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Picture bleak in photography business

By Diana Lambert, McClatchy Newspapers –

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — High school students waiting to have senior portraits taken once filled Richard Givens’ photography studio in Rancho Cordova, Calif.

Now that studio holds all his worldly possessions.

The career school photographer rented out his spacious Gold River, Calif., home a couple years ago and moved into his studio to make ends meet.

The small, independent local school photographer — and others like him — are being squeezed out by increased competition from big national companies, an economy that has left families with little discretionary income and a decrease in interest from teens who would rather use cellphones to take and immediately post pictures online.

Givens said he took the portraits of 800 to 900 teenagers every year when his business was booming. He photographed Cordova High School students for 16 years before the work went to Lifetouch, a national company.

These days he’s lucky to have a handful of jobs a week.

“Business is down everywhere,” Givens said. “People are taking their own photographs. Everyone can be a photographer in today’s world.”

The high school market in particular is in flux, said Marty Brown, vice president of the California School Photographers Association and owner of Excel Photographers in Sacramento.

Once a contract for a school dance meant big profits for a photographer. No more. Recently, Givens was hired to shoot a senior prom where only about 30 couples out of 90 opted to take photos. In past years that number would have been more like 80, he said. Many of the kids opted to shoot their own photos.

“We are an instant society, and if you don’t believe it, look at the drive-thru at McDonald’s,” said Don Benson, a Carmichael, Calif.-based school photographer.

“We have lost our shoe-box memories.”

Families are spending less on high school rites of passage like the prom or school dances, Brown said.

“They used to show up in limos and party like rock stars,” he said. “No one is showing up in limos anymore.”

Brown blames the change on hard economic times. “We are a want and a desire, not a need,” he said of photography.

The problem is magnified in the Sacramento region, where the national photography company Lifetouch holds a large market share and government workers have been hard-hit by budget cuts, Brown said. But school photographers across the state are hurting.

“There has been a lot of wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth,” Brown said.

Brown said the drop-off in photography sales is sharpest among middle and high schools.

“I don’t do seniors anymore,” Brown said. Instead, his staff of 20 employees at Excel Photographers focuses on photos for elementary and preschools. The company has contracts with 200 local schools.

Parents of small children still want photographs to share with family and friends. “The parents like the tradition of it,” Brown said. “They remember standing in the school picture line. You go to Grandma’s house, and the school photo is still on the wall.”

Despite that, he said, Excel Photographers has lost 10 percent to 15 percent in sales each year since 2008, finally flattening out this year. It adds revenue by printing yearbooks.

The lack of student business has a residual effect, Benson said. The relationships a photographer builds with his teenage subjects can translate into additional business as they grow up.

“I want to do a good enough job on your senior portrait to have you come in for a family portrait,” Benson said. “I want to do your wedding. I want to do your daughter’s portrait.”

On a recent weekday, Givens talked about being a school photographer. He said boys were eager to get the photos over with, while girls — “especially the pretty ones” — could be difficult.

But that day, instead of seniors, he shot portraits of Army Sgt. Shawn Hooper and his dog, Max, in his garage studio. Hooper wants pictures for family and friends before he is deployed to Kuwait.

Manrup Dhaliwal, the son of a friend, waited for a senior portrait in a waiting room filled with photos of seniors, weddings and families. Givens had taken Dhaliwal’s baby pictures, as well as family portraits.

Those were Givens’ only jobs of the week.

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