The School Portrait Meets Portrait Photographer

school pictures

Once upon a time to say you were a wedding photographer was the equivalent of saying, “I have no art in my soul.” You could never claim to be a wedding photographer and expect to be taken as a serious artist. Thankfully we have evolved beyond those stereotypes.  Today, Wedding photographers are among some of the most respected and innovative in the industry.  And then there is the lowly school portrait photographer. Just saying the title conjures up visions of herds of children lined up and processed like a production line, 200 per hour.

 Mark, cheese, next.

Waiting for your school portrait can be hard

Unfortunately, that stereotype of the school portrait is not far from the truth. We still see canned smiles blasted with canned lights, pasted against fake backgrounds. There’s not much art to it.   In fact, many of the school portrait “photographers” have no experience beyond their 4 hours of on-the-job training There are, however, a handful of independent photographers, and smaller companies, trying to bring the true art of portrait photography to the school setting.

The School Portrait Meets Portrait Photographer

I work with Mugsy Clicks as an independent photographer.  Mugsy Clicks provides all the backend technology, sales, customer service, and school services. I provide the skill, experience, and art of a children’s portrait photographer.  Here, in the video below, is Mugsy Clicks founder, Linda Russell, explaining the heart and soul of school portraits worth framing.

What is a more natural setting for a child than outdoors? This is why, whenever possible, we use natural surroundings and natural light.  It can be a challenge to find an on-campus location with decent consistent lighting and an interesting background, especially in Orange County’s glut of concrete. But that is where the photographer and artist comes in, creating something unique for each school.  Another distinction is in how we interact with the children. Rather than telling the child to smile, or worse to say “cheese,”  we talk to the children, encouraging them to relax and give a natural expression.   
“Do you like superheroes or princesses?”    “Dinosaurs or insects?”      “Legos or Minecraft?”     “Music or Math?”school portraits worth framing
I am proud to say I am a School Portrait Photographer. It is not how I got my start in photography. I was a portrait and wedding photographer long before taking up school portraits, but it is a significant part of my business today Capturing that genuine smile, a serious contemplative look, that sparkle of mischief in the eyes, that is gold – that is what makes my cheeks hurt at the end of the day.  It may not bring me critical acclaim, but it does bring me joy.

My Not So Secret Secret – Photo Editing


I have to admit, I was a bit hesitant to post this.  I mean, it is kind of like a magician showing his audience how he does his “magic”.  But, I think you all need to know, so in the spirit of transparency and honesty, and to stop any misconceptions, here is my little secret.  I use Photoshop!  Gasp!

Often my non-photographer friends will comment on my images, or those of other professional photographers, with, ” My photos never look like that!” “Nice image. I wish I had an expensive camera like yours.” or “Wow! How does she get all her photos to look so dark and moody like that?”  The answer is not necessarily new camera equipment.

A good photograph is created, not taken. It starts with “seeing” the subject, placing that subject in the composition in a compelling way, controlling the light on the subject, and knowing your camera well enough to “get the shot.” However, for most images, that is not the end of the creative process.

Photoshop and other editing applications are almost always used to enhance the image. In fact, since I always shoot in RAW format, most of my SOOC (straight out of camera) images look flat.  I need to use editing software to define the shadows and bring depth to the finished image.  This is not cheating.  This is part of the creative process and it is one of the ways photographers put their “signature style” into an image.


Here is an example of a portrait before my editing and after.  I used both Lightroom and Photoshop; Lightroom to crop, correct the color and exposure, and increase the contrast, Photoshop to smooth the skin, remove the small bit of black undershirt showing at the armpit, and brighten and sharpen the eyes.

Above is a perfect example of how Photoshop can take “bad” photo and improve it to passable.  The original image was taken without any real thought to composition, one of those quick point and shoot situations.  When I first saw this image I thought it was trash, no real definition, hardly any separation of the subject from the background, no real interest.  However, with just a bit of editing in Lightroom (crop, darken greens and edges, lighten bird, sharpen) I was able to salvage the image.

In this last image, I wanted to create a specific mood, a dark dreaminess. This was not possible to do “in-camera.”  While I exposed for my main subject, my granddaughter on the rock, this left me with the shadowed creek bed and palms looking rather flat and boring.  To get the image I saw in my mind’s-eye, I had to do some tweaking in Photoshop, bring down the midtones and shadows.


So. the cat is out of the bag!  While a great image is not just the result of great editing, editing is an important part.  So don’t be intimided. Get started on your own photo creating!  I would encourage you to take some time to learn how to use some simple editing software. I recommend Lightroom as a great starting point as it is not too expensive and it can do so much.  Adobe now offers a monthly subscription based software solution that includes Lightroom and Photoshop for $9.99 a month with a 30 day free trial if you want to try it out.  There are also many different free options like PicMonkey and Fotor, not to mention the great editing and filters available on your own phone.

I’d love to see your own photo transformations.  Shoot over to my Facebook page and share your creations.