Go to the head of the class with school photography jobs

School photography isn’t for the faint of heart.  It’s chaotic and hectic and requires a great deal of planning and organization.  But if you enjoy working with kids and have the organizational skills, it can be a fun and lucrative part of your photography business.  We will explore school photography, discuss what equipment and gear you might need, and pricing and printing.  I’ll also share a few tips I’ve learned in the last few years working as a school photographer.

What is school photography?

School photography refers to shooting portraits for a school, preschool or even a daycare.  Most schools prefer head-and-shoulders portraits.  Smaller schools and preschools may request environmental shots.  Most schools, however, require individual portraits similar to what you’d see in a yearbook.  Some jobs might also require you to shoot class or school group photos.  This can be done on the same day as individual portraits, or later in the year.

And don’t forget about other school photography related work.  Some schools need a photographer for dances, graduations, cap-and-gown shots, athletic portraits or awards ceremonies.  A school photography contract may include just portraits, or it may include completing jobs for the school all through the year.

Becoming a school photographer

What gear should I use for school photography?

Gear requirements will vary by your shooting style, the location and the style of shoot the school expects.  The equipment needed for outdoor casual portraits will be much different than more formal portraits taken inside with studio lights.  I’ve completed some school photography jobs with a camera, lens and reflector.  Others require a full studio setup.  Before you accept a school photography job, be clear on the expectations of the school.  Make sure you have the equipment and skill necessary to complete the job before taking it on.

Brands of speedlights and strobes and types and brands of modifiers are all a personal preference.  Godox, Alienbee, Profoto, Neewer…it doesn’t matter what brand of gear you have.  If you are comfortable with it and confident it will stand up to a longer shoot, use it!

Here’s the equipment I take in a typical indoor, individual school photography job:

  • Nikon D750 camera and backup
  • Tokina 100 mm f/2.8 lens and Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens
  • 2 Godox AD200 strobes with extra batteries and heads (main and fill lights)
  • 2 Godox TT650 speedlights with extra batteries (hair light and background light)
  • Godox X1T radio trigger and extra batteries
  • 3-4 light stands and Bowens mount brackets (depends on my setup)
  • Tripod and L-bracket
  • Backdrop and stand
  • Chair, stool or apple crate for posing students
  • Painter’s tape, gaffer’s tape and signs to organize the flow of traffic
  • Extra memory cards
  • Tape measure
  • Gray card
  • Shutter hugger if shooting preschoolers or daycares
  • 42″ octobox (main light)
  • 33″ shoot through umbrella (fill light)
  • 10×24″ strip box and (hair light)
  • Clipboard and cell phone
  • A wagon to load it all in

If I’m shooting class photos my gear includes:

  • Nikon D750 camera and backup
  • Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens and Nikon 24-120 f/4 lens
  • Godox AD200 strobe with extra battery and head (I’ll take both strobes so I have a backup)
  • Godox X1T radio trigger and battery
  • 2 light stands
  • Step ladder for me
  • 75″ reflective umbrella light modifier (if shooting inside)
  • 22″ beauty dish socked (if shooting outside)
  • Extra memory cards
  • Tripod
  • Shutter hugger if shooting preschoolers or daycares
  • Gray card
  • Clipboard and cell phone
  • A wagon to load it all in

If it seems overwhelming looking at these lists, don’t worry.  With some practice and an established system, you will be able to get your setup ready in under 20 minutes.  The key is knowing your setup.  Know how to connect and sync your gear, where to place lights, where to position your subject, etc.  Picture day is NOT the time to figure that out.  Your system is developed in the studio during practice so that when the day comes and you are at the school, you know exactly what to do.

And again, not every school photography job requires this much gear or complicated lighting setups.  If you’re a natural light only shooter, stick with that.  Find schools that fit your style and experience and rock those jobs!

is school photography right for me?

How do I become a school photographer?

School photography can be a competitive business.  You are often competing with other local photographers and national companies like Lifetouch.

The first step to becoming a school photographer is practice and developing a portfolio.  If you’ve been doing a lot of portrait work, those images might fit a school photography portfolio.  If not, start building one!  Set up a sample portrait session for the kids in your neighborhood.  This is a great opportunity to develop your setup and system.  Invite the kids and parents over for some practice!  Experiment with different lighting setups and looks until you get something you love.  Use different backgrounds and different kids of different ages to build a portfolio with variety.

