At the end of August 2017, I started my first full-time job since graduating that wasn't just casual student work. For the first time my job title was officially "photographer" - a very exciting time indeed! Only a month after graduating I'd already got my dream job... But was it? Although a photographer, I was working for a company specializing in a more demanding genre of photography I hadn't ever thought I'd end up in - school photography.
Let's start at the beginning. July 2017 I'm frantically searching the job advertising websites for photography positions or even jobs that mildly relate to photography. I come across a picture of an A4 sheet of paper in a shop window advertising "photographer needed" at a photography company - I send over my CV immediately. A couple of weeks later I get a phone call from the company, it sounds very promising, but the guy on the other end of the line does make it very clear that the job "isn't for everyone" - I wonder why that is? Another two weeks later I turn up for an interview, only it doesn't feel like an interview, it feels more like a pitch about the job for me to decide whether I actually want the job or not. This is because it turns out the company specializes in school photography - that means photographing hundreds of people a day, while keeping to a schedule, and making sure that "Harry" is under the name "Harry" not some other random child. Oh, and actually taking nice photos of course! I leave having been told to think about it and get in touch if I'm interested in the actual interview. Another week and I've had my proper interview, and got the job!
After a week of learning their lighting setups and poses, it's straight into school shoots shadowing senior photographers and getting stuck in. I picked up speed quickly and within a couple of weeks was off training pay. What followed was 3 months of long hours, a lot of miles, and thousands of photos over several shoots across the country.
A Day in the Life
As a school photographer, your day can start anywhere between 4:00 and 6:30 depending on how far away the school is and whether the school wants staff photos done or not, in which case you need to be setup ready to shoot an hour before school starts, which means arriving at the school at 7am so you have time to setup. You must always arrive an hour before the shoot time so you can set everything up, and you must also always aim to get there half an hour before you need to be just in case there's bad traffic, so usually you get to the school at 7:30. Usually there's a caretaker around to let you in, but this isn't always the case. Setup can be quick and easy or a bit of a slog depending on how far you have to carry gear between the car and the shoot location, and whether you have to move anything out the way to make room for everything. The location could be the other side of the school from where you're able to park, and it could be anything from a massive sports hall to a small library or classroom, so having to move bookcases out of the way or carry gear over 100 yards from the car is common.
So you've got there and set up, tested your lights, got the laptop up and running, hopefully by now your contact from the school has popped their head in to say hi and run over the schedule. If you're lucky the school has already got the schedule round to all the teachers so they know when to turn up with their class. Otherwise you'll be running by the schedule you wrote up the day before which hopefully doesn't conflict with anything the school has running that day (but in theory the school's break times and any other events you need to work around should be on your job sheet). The school's attitude towards you that day can vary widely - sometimes you'll be left to it completely, which means you have to hope the classes get to you at the right time, and you have to run around fetching classes yourself if they don't. Sometimes they're on the opposite end of the scale and will have a runner to get classes down and ready in time and you're not allowed to go anywhere on your own, you must have someone with you at all times from the school for safety reasons. In my experience most schools are in a happy middle ground where they'll have a runner to help organise the day and aren't too fussed about you having a member of staff with you at all times. All photographers must be DBS checked - meaning you have had a background check done on you to see if you have any criminal records. However you can certainly argue that these checks don't mean much as it only indicates whether or not you've been convicted. This is a bit of a grey area but ultimately it's down to the school on how they approach child safety.
It's time for the first class to come down - 90% of the time if you put them down to come straight after registration they won't, they will be at least 5 minutes late so when making our own schedules we put them 5 minutes afterwards. Same for afternoon registration. It may not sound like much, but that 5 minutes can make all the difference. Depending on how many classes you have you could be photographing a class of 30 kids in 10 minutes just to get the shoot done before school finishes. If you have a class turn up 5 minutes late, that instantly puts you back, and you're having to speed up considerably to get back on schedule. If you're good you can get through a class in 7 minutes (depending on their year group), but if you keep having difficult children, or lots of children wearing glasses such that you have to spend extra time making sure there isn't any glare, you're in for a bad day. Thankfully this is rare and again, if you're good at thinking on your feet and can get the children posed, smiling and framed up quickly, you should be able to recover. A big part of the training is about building up your speed and learning the little things that can get you extra time.
Lunch break - time to start thinking about the next day. Where are you shooting? What poses are you doing? What backgrounds and kit do you need? If you get these things sorted now then it should in theory be a quick trip to the office or no trip at all at the end of the day. You can also hopefully actually eat lunch now. On a good day you can just sit down and relax, on a bad day you'll have had to move everything to the side out of the way so the hall you're in can be used for lunch. You might also have staff popping in and out for their staff photos through the lunch break.
At this point the rest of the day should be easy, you might have been able to get a class ahead and only in the worst case should your last class be scheduled to come in just before the end of the school day. Once the shoot is done it's all systems go on getting the equipment packed away and in the car before parents flood the car park. Next step is to get to the office to pickup any backgrounds you need for the next day and drop off what you no longer need, figure out when you need to leave the next morning and write up a schedule. Sometimes we have after-school sibling portrait sessions, where siblings from within the school come in for photos or their parents come in with siblings who aren't in that school to join in as well. These can admittedly be rather taxing, as you get a lot more babies who inevitably are a lot more likely to cause problems (or to put it bluntly, babies cry!). You can also get very large families come in which can be a lot more challenging to pose up as you have to fit more people in and handle their different heights so as to make it look right - no one wants a photo of their child with her brothers severed head on her shoulder. Getting that many children to all smile and look at the camera at the same time can be difficult as well.
Last but not least, you can get home, eat, shower, and fall asleep in front of the TV (again), go to bed, and then let it all start all over again the next morning...
My typical week during this period was 50-60 hours. It is grueling yes, but also incredibly rewarding. You're also never in the same place, meeting new people every day, and getting nice photos that parents will likely look back on for years to come. Also, because of these long hours, you get a lovely month-long break over Christmas that makes it all worth while.
Thanks for reading! A lot of details have been left out for safety and security reasons, my aim here was just to give you an idea of what this job is like and what I've been up to. Or in other words, why I've been so quiet!