Monday, September 18, 2006

San Rafael photography studio specializes in School Photography

San Rafael photography studio specializes in school pictures
Carla Bova

Most people remember school picture day - standing in a long line with classmates, sitting in front of a bland screen where a stranger shoots a frame or two and promptly moves on to the next student. The result, many recall, was often an awkward photo capturing a crooked smile and tousled bangs with no second chance to get it right or at least better.

Photographer Linda Russell of San Rafael says it is time for a change. She founded Mugshots School Photography hoping to bring local photographers into schools to take high-quality pictures. A tough task in a $1.5 billion industry traditionally dominated by large companies, according to Russell. "It is a price-based commodity in dire need of being revolutionized," Russell said. "Why is the decision made on price-point instead of quality? I am out to change that by empowering qualified community-based photographers to get into schools and be a part of that market. That is what is making the product better." "I like the idea of giving a better all-around experience and product by making it part of the community instead it being a once a year, money-making service item of a national commodity." Russell, 51, started Mugshots in 1993, shooting 200 students a year at Marin Waldorf School and earning $10,000 in gross sales. Today Mugshots shoots close to 5,000 students a year at 25 to 30 public and private schools in Marin, Sonoma and San Francisco counties, from preschool to high school, and logs more than $195,000 in gross sales.

Russell takes students out of the classroom, away from the screen. Kids have several chances to get the perfect shot and parents get a choice. "She takes groups of children outdoors in a very natural setting with a natural background, not the typical background," said Kathy Newman, program director of San Anselmo Preschool Center which has used Mugshots for at least 10 years. "Linda takes multiple pictures of all the children in our program in multiple poses. É She really captures children." This year will be the fourth year that Marin School of Arts & Technology in Novato uses Mugshots. "She took them outside in natural light and took a lot of time determining what the best place on campus was for the best view, the best light for kids and the results were very natural," said Angela Knudsen, office manager of the charter school. "We really like the pictures and they suited us because we wanted pictures that are not cookie cutter pictures of kids. ÉThe kids look like themselves - young, lovely and in the perfect light."
Knudsen said Mugshots' online component is handy and saves time. "We get pictures in a file and can use it for ID cards. For a small business, that is quite nice," Knudsen said. "She wants to take some burden off the school office, and I am particularly fond of her for that."

Traditionally, large companies have a prepaid program requiring parents to pay for photos before seeing them. Russell boasts a preview program where parents can look at photos before purchasing, select from several options and buy online. "No one has to order if they do not want to," Russell said. "They look before they purchase and if we do a good job, then they spend money."

Mugshots packages range in price from $18 for 16 half-wallet sized pictures to $50 for two 8x10s, two 5x7s, eight wallet size and 16 half-wallet size. "We are a bit more expensive because we take multiple images. We allow you to look at the pictures before you purchase, and you are getting a better quality photograph," Russell said. "I am not price competing with the school photography companies because we are not the same product."

Russell said it is difficult for local photographers to get into the industry because schools have dealt with well-known, long-established companies versus independent contractors. "The school photography market is dominated by one company, a national privately held company called Lifetouch, that has something like 89 percent of the marketplace and the local photographer is closed out," Russell said. "The school contract becomes the barrier to entry for the local photographer." Mugshots has created a model to help get local photographers into the mix and give schools the assurance they are going to get a qualified photographer. "Mugshots' growth plan provides photographers who are interested in photographing schools in their community and gives them all the marketing materials, all the back-end print fulfillment and all the training necessary to do it," Russell said. "And the schools get what they want which is security and contract support that they need." Knudsen of the Novato charter high school is at ease working with Mugshots, saying Russell takes care to work with her clients and meet their goals. "I am pleased to work with a small and newer business," Knudsen said. "She tries to do it like a photographer in business rather than a businesswoman who is doing photos. It really is the difference. Her approach is from a photographer's point of view and it shows in the pictures.

Russell cut down on shooting weddings to focus on growing Mugshots and its model. She got a vote of confidence recently when she was selected as one of 20 women entrepreneurs to win the Make Mine a Million Business Program award, which seeks to help one million women-owned businesses reach $1 million in annual revenue by 2010.

Recipients get one year of mentoring and professional coaching as well as marketing support. They are eligible for a line of credit from OPEN from American Express, the company's small business division, and for a loan of up to $45,000 from Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence, a national nonprofit lender based in New York.

"Photographers are lone rangers so part of the excitement was embracing the idea of community and networking," Russell said. "It brought me out of isolation to a whole world of businesswomen who share resources and support one another." Russell began working in photography in the early 1980s when she was in her early 20s in Sausalito, taking pictures of people in Western clothes. "It was one of those places where you dress up like a cowboy or a saloon girl," Russell said. "You put them on this set, then we would shoot it, develop the film in this little room and they would pick it up. It was fun." Then she moved on to the Sears Portrait Studio in the Sears in the Mall at Northgate. "There was no decision-making but that is really the root system of school photography," Russell said. "At Sears I learned to work really fast and to sell my work. I liked photographing kids and I had a knack for kids."

By 1982, when Russell was 28, she started selling photography equipment at what was then-called Northgate Photo. "I wanted to learn more about gear," she said. "I had an ability to sell and I got a discount on equipment. I got to learn what was available and how it worked while getting paid." With the birth of her first child, son Jarreau, the next year, Russell became a stay-at-home mom. "I now had my own living, breathing subject and I started to photograph, develop film, process and print in the darkroom during nap time," Russell said. "I started to see photography more as an art and less as commerce at that point." Photography changed again with the 1988 birth of her daughter, Jesse. "Where my son was really easy to photograph, my daughter had a mind of her own so she pushed me to a different level in photography," Russell said. "I started photographing the process of parenting, the tantrums and what it felt like."

By 1990, Russell was a single parent and started selling her first pictures, did first her exhibit and shot weddings and portraits. Operating from her San Rafael home, Russell started Mugshots in 1993 after a client asked if she was interested in taking the school pictures for the Marin Waldorf School. "I would say yes to anything," Russell said. "I had two kids to support and I was a kid photographer." "When I photographed that first school, the big huge moment was to see that it was really easy to get beautiful headshots of kids at school," Russell said. "If you can get good pictures at school, why do the (traditional) pictures look so terrible? That is what is so different about the vision of Mugshots."

Mugshots School Photography
Owner: Linda Russell
Location: 210 Jewell St., San Rafael
Phone: 459-6847


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