The School Picture Challenge

Posted by
on under

This year I had a very disappointing round of school pictures of my kids, and it isn't the first time. Being both my wife and I into photography a bit, every year we debate whether we should free ourselves from the ritual of buying severely overpriced and not so great portraits of the little ones, but in the end we always give in and do it.

Well, I think this time I had enough.

While I completely understand the copyright laws in the United States and how they apply to professional portraits, I think it is necessary to show a few example school pictures so that you understand my level of disappointment with these photographers. So without naming any names, and calling Fair Use, let me show you a few thumbnails of school pictures taken at the schools my kids attend:

School Pictures School Pictures
School Pictures School Pictures

In the top left picture it appears they had a flash misfire. Top right and bottom left are very dark for the skin color of the subjects, face and hair detail is lost (this is much more evident in the prints than in the digital versions). And in the bottom right picture the back light that is shining from the top isn't as far back is it should have been, giving the subject a crown of light.

How can they miss a flash misfire, or not know how to photograph a child with very dark skin? Taking hundreds of pictures of children all in a single day must be exhausting, but I expect the school photographer to be a professional with at least some basic experience, certainly more experience than me, so I shouldn't be noticing their mistakes.

You can claim that all school photographers offer retakes for cases like these, where pictures did not come out right. My experience with retake portraits is that they are even worse than the originals, it appears the photographers that come to the school to do retakes have even less motivation and experience. Note that the bottom right picture above is a retake.

Just out of curiosity, I visited the website of one of the largest school picture photography companies in the United States to see if they are looking to hire school photographers, and what their requirements are for these positions. To my surprise, I've found that knowing how to take pictures isn't in the requirements list! The requirements are only to have a high school diploma, a car to travel to schools, and some previous experience dealing with people, children preferred. Even if you didn't take a single picture in your life you could get a job as a school photographer. The company claims to offer paid training to become a professional photographer!

This explains a lot.

So what if every year when the school sends the picture day notice I just use it as a reminder to take my own portraits of my kids? Can I take better pictures than these so called professional photographers?

While thinking along these lines I came up with the idea of creating a challenge for myself. I would take pictures of the same kids pictured above, with relatively the same limitations the school photographer must have had on picture day. The challenge is in trying to come up with better pictures.

So I created the following constraints for my experiment:

  • I would give myself 30 minutes to setup everything before the kids arrive, without any assistance.
  • Just one picture per subject.
  • No more than a minute spent on each subject, so a total of four minutes or less for the entire session.
  • No changes to lights or camera settings between pictures.
  • No individual post-processing for each picture, all the pictures get the same white balance, brightness, contrast, etc.

For the technically inclined, here is the list of equipment I had at hand:

  • a Canon 60D DSLR camera
  • a Sigma 28-50mm f/2.8 lens
  • two Yongnuo YN-460II flashes, umbrella, light stand
  • a bed sheet for the background

Before I started I sat down and designed the lighting setup. Here is the diagram I created:

School Pictures

This is a very simple two light setup. The key light is on the left side with a translucent umbrella to soften it. The fill light is mounted on the camera and pointed up to the white ceiling, to bounce light in every direction. My plan was to have they key light very strong and the fill light on a very low setting, just to add a bit of light on the darker side of each subject's face.

With this diagram I went to my basement and got to work. In about 15 minutes I had everything set up. Because I work with manual flashes, I now needed to take some test pictures to decide how much power to use on each flash. Since I imposed myself the restriction of not using assistants, I took a Kleenex box and placed it on top of the stool where the kids would sit. I took about 10 test pictures of the Kleenex box varying the flash power until I arrived at good light intensities.

One note I should make is that for this kind of photography I would have preferred to use automatic flashes, the ones that meter the light and set their own intensity based on what they "see". Unfortunately I only have manual flashes, so here I'm at a disadvantage.

After 25 minutes I was ready to go. The kids arrived, I had them form a line behind the camera and one by one I made them sit on the stool facing the big light and turning their head towards the camera.

