Under Pressure, Student-Photo Industry Upgrades Image

By Rhea R. Borja — December 10, 2003 6 min read
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The student-photography industry, facing increasing competition and a projected decline in its client base, is undergoing a technological and marketing makeover as it struggles to stay relevant to schools and parents.

Many educators and parents now want more from an annual student photo than just a nice picture of Junior in his Sunday best, smiling against a generic blue background.

They want more choices and cheaper prices, which families can get from national retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart, as well as enterprising independent photo studios, industry insiders say.

Plus, schools now expect to be given digital products such as CD-ROMs that carry the image of every student, as well as student- and faculty-identification cards that can be integrated into a school’s administrative computer network.

“There are so many options for competitively priced portraiture,” said Beth Meyer, a manager for Kodak Consumer and Professional Imaging, a division of the Rochester, N.Y.-based Eastman Kodak Co. “Mom’s only option isn’t just the annual school picture anymore.”

Industry observers also note that student enrollment, which grew steadily in the 1990s, is also beginning to slow, from a projected 50.5 million K-12 students in 2003 to 50.1 million by 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

And perhaps the time-worn tradition of the annual school photo doesn’t have the pull it once had for families, said Scott Cubberly, the immediate past-president of the Professional School Photographers Association, a division of the Jackson, Miss.-based Photo Marketing Association International. Mr. Cubberly is also the president of Delaware, Ohio-based Cubberly Studios, which works with more than 100 schools in central Ohio.

“There seems to be less of a push from parents to maintain the tradition of school pictures,” he said, “perhaps because of [the prevalence] of divorced families or for economic reasons. Wal- Mart is less expensive than photo studios hired by schools.”

‘Difficult to Sell’

Some or all of those factors may help to explain why the buying rates have dropped for school portraits, from 69 percent in 1995 to 64 percent in 2002. And that rate is projected to fall even further, to 62 percent by 2005, according to statistics from the photo-marketing association.

“In many families, school pictures are a tradition preserving childhood memories,” states a recent association report on school-portrait industry trends. “Despite this sense of nostalgia, school photographs are becoming increasingly difficult to sell.”

The student-photo industry has tried to turn around the decline in interest.

Over the past 10 years, many photo studios began offering both fall and spring student pictures, for example. The fall photos are usually formal while the spring pictures are generally more casual, allowing students to have shots taken with their friends or in outdoor settings.

But those options clearly weren’t enough, and at least one marketing expert says the student-photo industry has been sitting on its laurels.

“The industry’s biggest challenge ... is mindset,” Glenn S. Omura, an associate marketing professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing, said in a recent marketing-association report. “We haven’t changed. We have an old way of conducting business that hasn’t changed for 50 years.”

Even so, many photo studios, from small, independent businesses to industry leaders such as Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Lifetouch Inc., are trying to keep up with the changes by offering new products and services.

Now, besides the requisite page of wallet-size and 5-by-7 pictures, many photo studios also offer student images burnished on keychains, bookmarks, backpack nametags, and stickers.

Schools these days can order class photos on poster-size prints emblazoned with their school logo or an inspirational quote, and more elementary schools are ordering “memory books,” a softcover version of yearbooks.

High school seniors who love their senior portraits but hate their braces, tattoos, or tan lines can get them digitally erased for an additional fee. They can also have black-and-white photos taken of themselves in extreme close-up, for example, or in other non-traditional portrait angles.

The industry also has the digital capability to add borders, graphics, and text on student or school photos, as well as change a picture’s background color and even erase bloopers in class photos.

“Photo studios are now responding to schools and parents’ needs,” said Denise Greer, the principal of 550-student North Verdemont Elementary School in San Bernardino, Calif. Her district contracts with Lifetouch Inc. “They have to offer more things because parents are looking for quality and for new ideas.

“The technology has allowed the picture industry to go further, like being able to offer CDs and ID cards,” Ms. Greer said. “These are things that parents have been asking for for years.”

The industry is also becoming more market-savvy.

Arlan Anderson, the principal at neighboring 1,000-student Warm Springs Elementary School, said Lifetouch lets students take home a comprehensive packet of school photos without paying first. That way, parents can look at the pictures at their leisure, and buy all or parts of the package.

“That was a good marketing technique,” he said.

The company also offers promotions to teachers, such as a drawing for a free pizza party for their class based on how many student photo packages are returned.

Digital Workflow

Many in the student-photo industry see the rise of digital photography as a way to gain back the market share it has lost over the years. The new products that digital technology makes possible are seen as bright spots.

But first, industry experts say, photo studios will likely experience growing pains as they make the transition from traditional film to digital technology.

Royal Photographics Inc.—a Bethlehem, Pa.-based studio that serves more than 100 schools in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York—is one such example.

The studio recently threw out much of its old equipment— such as traditional single-lens-reflex cameras that use film—and bought several new $1,500 Canon digital cameras, and one new professional laser printer. It also installed high-speed Internet connections in the office to use digital-photography software.

“Our customers were waking up to the digital world and forced the issue on us,” said Robert Kerr, the president of Royal Photographics, which has about a dozen employees. “We had to adjust to the changes. They came to us with new needs in the middle of the season. We’re expected to come up with digital and more sophisticated photo products.”

And while the new digital-photo products will bring in revenue, they also take more time to produce than traditional photos, said Mr. Kerr. As a result, he expanded his production staff to deal with the increased workload.

“This is a complete workflow change-over,” he said. “Now, when we come to a school, it takes us an extra two hours to prep it for the lab.”

David Peterjohn, Lifetouch’s senior director of business development, agreed that digital technology can be “a double-edged sword.”

“It looks good, but implementing it into a business is easier said than done,” he said. “Digital capture has lots of advantages, but a camera is still a vehicle that a photographer manages.

“The ability to work with the subject, get the proper pose and expression are important,” Mr. Peterjohn continued. “There’s nothing like capturing a great smile of a 3rd grader. Whether it’s digital-based or film- based doesn’t matter.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


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