Photographic Studios, Portrait

SIC 7221

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in still or video portrait photography for the general public. Establishments primarily engaged in commercial photography are classified in SIC 7335: Commercial Photography; those engaged in video tape production other than portrait are classified in SIC 7812: Motion Picture and Video Tape Production; and those engaged in film developing or print processing for the trade or the general public are classified in SIC 7384: Photofinishing Laboratories. Establishments primarily engaged in processing film for the motion picture production industry are classified in SIC 7819: Services Allied to Motion Picture Production; and those engaged in computer photography are classified in SIC 7299: Miscellaneous Personal Services, Not Elsewhere Classified.

Industry Snapshot

The photographic portrait studio industry serves the general public with a range of portrait services. The industry includes portrait photographers, school photographers, home photographers, passport photographers, and video photographers. Specific portrait services include family portraits, wedding photos, passport photos, glamour photos, school photos, and team photos.

There were 15,186 portrait studio establishments in operation in 2007, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. This figure represented an increase from 14,587 establishments in 2002 and 13,245 in 1997. Together these firms employed about 76,578 people and generated $5.0 billion in revenues.

Organization and Structure

The professional portrait industry is segmented into two major categories and numerous subcategories of portraits. The first group is school portraits, which are further divided among kindergarten to grade 11 students, high school seniors, high school prom, and college. The second group, non-school, encompasses wedding, family, adult, daycare/nursery school, sports/team, children outside of school, glamour, class/family reunion, pet, hospital baby, church directory, and executive.

The general portrait studio provides services ranging from passport photos to family portraits. The studio offers these services at rates according to the size of the prints or the number of photographic print copies sold in a package. The studio keeps the negatives because they legally own the copyright, although proofs may be given to the purchaser for reordering purposes. Because of many studios' reliance on the school market, the industry is often a cyclical one, with peaks in the fall (yearly student pictures) and the spring (prom and graduation portraits).

Professional portraits may be taken in a variety of locations including a professional studio, a chain studio, a department store, a school, a church, an outdoor setting, a day care center, or an individual's home.

Background and Development

The camera has been used as an artist's instrument for portraiture since its invention (the earliest known form of camera was originated by Leonardo da Vinci in 1482) and the subsequent advances made in the early 1800s. A French inventor named Louis J.M. Daguerre made improvements on another French inventor's work to create the earliest examples of portrait photography. Known as daguerreotypes, these photographs were dark and grainy, with little or no background.

It was an American, Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, who opened one of the first portrait photography studios in America. Because Morse was a portrait painter, the primary purpose of this first studio was to make portrait studies for his paintings. Later, armed with an increasingly sophisticated process, Morse opened a second studio (in New York) devoted primarily to taking daguerreotype portraits. Other studios soon followed.

There were many problems facing these early studios, one of which was the fact that the process of taking a subject's portrait was time consuming. There was not enough light available in the studios, and exposures sometimes took 30 minutes or longer to be completed. As time progressed, portrait photographers utilized new methods to bring additional light into the studio, resulting in reduced exposure time.

Soon, the photographic portrait studio business was on its way to becoming a profitable industry. Portrait studios developed in cities across America while photographers set up their operations, including somewhat crude studios in the rural areas of the West. Studios were usually located on the top of buildings in order to make the best use of available sunlight. Many of these new portrait studios were ornate and large, with several rooms for portrait taking.

Discoveries in the 1850s enabled photographers to eradicate some of their lighting problems, thus reducing the amount of time a portrait subject was required to sit while the picture was being taken. The most prominent discovery that led to these advances was the positive-negative system of photography. Other advances enabled the backgrounds in the portraits to become more detailed. Lush, detailed paintings were often used as backdrops behind the subject being photographed.

In 1851, the wet-plate process was introduced, enabling photographers to further reduce exposure time, and thus, the subject's sitting time. In 1871, a dry-plate process was developed, which eventually reduced exposure time to a fraction of a second. As a result, cameras could now be held in the hand, giving the photographer greater mobility and creativity. The dry-plate process also produced higher-quality prints.

Professional portrait studios matured and diversified in the 1920s. As the advertising industry grew and began to use more photographs, portrait studios began to cater to commercial needs. Soon, many studios were devoting their time entirely to commercial enterprises like advertising, while others concentrated exclusively on glamour portraits, passport photographs, and other specialized portraits. The general portrait studio that provides all of these portrait services continues to exist.

