Digital technology makes everything easier in the modern age of school photography.

by Cate Coulacos Prato


School pictures are a cherished tradition. Even if the smile comes out a little crooked or the cowlick didn’t behave that day, we keep our kids’ school pictures in our wallets, frame them for grandparents, display them on our desks, and arrange them in scrapbooks. Years from now, they’ll help us recall our children’s school days, from the first gap-toothed grin to the year the braces finally came off.

But while the ritual is traditional, the methods for ordering and taking pictures are going high-tech. And though the classic head-and-shoulders shot against a blue backdrop or an autumn sky is still the most popular pose for fall pictures, spring is the time for fresh fundraising photo ops.

The Future Is Now

Whether you choose a traditional school picture program or a plan a special fundraiser, one thing all photography programs have in common is an increased use of technology, specifically digital imagery and Web-enhanced marketing, sales, and service. “The whole world is moving in that direction,” says Katherine Nordberg, director of marketing and business model development for Lifetouch, headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Almost all companies now have a Web site, and many allow customers to place reorders and handle inquiries online.

Digital imagery is being used at the sitting to decrease the need for retakes. Photographers snap the camera and then look on a screen to see whether the student’s eyes were closed or his tongue was sticking out. If so, they just take another shot right there.

Photography companies can also use digital technology to “repurpose” the child’s image. For example, Lifetouch makes a “back to school pack” that includes a bookmark, book tags, and ruler all incorporating the child’s photo.

Several companies now put digital images on the Web, where families can access them using a PIN or account number. Herff-Jones, in Indianapolis, Indiana, has been developing this service through its Extreme Images program, and at, customers not only can access their school pictures, but also can upload their personal photos, share them with friends and family, and manipulate them for scrapbooks.

Choosing a Photographer

But before you upload, reorder, or share, you have to take the pictures in the first place, which means hiring a photographer.

According to the photography companies we interviewed, parent groups are involved in the school pictures process about half the time, with about half of those acting as decision-makers and the rest as volunteers on picture day only. In the other districts, administrators select the photography company and negotiate the contract, sometimes for the entire district.

But “the trend is toward PTOs making the decision,” says Walt Cooper, director of marketing at Josten's North American photography division.

If you’re in charge of selecting the photographer for picture day, there is a vast selection of national and local companies with an endless array of packages and prices to choose from. The options can also vary widely depending on the demographics of your school and the part of the country you live in. But some things are constant.

First and foremost, say those with experience, you want someone who’s reputable, with a stable of photographers who relate well to children and a portrait package that meets the price and photo selection needs of your students’ families. To find such a company, photographers and parent group volunteers suggest you start by getting recommendations from parents and administrators at other schools.

“Work with a company that has a good reputation in the marketplace,” says Megan Boyam, school fundraising product manager at Herff-Jones.She adds, “The Web is a great resource for gathering information on a variety of companies.”

You’ll want to meet at least one of the photographers and see that person in action with children, or get a recommendation from someone who has witnessed his or her rapport with kids. Why is that so important? Because when kids are relaxed, they take a better picture, says Nordberg. “The ‘at camera’ experience for the kids is the most important part, and our photographers are trained to understand that,” she says. Happy kids make good pictures, and good pictures make parents satisfied customers.

Learn the benefits, risks, and costs of credit card processing for your fundraiser

Another consideration when selecting a photography company is how involved your group wants to be on picture day. Some companies, like Minneapolis-based Josten’s, provide staff members to handle all the logistics at the school.

“We try to take as much of the work off the PTO members as possible,” says Cooper, adding that Josten’s staffers have the process down to a science and can move the children along quickly, getting hair combed and posing the kids appropriately.

Other photographers, like Andrew Kessler, president of Coffee Pond Productions in West Newton, Massachusetts, prefer teacher and parent volunteer involvement on picture day.

“Some companies bring their staff, but over the years I’ve found that to be very cumbersome,” says Kessler. “The classroom parents and teachers know the kids better” and can call them by name, minimizing confusion and putting the children at ease.

After 11 years of PTO involvement at Butler Elementary School in Springfield, Illinois, Cris Giacomelli is very familiar with the school picture process. Her school district hires the photography company, Lifetouch, and the PTO assists on picture day.

Fall pictures require two PTO volunteers, one to chair the event and another to help run it, reports Giacomelli. All 350 children are photographed in one morning. “The photographers have done it about 2 billion times, so it’s one shot, one pose, and it all runs smoothly,” she says, noting that there is always an opportunity for kids who were absent or unhappy with the first picture to have a retake.

