Magazine Article


The ABCs of School Photography: Profitability is Elementary

Photograph courtesy Bill Abey. Card design: School Photo Marketing, Inc.

In many 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.

The percentage of families that choose to buy portraits; commonly called "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.

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 proofs back to the school within one to two weeks, and allow an additional week or two for orders to be returned. 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 programs for producing and presenting proofs to parents.

An additional Spring Portrait program is also offered in many schools. 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.

Spring portrait programs are popularly offered either on a speculation or proof plan. On speculation-basis programs, every child is photographed and the same uniquely-formatted package for each student is printed. After production, these are sent home along with a pricelist and payment envelope for parents to review. If they don't like the portraits, they can return them without obligation. However, if parents they like what they see, they can buy all or part of the package- one sheet at a time. Of course, the full package is priced to be the best value, and there are incentives included to promote the full package purchase. Digitally created die cut portrait sheets called "Fun Packs" or the new Classroom Trader Cards are two of the most common incentives offered today.

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 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 soft-back, 32-60 pages in length and include portraits, candids, group photos and collage pages. Specialized software is available for Yearbook layout and there are a number of Independent Publishers that can help you get started.

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. 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.

If you want to learn about the business of School Photography, you have abundant resources to turn to. Specialized workshops about school photo marketing, photography and yearbook publishing are currently offered by Marathon Press, Inc. (800-228-0629. email: In addition, many School Labs and vendors serving the industry offer seminars to their current and prospective customer base and you should contact them for information. Consider joining the PSPA (Professional School Photographers Association) and attend their annual convention to hear a wide range of programs. Other trade associations such as IAPEP (International Association of Professional Event Photographers) the WPI (Wedding Photographers International) and the PP of A (Professional Photographers of America, Inc.) have also begun to offer School Photography programming in conjunction with their annual conventions.

For additional information about upcoming workshops, or for referrals to resources serving the School Photographer, please contact the author.

The author, Chris Wunder is a 25-year veteran in the photo marketing business. His expertise runs the gambit from Portrait Studios to Sports and Special Events to School Photography and Publishing. His programs and workshops are popular in the US and his future schedule includes programs in Canada and the UK. He's currently Director of New Business Development for Marathon Press, Inc. and also consults independently for the photo marketing industry. Chris lives in Charlotte, NC and may be contacted at (704) 763-0409 or email at