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"Picture Day" at school is always made up to be a much more important event than it really is. I remember when I was in elementary school, I thought it was a genuinely big deal with legitimate real-world consequences. The fact of the matter is that the amount of thought and stress you put into preparing for school pictures, it doesn't really make a difference on photo quality. Which is just fine, because no matter how good or bad the photo is, it serves the same nostalgic purpose when you're looking back on your photos years later. It begs the question though, why have school pictures always looked awful?
Schools cheap out on the photographer.
One of the biggest problems facing so many schools these days is a lack of funding. When a school can hardly afford to buy basic supplies for its teachers, it's no surprise they can't afford a well-established photographer. When you can only afford a very cheap photographer, it is a recipe to end up with poor quality photographs. Often, it's not even a professional photographer taking these photos, but rather one of the more artsy teachers who has a decent camera.
It's about quantity, not quality.
In addition to being underfunded, most schools are terribly overcrowded. This is especially true in schools near major metropolitan areas. Since many professional photographers charge by the hour, it is in the school's best interest not only to find a very cheap photographer, but also to get through hundreds of photographs as quickly as possible. This means that each student needs to be in and out of that photo booth in 30 seconds, a minute max. At that speed, there's no time to fix anything: you get maybe two or three photos taken in quick succession, and you better hope one of those is a good one.
Even if you have trained, attentive photographers, common portrait lighting mistakes can occur. However, nothing can be done to assuage the terrible fluorescent lighting in most American schools. My elementary school photos were always in what we called the "multi-purpose room" or "MPR," which was used for everything from lunch to assemblies to band rehearsals to gym class. Not that the lighting was much better in other parts of the building, but the combination of blinding fluorescent lights and bright white paint in the MPR made it nearly impossible to get any sort of normal complexion in your photographs.
While children and photographers often share quite a bit of the blame, upper management definitely isn't without guilt. My high school pictures always looked awful because they were taken during registration in the summer before classes started (unlike in elementary school, when picture day was in the middle of the year). This meant that high school kids were getting their photos taken after running around outside, working summer jobs, or playing sports. In my case, I registered and got my school photo taken during a break from marching band practice. I was sweaty and sunburnt and not in any condition to be posing for photos.
How are you supposed to pose for this?
Posing for photos is an awkward scenario even for grown-ups, so you can imagine how difficult it is for bored and confused elementary school students. Some are unable to restrain their energy in front of the camera, while others are cripplingly camera shy. Either way, the photographer is going to have a bad time trying to get them to pose in any dignified way.
Acne and other blemishes are an extremely common occurrence among young boys and girls, especially during their preteen and early teen years. This on its own is likely one reason why your school pictures always looked awful, but it isn't the only way complexion contributes to bad school photos. A relatively recent trend is photographers and photo studios offering to "fix" student portraits with the magic of Photoshop, using such image editing software to erase any blemishes on the child's face. However, this process is not free of portrait retouching mistakes. The resulting portrait bears little resemblance to the student's real life appearance, making it an unnecessary extra step, pleasing only the vainest of parents.
Kids hate school.
While adults and even older children and teenagers can appreciate the value of education, nobody likes getting up early every morning to go sit in a cramped desk all day. This justified distaste is hard to hide, even in front of the camera. Bored and tired children have no interest in feigning happiness or even alertness on picture day, and this translates into photos where students are scowling, distracted, or barely able to keep their eyes open.
The clothing looks dated.
I have a theory about part of why my own school pictures always looked awful, and still do to this day. It's largely because I'm dressed like an idiot, just like most people were in the 1990s. Your parents' or grandparents' photos from the 1960s or 70s look cool in a classic, old school sort of way. But more recently dead fashion trends, like the brightly colored Tommy Hilfiger shirts from my youth, are still too fresh of wounds to appreciate. Maybe in twenty or thirty years these photos will have a more nostalgic feel to them.
Kids are stupid.
Let's face it, most children simply don't have the attention span to understand what is actually going on when they get their photo taken. When I was in elementary school, picture day was the one day a year I would wear cologne to school (and no, we did not have scratch and sniff yearbooks). I also almost always had gum in my mouth, which was usually visible in my photos. It's not that kids don't care, it's just that they don't know what's going on.
They do it on purpose.
If you bust out the foil caps, you begin to uncover some mind-blowing conspiracies about childhood school photos. Do you look back nostalgically on the uneventful photos from your seventh grade yearbook? Not at all. We remember the goofs and the mishaps and the awkward, dated, poorly-lit photographs for years to come, and that may be the secret diabolical mission behind the organizations that teach our children.