A fifth-grader smiles for a photographer during picture day at Templeton Elementary School in Bloomington, Ind., on Sept. 15. (Chris Howell/The Herald-Times via Associated Press)
As someone who came of age on the cusp of the technological boom, I often find myself toggling between nostalgia and the instant gratification of gadgetry now that I’m a parent. At no time of year is this more apparent than on picture day at my daughter’s school.
An “early learning center” that houses preschool through pre-K only, my 5-year-old’s school still manages to produce a thin yearbook every spring, with class photos and individual portraits of each student. To prepare for that, we parents dress our children to the nines in the fall, just as we were once dressed by our parents. And many of us still shell out a pretty penny to Lifetouch or other school portrait companies for packages of 8x10s, 5x7s and wallet-size prints. The key difference: When we were young, our parents didn’t carry cellphones that turned them into our personal paparazzi on a daily basis.
I’m constantly photographing my kid. Why, then, can’t I resist the annual lure of the Lifetouch brochure? It’s true: I don’t have any of those trademark, albeit cheesy, woodland or bookcase backdrops to use for my impromptu cellphone photo shoots. But there’s also just no replicating a professional portrait that commemorates your child’s time as a tiny student, gearing up for a 12-year journey. Nothing better contextualizes your child’s experience at school than a class portrait.
The picture day tradition dates back to the early 20th century. Though class photographs date back much further, companies such as Lifetouch and Olan Mills, which remain core suppliers of school photography today, were founded in the 1930s. From then until as recently as 18 years ago (when I was a senior in high school and smartphones were still the stuff of fantasy), school pictures were a tangible form of social currency. We distributing them like calling cards, our signatures and messages to friends and family scrawled on the back. They were also a class marker; we could only afford to distribute them freely to classmates if our parents could afford the deluxe package with a ton of wallet-size prints. And, of course, the pressure to look one’s best in a school portrait was compounded by the knowledge that the photo wasn’t just for fun exchanges with friends; it would also be published. School pictures were the defining public record of our appearance for the entire academic year during which they were taken.
Today, stakes aren’t quite as high. In a piece for the Boston Globe’s Beta Boston blog, Daniel Dern interviewed students and yearbook reps about the state of print yearbooks at high schools and colleges in an increasingly digital culture and found that, while the size of yearbooks may be shrinking — page counts had decreased about 10 percent between 2009 and 2014 — students were still interested in hard copies of their photos. “You can sign a paper copy,” one interviewed student noted, “but you can’t sign an electronic yearbook.”
Dern also noted the rise of the limited run and niche yearbooks, like the ones printed for my daughter’s school. Entourage Yearbooks’ chief executive Elias Jo told Dern: “Thanks to just about everybody having a digital camera, we see more people making yearbooks who never did before, like day care, pre-school, and kindergarten. . . . Many parents aren’t making prints from the pictures they take, these yearbooks are like photo albums of their kids.”
Guilty. Of the thousands of pictures I’ve taken of my daughter and saved in iCloud since she was born, I’ve printed far fewer than 100 of them. I may upload them to social media as a way of sharing carefully curated shots with faraway family and friends, but once they’re posted, they’re buried in a feed that’s constantly being repopulated with more recent photos. For me, digital photos are often as ephemeral as short-term memory.
Each year, I’ve ordered the third-smallest school picture package available, and I’ve relished waiting for that window envelope of prints to come home in my daughter’s backpack. Not knowing exactly how they’ve turned out is surprisingly novel. Did she smile — and if so, was it close-mouthed or toothy? Did she strike a pose? Was her hair flyaway or smoothed? The mystery of it all is refreshing. And even though I think it’s a bit of a ripoff at her age, I order the $20 yearbook in the spring, too. By then, the autumnal photos have either been mailed, handed out or, more likely, if I’m being honest, spent months languishing in a File Folder of Good Intentions. Those photos are different from the hundreds I take of her extemporaneously. They capture those rare times when I’m not with her, when she’s developing a social and academic life independent of my own. For that reason, I suspect school pictures will always be meaningful to students and parents. Nostalgia is better when it’s tactile.
Use these tips to help your child get ready for a great-looking school portrait that you’ll treasure forever.
- Help your child pick out clothes and colors that look good on them. After all, your child is the star of the photo—not their shirt, so avoid slogans, logos, and big patterns. Small jewelry and accessories are fine but nothing too big or distracting.Make sure to check your flyer to see sample poses for your Picture Day. Some poses may show pants or skirts, so plan the complete outfit.
- Glasses are okay! Lifetouch photographers know all the tricks to reduce glare.
- Any hairstyle works for Picture Day. Schedule haircuts a few weeks ahead of time to allow hair to grow back a little, or you can go for a fresh-cut look.
- Keep kids relaxed and ready to be themselves. Smiles can look fake if they’re practiced ahead of time. Remember, smiles are like french fries—they’re better when they’re fresh.
- Don’t worry about “perfect”! That hair that always sticks up or a missing tooth shows your child just as they are right now—and you’ll enjoy looking back on that for years to come. On Picture Day, teachers and volunteers will help straighten collars and check posture. And, if you like, we have retouching options for scrapes and blemishes.
That’s it! Our experienced photographers are pros at making a fun and worry-free Picture Day.
Make sure to order your school pictures today.