Modern Life

Say, “Cheese!” Why we still love classic school photos in the age of Instagram

How the printed school photos in our wallets and on our walls create memories that outshine Instagram filters and Facebook likes.

By Stacy Rapacon — August 20, 2019

As a mother of three young children — ages 2, 5, and 7 — I take dozens of digital snapshots every day, through every activity, be it a mundane or milestone moment. And yet, I’ve always cherished their official school photos, starting when my eldest was in preschool and the photographer captured my daughter alongside some details of who she was at age three: Her favorite color was pink and when she grew up, she wanted to be an elephant. The following year, my son joined the preschool, and on picture day, his big sister helped him brave the camera lens. The result is my favorite picture of them, holding hands no less, that now hangs in our living room. These class pictures have given me a glimpse of who they are on their own, without me. I love it.

And I’m not alone: 96 percent of parents say they want official school photos, according to a survey from Lifetouch, one of the nation’s largest school photography companies.  

With approximately 57 million K-12 students in 132,853 U.S. schools — and each one getting a school photo — it’s no wonder the industry pulls in $1.6 billion a year, according to IBISWorld, a Los Angeles-based market research firm.

Photographer Kim Marchesano, who works with preschools and the middle school in her hometown of Kinnelon, New Jersey, says she also sees high demand for her school photos year after year, especially for prints.

“While I do offer digital-only packages, the most popular is one of the print packages,” Marchesano says. “That’s kind of surprising these days.”

Indeed, even in this social-media-driven age, in which people can (and do) obsessively document every minute detail of their children’s lives, the school photo still holds a special place in our hearts. 

“The school picture is a cultural thing,” says industry expert Robert Ste-Marie, president of 36Pix, a Montreal-based school portrait company that prints school photos on HP Indigo digital presses. “Every year, you get that moment when you can record what your children look like at that point in time, and the value for a print copy will always be there.”

Westend61 / Getty Images

School photos are proudly displayed around the house by parents, grandparents and other family members.

The power of print

Why have printed school photos managed to stand strong against the rise of digital? Marchesano says it’s in part because sharing something tangible, rather than just posting online, connects people across generations.

“Parents are proud and want to display these moments and share them with grandparents and other family members,” she explains. “It’s great to have the digital option, but they sit on your phone or computer, they tend to get forgotten about, along with the hundreds of other photos on your device. When you order the print package you have the actual print in hand to frame or hang on your fridge.”

Creating meaningful connections

School photos also make great gifts for anyone who loves your kids. We’ve given framed prints of the kids — as well as coffee mugs, tea towels and iPhone cases with their smiling faces — to grandparents and godparents, and they’ve lovingly displayed them in their homes and offices. In particular, my father-in-law, Gordon Hodas, a psychiatrist who specializes in working with children and adolescents, has adorned his office with them (along with pictures of the rest of the family), the benefits of which are two-fold.

First, displaying the family photos actually helps the children he works with, as well as their parents, to feel comfortable. “People are more ready to talk about themselves when they see my real family,” he says. Second, Hodas says he enjoys them in a way that feels more immediate than digital photos. “Print photos become part of my everyday reality and are a source of pleasure essentially all the time.”

“Every year, you get that moment when you can record what your children look like at that point in time, and the value for a print copy of that will always be there.”

—Robert Ste-Marie, president of photography company 36Pix

The evolution of a classic

Even as school photos remain a rite of passage for young students everywhere, the details of getting them have changed, in some ways dramatically, from just a few years ago. John DeMarchi, head of the Evergreen Montessori School in Silver Spring, Maryland, says in the past, the photographer would arrive, set up a background screen, line up the kids, take one standard photo, and that was it. 

“Parents would have the option to buy that one picture, but that process wasn’t keeping up with what parents want,” he says. 

Now, he says the picture-day scene has changed, offering families more authentic images and photo options. Photographers take pictures of kids in more natural settings, “outside, with the brick walls and architecture of the school in the background,” DeMarchi explains. “And they have eight or nine pictures of each child that they post to a site for the parents to choose from, which means more control and choice for the parents.”

Ste-Marie’s company 36Pix has made a name for itself as a pioneer in the use of green screen technology, giving students and parents the option to insert digitally created backgrounds on their school photos. Some of those options include the classic marbled background, fall leaves, school lockers, and book stacks, but 36Pix offers many more choices. In one school of 350 students, the company says it received orders for 165 different backgrounds. And Ste-Marie says they’re working to provide even more options that can be more personalized and meaningful. For example, the company is soon launching a background option that would promote ocean preservation, inspired by the nonprofit Oceans United. Families could use it in prints or in sharing the images across social media platforms. 

“Parents want a picture of their kid, and if they can tie it to a cause that means something to them, they can be even more proud to put it up on a wall,” Ste-Marie says.

Jeffrey Coolidge / Getty Images

Even in a digital age, printed photos endure as mainstays on the fridge.

From awkward to authentic 

Marchesano is inspired by this move away from awkward poses, fake smiles, and empty backgrounds toward something that feels like more of a real representation of children and their families. She says that authenticity is exactly what she aims to capture with her student subjects. 

On school picture day, she does everything she can to draw out their true selves. “I sing, I dance, I make up nicknames for myself, anything to make them laugh,” she says. “I’m usually drenched in sweat when I’m done, but if it gets them to smile and laugh, then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.”

As a mother of two herself, Marchesano knows how just how much these keepsakes can mean to families. She’s even maintained school memory books for each of her sons, which includes photo pockets for every year’s class picture. 

“I always order their school photos,” she says. “I want them, and us, to be able to look back 40 years from now and remember all of this.”