school portraitThe choices clicked around in my digitally retouched mind: Wallet or portrait? Red or blue background? $39.95 "Best Value!" or a big glossy zero?

This is the time for many of us when portrait studios come calling to capture our kids' mugs for posterity at their respective institutions. School pictures are a time-honored tradition, but my budget may not honor them anymore.
In this age of point-shoot-e-mail, my wife and I have collected enough photos of our nearly 4-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter to fill a nightstand drawer of USB flash drives. For you Luddites, that's the equivalent of a floor-to-ceiling vault of photo albums. Some pictures are good. Some stink. We aren't pros. But we have a lot. The grandparents have a lot. I'm not sure if I want to shell out for more.

So who pays for school portraits? Well, Brogan Ganley for one. "They're so cheesy, so American, they crack me up," said Ganley, a New Zealand-born art photographer whose kids attend my kids' school in Brooklyn.

Alison Lowenstein, also a friend who has two children at the school, said she does it for tradition. "I have a baby box and throw all that stuff in it. I think it will be important to them someday." Lowenstein's one concession to the changing times was opting for the $20.95 package, the low end for a combination of portraits, wallet-size and class photo.

According to Angela Wijesinghe, a spokeswoman for the Professional Photographers of America, anecdotal information indicates that the number of families opting to buy school photos isn't changing, but the amount they purchase appears to have declined. "It could be for a variety of reasons," she said. "It could just be tightening their belts. On the other hand, I have heard or read on our forum of several persons who are having record-breaking sales." Wijesinghe added that yearbook photos in the upper grades and senior class pictures help perpetuate business.

Steve Miller, the president of Irvin Simon Photographers, which produces the photographs for my kids' school, wrote in an e-mail, "We have not seen a reduction in participation rates or with the average purchase."

Miller reminded WalletPop that quickie photos have been around for a long time, from Polaroids to one-hour photo booths. They didn't dent business. The school picture "is a marker of history that people continue to want," he said. "School photos become invaluable family keepsakes -- framed on the wall, sitting on a desk and of course, in every parent's wallet."

I found a few funny blog rants on school portraiture but ultimately I made my decision based on the raison d'etre of this blog: saving money. I simply won't pay for what I can get free. The one shot I can't get on my own (unless I want to be really enterprising and cheap) is the class together. So mark me down for the $9 group portrait and I'll see you next year.

Whatever you decide, don't forget to smile.

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