The ABC’s of School Photography – Just the basics!
There’s never been a more opportune time for Independent Photographers to enter the School photography market. Schools in your area may be receptive to fresh, new alternatives to the traditional business model used by the photography companies who currently serve your local schools. Industry surveys and feedback from Focus Groups indicate that many consumers want better quality portraits, more variety of background selections, a choice of poses and a wider selection of packages than they may be getting now. Independent photographers can address all these concerns with a customer-centered approach that highlights your personal creativity and harnesses the potential of high-speed digital workflow.
While much has been written about Senior Portrait Photography over the years, relatively little attention has been paid to the Elementary School Photography market. This is unfortunate considering the lucrative nature of the business. When you consider that an experienced school photographer can quickly and efficiently handle up to two students per minute, and most schools require at least two camera crews working simultaneously, it’s easy to see why School photography companies sell $1500 to $3000 worth of portraits per hour. Further, an Elementary School of 450 students with average demographics can produce over $20,000 in annual sales for the photography provider that takes advantage of opportunities for Fall and Spring Portraits, Group photos, Special Events and Yearbooks. Multiply this by the number of Elementary schools in your area and you’ll see what a tremendous market these schools represent!
Whether you are a Portrait Studio, Wedding, Sports or Event Photographer, School Photography can complement your current business plan, fill in your schedule and provide outstanding revenue opportunity. While much of your current business occurs on weekends, School Photography is done on weekdays- when we have the time to handle additional business and provide more work for part-time or seasonal employees.
Once considered a “seasonal” business, Elementary School photography has become a virtual year-round revenue opportunity. While Fall season programs typically feature “Traditional” head-and-shoulders portraits, many schools, especially at the Elementary level offer an additional program in the Spring featuring casual portrait styles. These can include full-length, half-length and arm pose styles using contemporary backgrounds, sets and props; much like Senior photography.
Opportunities for other types of photography help round out the school year. Classroom Group or Composite Photos can be offered in the Winter or Spring. Panoramic “All-School” or “Grade Level” Group Photography as well as Cap and Gown portraits of Kindergarten children graduating to first grade (known as “Kinder-Grad” portraits) are also popular. Santa or Seasonal background theme programs can be offered just prior to the Holidays. Clearly, School Photography isn’t seasonal any longer!
Limited local competition is another good reason to consider the School Photography business. While there may be an abundance of photographers in your area offering senior portraits, weddings and sports photography, chances are there are very few offering services to Elementary Schools. Also, in contrast to the Senior market, there is a much larger potential client base. For every High School in a school district there are often 3-4 Middle Schools and 8-10 Elementary Schools “feeding” the system. When you choose to service Seniors only, you miss a significant market segment that buys portraits year after year- not just once at graduation.
Many schools make their decisions about choosing their portrait provider nine months to a full year in advance. Others wait until the Spring to make their selection for the following Fall. Look for opportunities created when competitors fail to provide good quality or customer service or on-time delivery. This may give you a chance to book new business. School portraits are typically delivered within three weeks of photography. If packages are delivered late, the school will receive complaints from parents and this is often the reason schools decide to change portrait providers.
It’s important to determine early which decision maker selects the portrait provider at each school. It might be the School Principal, Vice-Principal, Yearbook Advisor or the PTA / PTO Chairman or Committee. The School Secretary can usually provide this information and at the same time, provide some insight about the service they currently receive, who the competitor is and how they are doing. This will help you plan your presentation later.
Make an appointment to see the decision maker. When you present your program, offer to provide the school with the “service” photos or products they require. This is an important prerequisite to get the business. The need for these services represent one of the reasons we’re allowed to photograph in the school in the first place. Normally, these are provided complimentary to the school although the cost is absorbed in the package prices you set.
School photo services are usually provided for every student or faculty member- regardless of whether they buy or not. Schools may require miniature portraits or photo CD’s for yearbook publication, for student permanent record files, or for Administrative Software the school might use for Food Services, Media Center, attendance or security functions. In some schools, you may be asked to provide ID cards as well. If you don’t have the capability to produce these in-house, School Photo Labs can manufacture these specialized services for you. Be sure you remember to factor the total cost of these services into the portrait prices you plan to charge.
The market largely dictates what you ultimately charge for school photographs. Ask for or obtain a copy of the price flyer used at the school last year. This will give you an idea of the packages offered and retail pricing the school is accustomed to. There may be different packages and prices used for Fall and Spring portrait programs, Group or Composite photos and special events. Be sure to review all the pricelists so that you can prepare a proposal to address their total needs. It isn’t always necessary to underbid competitors to get school photography business. Instead, offer your customers better quality, outstanding customer service and more value for the money- a few more portraits in each package, more background choices, digital personalization or innovative product options will establish your work as a cut above the rest.
