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School Photo Sales Drop as Cool Factor Fades

8:36 AM, Nov 12, 2012   |    comments
Senior photo of Kara Kirkby. (Photo: Dustin Meyer via USA Today)
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Oliver St. John, USA TODAY

The school photo may be going the way of the overhead projector.

In a nation that Instagrams on its smartphone and is friends with everybody and their mother on Facebook, many students, parents and even grandparents are turning away from the classic blue backdrop, smile-and-say-cheese school photo that brought income to schools and smiles to the faces of generations of grandmas.

School photo sales haven't just been stagnant for the past decade -- they've fallen. Sales dropped 2% from $1.64 billion in 2001 to $1.61 billion last year, estimates the Photo Marketing Association. This comes at a time when many schools, short on funding, often look for chances such as picture day to raise much-needed cash. Many school districts even schedule school photo shoots twice -- not just once -- annually.

At issue: coolness.

"Those old school kind of portraits that are taken by the guy who comes and sets up in the gym -- that's so lowbrow," says Patricia Martin, CEO of social research and communications firm LitLamp. Instead of buying school pictures, "we're seeing moms going to the local hip photographer and having model-like photos of their teenager."

The local hip photographer is an expensive alternative to the guy who sets up in the gym, though, and some families even go into debt to afford it, Martin says. Senior portraits from Dustin Meyer Photography in Austin cost from $699 for the Minimum Package up to $1,199 for the Complete Package. For comparison, 1st Photo Texas takes pictures for Westwood High School in Austin and prices packages from $11 to $60.

Ann Kirkby, 49, hired Meyer to shoot her two daughters, Kara, who graduated high school in 2011, and Lauren, who will graduate this spring. She plans to hire Meyer again to shoot her son, Colton, currently a sophomore at Westwood.

She says she usually buys a school photo print, "just to say I did it." Seeing the most recent one may have strengthened her convictions about hiring Meyer. "Oh my god it's terrible," Kirkby says. "I think he's a handsome boy, but oh my good lord, I almost put that one in the shredder."

Meyer says it's not just about getting a good portrait, it's about making sure the portrait shows some individuality. He says students often use his portraits as part of sorority applications or for jobs in the entertainment industry.

"They feel best represented when they can be themselves," Meyer says. "Not every kid enjoys being photographed, but they all enjoy being themselves."

Michael Bell, president of the Professional School Photographers Association, has a different opinion.

The students "want to wear a ball cap, or some kind of a shirt with writing on it," he says. He makes them take it off. "Mother wants their nice school pictures that they can send to grandma."


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