According to the Photo Marketing Association International (PMA), overall the photographic portrait studio industry was profitable in the mid-1990s, with more than one-half of all portrait services reporting an increase in sales. The survey indicated that in 1995, by portrait type, K-11 schools had the best sales performance, followed by wedding, sports/team, high school prom, high school seniors, and reunion photos. According to the PMA 1996 U.S. Consumer Photo Buying Report, 40 percent of all U.S. households had a professional portrait photo taken in 1995. The study also showed that about 20 percent of all portraits were taken at a school, 12 percent at a department store, 5 percent at a chain portrait studio, 7 percent at a church, 6.1 percent at a professional studio, 5.2 percent in an outdoor setting, 2.4 percent in a day care center, and 1 percent at an individual's home.

In the late 1990s, K-11 school photos, sports/team photos, church directory photos, high school senior photos, wedding photos, and class/family reunion photos saw an increase in portrait sitting shares. Conversely, child/children (non-school), family portrait, nursery/day care photos, and glamour photos saw a decline in sitting shares.

In the most lucrative industry segment, K-11 portraits, the PSPA 1995 School Photography Survey showed that despite an increasing annual number of enrolled students, the percentage of parents purchasing portrait packages was declining at an overall average rate of 1.4 percent per year. Studies also indicated that although school photos were convenient in terms of location and methods of payment, compared with department or professional studio photos, they were disadvantaged in terms of package flexibility, number of poses taken, types of poses, number and type of backdrops, quality, proofs, and speed of delivery. According to the PMA, to achieve success in the sales of all types of portraits, photographers had to implement creative marketing strategies.

In the mid-2000s, the photo industry was focused on digital services and the increasing innovation in photography equipment. Digital cameras came into the mainstream among consumers, and technology in this area was increasingly sophisticated, causing decreases in the professional segment of the industry. Additionally, the advanced technology in equipment allowed amateurs to more easily enter the professional market. However, the portrait market experienced growth in 2004 after declining in the early 2000s due to the rise of home digital photos and the general economic climate, according to a 2005 research report by PMA.

To combat the growing number of consumers taking portraits with digital equipment at home, many photographic studios offered digital portraits, which allowed consumers to immediately view photographs. Many portrait studios also offered web-based technologies, including e-cards and online keepsake items. Of studios in the high school senior business, 66 percent were 100 percent digital by 2005, with only 16 percent film-only users. In the wedding photography segment, 49 percent were all-digital, while 76 percent of sports photographers were completely digital.

Current Conditions

The trend toward digital photography continued into the early 2010s. Although the advances in technology enabled professional photographers to create portraits more cost-efficiently and quickly, the spread of digital capabilities to the general public also cut into portrait studios' profits. According to a report by the NPD Group, by 2010 73 percent of U.S. households owned a digital camera.

Dun & Bradstreet reported that of the $4.0 billion in revenues in 2009, the largest percentage (about 13 percent) originated from portrait studios in California. Texas accounted for 8 percent, New York for 6 percent, Florida for 5 percent, and Pennsylvania for 4 percent. The remaining revenues were distributed among the rest of the states. California was also the number-one state in terms of employment in the industry, followed by Texas, Florida, and New York.

Industry Leaders

According to Hoover's, the portrait photography industry was highly fragmented in the early 2010s, with the top 50 companies accounting for about half of all revenues. One of the largest companies in the industry was Olan Mills, Inc. Established in 1932 in Selma, Alabama, and named after its founder, Olan Mills was one of the world's leading producers of family portraits in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Through more than 700 studios in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, Olan Mills provided portraits to individuals, families, churches, clubs, and businesses. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the firm was forced to close hundreds of studios due to increased competition from studios operated by retail stores. At the same time, however, it began installing Olan Mills studios in Kmart retail locations. The company also discontinued serving the school portrait market in order to focus on other business areas. In the mid-2000s Olan Mills created "On the Sport" Portrait Studios offering digital image proofing and on-site printing offering same-day prints for consumers. In 2010 the company published about 3 million church directories, which accounted for more than 60 percent of total revenues. Studio Portrait sites in Kmart, Belk, Macy's, and other stores supplied the remainder of sales. Total employment in 2010 stood at about 4,000.

Lifetouch Inc., based in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, was one of the leading school portrait photographers in the United States, producing some 16 million school portraits each year. Founded in 1936 as National Schools Studios, Lifetouch also operated studios in such retail establishments as JC Penney and Target throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. With more than 22,000 employees, the company also produced family portraits, yearbooks, church directories, and identification cards and offered such services as event imaging and video production.

Another industry leader was CPI Corp. of St. Louis, Missouri. In 2010 CPI had about 3,030 portrait studios in the United States, including hundreds of locations within Sears, WalMart, and Babies R Us retail stores. Founded in 1942, CPI had total sales of $422 million with 11,000 employees in 2010.

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