In most areas, Schools may request a rebate or “commission” from portrait package sales to benefit school fundraising. The commission might be in a form of a surcharge on each or certain packages, or a percentage of package sales. Rebates may be as low as 10% of sales up to 50% of sales depending on the local tradition or the region of the country where you live. Ask schools in your area what commission they usually receive. Whatever you do, don’t refer to commissions as a “kick-back” when discussing this issue with the decision-maker for the portrait program. This may get you booted out the door!
Schools often depend on school portrait commissions as their number one fundraising source for the year. Consider this payment as an advertising cost giving you the opportunity to be the exclusive photographer for the school. To compensate for commissions in your pricing model, try the following. Calculate your cost to produce portrait packages including prorated labor, overhead, lab bills and the total school-wide costs of services. Include the profit margin you require and establish this as your “net” prorated cost per package. Allow your school to add the commission they request, plus applicable sales tax and this becomes your retail selling price. Following this formula should allow you to make the profit you want while helping the school meet their fundraising objectives as well.
Here on BigMoneyPhotography.com, we offer an auto computing Excel file with the “Net Pricing” strategy – ready to edit and use. It’s available at www.bigmoneyphotography.com.
The percentage of families that choose to buy portraits; commonly called “buyer participation” varies widely by geography, grade level and affluence of school population. In many areas of the US, such as the rural and suburban Northeast and Midwest, Elementary School participation can be very fulfilling- as much as 90% of families may buy portraits. This is contrasted by much lower participation in the South and South East of the U.S. primarily due to higher retail prices necessitated by higher commissions paid for school fundraising. Elementary schools have the highest participation rates, followed by Middle / Junior High Schools. Secondary school undergrads typically have the lowest participation rates.
The Prepay Plan is the predominate sales method used today. It’s popular with Photographers and Schools alike as a means to streamline the fulfillment process. The Fall-season portrait program offered in most Schools is usually done by this method. To advertise picture day, the photographer provides the school with colorful flyers; usually a pricelist-prepay envelope combination which the school distributes to each student one to two weeks in advance of picture day. Students must bring the payment envelope with remittance enclosed at the time portraits are taken. To see samples available, go to: http://www.marathonpress.com/volume-photo-preproduced-flyers/
Some schools offer a proof program rather than the prepay scenario. As research indicates that many parents prefer to see their portraits and have a choice of poses prior to purchase, this may represent another good opportunity to set yourself apart from competition. Deliver printed proof order envelopes back to the school within one to two weeks, and allow an additional week or two for orders to be returned. Supplement this by ALSO posting the proofs online for added sales. (Online proofing alone does not usually result in high order rates) so be sure to use printed and online proofing together. While the timeframe for program completion is longer for proof programs, portrait package sales are often higher if the quality of photography is excellent. Ask your School lab about streamlined and specialized programs for producing and presenting Underclass proofs to parents. If you need recommendations, ask me: firstname.lastname@example.org .
An additional Spring Portrait program is also offered in many Elementary and Middle schools. Spring programs are popularly offered either on a prepay or proof plan, with proofs being the more popular. These programs allow students the opportunity to be themselves and often feature casual posing and backgrounds. Full-length, half-length and arm poses contrast the traditional head-and-shoulders Fall offers. Students are often encouraged to bring small props from home to “personalize” their portraits. Backgrounds and posing props should be chosen carefully to be age-appropriate for the grade levels being photographed.
Traditional Classroom Group photos or digitally-created Classroom Composites are also offered in many Elementary Schools, and may represent another revenue stream. These may be sold separately on a pre-pay basis or in tandem with either the Fall or Spring portrait programs. Consider producing these photos digitally; enhancing them with attractive border designs in the school’s colors and include the school mascot, logo or crest, if possible. Adding student names under the photos makes them more “personal” and commands a higher retail price.
Elementary Schools often turn to their school photographer as their “one stop” resource to handle their Yearbook or Memory Book publishing needs as well. This can become not only an additional profit center for the photographer, but also a way to help secure renewal business year after year. Unlike the comprehensive, big 9”x12” Yearbook programs offered at the High School level, Elementary “Memory Books” are by contrast, quick and easy to produce and inexpensive to buy. Most are 8.5”x11”. soft-back, 32-60 pages in length and include portraits, candids, group photos and collage pages.
