Across the US, the school year has started and that means that soon, for many schools, it will be time for student portraits and yearbook pictures to be taken. While some schools do these photos during the early spring semester or later into the fall semester, many still hold them closer to the beginning of the school year so as to give the yearbook press time to organize the bulk of the photos and go through the various iterations of layouts and designs.
Generally, schools hire a professional portrait photographer to come in and do the photos. The professional will know what to do and will already have all of the gear he needs to take care of his side of matters. Therefore, our tips will focus more on helping you and your child to get the best school photo you can.
1) Make certain you know when school photos are being done — Most schools will send home announcements and pre-order forms for school portraits. You will need to check in your child’s backpack and ask them directly about it. If the school has a web presence, you might check there in case your child is one who frequently forgets to mention such things. Once you know when the photos will be done, mark it on the calendar and set yourself any other reminders you deem necessary. Fill out the pre-order form and send the payment as requested.
2) Prepare to prepare for the session — Depending on your child’s age, this may take more or less time and may (or may not) become a contest of wills. Parents generally want portraits with their children wearing the best clothes they can, with their hair decently arranged, and (for older children) any blemishes obscured or make-up that is appropriate. However, no child wants to wear something to school that will be uncomfortable or prevent them from playing or socializing normally during their breaks. Some schools do have strict uniform requirements as well so check with your child’s school to see if they will allow non-uniform clothing on the day of the shoot.
3) Get ready for the photo shoot — A day or two before the photo shoot, sit down with your child and discuss what you would like them to wear and if you would like them to have a particular hair-style or hairdo for the photo.
For young children: This discussion will be less a discussion and more of an announcement. Show your child what you would like them to wear and use a hair-style or hairdo that they are used to wearing (this is not the time to begin doing experimental hairstyling). If they have major objections to the outfit, see if they would prefer your second or third choice but, in the end, you the parent decide what they are going to wear and how you are going to handle the disagreement.
For tweens: Children between the ages of 10 – 13 will have much more feedback into what they want to wear and have the skills to make a forced clothing option backfire. They may want to wear something more comfortable or more in line with what all their friends are wearing. However, again, you’re the parent. If they are wanting to wear something that is completely inappropriate, veto it. But, if they simply do not want to be stuck in your choice all day, let them take their regular clothes to school with them so they can change as needed. Older tween girls may want to wear make-up so be certain that, if you allow this, you check their make-up in the morning and explain to them that less is more and that laying on the make-up too heavily will cause the light to reflect in odd ways and might make them look terrible in the photo (especially given that most 13 year olds are not the most skilled make-up artists).
You may also wish to speak with older tweens about how to make their expressions look natural so you do not get the “dead-eyed forced fake smile” in the photo (more on this in the next section).
For non-senior teens: Wardrobe, make-up, and hairstyle options with this age-group become less about imposing your will and more about reaching an agreement you can both live with. Do veto any clothing options that are extremely inappropriate (“no, sweetheart, you are not leaving the house wearing daisy dukes”). However, these are the years to let your child do something (photo-wise only) that they may regret or that might make for a wonderful story years down the road. So, if your child dresses like a goth most days, replete with make-up to match, let it go.
Instead, for this age group, focus on facial expressions and intent. Explain that simply turning up the corners of the lips does not make a smile. Have them practice in front of a mirror. Suggest that, instead of focusing on smiling “big” like they did when they were younger (a trick that generally works with smaller children because of their lack of more complex emotional drives and reasoning), they think about something that makes them happy. A favorite story. A movie-star they daydream about meeting. Tell them to fix that in their mind instead of worrying about looking good for the photo. A relaxed, natural smile, even if it winds up being more of a wry grin, is a thousand times better than the fake, forced, dead eye smile that makes the person look more like a deer caught in the headlights than someone having a photo done.
Kids in this age group may not always want to smile for the camera, as well. Again, have them practice the expression they plan to use and suggest ways to make it look more photogenic. Lastly, if your child is determined to use a silly expression, practice it with them so that it at least looks good and check to see if you can get a second photo set with a more normal expression.
For seniors — Senior portraits are done very differently than normal school photos and will be the subject of a future blog entry that will also include homecoming, prom, and school club photo sessions.
4) Make plans for a retake if necessary — Sometimes kids miss the first photo day due to illness or other things that keep them from school that day. Or, the child may have come down with a rash, allergic reaction, or injury that you would not want photographed for posterity (my younger brother wrecked his bike and had a black eye the day before school photos and one year I was covered head-to-toe in poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac the week of school photos). Sometimes the child will rebel and deliberately ruin their first photo session or the photo session will result in unflattering images of your child. That’s why schools generally plan a second photo session. If your child needs to have their photos redone or done later, know when the re-shoot will take place and plan accordingly.
5) Don’t sweat the small stuff — At the end of the day, a school photo is not that big a deal. Yes, it goes in the yearbook and yes, it’s generally something you’ll want to hang on the wall as a milestone marker. However, if it doesn’t turn out perfect, just take a deep breath and stay calm. Please do not take the frustration out on your child or the photographer. Check into having a re-shoot done or simply chalk it up to kids being kids and tell yourself that the weird expression or hairstyle (or whatever) will make for an interesting and entertaining story years down the road. Humor and a long-sighted view will serve better than temper in this case as in many others.
Portrait photography can always be a bit of a hit-or-miss thing when it comes to getting the photos done for an entire school. There are hundreds of students to photograph over the course of a day, the setting cannot be changed easily, lighting rigs can cause problems with heat and make-up, and kids themselves frequently balk at following orders. However, with proper preparation, getting your child’s school photo this year can be made much easier.
What are some strategies you’ve tried in the past? How have they worked out? Are you planning to try out our advice this year? Let us know in the comments below!
– da Bird
Photo “Fake Smile” taken from NakaKon – “Terrible School Photos…. Again.”
Photo “Fond Memories” taken from Yearbook Fail.