The Importance of Photography in School Marketing

Bob Thompson1Photography is an essential ingredient that you must consider in your marketing strategy. Without quality photos, you will miss an opportunity to showcase your school online and in print.

Bob Thompson, a professional photographer for 22 years in Tampa, FL, specializes in school marketing photography. I have worked with Bob to coordinate several photo shoots and he even shot my wedding! Recently, I asked Bob a few questions about the role of photography in private school marketing.

You will want to read all of his responses and make sure you get to his final comment when he says, “I find it interesting that a school will spend thousands of dollars on a new website, have dozens of meetings about it and then populate that website with snapshots taken with iPhones, or bad photos taken with nice cameras.”

Why do you enjoy taking photos in schools?

“Several things really: For one, the aspect of live action as it is happening captured creatively makes the school environment a fantastic opportunity to create wonderful photos of what I call live micro moments. Those moments where a child is fully engaged, maybe has that sense of wonder or even concentration on his or her face. I love the kind of interaction between students and teachers I can capture live in the moment. Plus, I really just love being around kids. I don’t know that I saw that coming 20 years ago, but I absolutely love being in the school environment and among all the students. Consider also that a Photographer in a classroom is a novelty for all kids no matter what age, so that adds a bit of flair to the fact that I am there. Kids typically bring ‘good stuff’ when I’m in the room. I joked recently that between independent schools and university photo shoots I’ve done, I’ve likely spent more time in a classroom than most PHDs!”

How are schools different from other photo shoots?

“Great question! I think again, the pure spontaneous nature of what happens in every classroom across America is still what intrigues me about schools. I do so many different kinds of work, but schools really challenge me to see deeply into the unfolding of a moment, such that I can capture the peak of that moment. As much as this is my goal in any photo shoot, the action in a classroom is so beautiful, that it just is something I’ve grown to love implicitly. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s kids too – they’re just so, well, pure – maybe authentic is a good word here. In any case, schools are a unique environment that I’ve always been attracted to.”

In a day and age where everyone is a photographer with their smartphone, why is it important for a school to invest in professional photography?

“Well, a photograph is often the very first impression a school can make on its potential customer, so for my money, you want that impression to hit hard and hit deep on an emotional level. This digital age really has deemed each of us a photographer in our own right (on some level), but, I’m not so sure you want to entrust your skills on an iPhone with the job of connecting emotionally with your prospect in marketing materials! People often have no idea the number of things I am managing in a very tiny moment as I’m making photographs.  Hopefully that’s invisible to my client, and that is fine with me. I don’t need to tell people this, but for the purposes of this question, I, just like the teachers in the room, am a trained professional – pro photographers see the world differently and understand what does and doesn’t make great photos. So, to answer the main point here, if a school is serious about its marketing and the impact of that marketing, they are going to want to make sure the photography that represents that school does a great job of instantly conveying why a parent would want their child to attend that school.”

How should a marketing or admissions director plan for and coordinate a professional photo shoot?

“Another powerful question… There are many answers to this one. For one, I always recommend shooting on a day that really doesn’t have anything special going on. Often times, I am asked about costume day, or some other day of the year where something special is happening. I’m not convinced that those days make for great photos, or at least get to the essence of that school. I believe that marketing photography should demonstrate a typical day at a school and the typical moments that are happening during that typical day.

If at all possible, letting the student body and of course the teachers, know that this is happening ahead of time so kids can get haircuts, wear their best clothes, and generally be in great visual shape goes a long way toward the effectiveness of a marketing photo.

We also want to make sure we have identified those classrooms and teachers where lively class participation is happening. We will want to concentrate on rooms where school life is happening, and where kids our expressive and upbeat.

Lastly, and in terms of the logistics of a photo shoot day, it’s useful to build a schedule that has space in it. My style of shooting is very spontaneous. While we may be on our way to a history class to shoot world history, I will surely see something along my path that is worthy of photos. I call this ‘roaming’ and it often results in some of the more powerful photos.  The point here is, have a solid plan, but also build in time for some of that magic and spontaneity to unfold.”

