Photography: Belinda Strodder
School photography is big business. With hundreds of portrait clients crammed into one space, a sales rate of between 70 and 85 percent, and revenues that can reach as high as $1,000 an hour, it’s no wonder that photographers are keen to get their foot in the school door. And it’s no wonder too that the market is generally dominated by large companies who have the capacity to manage a stream of subjects, process the images and make them available to parents. When the organization is this important — more important perhaps than the quality of the photography — schools tend to stick with the firms they know. That makes life hard for individual photographers and small studios who also want a piece of the school action. But there are alternatives. Schools might be big and stuffed with children that parents want photographed, but increasing numbers of children are also taking part in after-school activities. While they might not pay a grand an hour, these classes can still generate a useful and regular income stream for independent photographers.
And it’s a growing opportunity too. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, the percentage of students participating in clubs, community service, and sports increased between 2001 and 2005. Twenty percent of children were taking part in religious activities by 2005, 10 percent in Scouts and another 8 percent in community services. But the most popular after-school activities also happened to be the most photogenic. Sports, the most popular of all, saw the highest rise in participation from 28.4 percent to 31.1 percent of kindergarten through eighth grade schoolchildren.
A Market One-Third the Size of School Photography
Or to put it another way, aim to shoot after-school sports activities and you’re aiming at a niche almost a third the size of the high school photography market.
With that size though comes the competition. Much sports activity is organized through schools, giving school photography companies an incumbent’s advantage. TSS Photography even began with sports photography and later developed into school photography itself. Its 225 franchise units now photograph more than 1.5 million children every year.
Rather than try to compete with the big companies who already have the contacts to close down after-school sports activities then, it might be best to target those gyms and sports centers that aren’t connected to schools. Martial arts classes, for example, are very popular with even small children and offer plenty of opportunities to take great shots. The kids wear attractive uniforms, there’s lots of action and there are also regular graduation ceremonies and tests as the children move up a grade. Soccer and hockey too provide many of the same opportunities.
Alternatively, you can target an activity that’s at least as artistic as it is athletic. While religious activities came second in the list of most popular after-school activities — and make for pretty dull pictures — the arts came third, growing from 17.3 percent to 17.9 percent participation between 2001 and 2005. Trying to take pictures of sculpting or creative writing could be a struggle but dance classes offer an endless series of opportunities with frequent rehearsals, practices and performances.
Dance Photography Has Movement
Belinda Strodder, an Australian photographer, shoots for about 20 dance schools, picking up new clients through word-of-mouth referrals and some email-based direct marketing. Her shots may take place during a performance or in the studio while students practice, giving her two very different kinds of shoots.
“For performance photography, I shoot while the performance takes place,” she says. “What a buzz this is because you have to be on your toes with adrenalin pumping. For studio photography it is a mix of posed and candid. Students are encouraged to dance on set so I can capture movement, and a more portrait style of shot is captured when they are still.”
Whichever type of job Belinda is doing though, a good dance photo, she says, should contain movement, character and energy. And like sports photography, it helps if the photographer has a good understanding of the form. Belinda herself is a trained dancer and specializes in dance photography, giving her an edge when it comes to both pitching for jobs and landing the right images at the right time. The pinnacle of a movement or jump, for example, is caught by instinct, she says.
Because dance classes tend to be small in comparison to schools, the organization is less important than it needs to be for school photography. But Belinda still has to show the pictures she produces to parents and enable them to place orders. That turns out to be remarkably simple. Belinda uploads and displays the photos using Simpleviewer in conjunction with Porta, two software programs that turn photo directories into easily navigable Flash-based albums. Parents are then given a private URL that enables them to see the shots and choose the images they want to purchase.
All of that is easy to do for any independent photographer but Belinda does copy at least one strategy from high school photography. Part of the deal in winning a school photography contract will usually be a donation paid back to the school by the photography company. The amount varies. According to Chris Wunder of PortraitEFX, Inc. it can be as low as 10 percent in the Midwest and as high as 50 percent in the southeast. The national average is about 20 percent but schools can also ask for other services such as ID cards instead of cash.
Belinda voluntarily gives 7 percent of the revenues she collects back to the dance schools.
“For me it satisfies my need to contribute to a school that supports my work,” she explains. “For the school I suppose it would help to pay for hall hire/electricity/extra staff for the shoot day.”
And no doubt it also helps when it comes to winning jobs too.
School photography might be the biggest opportunity in portrait photography but students don’t learn everything they need to know in the classroom. Look to after-school activities and you can both sidestep the big companies and give yourself a far more interesting set of images to shoot at the same time.