Purchasing High School Senior Portraits

Posted on August 10, 2011


It is finally that time where you have one more year left, and you want to some special images created to celebrate that you are a senior and graduating in the next year. Where do I start? Who do I choose? What should I be thinking about when I decide? Are there any gotcha’s to be aware? This entry will cover where do you go to find a photographer, what kinds of things should you be aware with purchasing high school portraits, and a little of the different fees photographic studios charge. Your cost as a consumer is a combination of session fees, editing and touchup fees, and photographic printing fees. Don’t get caught paying any more than you have to for your images or surprised with additional fees that you didn’t expect to pay.

I am a portrait photographer who shoots senior portraits, and need you to be aware of this as you read this entry. The goal isn’t to sell you my services in this blog entry, but rather to inform you and make you a more educated consumer. With this disclosed, let us continue with our discussion.

The first thing to know is that the photographer that your school uses for the year book pictures doesn’t have to be the only pictures taken and you are under no obligation to purchase images from them. Many people purchase just those images for their senior portraits. These images are often quickly done, and just offer a few different images. Maybe they offer a change in clothes, maybe not. They are usually taken in a makeshift studio set up over the weekend. The also provide a fixed set of image packages, and then charge a lot more for individual pictures. The choices that you have depend on the contract that the school has with the photographer. The school always gets a “kick-back” from everything you purchase from this photographer as their “share” of the profits.

What if you want something more than the school photographer? How do I find a good photographer? What should I expect to pay?

These are all excellent questions. Many high school seniors look to their friends and see who their friends use as a photographer. Eventually choosing who to go to by whomever they think is best from their friend’s choices. Other students are approached by photographers through social networking sites, and asked to be a “representative” of their studio in exchange for free or discounted images. If you can get a free session and images from someone who you like the images that they take, by all means you should try to do that. Just be aware that there is no such thing as a free meal, and you will be expected to do some work marketing that studio’s services. You will also be restricted from doing senior portraits with other studios during that one year. Some people look on the Internet by search engines, social networking sites (Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook), and even the online yellow pages. All are great choices to look for places. Something to keep in mind is that you are getting a “filtered” look at who is available if you go to the Internet based on “Search Engine Optimization” or SEO for short. These are companies to monitor their pages and modify the search terms they want to be at the top in searches so they are always at the top. This doesn’t mean they are the best. Most people just look at the top three entries. If you use the Internet, look at some of the others a little further down. You never know what you will find when you look.

What about paying for photographic services?

Let us cover some background. Photographers are in a business and need to pay their bills. Most focus on one of two business models: a) Mass quantity or b) Extensive service. Mass quantity is going through as many customers as possible to generate income. The school photographer is an example of this type of service. The studios in front of a supermarket are also like this. One of the keys to their business is that they have a fixed number of setups and lighting that gets used over and over for each customer. Session fees are usually low because they make their money on you buying additional prints from them. The custom and high service side of photographers goes to special locations and everything is unique to you as a customer. You choose what you want, where you want, how you want, and when you want it. These photographers frequently charge more for their services and prints. Examples are your typical custom photographic studio. The more custom a studio or photographer, the less likely you will see the same type of image with one of your friends. Most photographers are somewhere in the middle of these two ends of the spectrum. It is important to realize where the photographer is on this spectrum when evaluating a photographer.

The first thing to do is look for photographers in your area. They can be the ones your friends have used, that you have found on the Internet, or from word of mouth from other people. The key is to find a good number of them. Take the time and look at their images. What you see posted is often the best of their images and gives you a sample of their best work. If you have a friend, ask to see their shoot images to get an idea of what a typical shoot is like for them and if they left images out. Try to Google each of the photographers looking for other locations than their own web site for images. This is your best indication of what they will do for you.

Next, look at what the photographer’s charge for the session. Don’t think your only cost is just the session amount. The session amount is paying just for the photographer’s time (and the photographer’s staff) to shoot your images. If this is a package deal, try to figure out what the session fee amount is. Some photographers intentionally try to mislead their customers – so be very careful. For instance, one of the things some photographers will do is change money into points or units. By changing the units, you no longer think about the cost to you. Also, beware of mandatory print packages with that session. This is when the photographer advertises just the session fee to appear lower or cheaper than they are, and when you sign up for the session, they bill you for both the session and mandatory print package. Keep in mind that session fees are usually for a set number of hours, usually a fixed set of outfit or looks, fixed at one person, and probably don’t include hair and makeup. Rarely do they include outfits or jewelry. If you want to add another outfit or look, there will be an additional charge. If you want to have a few images with your best friend forever, there will usually be another fee. If you want more time to shoot, there will be an additional charge. If you want makeup and hair styling, there will be more charges. Think about the images you want to take, and decide if you need to factor any of these additional fees into your session cost. If you do, see what they are for the various photographers that you are considering.

