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School Photography in 2017...Leaves Much To Be Desired

15th June 2017 General Articles

Image Science is a business that exists solely to service and support enthusiast and professional image makers.  My personal background is photographic, so naturally in our early years (way back in the early 2000s) - there was a strong emphasis on photographic content and approaches around here.  However, over the last 10 years we've deliberately diversified and we're now equally at home working with Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and really any type of visual artist.  And it's our pleasure each and every day to do so.

That being said, the support of professional photographers remains close to our hearts - not least because all of our staff are or have been professional photographers at some point in their careers.  Personally, I always do what I can to support pros, through extensive efforts to help educate photographers, but also in more immediately tangible ways, by (shocking idea, this -) actually paying for work.  For example, despite the fact that through our good relationships with lots of great photographers we could have had numerous professionals shoot our wedding for us as a favour - we instead paid one of our favourite wedding photographers to do the job as per any other normal wedding (and a lovely job he did too!).

So, when it comes to the annual ritual of school photography - which must be one of the greatest consistent money spinners remaining in photography - we're the first to be happy to pony up the not insignificant sums requested.  But I've got to say with each passing year it's getting harder to bring myself to do this.  Without unreasonably tooting my own horn....I can obviously easily replicate the results - indeed, considering the points below, I can easily produce something considerably superior to what we get.  But I want to support the industry, so we do our bit and duly fill out the labyrinth forms each year, and choose from the packages available....all of which are clearly designed to suck as much money as possible, rather than from a customer benefit perspective.

I am not going to name names but this is one of Melbourne's larger school photo organisations as far as I can tell.  Here's a summary of what we received this year, and the problems I have with all of this:

  • Firstly, and more than anything else, I find it just ridiculous that if you fail to order digital files at the time of order...and then attempt to do so _the day after getting the prints_ - this is 'not possible' (in a 'you can't be serious' tone of voice).  We failed to tick one box this year....but digging up that one jpg (for a fee!) is apparently just too hard for them it seems...which suggests either just a woeful inability to capitalise on an opportunity at their end for some easy extra funds, or some utter and quite ridiculous failure of their digital systems management.
  • Secondly, the print quality.  Gone are the days of rich, quality traditional photographic (chemistry) prints.  Have they instead chosen to take advantage of the major revelation in photographic printing of recent years - the marvellously archival and wonderful quality inkjet print?  Have they heck - instead they're printing on glorified laser printers - on papers so weak and floppy they'd look more at home in Domain magazine than in a proper frame.  The actual print quality upon those papers could only be described as mediocre if one was feeling especially generous - in truth if a first year student handed up a print of that quality in a photography course, I'd fail them.
  • The 'booklet' that at least used to have a bunch of pages in it, and included all sorts of fun-for-the-nannas things like calendars and key ring thingumys etc, is now a spartan 4 page job with essentially no content and graphic design fresh from the 90s.
  • The cost is about $40 for each modest sized (5 by 7in) print.  For that I actually expect some real level of quality - to the photography itself, and the prints.  Call me crazy.  Yep the photos are just about sharp (indeed educated observers might call them over-sharp and crunchy).  But the white balance is all over the place (3 distinctly different skin tones for each of 3 shots - all shot within hours of each other under a fixed lighting studio setup)...I mean - this is rookie stuff people.  Use the profit from just two of your prints and buy yourself a ColourChecker please! 
  • The digital files - overly compressed pre-sharpened 8 bit JPGs - of course.  God forbid in this day an age of < $100 per terabyte they'd offer  proper TIFFs (or even the RAWs - although I doubt they're even shooting RAWs to be honest)

The value received feels nothing at all like the cost paid.

I (fully) understand the high costs of doing business in modern Australia - but this particular service is so squirreled down to minimise their cost and maximise their profit that it's just got to the point of offensively bad work.  The value received feels nothing at all like the cost paid.  And that's a fundamental problem for a service offering.

I'm sure there are other factors at play - most likely they use an off the shelf management system that provides file management and web ordering services that tie the vendor to a particular lab.  But the net result is a very low quality product, and it certainly is possible to do much better.  Bespoke processes cost more, especially in initial setup - but investment in such a system would then reap rewards for years to come, and would free you to produce a much higher quality product.

The only good thing I can think to say about it is both the kids are at least smiling & well presented (but God only knows they've had plenty of practise in front of a camera at home!!).  Of course one is shot with the subject in 3/4 presentation, and the other one front on, so the photos don't really match each other in any meaningful way. 

So...this is my personal plea, rant really, to those of you out there in the school photo industry - please just lift your game!

Photography is hard enough as an industry these days - yes, all the Uncle George photographers underbidding has affected your market - but if you're producing work like this - you've really only got yourself to blame if people are turning to other options or just giving up on 'professional' services.  Because this is far from professional. 

The simple fact is: Uncle George is probably doing a better job at supplying what parents want, and at a far lower price.  Even a rudimentary knowledge of photography and printing, and a tiny bit of actually caring about your customer's final experience, should be enough to produce significantly better results than this.

It seems to me this large scale school photography setup is ripe for disruption.  Seems to me there's a gaping hole in the market here for an enterprising & energetic tech. savvy team of photographers to present a much much higher quality product to these schools.  And I'm not saying every school photograph needs to become a superb work of art, but some basic process management and use of long established quality printing approaches would turn the whole thing from what feels like a painful money extraction into a real pleasure.