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School Picture Sticker Shock

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Back when I was growing up, “real” photos were a big deal. My parents owned a camera, but it was only used for special occasions or the rare candid moment. We’d have to wait for them to fill a whole roll to have them developed and only then could we see what images were captured. I still remember when they got one of those fancy Polaroid Cameras that spit out the picture. My siblings and I would fight over who got to shake it.

Still, real photos were rare. Every year, we had School Picture Day, and it was a chance for us to dress up and get our mug shots taken. My mom would send those photos of us in the Official Yearly Holiday Letter to all our friends and relatives.

(Here is my 1979-80 Kindergarten Photo, both the class group photo and the single shot of little JoAnn as a Kindergartner. This year my daughter is a Kindergartener. We’ve come full-circle.)

Am I the only one shocked by the fact that they do Picture Day twice a year out here? Really? Our kiddos are growing so much that we need to document the changes in 6-month increments? No? Then, this is all about money and how much those picture companies can make off of well-meaning parents who don’t want their children to suffer the peer pressure of not participating in picture day. Do all the different companies hum the same tune as they skip to the bank?

If the point of school photos is to provide everyone accessibility to “real” photos, then why are the prices so high?

All of this has made me think about how ridiculous school photos are now anyway. I’ve taken more photos of my daughter in her first few months of life than I had taken of me EVER…as in TOTAL my ENTIRE childhood. I know I’m not alone, as the blogs I follow and my Facebook friends are proof that this trend is continuing. I even get photos instantaneously via my magical handheld device, and that doesn’t count all the ones that get emailed to me.

Granted, most of these are not “professional” photos, but some of them are really good. If you prefer a “professional” feel to your photos, there are some really awesome studios around here that will take professional photos for CHEAPER than the school photos cost! Yes! Really!

You’d think that if the prices are this high, the quality would match it. Sadly, this has not been my experience. We’ve had ONE photo turn out well. ONE. All of the others have been returned for a refund. Because I wasn’t able to see a proof of the photo before supplying payment, I got the pleasure of working through the refund process. Fun!

Now, before I swear off school photos altogether, I do like the class group photos. Those are fun to see the group of kids together, and it’s a nice memento of the class. But, does a single photo need to cost $10 to $15 a piece!?

I have an order form sitting on my desk right now for pictures that are going to be taken next week, and I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do. Will I pay? Probably. How much? I have no idea, but I guarantee you it’s going to be more than I’d like to.

So, what’s the point of school photos? Have they lost their place in this day and age? Is it time we tell the Lifetouch companies of the world that they’re out of touch?

Author: JoAnn

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  • comment avatar Amber Johnson October 5, 2011

    You seriously need to repost Claire’s kindergarten picture next to yours. I can’t believe how much you look alike!

    I cringe every time school pictures come around. This is a service that should be affordable to everyone and I just dumped $22 into getting TWO PICTURES printed from LifeTouch. Yep, that’s right. I wonder if the reason why they’re so overpriced is they pre-print all of their sections so most of the pictures just go to waste. Schools need to reevaluate and change their priorities. Price-gouging shouldn’t be one of them.

    • comment avatar JoAnn October 5, 2011

      I hear ya! The odd thing is that at Claire’s preschool AND this elementary school, we pay BEFORE they’re printed! So, I’m REALLY not sure why the prices are SO high! Crazy…

  • comment avatar Heather October 5, 2011

    I’m right there with you! School pictures are way over priced, they lack quality anymore, and I have always have way too many left over after the holiday mail blitz.

    I just decided, last week, to forgo the “school” photos because of those reasons. Instead I’m going to take a pic of the kids – each with one of our new puppies – then print online. I estimate the cost will be $20 total to cover all the copies I need for all the grandparents and extended family.

    Our school has chosen not take the professional class photo either but have a parent take a photo of the entire school (about 150 kids at most) and send that to each family on CD.

    Just not worth it anymore.

    • comment avatar JoAnn October 5, 2011

      Oh, pictures with a new puppy will be great!

      What we’ve done in the past is used a place called Portrait Innovations (not a sponsor…not a paid review). They have a photo pack of 40+ photos that costs $9.95 if you can stick to one pose. No sitting fee. You can make an appointment. The hard part is picking only one pose if you want to stick to the $9.95 plan, but it’s SO worth it!

  • comment avatar Keri October 5, 2011

    I disagree with the article and the comments, I think the price is fine. I believe I just payed $15 for two prints (2 5 x 7’s). If you account for the photographers time, set-up, ordering, editing (not sure if they are edited or not), delivery of image, paying employees, there is A LOT that goes on “behind-the-scenes” that justify the cost of prints.

    Plus, you always have the option to NOT purchase prints if you feel they are over-priced.

    • comment avatar JoAnn October 5, 2011

      Thanks for your comment, Keri!

    • comment avatar ash October 5, 2011

      I agree with Keri! Thank you for speaking up!

  • comment avatar Melissa Taylor October 5, 2011

    I agree and since they’re mostly terrible photos of my kids, I don’t bother – Sears would take better photos!

    Our private school uses a professional photographer and it’s about the same price but sooooo much better – beautiful pictures!

    • comment avatar JoAnn October 5, 2011

      Thanks, Melissa!

      That’s my point exactly. You pay for a professional photographer and the result is amazing. Other schools pay the same prices and the results are sub-par.

      Something’s just not right there…


  • comment avatar Susan October 5, 2011

    Great topic JoAnn. I cringe with these too. I have tons of photos of my kids but feel obligated to get the official school pictures every year. They are expensive and the poses & backgrounds YOU get to choose (YAY!) are all horrible. Is there a requirement that school pictures have to suck? I always get the smallest package so I have the picture for the scrapbooks. My kids have taken good school pictures (despite the unnatural pose & the 80’s multicolor background) but my niece has an assortment of the WORST pictures ever. If it didn’t embarrass her, I would publish them all. They are horrifying at best. Her poor mother…

    • comment avatar JoAnn October 5, 2011

      Thanks, Susan! Like I said, we had ONE photo turn out well. All the other ones looked like they’d pulled my daughter off the playground, plopped her in a chair and then took her photo. It’s HARD to take SUCH a bad photo! And this happened more than once!

      I’m not expecting model-quality or photo-magazine-layout quality…honestly, I’m not. Then again, with the prices we pay, you’d think they could make at least an effort.

  • comment avatar Gretchen White October 5, 2011

    I really wish a school district decision-maker would chime in to justify this expense and ordeal. It’s time has come and gone. I feel guilty, so I buy them…but I buy the cheapest thing I can, and even then I seethe. Additionally, why don’t they have a way to pay for siblings with one transaction!?

    I do know that the school library and school records use the photos to identify kids, so they probably will not go away. Ever. It would simply be nice if photo companies could take nicer pics at a reasonable price. They could email proofs to parents, who can then pick and choose by dropping the shots they want into a cart. At that time, parents can pay. Get into the 21st century, school photogs!

    • comment avatar JoAnn October 5, 2011

      Back in the late 1900s, our school ID photo was completely different from our school photos. You’d think there’d be an economical way to do those, too…especially with the technology we have now.

      Not having a single payment option for siblings is just another frustrating level to this!

      At the Preschool, for Claire’s Graduation Photo (don’t get me started on THAT…at least they turned out half-way decent), the parents were given proofs from which to choose. They were just printed directly on the order form, but they were good enough to tell which photos had turned out. This was a different company from the regular school photos.

      So…I know it CAN be done.

  • comment avatar Laura aka LaLaGirl October 5, 2011

    School pictures are SUCH A RACKET and Lifetouch is THE WORST. I just spent sixty bucks getting pictures made of my four kiddos – that is buying the cheapest, most basic package they offer, which includes something like two wallets. I usually don’t buy pictures at all, but my mom begged me for school pictures, so I caved.

    A couple of years ago, when I had just my older set of twins in elementary school, I tried to order pics from Lifetouch, and they just, somehow, LOST my kids’ pictures. It was as if my son’s picture never even existed in their system – he brought nothing home, ever. And my daughter brought home pictures of the wrong kid. ANOTHER kid named Mallory. I dicked around on the phone with them forever, and they promised they had it all fixed, and they’d send me some free pictures. They FINALLY came in the mail, with the same wrong Mallory in them.

    When my husband found out how much I spent on pictures (for a handful of wallet size pictures, and they probably don’t even look very good, I’m guessing) he nearly had a heart attack, so I’ll probably be skipping them from now on.

    • comment avatar JoAnn October 5, 2011

      What a mess, Laura! How frustrating!

  • comment avatar Eunice Brownlee October 5, 2011

    Growing up in the 80’s, we always had picture day twice a year. The regular mug shot in the fall and the “fancy” ones (the silhouette shots or those gaudy wicker chair ones) in the spring.

    School photos have never been high quality, and I would never expect them to be. Lifetouch pays $12/hour for their photographers, who are typically people off the street with no technical training on light ratios, composition, color balance, etc. Sears and Picture People pay a little more, but not much.

    As a professional photographer, I still buy my kid’s school pictures every year. Are they the best photos of her? Heck no. Are they overpriced? No. I think they’re a steal. I’m surprised these companies are even still in business. One of the most common questions I get from clients is why prints cost so much when you can get a print from your local box store for less than $1. It’s because there’s more to it than just the print. You’re buying a service.

    The price of a 5×7 print is about $5-7 from these companies (they charge, on average, $10-15 for a set of 2).

    The cost to produce that print includes:

    Marketing materials to advertise for picture day (posters, order envelopes)
    Salary for the salesperson that wrote the contract with the school to make the day possible
    Salary for the photographer and assistant that shoot the photos
    Cost to train the photographer to use the equipment
    Cost of the equipment – lighting, cameras, backdrop (the lighting kits alone are about $10,000; the cameras, about $7000)
    Cost of liability insurance
    Shipping of all the orders to the school

    Granted, all of these operating costs are amortized over the sheer volume, but when you factor all of those things in, paying $7 for a print of an average quality photo seems like a great deal to me.

    • comment avatar JoAnn October 5, 2011

      Thanks for your comment, Eunice! If the quality of the photos was better, I could justify spending the money. Sadly, it’s just not. Throw that together with the fact that I think the idea of “school photos” in general is out-of-date, and there’s the debate. 🙂

      I can’t wait for the day when someone comes up with a better idea! There HAS to be one out there.

      • comment avatar Eunice October 5, 2011

        I totally hear what you’re saying Joann, but my point is that they are not great quality, so it’s a good value to me, given what I spend on photographs. I don’t expect the off-brand tennis shoes I buy my kid to last, but it’s a great value for the $10 price tag. If you expect the quality to improve, the price tag will also go up. or, at least, it should. 🙂

        I don’t see this business model going away soon. As much as there are groups like this that don’t see a worthy expenditure, there is still a group of people that are willing to spend $100/year for sub-par keepsakes of their kids.

        • comment avatar JoAnn October 5, 2011

          Eunice, I can see we’re not going to agree on this, and that’s okay.

          I’ve paid less for better quality photos at other professional places, and I’d hope the schools would use companies that could offer that OR change this practice altogether. 🙂

          It may not happen anytime soon, or enough parents will get fed up with the system and refuse to participate…and then things will change.

          Until then, we’ll just have to make sure our kids look extra presentable on Picture Day. 🙂

  • comment avatar Holly Strebel October 5, 2011

    Okay, I have no idea what the quality is of this company but $15 for a print is actually NOTHING! It’s a steal! It sounds to me like you aren’t paying for just a print but the time and talent that goes behind that print. Photography is not cheap and the time that goes into a session before and after are often forgotten because the client isn’t there to see all the hard work. Also prints at a pro lab are pricier and a lot more consistent than prints at Walgreens. If you don’t like that company, do parents have the option to go to another photographer and get the images you want with the quality and price you want like the high schools are doing?

    • comment avatar JoAnn October 5, 2011

      I appreciate that there is skill involved with the photography process, and I’m happy to pay for quality, but that’s just not found in the school photos. As I mentioned in an above comment, we’ve used a professional photography studio and had MUCH better results. The quality of the photos is outstanding and yet much cheaper than what the school picture company offers.

      No, we don’t have a choice when it comes to which school picture place to use at the school. In our situation, our choice is to do the school photos or just find another option completely. Then, we have to deal with the “peer pressure” of “everyone else” getting their picture taken on photo day. It’s a mess.

      Maybe other schools are different, but from what I’ve heard from others, my experiences are similar throughout the different districts.

      • comment avatar Eunice October 5, 2011

        Actually, with the power of the PTO, I’m sure you could find an alternative solution with another photography company that meets the quality you’re looking for.

        The big companies are contracted at the district level for public schools, but I’m sure if a PTO found a reasonable alternative and felt strongly enough the school district would consider it and even pilot the program at a few of the schools.

        Never underestimate the power of a determined Mama!

  • comment avatar Lori October 5, 2011

    I completely agree. I stopped buying school pictures about 5 years ago and have no regrets. You are totally right that prices are high for pictures that aren’t that great.

    • comment avatar JoAnn October 5, 2011

      Lori, you stopped? Just like that? Maybe all of this guilt over “peer pressure” is ME. Hmmm. I do have the order forms on my desk right now and I need to decide what to do by the 11th. I’m leaning more and more toward just buying the class photo.

      Kudos to you for making a stand!

  • comment avatar Beckie October 5, 2011

    Could not agree with you more. I think 1 pic a year is enough. When the second round of pics comes up, I just pass on the pic. I like the “old school” way of doing school pics. One is enough!

    • comment avatar JoAnn October 5, 2011

      When Claire was in preschool and the second Picture Day rolled around, I was SHOCKED. Now, I’m just perturbed…but at least the shock of having to deal with this twice a year has mellowed. Ha!

  • comment avatar Jeff October 5, 2011

    Yes an 8×10 needs to be $10 to $15 each for school photography. And that’s quite a deal, too! The actual cost that it takes to produce that print is almost that much. A photography business and the associated costs with maintaining that business has to be figured into the cost of making that $10 8×10. And then when they take equipment on location and do speculation work like school photography, well that $10 8×10 is quite a risk to take. They have to figure a realistic price in order to make it worthwhile but at the same time make it affordable for the parent.

    I agree the quality needs to be at it’s best but with this type of photography many additional services are not available such as retouching and additional artwork. Most established photography studios offer these services or include them in their portrait prices. And those prices most often are $40 – $80+ for that same $8×10! This is where photography becomes an artform and not just a recording of the kiddo’s classmates. Unfortunately because everybody can push a button on many devices and get an image, quality and an appreciation of what it actually takes to become a photographer is forgotten or disregarded.

    Enough said. Just please remember that a $10-$15 8×10 is not a rip-off nor is it intended to be a scam. Please accept that these folks are trying to make a living and are offering a valuable service . . . or don’t take part.

    • comment avatar JoAnn October 5, 2011

      Thanks for your comment, Jeff!

      I think the problem lies in the fact that the quality is just so poor in most cases. (My experience with MOST of the photos we’ve had from the school photography company.)

      If parents are going to use their hard-earned money for keepsakes, I’d hope it would be better quality…

      You’re right, we don’t have to participate, and that’s part of my point as well. I think school photos have lost the place they once had, and I think it’s time the schools move on to something more economical.

      Just my opinion! 🙂

  • comment avatar Jenny - Sugar Loco October 6, 2011

    I stopped buying them a loooong time ago! Usually they weren’t even cute – they’d come my girls’ hair weird (so it still had comb marks in it), they’d make them do a really cheesy fake smile. I stopped then. It was a giant waste of money. I’d rather take my kids outside and snap a few shots of them having fun and all together. Though I do need to be better at documenting “when” i took those pics.

    Nice topic – I know a lot of people feel the same frustration!

  • comment avatar Sabrina October 6, 2011

    I couldn’t agree more! That is why I decided a few years ago to boycott the whole school picture racket, and I’ve never looked back. One of the reasons is that I have a boy who is just not photogenic. You can get an excellent picture of him if you trick him and catch him off guard…but ask him to “smile” and you get a grimmace. They are awful every year. The poor kid is already a little awkward, and I’m afraid the school pictures just add to his awkwardness. So I just don’t buy them. Instead, I go to Target and get the cheap picture package, and they spend 5-10 minutes with him tricking him into smiling, and we leave with a picture that I actually proudly hang on the wall…with less money spent on more prints!!

    One more thing you didn’t add that has always bothered me: the time these photographers are taking away from class time. WHY do the schools put up with this?!? They are already short on time to get through all of the material…why would they take time away from class, just to allow a photography company to make some money? It just doesn’t make sense. My hope is that the schools are getting at least some sort of kickback from it all. If they’re not, then it really makes no sense at all – especially having them come not once, but TWICE in a year!

  • comment avatar Sabrina October 6, 2011

    PS – I just have to add my two bits about everyone talking about how much it takes to print a picture. Yes, it costs money to hire the “photographers” (although I know someone who has an inside track on that, and the Lifetouch photographers at the schools are hardly trained or experienced at all), and pay for the equipment. But you also have to remember they are making money off of the sheer volume of sales. So even if they are only making $1 profit off of each print, multiply it by the millions of sucker parents that buy into it…and you get the idea. They are making plenty of money.

  • comment avatar Sarah M October 6, 2011

    Thanks for post. This is my first year experiencing the craziness of school pics *for two kids! I was shocked by price and that they pre-print. Of course I’ll feel like a bad mom when I return 30 sheets of pics of my two kids – unwanted!

    The only thing that could possibly start to justify the price is if a huge chunk was going back to the school. Does anyone know how much they get back??

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