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Here's looking at you

Gerald Haigh discovers that there's definitely more to school photographs than meets the eye. Why does the school photography business continue to be lucrative and competitive, given the ease with which parents can now photograph and video their own children? Part of the answer, according to Jan Gazey, mother of two primary schoolchildren, lies in the more formal look that the portrait firms achieve. "It's nice to get a picture that's properly posed, with school uniform, as opposed to the casual snaps we do at home. This year both our children were taken together, and it makes a really good photograph. "

Most medium to large schools reckon to make Pounds 200-Pounds 500 pounds a year in commission on school photographs. As Peter Johnson, head of Parkland Primary in South Wigston, explained, "Let's be honest, we do it partly to raise money, but we do actually find that parents appreciate having a good photo of their child as a souvenir of their growing up."

Child photography is a specialist skill. According to Barry Dodge, managing director of H Tempest, one of the biggest and longest-established firms in the business, "Over the last 15 years the parents have come to expect a much higher level of quality. It's one thing to be a photographer, it's another thing to take natural expressions of children quickly".

The successful firms understand this very well, and have built up solid business on word-of-mouth recommendation and repeat bookings. Peter Johnson says that "If somebody gets it wrong, they've lost that school and the school down the road gets to hear of it too. It's a cut-throat business".

Peter Johnson's photographs are handled by Professional School Portraits of Leicester, a firm which is well spoken of by many schools across the Midlands. Director Graham Kitching is clear about the ingredients of his success. "If a head's going to change, she doesn't look in yellow pages, she rings up two or three colleagues and asks which photographer they use."

For individual photographs, the usual arrangement is to send out a "package" to parents on sale or return. Returned pictures are destroyed, after re-usable mounts and frames have been rescued. Contents, prices and commission all vary, and firms keep a careful eye on each other, but at the lower end of the range there may be a medium-sized print, plus two small ones, in basic card mounts for just under Pounds 5, of which the school will keep about Pounds 1. Besides commission and quality - and a hassle-free visit - schools want painless financial accounting. Like most firms, Professional School Portraits frees schools from the task of handling money. "Sealed envelopes come in from the parents with money or returned photographs. It's all done on trust."

Individual photographs, annually taken, are the mainstay of this business. Many schools, however, also have groups taken classes, teams, perhaps the whole school. Most group photographs cost about Pounds 5. Spend a little more, though, and you can have something special in the form of a visit from flying photographer Malcolm Morgan of Heli-Photos.

I saw this firm in action at Coundon Primary School in Coventry, and very exciting it was too. The children first got into lines on the playground spelling out "CPS". Michael, arriving overhead dead on time with his pilot, took an aerial photograph of the school and its surroundings, including the spelled-out name. Teachers then shooed the children to the edge of the field, and the helicopter landed, to their intense excitement, just in front of them, amid much wind, noise and thrashing of surrounding trees.

After giving a 20-minute attention-holding talk about the helicopter, Michael Morgan then quickly lined up each class in turn for a group photograph with the helicopter filling the backround. The whole thing was over by mid-lunchtime, the helicopter having arrived overhead at 11.00am. The Heli-Photo visit is actually a multi-purpose event a little outside the school photograph mainstream. The school receives a workpack (put together by teachers) about helicopters, and some aerial photographs of the neighbourhood. All of this is paid for by sales of the photograph pack, which at Pounds 7.95 contains a group photograph, an aerial shot of the school and a child-friendly booklet called Captain Cabair's School Visit.

At the opposite end of the spectrum to Heli-Photos in terms of tradition is the 150-year-old photography firm of Gillman and Soame. Although they do all sorts of school photography, this firm specialises in group photographs, and particularly those long whole-school pictures that we all remember from school and college days. Always popular in independent schools, this style of picture is having a revival in the state sector.

Typically a school will have a large group done every four or five years. Bablake School in Coventry, for example, had a group photograph of its 850 pupils taken by Gillman and Soame last autumn for the school's 650th anniversary. Deputy Head Gill Thomas was impressed by the firm's professionalism. "They arrived at 7.30am to set up, because they needed to take account of the sun and so on. They were excellent in every way efficient, well organised."

Long ago, these groups were taken with the aid of a clockwork-driven camera that panned around a group placed in a semi-circle. According to pupil folklore, you could quickly dismount from one end of the group, sprint round the back to the other end and thus appear twice on the photograph. Now, pin-sharp, richly-coloured and subtly-lit results come from using a large format camera that produces a 10x8 inch negative. According to how they are mounted, pictures cost from under Pounds 20 to over Pounds 70 each.

Gillman and Soame's sales and marketing director, Tony Thornton, emphasises the importance of having good safe staging for the pupils to stand on. "In the old days you'd get out all the chairs and tables and benches and it could be disastrous." In response to this his firm developed its own "Trajan" portable staging which complies with all the relevant safety regulations. Tony Thornton points out that because it is secure, the pupils feel safe and therefore look more relaxed. And because it shortens the distance from front to back of the group, all the faces come out the same size. "It's made all the difference to the quality of the photographs. It allows you to go 11 rows high."

Finally, what about doing your own photographs? Geoff Holmes, head of Shilton and Ansty village school in Warwickshire does this. "There are some advantages. The parents can order just what they want instead of taking a package, and if they want reprints they can have any size that the lab offers from 6x4 to 16x20. Although I say it myself, the results are good. I know the kids and I generally really catch them the character comes through."

Before heads rush out to buy cameras, however, it is worth pointing out that Mr Holmes is an award-winning amateur portrait photographer. "You have to know what you are doing, and have the equipment. I use professional lights, for example." Mr Holmes is careful to emphasise that he is not in competition with the professional firms.

"We all bring different things into school. It might be music, but in my case it's photography."

Heli-Photos (part of Cabair Aviation), Elstree Aerodrome, Borehamwood, Herts WD6 3AW. Tel: 0181 207 6042 H Tempest Ltd, St Ives, Cornwall. Tel: 01736 75241 Professional School Portraits, 15 Trojan Way, Syston, Leicester LE7 1ZD. Tel: 0116 2695099 Gillman and Soame, Trajan House, Mill Street, Osney, Oxford OX2 0DJ. Tel: 01865 245354

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