of the school photo and so buy one 8×10 of each kid every year. :)

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  15. I am no officially OVER buying school pictures. We have 6 kids and we have not had ANY luck with good photos over the past 3 years. I mean, they are downright TERRIBLE.

  16. Steve Mc says:

    Stan,
    Great article. It’s well known in the industry but very few consumers know the photographs they purchase also serve as a fund-raiser for their schools.

  17. Chelle says:

    I’ve never been much of a fan of school pictures…I remember most of the ones I had of me as a kid were just terrible! My son wanted school pictures, but he agreed when I explained to him my husband is a much better photographer (and probably has a better camera too, lol) – so we had “at home picture day” – it was fun and got much better pics too :)

  18. Christin says:

    I have bought my son’s photos every year since he stared school, and have always been pleased with the product. Our school has a fab photography company and have never thought the price is outrageous. So I guess we are lucky?!
    Thanks for posting the informative article. I had no idea that money was being pumped back into the school from the sales.. crazy!

    • Stan says:

      @Christin – sounds like you are lucky to have a school picture company that does great work and that you like. What is most surprising is that the seemingly high prices are driven in some areas by a 50% commission rate – meaning the photographer has to give the school 1/2 of his or her money for the ability to do pictures in the school. Kind of steep if you ask me!

  19. Lori says:

    It’s a great article that explains why pictures cost so much, however it’s not going to change my opinion of the quality of my kids’ school photos. I have four kids. The cheapest package, a few 5x7s and a some wallets, will run me in the neighborhood of $25 a kid. That’s at least $100 for photos! And they’re not good photos. Our schools all use Lifetouch. They require payment up front. More often than not, the pictures are terrible. I’d send them back and ask for the picture to be retaken on make up day. Those pictures would be terrible too. I’d end up with $100 worth of photos that I shoved in a drawer.

    Previously my kids’ schools also offered Spring photos. Spring photos were different. They often had a nicer background. Kids didn’t have to wear those ugly dress code polo shirts (another pet peeve). They’d send home the photo package and you could elect to buy the whole package or just pages from the package, and send in your money and any photos you weren’t keeping. Maybe because those photos weren’t prepaid, they were always much better pictures. I have four of them from 2009 on my office wall right now. Why 2009? Because that’s the last year our schools had Spring photos.

    I’m not cheap, but I am picky.

    • Jenn says:

      Lori, do be sure to communicate your feelings to your principal. They often don’t get feedback, and stick with a company because of their relationship with the company’s representative or just because they feel it’s easier. I agree, Lifetouch has consistently given me the worst photos of all my kids (we have three kids in three schools, all shot by different companies!).
      Personally, I don’t like the spring photos with the busy backgrounds, but that’s why they do both – to give us options. Ask the principal why they don’t do spring photos, mention that you only like to purchase those and would love to support the school by buying!
      The purchasing method you describe is called printing ‘on spec’ – they print everything and you just keep what you want. This is expensive for the photographer – they have to pay the lab for all those prints, whether you buy them or not. And with everyone being ‘green’ conscious, all that wasted paper is a consideration, so you’re less likely to see that type of setup these days. What I’m holding out for is the ability to log in to a website the day after picture day, see my kids’ photo, and place my order. And in thanks for my purchase, be able to download a low-res image to share online!

  20. Chad says:

    It really isn’t that big of a deal to visit the Walmart photo place, so the only reason we have to buy photos from school is to get the class portrait sheet, which I’ve always felt was the most important part of buying photos. I enjoyed looking at those class photos all through my K-12 years and was glad my mother purchased them. Both of my kids feel the same way – they just want the class photo sheet. But I had to tell both of them this year that we just can’t do it because I can’t justify spending 78 fricking dollars just to get two class photo sheets. $39 is the cheapest package that includes the class photo sheet. I am infuriated that photographers won’t allow people to just buy the photo sheet by itself for a fair price. I don’t feel that it is ethical to force me to buy a whole package of photos just to get the photo sheet when the photographer is pressured to spend only 27 seconds photographing my children.

    • Jenn says:

      Chad, good point! I have seen photographers offer the class photo separately, and that is something your principal can negotiate with the photographer. Do be sure to let the principal know, in the nicest way, that you’d be more inclined to purchase if you could get the class photo separately or in a less expensive package. Given the economic times, the school needs all the revenue they can get from the photo sales, and should be motivated to encourage the photographer to make changes (or even change photographers) to get a package setup that will encourage people to buy! Thanks for taking the time to comment :)

  21. Kelly says:

    I always buy my children’s school photos but last year they were particularly bad and I couldn’t bring myself to pay $20 for an 8×10 for each child when I could take a better photo of my child with my DSLR.

    • Stan says:

      Kelly – thanks for your comment. Without a doubt – you shouldn’t have to buy a bad picture for any money. That’s why most good school photographers have a money-back guarantee and will often schedule a retake day where they will do your child’s picture again in case you didn’t like the first one. What we always try to teach our photographer customers is that Moms’ have great cameras (often as good or better than theirs!) and a lot are good photographers. What they have to do to stay relevant ( and keep making money) is to offer new and innovative products / services /pictures that Moms can’t do / are too hard to do. And to offer lighting and posing that is only available with profession equipment in the hands of a good pro school photographer.

  22. Kathleen says:

    I normally don’t purchase school pics. As a disabled single mother I have no choice but to get the most for the money I spend. Not only that, but my daughter would much rather go somewhere else to have her picture taken where she can make sure she has the time to make sure she looks her best rather than have a hastily done pic at the end of the school day and then cry at the results. By taking her somewhere else not only can I save money, but she can be happy with how she looks, happy with the choice of poses, happy with the numerous choice of backgrounds, and happy that she has more than twice the amount of pictures to give to family and friends.

  23. JennyK says:

    Thanks for the info– I didn’t realize Picture Day is also considered a fundraiser.

    For the 1st time, we are being asked to pick a package and pay for it up front, before picture day & obviously before seeing the photo. Packages care $24 to $42 dollars per child. It’s a local photographer, so I can see how she’s probably trying to cut down on costs.

    Is paying before seeing the school photo typical for school pictures?

    • Jenn says:

      Yes, especially in the fall. Most photographers are going to pre-pay now, it gets you the photos faster (for Christmas), and does save the expense and time of proofing. The schools prefer it too, it minimizes the number of times they have to have contact with you about photos. Most photographers will reshoot or refund though – I’ve done that several times (yes, this mom is picky!) just fine. You may want to make sure of their policy on that, but otherwise you can expect to see more and more of this.

      • Purplejamie says:

        Hi, Just to share – this is definitley not my experience. I have never known parents have to pay before seeing, at the very least, proofs. From personal experience the package I would order would also depend on the quality of the pictures. I would definitley check the delivery times and refund policy.

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