Why types of shots work best for a school photo shoot?

“I tend to lean more on close-up action as well as I believe that these photos have more emotion in them. This is where the human connection is most obvious, and that connection is what we’re always trying to make the viewer feel. I believe that typical days where typical teaching is happening are the best days. Teachers and children engaged in personal interaction always make great shots. When I have a teacher who is particularly animated, the kids respond authentically and this dynamic can create fantastic human interest shots. Classrooms where a strong visual element is present obviously make great photos as well. But as a general rule, the basics work very well – well-lit shots of kids enjoying themselves during the educational process will always score big to me.”

Are there any standard photos that you would recommend that every school should capture?

“Yes, there are certain shots that just always make great photos. Science labs, art classes, math or algebra classes, even foreign language classes all make for great shots because what is happening is easily identifiable, which solidifies the purpose of a marketing photo to begin with. Sports photos also share this quality, but are harder to capture. Kids having a positive experience while learning and being engaged with each other and teachers will always make classic marketing photos, and those can happen anywhere, which is why I’m always on the lookout for that even during the execution of a tightly designed shooting schedule. Those can happen in the halls, on the stairs, by a locker – anywhere!”

How do you balance the desire for a “real life” shot when setting up “staged” shots?

“I’m certainly always committed to a staged shot not looking staged, and there are a couple of things that help us get there. First though, staged shots are typically the result of a marketing director having come up with some firm concepts around a solid marketing plan.  One example I can recall, the marketing director wanted a shot of some younger kids saying the Pledge of Allegiance. The room where we wanted to do this really just wasn’t set up to make a great photo, so we went to work on setting it up. We selected three or four kids, positioned the flag where we wanted it, and made ourselves a winning shot which is still on my website today. When doing set up work like this, it is imperative to select kids for the shots who firstly look sharp, but secondly also have that innate ability to sort of pretend, or act in a way. Not the easiest thing to do, but my way around this is to work from a larger group of kids then swap kids in and out of the shot until we have that winning combination.  I always do what I can to include all of the kids who show up for a set shot like this. Actually I apply this pretty much everywhere I shoot. I may shoot images that I know we won’t use, but it makes the kids feel great to be photographed. Makes them feel special, and I think that’s important toward the end of a successful photo campaign and the photo day.”

How often should a marketing director plan for a professional photo shoot?

Once a marketing director or admissions director decides that professional photography will help their school convey a professional and crisp image, I recommend a full day shoot for schools where everything is in one place, and a two day shoot for those larger schools who divide up their student body by lower and middle and then high school. Once they have that nice library of images to work from, we usually get into a rhythm where we do a one half day, or full-day refresher shoot each year. That way all images are current with kids who actually attend the school, and we also have the opportunity to address gaps that were left from the first round of images.”

Any additional advice you want to share?

“Well, I guess I have to reiterate something I said earlier. I find it interesting that a school will spend thousands of dollars on a new website, have dozens of meetings about it and then populate that website with snapshots taken with iPhones, or bad photos taken with nice cameras! I understand that it is an investment for a school to undertake to obtain this level of imagery, but the schools I work with regularly can readily see the value of what it is I do. Bottom line, if you’re serious about your school’s marketing image, this is one area where you don’t want to try to do this yourself! Leave it to a road-tested, seasoned veteran shooter to make that website sing! Also remember that Photos can be used for lots of other purposes: e-news letters, posters around campus, any type of communication between school and home can be augmented with great photography.

Lastly, before you hire a photographer, really look at that person’s work to see if it elicits an emotional response from you as you view their portfolio. I really lean hard on that particular piece of the puzzle. A great marketing photo makes you feel something, and connects you instantly to your viewer, and ultimately your school.”

Bob, thank you for sharing your responses. Your last response is a powerful one! It is not enough to have a good website design. You must have great photos to go with it!

If you are interested in connecting with Bob, you can visit his website at

The following are some photos that Bob has taken at some of his recent school photo shoots:

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