Digital answer to the anxiety of school photos

Software: Retouching is no longer just for senior pictures.

December 09, 2004|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

For many, there's nothing quite like School Picture Day to trigger a clammy rush of panic about bad hair, bad teeth and bad skin.

Think of it as teen angst, forever captured on a glossy 8-by-10 - and of course the endless duplicates preserved for eternity in class yearbooks, passed out in wallet size to relatives near and far, and hung on stairway walls at home.

These days, though, school photo anxiety can be so 20th century.

Thanks to digital technology that makes the art of altering photographs much easier, more affordable and increasingly common, perfection can be just a few mouse clicks away.

Not happy with the stray hairs sticking straight up from Junior's head? Distressed by the untimely blemish on little Susie's nose? Braces obscuring an adorable smile? No worries. Just order those little irritations digitally erased.

"When I saw the proofs from my senior portraits, I thought, `Oh my gosh, how can that be me?'" said Marci Hoover, 17, a student at Warren Hills Regional High School in Washington, N.J. "I had pimples everywhere!"

Simply mortified, Hoover was consoled by Robert Kerr of Royal Photographics Inc. in Bethlehem, Pa., who took seconds to digitally retouch her portrait, clicking away her pimples, the shine on her forehead and laugh lines.

"Afterward, I looked like me, of course, but better," Hoover said. "It was pretty amazing. I felt like a model. My mom loved it. She said, `You look perfect.'"

Quicker, easier

Photo airbrushing used to be a tedious and expensive process that involved using liquid dyes on negatives and then painting color back onto each print and subsequent duplicates. The service was mostly reserved for those all-important senior portraits that could cost parents several hundred dollars.

These days, computer software enables studios to manipulate images on files instead of film, and in large quantities quickly and easily. As a small but growing segment of the $1.5 billion school photo industry converts to digital and searches for new ways to market an old school tradition to families, the option of retouching is being offered to kids from preschool age to senior high.

"It's mind-boggling," said James Pool, technical adviser for the Professional School Photographers Association in Michigan. "You can do almost anything you want with pictures these days. You can change backgrounds, change the color of a child's hair, make teeth whiter, remove a person, add a person, make them thinner.

"It's becoming a popular service for parents and students," Pool said. "They love it."

Some studios have even started using sophisticated software that automatically scans faces and corrects minor defects, saving more time and money, said Albert Leung, director of operations for Jostens Canada, which handles school picture processing for parent Jostens Inc. in Minneapolis.

The service is catching on, slowly but surely.

Teens may love the concept, but persuading Mom and Dad to pay for it isn't always easy. In some cases, school photo packages can cost more than $50, not including retouching services which can add $5 to $7.

Paige Kirtscher said she wishes she had checked the little box on the order form to request retouching. When she saw her portraits a couple of weeks ago, she groaned.

"Two little pimples on my chin," the 13-year-old eighth-grader at Havre de Grace Middle School said with a sigh. "I told my mom we should have gotten retouching. It wasn't horrible, but it was like, `Aw, man.'"

For parents, such flaws symbolize a sweet reminder of their child's growing pains. For kids, it's not so fun.

"Both my ninth- and 10th-grade pictures were horrible," said Kari Rutkowski, 15, a sophomore at C. Milton Wright High School in Churchville. "All the girls want retouching. I wanted it, too, but my mom said she wasn't paying for it."

Maryland photo studios that offer the service say about a third of the order forms request retouching, but in many cases, it's the student, not the parent, who desires it.

Staci Payne said she didn't know her 13-year-old, Haley, signed up for photo retouching at Cradlerock School in Columbia.

The eighth-grader took one look at her first photos and declared them foul - bad smile, frizzy hair, too many freckles. She opted for a retake, plus retouching. Haley has not seen the second set of photos yet, but she's hoping retouching will lighten up some of her freckles and cover up any blemishes.

"They're at an age when they're really self-conscious," said Haley's mother, who paid about $7 more for retouching. "Photos can be really stressful on them. ... If it makes them feel better about their pictures, anything helps."

Experts say there is a fine line between using technology to give a child's self-esteem a boost and using it to pry perfection from puberty.

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