Where can you find backgrounds?  We can help!

The next step is to actually land a school photography job.  Start by approaching a small school or club.  The most likely place to get your foot in the door is with someone in your network.  I got started by approaching my daughter’s preschool, for example.  Think of schools or clubs in your area you have a connection with or are currently under-served.  Approach them about becoming their photographer.  Consider daycares, preschools, small private schools or organizations like the Scouts or Boys & Girls Club.  Find out who the decision makers for the school or group is and start building a relationship with them.

Bidding on school photography jobs

Many schools or districts hire their photographer through a bid process.  If that’s the case in your area, you’ll need to find when the school completes their bidding process and how to submit a proposal.  Bid requirements vary by area, but most will ask for things like a price list, product list, examples of past work, referrals and what complementary products or services you offer your clients.

Don’t over-extend

A word of warning…don’t bite of more than you can chew.  Start with a small school or group and build your skills and business before pursuing major contracts.  Jumping into a 300 student school with no experience is asking for trouble.  Good school photographers make it look easy, but taking on such a big job with no experience and no proven system in place will leave you frustrated and overwhelmed.  Build your picture day system and post-production work-flow over several jobs.  Then you might be ready for something more intense.

What camera is best for school photography?

School photographers shoot a variety of camera brands and models.  It’s really a matter of personal preference.  I use my Nikon D750, but know long-time pros shooting Canon crops, Sony mirrorless and other Nikon full-frame bodies.  Any camera that is reliable and has 20 or more megapixels is plenty.  Many school photographers actually prefer the smaller file sizes of images from mirrorless or crop sensor cameras to those of say a Nikon D850 because it speeds up their post-processing.

Let us introduce you to your new flash!

What lens is best for school photography?

Lens selection is again personal preference.  I prefer to use a portrait length lens when space allows if shooting head-and-shoulders portraits.  My go to is usually my Tokina 100 mm f/2.8 macro lens.  I like the sharpness and compression and feel it’s more flattering to my subjects.  It’s also less intimidating than something like a 70-200 mm f/2.8 lens.  If I’m shooting a wider, more environmental shot, I’ll generally use my Nikon 50 mm f/1.8 lens.  For group or class shots, I also use the Nikon 50 mm f/1.8 lens or my Nikon 24-120 mm f/4 lens.

Use the lenses you already have and with which you are comfortable!

School Photography

What are the best settings for school photography?

Settings are going to vary depending on your environment and setup.  One of the reasons high volume school photographers use flash is that we can recreate the exact same look every time regardless of where or when we are shooting.

If you are shooting outside, settings will be similar to shooting a family or senior natural light portrait session.

If you are shooting flash, understand your settings are going to be different.  We are relying on the flash to light our scene, not a wide-open aperture.  My beginning camera settings are as follows:

  • Aperture: f/8
  • Shutter speed: 1/160 of a second
  • ISO: 100

Why these settings?  A few reasons.  Most lenses are sharper closed down some.  My Tokina is sharpest at f/8.  My Nikon 50 mm f/1.8 is sharpest at f/5.6.  The smaller aperture also gives you a bigger depth-of-field, ensuring all of the student is in focus.  Because you don’t need to eliminate a messy background and don’t care about bokeh, there’s no need to shoot at a really wide aperture.

Sometimes I’ll need to tweak these settings occasionally.  But these are always my base starting point settings.

What do I charge for school photography prints?

School photography jobs are most often shot on speculation.  You take the portraits and get paid by parents that purchase packages.  Generally speaking, the school doesn’t pay you for your services.

Pricing your packages and prints, then, takes some research and a little guesswork.  Your prices need to be enough to earn you some money but also be in line with your market and palatable to parents.  Start by figuring about how much you’d like to earn for the job.  Then divide that number by how many packages you think you can sell.  Not every student will buy a package.  Participation rates can vary for me from 40 percent to 100 percent.  My average is around 90 percent for school portraits for K-6th graders.

