Eight years

My plan was to stay for two years, learn what I could from the job, and then launch my own (this) business. I started working for a company called Strawbridge while I was still working at Bern's Steakhouse in Tampa. I enjoyed working in the food industry for a long time, but definitely was also discovering my passion for photography.

My former Youth-Pastor (now photographer) invited me to make some money off of my pictures and I thought that sounded fun. I got a truckload of gear to play with, and some pretty good training, everyone was welcoming and kind.

My first shoot for Strawbridge was the faculty of an elementary school. roughly 80 adults who are in the middle of their own projects, summoned by the intercom to walk across the August-hot campus in Florida. Considering that, they were actually pretty polite. I got about 3 pictures in before I was asked to "make me look 30lbs lighter", I wasn't quite sure what to say, I looked at my boss, who was mentoring me "You look beautiful, darlin'! " he exclaimed. Two teachers later I got to use that same line, felt a little awkward, but better than just staring at them. Then, about every 5 or six minutes for the rest of the shoot, I got a nice reminder that this job seemed a bit repetitive.

The repetition became a theme: Showing up on a school campus before anyone else, the janitors not having been told that we were coming to photograph today, convincing them to let us inside, then 90 minutes of planning "traffic patterns" moving furniture, setting up tables, light stands, strobes, power cables, flash sync cables, remote triggers, a background, Laptops, loading software, organizing data, taping down tripping hazards, and calibrating camera settings to an incredibly finicky degree... and those were the good mornings...

On the bad days, we would be an hour into our sweat-inducing setup procedures, with the finish line in sight, and a School administrator would burst through the doors and inform us "you aren't supposed to be in here."

That was a tremendous blood-draining feeling of dread - most of the time they were wrong, see when a school picks us to be their photographer, we communicate how much space the team needs to do our job, based on how many students a school has, and how many photographers that will require, in florida where we don't have many indoor gymnasiums (in elementary schools), this means there are 2 rooms big enough - the Multi-Purpose room, and the library - and we decide at the contract signing which of those places we will be. Then the principal usually forgets to let anyone else know, or put it on the calendar, and someone else claims the room for another activity.

So we on these lovely days (2-3 times a week), we would stop setting up, otherwise it would look like we are ignoring them, which is rude... and we follow them back to the school office to find out "where we are going to put you." Whenever I hear that phrase, I know it means we are in the clear, and the person I'm dealing with has no clue what's really going on. See, Portrait lighting and backgrounds, and cameras take up WAY more space than anybody realizes, people see it, but immediately forget. Our setup was 20ft long, and 15ft wide, usually multiplied by 3 photographers, and that leaves no space for lines of children - or an entrance or exit. So realistically we need a room that is 60' by 25' and we have a secret weapon on our side...

Schools are legally required to keep specific records on their students, not just random notes, and one of the records required are small pictures of the student's face - this is what gets distributed to police in the event of a child's abduction. The school's can't skip it, which means - they eventually have to give us what we need to do our jobs, and unless I hear "you're in the library, not the multi-purpose room." I know that it's simply missed communication amongst the administration!

Bad news, sometimes we have to move - about once a week - we would get shafted and the school would move us within 30 minutes of the time we were supposed to start. If you recall, that means we need to undo an hour's worth of setup, re-pack everything onto our carts, transport it across campus, and then do 90 minutes worth of setup in no time. Then the staff would have to reconfigure the schedule, because what they asked us to do makes it impossible to start on time - of course those who created the situation would never claim responsibility, so for the rest of the day, every teacher that we saw blamed us for wreaking havoc on their schedule. Wonderful right?

I'm not above placing the blame where it truly belongs, BUT here's the next fun piece of the puzzle; we only get about 5 minutes to take pictures of each class. Here are the things that happen in those 5 minutes; A photographer finds the correct data sheet for the class, they explain to the teacher that each student has a sticker with their name and a QR code and we need them to place the sticker on each child's shoulder, we wait for that process to begin, then we direct the students to line up by each photo-set, then begin photographing. We have about 45 seconds to walk to the student, remove their sticker, direct them to sit in a proper position, scan the sticker, correct any data errors, file the sticker, correct their posture, try to elicit a happy expression from them AND keep their eyes focused on the camera simultaneously, then get them to safely exit. Did I mention a theme of repetition?

Here are the numbers: We would typically have 3-4 cameras/photographers, and 1 class scheduled every 5-7 minutes from the 1st bell to the last: bathroom breaks? nope. lunch breaks? nope. planning periods? nope. If we slowed down, that meant we would trigger a snowball effect - we would run a minute over on our timing, which means we have 2 classes in the room for a minute - this caused the volume to double, and the children we were trying to photograph to be more distracted AND not be able to hear our instructions. Additionally, the newly arriving teacher would usually approach a photographer and ask questions, taking our operational capacity down by 25-33%. So we might start the 2nd group 90 seconds late, and our next class would show up and start the cycle again. One bathroom break could ruin our whole day.

Each photographer was expected to photograph up to 375 students in a day, which would be just about 1 student per minute, but doesn't take into account the time organizing and directing the lines of students. If you wonder why your child's picture isn't perfect - it's because school portraits are a volume based business. I can't tell you how many times in 8 years I've heard people complain about school pictures with comments like "he had a ketchup stain on his shirt, they could have at least tried to rinse it off." or "that's not his real smile, they could have told her a joke!" Yeah, no. We do get slower days occasionally, where the number of students is just high enough to earn us an extra photographer, and everyone's load is lightened, but on our busy days - there's no opportunity to a photographer to escort your kid to a bathroom, clean their shirt, wait for it to dry, and take a picture with a slightly less stained shirt.

Most of the people that I've worked with actually care quite a bit about the quality of their work. there's a fast turnover in this business (and that's coming from a restaurant perspective).