If at all possible, start a dialog with the photographers who you are considering. Talk to them about what they charge and the services they offer. Most don’t bite, and if they do, I am sure they will have had their rabies shots. Since this is only one cost, let us see if we can determine the next type of cost you will have with senior portraits.
The second cost with a senior portrait session is the prints of the images themselves. What do the prints or digital images cost? Creating some kind of grid to compare those prices is another indication of what you will pay. You will see that each studio charges different amounts. This is also part of where you as a consumer must make a choice. Remember, you are paying a photographer for their creativity and services, and they have bills to pay themselves. This is why the prices are like they are. Sure, you could go to the local drug store and print out an 8×10 for $2.50 but the quality of the print and colors are going to be better on the photographer’s equipment, and you are still paying for the photographer with each print you ask to be created. You are also paying for the quality of service and time spent with you with each of those images, too. This is why you will pay $20 or more for their 8×10 images. There are other little fees that may be included that we will cover in just a minute including editing, digital images, and other services. These all add to the cost of your total package cost.

This brings up some issues that you need to keep in mind. Frequently, customers want to have the digital jpeg image files so they can print their own images (also known as digital images) to avoid paying the fees that a photographer charges for their prints. It isn’t unusual for photographers to offer someor all on CD for this purpose. Keep in mind that photographers will have to give you a release so you can print the images if they do give you digital copies, and the photographer will be losing their print income when they do this. This will save you money if you print a lot of the images that are given to you. On the other hand, this is why these are frequently a pricy option if you want them. Alternately, there may be a “low res” option with watermarks that serve as advertising for a photographer. You won’t be able to print these images out in any size, and they frequently have the photographer’s logo on them. They are intended to be posted on social networks, and frequently you will get these at a discount or no cost at all from the photographer.

Something else to consider is looking at what their standard editing is for images and guess at an estimate of what your editing costs will be. These editing costs can be substantial if you aren’t careful. I would like to say that everyone doesn’t require any editing, but there is always some editing on every image taken. Frequently, the photographer hires a graphic artist to perform these duties, and pays them on a per hour basis. If you ask for this type of service, get an estimate for the service and hold the photographer to it.

The last thing to consider is all the other services that are included to you. This includes the time to meet with you or talking with you on the phone. Do they meet with you at all? Is there any planning in what you want? How about meeting after the shoot? Do you get to review all the images, or only a small “select” set? Do they “select” a small group of “premier” images from the shoot and charge you more? These are usually the ones you want, and the lower price is on the ones you probably don’t want. Can they sell your images to others or use them in other ways, or are they only to be sold to you? Do they give you a web space or place to host your images, and then for how long if they do? Do they do the shoot at a convenient time for you? Can you purchase any images after 30 days? What happens to the images after 90 days? Each photographer is different in how they do things in their business. If these are important, you need to make sure the photographer allows or does the things you want them to do. Each of these incurs costs to the photographer and ultimately is included in the price you pay.

Hopefully, this gives you some idea of what to compare when purchasing senior portraits. Photographers are in the business to make a living and pay their bills for the products and services they offer. Each studio is different in what they offer and the prices they charge for their services and products. Most studios fit somewhere between two extremes of fitting as many customers in as possible through to one where they do everything custom and unique for you. Your cost in buying a photographer’s services and products is the sum of session fees, photographic print fees, and additional fees. Session fees include a per hour fee or flat rate fee, makeup and hair styling, per person fee, travel fees, location costs, and anything else related to the actual shoot itself. Photographic print fees include anything related to creating and printing the images for you on a per image basis. This means editing, potential profits in the case of digital images, web album hosting fees, exclusivity/privacy fees, and the like. Additional fees include everything else that would be incurred with your services through delivery of your images. This includes any meetings, conversations, review images, “premier image” fees, storage fees for future orders, and the like. Remember to talk to the photographers you are considering and ask them questions. This is how you will find out what your real costs will be, and not have any surprises when you pay for your products and services.

I hope you have found this useful. If you have any recommendations on updates or corrections, please feel free to send me an e-mail.

The infamous shameless plug at the end: If you are looking for a photographer for portraits, please take a look at XOIND Studios. More information can be found at XOIND Studios web page.

Edit: A few people have commented that they want to know what to expect to pay for senior portraits. I can only really answer for myself. I have pricing listed on the XOIND Studios web page for this. But, in general, a typical senior portrait session from people I know will probably cost $200-600, and a the images you purchase will be another $300 to $1200 (note that many of them require a purchase of 125% of the session fee worth of images, and billed when you schedule your session).

Edit: I am told by another photographer that it is common for high school students and recently graduated high school students to shoot senior portraits. For the prices that they charge for images, you probably won’t find a better price. But, also know that they aren’t a professional photographer who knows exactly what they are doing. Look hard at the example images they show and be cautious if you are considering this type of photographer.