(Specialized software for automated Yearbook layout is available FREE when you select Marathon Press as your publisher. www.marathonpress.com )
If you don’t have immediate success, don’t despair. It sometimes takes several seasons of relationship-building with prospective schools before they have confidence in your abilities to service their school. Increase your odds of booking new business by prospecting in smaller Private or Parochial Schools and Academies. These are in less demand by the major competitors and are easier to photograph and service because only one camera crew might be needed. This will allow you to get experience and gather great testimonials about the quality and service you provide. This will benefit your public relations efforts as you grow. Every school you service can provide a reference to help you get more schools for the next season.
Once you get some accounts, take a look at the equipment, software and workflow you’ll need to provide what the school needs and expects.
The good news is that you probably have much of the equipment you’ll need to get started in School Photography. Just think of a portable studio and you’re there. You can get started with as little as a two light system, a 6’ wide background and a prosumer Digital camera. Of course, for more “professional: looking results, you’ll want to consider a 3-4 light system, but it’s not a requirement to get started.
Plan your equipment and personnel requirements carefully. An experienced undergraduate photographer can average 350-400 student portraits taken over a school day; usually one classroom of 25 students every 12-15 minutes. As many schools have over 400 students, you’ll need to plan accordingly; providing multiple crews and equipment set-ups necessary to finish in one day and within the time frame allotted by the School. Finish all the photos before the lunch hour (in an Elementary school) and you’ll be a hero in the eyes of School Administration!
Be sure you have the capability to offer multiple background choices. While the yearbook advisor will typically require an “old masters” style background for the publication photo, research indicates that alternate background options is an important choice customers really want, and may be a competitive advantage for you.
It doesn’t matter whether you offer Green Screen, Hybrid Background technology (www.xtractions.com), Systems using colored gels to modify the background color or even Virtual Front-Projection backgrounds, offering your customers a choice is one key to school photography success and provides more sales to you as well. Marathon Press www.marathonpress.com offers several Prepay sales flyers designed to market Greenscreen and Virtual Backgrounds.
How do you keep track of 400 students and their orders? It’s easy with capture systems using barcode readers and special software. There are two scenarios – tethered and non-tethered. Work with a School Lab and pre-print camera tickets for each student in advance. Distribute the tickets right before portraits are taken and record .jpg numbers on the cards as you shoot. Keep the cards in order for future reference. Later you can match up images and student order data either manually (if shooting untethered) using lab-provided software such as ROES Events.
If shooting tethered, just link your camera to your laptop with special capture software; either with a USB cable or by utilizing time-stamp technology, scan the barcodes from the cards as you shoot, and you’re off to the races. Many School Labs even provide this software to you at a reduced price (or even FREE) just for sending your work to them. (Contact us for lab referrals at email@example.com )
Digital portrait production for school day packages is affordable to everyone. Portrait “unit” charges from .75 to $1.25 each are the norm from School Labs. The full range of photo services schools expect- student record photos, ID Cards and badges, digitally-enhanced composites or group photos and photo CD’s for Yearbooks can easily be produced- by outsourcing to specialty school photo labs, produced in-house on high speed digital printers, or produced on-site using dye-sub or inkjet technology. In short, virtually anything you require to be competitive in the market is available to you.
If you want to learn more about the business of School Photography or other high- volume programs such as Sports Photography, Childcare Photography, Church Directory Programs, Dance School Programs and much more, sign up for our online community at Big Money University. ( www.BigMoneyU.com ) Every month you’ll get timely information about money-making opportunities available that month; provided at the optimal time of year to be most productive. You’ll receive sales and marketing tips, proposal and pricelist templates, recommended packages, posing and lighting charts and so much more to help you get new accounts and make them as profitable as possible; all with no costly trial and error on your part.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chris Wunder, Cr. Photog. ASP is a well-known and respected Industry Authority, Consultant, Workshop Trainer and Platform Speaker. He has almost 35 years of experience including multi-venue Studio Management but with a specialization in high-volume programs for Schools, Sports, Events and Pictorial Directories for Churches and Country Clubs. He’s authored many books and articles, and his LIVE and recorded Workshops have introduced thousands of photographers to the lucrative field of High-Volume photography. In 2006 he co-founded PortraitEFX Inc, a photography Franchise Network with over 50 locations in the U.S. and Canada. In 2017, he co-founded BigMoneyPhotography.com and it’s Educational Division; www.BigMoneyU.com. Chris can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .