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The ABCs of School Photography: Profitability is Elementary



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, it's easy to see why many school photographers sell $1000 to $2000 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 photographer 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 compliment 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.

Photograph courtesy Bruce Wilson Photography

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, in all probability there are just a handful offering services to Elementary Schools. Also, In contrast to Senior Photography, 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.

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 have the opportunity to address all these concerns with a customer-centered approach that highlights your personal creativity and harnesses the potential of digital workflow.

The initial capital investment in equipment to do School Photography is significantly less expensive than it once was. You probably have much of the equipment you'll need to get started. Today's Digital cameras are quickly replacing expensive long-roll film cameras that were once prerequisite for high-volume portraiture. Digitals are fast and easy to use and store hundreds of images at a time on compact flash cards or by tethered connection to a laptop computer. Best of all, digital cameras provide a unique file number to associate with the student order and database information which is important for delivery of properly identified portrait packages, service photos and CD's. A number of vendors offer "turnkey" software and equipment packages specially designed for school photography.

Be sure you have the capability to offer multiple background choices. Research indicates this is an important choice customers really want, and may be a competitive advantage for you. It doesn't matter whether you offer Gel Colors, Multiple canvas or muslin backgrounds or even Virtual Front-Projection backgrounds, offering your customers a choice is one key to school photography success.

Photograph courtesy Marathon Press, Inc.

Plan your equipment and personnel requirements carefully. An experienced undergraduate photographer can average 300-400 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 and you'll be a hero in the eyes of School Administration!

Digital portrait production for school day packages is becoming available and affordable to everyone. No longer is this technology proprietary to the large, national companies. 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 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.

Many schools make their decisions about their portrait provider nine months to a full year in advance. This makes the fall months your best time to make sales presentations for the following year's portrait programs. 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 they're 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 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 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.

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