Add that number to your production costs for the base package you plan to offer.  You can also factor in other costs you might have that are associated with this job, including envelopes, order forms, mileage or digital products you purchase.  Those would be part of the production cost for each package.

For Example:

  • 50 student preschool with an anticipated participation rate of 80 percent
  • $1,000 profit goal
  • $5 in production costs of base package

$1,000 / 40 packages purchased = $25.  $25 +$5 in production costs = $30.  This photographer would need to average $30 per student and sell at least a base package to 40 students to achieve her profit goal.

Use this number as a starting place, or guide, to set your pricing.  But remember this is just a place to start.  You should also research other volume jobs and see how photographers in your area are pricing their products.  If your prices are too high for your market, you might not get any orders; too low and you leave money on the table.

It takes several jobs to find a pricing and product model that works for you.  Evaluate your sales after each job and see what work and what didn’t and make adjustments in your next job.

Staying Consistent

The above example shows you how to price per job.  What it doesn’t account for is consistency among different volume jobs.  If you only do one or two school portrait sessions a year, some variations in pricing probably aren’t going to be a big deal.  But if you take on multiple schools in the same area, it probably makes more sense and is better customer service if your pricing is consistent among schools or similar organizations.

School compensation

Some school photography jobs are structured so that the school receives either a percentage of your sales or complimentary goods or services from their photographer.  It’s important to have all those details spelled out in writing at the beginning of your agreement with the school because you’ll need to build that into your pricing model.  If, and how, you compensate schools will vary.

School photography products and printing

One great resource for school photography is a professional photo lab that specializes in volume jobs.  These labs cater to school and athletic photographers with big jobs.  They offer pricing and order form templates, package suggestions and studio supplies.  Some integrate with client tracking systems like PhotoDay or Flow.  Most offer less expensive pricing per print if you place a large order.   They also have different products geared toward parents of school-age kids such as growth charts, magnets, wall clings and plaques.

These labs have a business model built on making money through volume.  If you’ve only ever place orders with professional labs that cater to portrait photographers, it is worth it to explore some volume labs.  A few hours of research to find a printer and develop a relationship with a volume printing lab will pay you many different dividends over the long haul.

Need more ideas on where to find a professional photo lab?  Read our tutorial!

Tips for school photography

I promised you the ABCs of school photography, so here those, plus a few extra tips to get you started!

A – Always be patient and kind.

If you don’t enjoy working with kids, don’t become a school photographer.  Picture day can be frightening and stressful for kids.  They deserve a photographer who will make it a positive experience.  Be patient, kind and respectful.  If not, you just might lose your contract to the photographer who is.

B – Bring backups.

Bring backup batteries, memory cards, order forms, etc.  Be prepared for something to go wrong or die or just not work!

C – Consider multiple poses.

If you have the time in your schedule and flexibility in your routine, mix it up with a few different poses.  This works great if you are giving parents a preview of the images before they order!

D- Do Digitals

Digital images are becoming a more popular request from parents.  Consider adding a digital option as one of your packages or making a digital image part of your most expensive package.  Parents will appreciate the option!

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E – Establish a system.

Create a workflow for picture day and post-processing.  You’ll need to think about things like how to match student names with images, how parents will order, how you will collect money, how will orders be delivered to parents, when orders are due, and about 100 other small items to make for a seamless picture day.  Make a plan, write it down and tweak it from job to job until you have a system.  Not only will it speed up your job, you’ll create more consistency from job to job.

F – Flash.  Learn It. Know It. Use it.

You might be a wonderful natural light shooter, but you’ll be in the running for more and bigger jobs if you can shoot off-camera flash well.

G – Give gifts! 

I try to either bring donuts or some treat on picture day or send the teachers and staff a small thank you after the session is completed.  Heck, do both!  Let the school know you appreciate their business and the work they are doing for kids!

H – Have fun.

Picture day doesn’t have to be a bad experience.  Have fun with the kids.  Enjoy their silliness, call them by name and get them laughing.

School photography is one of my favorite things I do.  Now that I have a system and am confident in my pricing, it’s become a welcome part of my business.  I benefit financially, yes, but I also love being in my community and connecting with kids.  If you have a heart for service and a love of children, it might become your favorite new gig, too!

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