I took a single picture of each as I had planned. For the darker skinned ones I had them sit on the left edge of the stool, so that they were closer to the key light and were better illuminated.

I brought the pictures in raw format into Lightroom and made simple adjustments of white balance, brightness and contrast. I've also added a vignette. It took me about two minutes to do the first picture, then I copy pasted these settings into the other three pictures.

And without further ado, here are my four portraits (click on each picture to see a larger version):

I guess you can be the judge. I think these pictures aren't excellent, but they are much better than those taken at school.

So what could I have done to get even better pictures?

I could improve these same pictures dramatically from a technical point of view using different processing settings on each, something that it is clearly not possible for the school photographers due to the volume of pictures they manage.

If I had automatic flashes I would have set the power ratio between key and fill lights and then let the flashes figure out how much power they needed to emit to correctly expose each skin color. I think with this technique the pictures would have been perfectly exposed in camera, without the need to make post-processing exposure adjustments.

If I had given myself more setup time I could have added a third light from above and from the back, to add a bit of separation between the subject and the background. I'll have to try that some day.

Finally, if I had allowed myself the option to shoot two or three pictures per kid instead of just one I could have easily nailed the pose and face expression.

You can say that not everybody has or can afford the right equipment to take good portraits, and to some extent you would be correct. But the bar is much lower today than it was a few years ago. You can setup an entry level photo studio for about $600, or less if you are willing to buy used or refurbished equipment. Don't believe me? Here is your shopping list, with current prices as of November 2012:

  • Canon T3 DSLR body: $390
  • Canon 50mm f/1.8 prime lens: $95
  • Two Yongnuo YN-560 flashes: $46 each
  • Light stand and flash adapter: $20
  • Translucent umbrella: $5

Note that I did not include anything for the background, because you can just tape a patterned bed sheet to a wall, or just shoot against a naked wall directly.

You can argue that even if you decide to shell out $600 to build your own mini studio you will not have the necessary experience to take good pictures of your kids. But the thing is, the school photographer doesn't either! If you read the excellent Lighting 101 course from David Hobby I bet you will know more than the average school photographer learns in his/her entire career.

As for me, after this little experiment I have decided that from now on I will have good portraits of my kids every year. They deserve better pictures than what they are getting at school, and even with my amateur photography chops I get far more superior portraits. So I have made the promise to take portraits of my kids every time the school wants to do the same.

If I start taking more portraits I'm sure I'll get pretty good at it. Then it would be very cool if I could become a professional school photographer. But unfortunately it isn't likely to happen, as I'm sure these big school photo companies that have monopolized the school picture market will never hire me, they'll think I'm over-qualified for the job.


Become a Patron!

Hello, and thank you for visiting my blog! If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting my work on this blog on Patreon!

1 comment
  • #1 kyle williams said


    I was amused at your findings about the big school photo companies and I understand your frustrations. I have my own school portrait business in Atlanta, GA. I was once a former employee, probably of the same company you mentioned, and I can tell you that most of your assumptions are correct, but they succeed because they have schools in the palm of there hand with the amount of $$$ they give back.

    (some commissions are up to 50% of the retail value of the orders.)

    Most family photographers cannot and will not compete with that kind of commission.
    This is why your school gets photographers with no experience and package prices that are outrageously high.

    Plus, most schools require that pictures are done before lunch and the students cannot miss their "Specials " time. Most photo companies require the photographer to do a single class (20-30 students) in 10 minutes.
    (Your "1 minute per child"comment made me laugh out loud). Oh how I wished I'd of had that much time!

    So, now try to replicate your test with this new information and see how good you are trying to do that many kids...then do 8-12 classes without a break! After about 2 years you'll get pretty good but unfortunately most new photographers at these large companies see the light (no pun intended) and quit before they get good...and fast.
    So don't think you'll be looked at as over qualified...they will hire you...and then they will burn you out.

    Enjoyed the article - BTW I use 4-6 lights depending on what season I shoot and what effect I want.

    Kyle Williams
    Kyle Photography, Inc.

Leave a Comment