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School Picture Time

Get the most out of your kids' class photo – from prepping for a better shot to capturing personality – from some metro Detroit photographers

Parents cross their fingers for a great shot of their kids on school-picture day. From the outfit to the background, there's plenty to consider. And that doesn't include the X-factors – like, will the hair survive recess? But class photos don't have to be rocket science – or a challenge. We asked school photographers in southeast Michigan for their tips on setting up those cherished shots.

Who's behind the camera?

"Our photographers understand how important it is for parents to capture a special time in their children's lives," says Beth Gowan, a 31-year veteran of snapping school pictures, and the area sales manager of Lifetouch in Michigan.

Lifetouch works with 2,000 Michigan schools for picture day in the fall and around 900 in the spring. Gowan says because young kids grow so fast, elementary schools like to offer picture day twice a year. Fall pictures are "head and shoulders" shots, the typical straight-on photo of your smiling student; spring photos are more casual. Students are even welcome to bring their own props.

Photographers arrive at the school early – sometimes at 4:30 a.m. – to set up equipment. "We bring the whole studio with us," Gowan says.Once school starts, photographers they're taking around 400 pictures almost non-stop. Each kid gets about a minute.

Appearance

Many of the old rules on what kids should and shouldn't wear don't apply, Gowan says. Newer cameras and better lighting mean kids can wear white and still look good. Gowan's advice: "You should have kids wear what's comfortable for them."

Photographers don't make any adjustments to your child's appearance – they leave that in the hands of parent volunteers. Those folks help students brush their hair or straighten collars. All photographers undergo extensive background checks, Gowan adds.

Prep for a better shot

Before you check any boxes and pick your picture package, look carefully at the options. Every year, school photographers are tweaking backgrounds and changing packages based on parents' suggestions.

"Since we're in the digital age, I think parents expect to have a lot more choices." For these so-called digi-moms, Gowan says the company tries to stay up-to-date on current trends.

Even though the photographer only has a few seconds with each child, there's still time to try different poses and get a child's smile just right. Gowan urges parents to make comments on the box of the picture packet. "We really do read those and try to give parents what they're looking for." If you write down that you want your daughter's hair over the shoulder or your son to wear his favorite cap, the photographers will make sure to follow your guidelines.

Kerri Kacanowski, owner of Maggie's Scrapbooking in Clarkston and mother of four, goes one step further. She has her kids practice their smiles. "I take a lot of pictures as a hobby, so my kids are used to smiling when I ask them to," says Kacanowski.

Capturing personality

Surprisingly, the head-on shot "above the shoulders" with a balanced smile and eyes straight at the camera isn't always the favorite school picture. Gowan, who often answers parents' questions about pictures at Lifetouch's offices, says she's amazed by some of the comments.

"I've had parents call in to say it was the best picture they've ever seen of their child. Then I pulled up the digital image only to see their little guy with his hair all messed up and this tough-guy grin," explains Gowan. "Then I get calls from some who don't like their kids' pictures; then I pull it up and the child has this beautiful, perfect smile, but the mother says, 'It just doesn't look natural; it doesn't look like my child.'"

Gowan answers all of these parents' concerns the same way: Lifetouch guarantees each picture. Even after a retake, if you don't like the shot, you can get a refund.

Still, sometimes the goofy grins and the glassy-eyed looks are exactly what makes school pictures memorable – and worth hanging on to. Tom Roche, a professional photographer and owner of Roche Photo in Troy – who's taken high-fashion shots, advertising images and everything in-between – cherishes his school pictures because they make other people smile.

"The most enduring things that you have to look back on from school are these images," Roche says. "I still have my high school picture where I have on this paisley shirt and my hair's parted in the middle. I don't know what I was thinking."

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