School pictures: How parents can escape the pricey packages

School picture season is upon us, and many parents feel helpless to find inexpensive alternatives to pricey packages offered by school-appointed photo studios. One mom's solution to Picture Day sales pressure.

Steve Jacobs/Post Star/AP
Crystal Staeple holds her daughter Caelyn, as she takes a picture of her daughter Danica,5, during the first day of school at the Bolton Central Schools, in Bolton Landing, N.Y.,Tuesday, Sept. 2.

As much as parents covet mementos of their children’s school experience, the high cost and frequency of school portraits has driven some parents nationwide to complain bitterly about what they view as a source of financial and emotional expense.

Perhaps it’s because we live in a digital age where high-quality images (and applications that allow amateurs to enhance them) are so affordable and accessible, that having a child’s school portrait taken by a professional photographer, such as the prevalent Lifetouch company, is often viewed as a bi-annual burden to some parents.

Lifetouch, a 70-year-old company based in Eden Prairie, Minn. promotes itself on its web site as “the world’s largest employee-owned photography company” and after calling a dozen school districts across the nation I found them to indeed be the prevailing choice. Lifetouch also owns: FLASH! Digital Portraits, The Studio at Target, and J.C. Penney portraits, as well as Lifetouch Church Directories and Portraits Inc., according to its web site.

The criticism the company endures for high-priced packages may not be entirely deserved, since the responsibility for the pricing is shared with the school districts, according to the company.

“While we try and encourage school districts to tell parents, the fact is that most aren’t made aware that our price is inflated by 50 to 100 percent by the schools as fundraisers,” says Kelvin Miller, media spokesperson for Lifetouch.

This fact was confirmed by the Virginia Beach Public Schools Public Relations manager Jeff Barba, who says his district gives schools a choice of three photo companies to choose from – Lifetouch, Candid Color, and Strawbridge Studios – and “all of those add on about 50 percent to the price to benefit the district. That is the district makes 50 percent of the final proceeds.”

I have often seen my social media feeds blow up with heated posts about the high cost of school photos, however, the sales methods also seem to steam parents.

If you Google the term Lifetouch, you will get some pretty standard advertisements and links to the company's properties online. But if you use stronger words such as “dislike” along with the company name, scores of posts complaining about the sales approach in particular pop up.

Parenting blogger Robyn Welling felt so strongly about this issue that back in October 2011 she published a three-part blog series titled “I hate Lifetouch photography.” In the posts, Ms. Welling talks about the high cost of the photos and muses over where all the rejected pictures of our kids end up.

She writes, “I mean, they've already printed them out, and they're pictures of my kids,” Welling wrote. “Are they going to try to sell them to some other family? Does the CEO of Lifetouch frame all the returned photos and keep them in his office, pretending to have millions of grandkids?”

According to Mr. Miller with Lifetouch, there is no “shrine” per say, just a contract with another national company to recycle the images which, he notes are printed on paper made from “fast-growing trees” such as eucalyptus trees.

Now I have an image of thousands of koala bears munching pictures of my kids stuck in my head.

Welling and other parents have pointed out that buying a complete photo package of your child’s images from Lifetouch can cost upwards of $45 per child. And the company’s tactic of sending printed pictures home with kids is a difficult sales pitch to turn down.

It essentially make kids the unwitting sales tools, asking their parents to make the decision to accept or reject the pictures.

As parents, we say “no” to kids all the time. However, there is a strong peer pressure element for both parent and child, because saying “no” may send a bad message about how a parent feels about the child’s image, and also the level of support a parent is willing to give their child’s school.

As a financially struggling parent of four, I have spent the past 15 years feeling emotionally blackmailed when my kids came home bearing a packet of their images, already printed out with an additional batch of cool laminated key fobs and bookmarks.

“You’re not keeping my pictures,” one of my sons would inevitably ask, scandalized, as he clutched the large, expensive, envelope filled with his replicated image in different sizes, his many eyes staring me down through the thin, crinkly plastic window.

Rejecting the child’s image and sales pitch, knowing that this places the child in a position of having to hand back their unwanted images to the teacher in a classroom full of kids whose parents may be keeping their images, is not a pretty picture.

Picture day also happens now multiple times per year in school districts around the country.

While I gave in when my first two sons were very young (15 years ago or more) it quickly became unaffordable.

My solution has become to shoot a super cool batch of pictures of each son with my camera (today I can also take these pictures with my phone). Then I allow the boys to run wild with the computer using a free program such as Google’s Picasaor Funny Photo Maker to alter the images any way they like.

It is fun and creative family time. Through the years I have helped them make collages and sometimes even calendar pages with their pictures. Then, we put the images on a cheap jump drive and head somewhere like Walgreens to make a glossy print for a dollar or two each.

Total cost was usually around $10.

The relief of never again having to suffer the guilt buy or photo rejection ritual again? PRICELESS.

The boys all agreed that our images were the better buy and lots more fun to create.

I wish I could convince the schools to allow parents this option for yearbook images. I think we’d have ourselves a viable, affordable, and fun solution.

While I want to help support our schools, perhaps it’s time for schools to offer parents expanded pricing options, making one of the two annual school photos sessions tariff-free so they are affordable, or even the chance to submit their own photos for the yearbook for a small fee. That way schools can still benefit, and parents who question their photography skills can still find resources when picture day rolls around.

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