Why are school photos so expensive?

Each year when the Lifetouch flyer comes home from school, I do a little portrait math.

For three years running, I’ve chosen the bare-minimum “entry” package in order to get a class picture and a few fridge photos for tech-averse relatives. In our school district, that package runs $13.00 for two 3x5s, four 2x3s, and the adorable group shot. With tax, that’s $2.01 per photo.

I can buy much more beautiful prints (and far more of them) from companies like Social Print Studio, which prints on heavy card stock that doesn’t require framing. I could use the $13 spent on school photos to buy 24 4x4 prints, or spend just two more dollars for 24 4x6 prints. With $4 shipping, those prints come out to $0.79 per photo.

Of course, I’d have to factor in a few other costs. My camera is one month older than my child, as is the portrait lens, both of which have been used to take 15,000 or so photos of him (counting just the ones I’ve kept). And I’d probably better count the photography books I’ve read to make me a better portrait photographer. Equipment and training have added another $0.05 per photo.

I’m not counting my labor here, because if we weren’t playing portrait studio we’d be playing pretend coffee shop or marble race olympics. I’m not counting backdrops either, because we’d have curtains, walls, and bookshelves even if I wasn’t photographing them. So in total, my home studio pricing is $0.84 per photo.

For more than a dollar less per photo, I can have not just a much cuter photo of my kid printed on much nicer paper, but dozens of much cuter photos of my kid printed on much nicer paper. I can also assure he never has a squint eye or a cheese face.

I can do all of this without giving any of my money to Lifetouch, or its new parent company, Shutterfly, which, among overcharging for photos of my child is also offering misguided advice about hats, which they claim “should never be included” in a school photo. That is clearly wrong, because:

Parent-sanctioned hat. Non-parent-sanctioned braid.

Parent-sanctioned hat. Non-parent-sanctioned braid.

There are, however, a few good reasons to buy portraits. First, there’s the class photo, which I often find tucked next to my son’s pillow in the morning and which I can only get by purchasing single portraits.

Second, when I buy that class photo, I’m also giving money to the class. Although they are not generally advertised as such, school pictures are often a fundraiser. Some reports suggesting schools receive around 40% of each student’s portrait money. It might be more ethical for schools to announce this fact to parents, but perhaps doing so would make parents less inclined to buy them—or less inclined to buy into other fundraisers throughout the year.

There are more than a few negative reviews of Lifetouch, many of them frustrated with their usually-photogenic kids looking so non-photogenic: uneven smiles, frowns, tears, uncombed hair, an untucked shirt, the cafeteria’s poor decision to serve spaghetti for lunch, glasses taken off, glasses hanging on the nose, unsanctioned wardrobe choices that should have been caught by a more scrupulous teacher.

The complaints generally aren’t that the pictures are expensive, it’s that they’re expensive and terrible, which brings us to the third reason for buying school photos: there’s value in relinquishing control over the photographic record.

We are excellent curators of our kids’ images. We can buy phones with three camera lenses that make all of us quasi-professional photographers (if perhaps still poor storytellers). We select only the best photos and crop and filter them to perfection. Our kids don’t look good all the time, but we’ve altered the record to make it look like they do.

Our kids rarely get an opportunity to defy us, at least not photographically, because we can instantly delete any result we don’t like. A school photo is still magical, because once a child leaves the house, their parents lose control over their image. A hat smuggled in a backpack. A t-shirt hidden underneath the sanctioned wardrobe. Hair braided while waiting in line. A photo taken of a kid whose parent isn’t there to censor.

That’s worth the extra dollar.