The School Photos Conundrum

Cowlicks, unnatural smiles, stiffly tilted heads, boring backdrops—school photos have been a sort of annual rite of passage for generations, and their season is once again upon us. The thing is, many parents are foregoing what feels more and more like an obligatory fundraising purchase. They instead go to professional photography studios, shoot their own photos, or feel content with not having a formal headshot taken of their child every year. I can’t help but wonder if they aren’t missing something.

School Photos for Yearbook

Professional photographs have their place, to be sure, but there is something sentimental about a line-up of a person’s lifetime of school photos. Every kid has a reaction to “Picture Day” and, moreover, to the act of being formally photographed in front of their peers by a stranger ordering them to say cheese. Over the years, they might move through stages of being totally self-unaware to totally self-conscious, from clowning to beaming, from shy to confident. And without their parents on the scene to coach and hover, they’re kind of on their own deciding how to best present themselves for posterity. School pictures may not be a way of getting gorgeous shots of children, but they’re a way of cataloging their experience with Picture Day itself. Frankly, sometimes the accumulated results are just hilarious.

Whether you buy the school pictures or not, however, I think it’s a great idea to try your own hand at capturing some shots of your child before they head out in the morning for Picture Day. Here are three tips for doing that:

  1. Engage them. Ask your child some open-ended questions while you’re snapping pictures. As they get caught up in the conversation, they’re more likely to relax and focus less on the fact that they’re being photographed. Then you also stand a better chance of capturing what you love about their spirit in the images, not just their physical appearance.
  2. Take turns. It can be helpful to loosen up kids’ nerves or irritation, to let them take a turn at photographing and directing you. Let them decide how they want you to sit and how they want you framed. When they see the results of their work, they tend to get more excited about the camera-play in general. Besides, turnabout is fair play!
  3. Loosen up. One of the biggest complaints parents have about Picture Day photos is that the children look stiff and unnatural. Well, kids tend to feel stiff and unnatural when they’re asked to pose. Try letting them roam or play a bit while you sit off to the side, preferably way off to the side with a telephoto lens. If you’re not right in their face, they’re more likely to loosen up. Plus, using the telephoto lens will make for less distortion.

Like “First Day of School,” “Spring Break,” and “Test Day,” there’s something about the words “Picture Day” that are oh-so-elementary to the school experience. I can’t help but be sentimental about them. For many schools, they are also an important fundraiser, another reason not to be too quick about dismissing them. Yet I still say you should make sure the minimally paid photographer who has less than a minute or two with your child isn’t the only one to capture the day. Seize the opportunity to photograph your child in all their Picture Day splendor!


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