Photo Options

Butler’s fall pictures are done through a pre-pay program, where parents select the photo package they want and pay for it before the pictures are taken. This is typical, say photography representatives, because it is the most efficient way to handle the logistics and because it is for the most part the only way for schools to make a small commission on the program (though some schools opt to forgo the commission in order to save parents money on the photo package).

Many photography companies also offer a proof program, where parents can see the photos before ordering and paying. But most schools and photographers find that proof programs for fall pictures are not worth the trouble.

“I have to charge more, because there is a tremendous amount of labor and cost associated with the proof program,” says Kessler of Coffee Pond. Also, while logic tells you parents would be more likely to order pictures they’ve seen in advance, in fact the opposite is true, according to Kessler.

“They’re much more picky, and I end up with twice as many retakes as with pre-pay programs,” he says.

But that’s for traditional school pictures. It’s a different story when schools run special “family photo day or “buddy picture” sessions as fundraisers, usually in the spring. Here, families, individual students, or buddies (a student and a friend) typically pay a sitting fee to participate, all or most of which goes to the school. Then families select photos from proofs and pay à la carte.

Cooper, of Josten’s, says spring photo programs can be tailored to fit the needs of the school and become a new fundraising tradition. But these programs also require more of the PTO committee’s time, from creating tickets and publicizing the event to arranging for facilities to be open (these programs are frequently run in the evening or on the weekend). As with any other fundraiser, it’s important to balance the amount of work involved with the net income.

The extra effort is worth it for Leslie Nitkiewicz of Manchester, Massachusetts. The long-time PTO member took over the photography program at Memorial School after two disappointing years with a photography company the new principal had hired. During that time, the family day photo program that had been a tradition at Memorial had also broken down. “I said I’d be in charge if we could just get the old company back,” recalls Nitkiewicz.

She promptly rehired Coffee Pond Productions, which had impressed her with its professional demeanor and policy of taking portraits in front of natural backdrops. Because Manchester is a coastal town, Nitkiewicz was able to arrange for photos to be taken at a gazebo by the ocean. The PTO agreed to charge a $25 sitting fee, all of which went into the group’s coffers, and Nitkiewicz began publicizing the event like crazy, sending home notices and talking it up among the parents as they dropped their children off at school. As a result, the PTO made twice as much money from the family photo day than it had in previous years. The keys to the program’s success, says Nitkiewicz, were marketing the event well, taking the sitting fee up front, and not allowing refunds.

She also offers this advice: “There are so many good photographers out there; ask around until you find one you like. Your kids don’t have to be in lousy pictures in front of a blue background anymore.”

Focus on Quality

The school photography program was looking pretty ugly atRoper Elementary, a K-6 school in Lincoln, Nebraska. The photographer wasn’t very personable, plus the company frequently lost pictures or printed the wrong image, and parents had to call Oklahoma to try to straighten things out.

“It was a nightmare,” says Michelle Weiand, Roper PTO president.

Fed up, Weiand and other PTO volunteers began interviewing for a new photographer. They took names out of the phone book and followed up on referrals, finally settling on a local woman who had photographed all the kids in a Roper student’s dance group.

“We knew she had a rapport with children and was comfortable working with large groups,” Weiand says of Loretta Asche, of Asche Photography in Malcolm, Nebraska.

It takes just two volunteers to run the program. Beforehand, they organize the shoot around the classroom schedules, so they don’t have to drag students out in the middle of gym or music. When the day arrives, one volunteer sits at a table with the photographer checking names and order forms while another fetches the classes one at a time.

“Everything goes smoothly because everyone knows what’s expected of them,” says Weiand.

And now picture day is picture perfect.


# Andy Stockglausner 2010-01-12 01:57
Great article Cate. I am a school photographer and you hit the nail on the head.
# Mark Ezzo 2010-06-23 17:30
Please remember that school pictures original intent was to provide a record photo of the student. The vendor doing the service was allowed to try to sell the photos for profit as payment. The pictures were not fine portraiture, so local tax paying studios did not complain. The pictures posed no threat to their businesses. Today, Lifetouch and the other big outfits want to drive these studios out of business. They come into town operating out of the trunk of their cars. Set up, capture all the students and money, leave town without contributing anything to the community and then return again in the spring to do it again. I am a photographer. I do school pictures and run a small studio too. Schools should educate. One picture day with a record picture "head and shoulders" style photo is OK. That is the way it has been for 70 years. Allowing schools to become the community's source for portraits (upscale,

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