15 Secrets of Genealogists

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Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States and a billion-dollar industry, but few people know what actually goes into tracking down ancestors—let alone putting information about them into any kind of context. Mental Floss talked to three professional genealogists to learn more about their increasingly in-demand profession, and discovered why they love weird last names, why they’re indebted to the Mormons and the Quakers, and how television is making their job more difficult.

1. MOST OF THEM DON’T HAVE DEGREES IN THE FIELD.

There’s only one accredited four-year genealogy degree program in the U.S.—a bachelors at Brigham Young University in Utah. Those who can't make it to Utah can enroll in certificate programs, such as the one offered at Boston University, where Melinde Byrne teaches. “A lot of people sign up [at certificate programs] thinking it’ll be simple,” she says. Unfortunately, lots of people then fail when they discover how much work the program really is. Learning how to use databases, evaluate evidence, document research, locate and search public records, and define genealogical terms is essential knowledge for genealogists-in-training. Other course offerings may teach about ethics in DNA testing, how to read historical documents in multiple languages, and the best methods for writing historical narratives.

But those who don't want to commit to a whole certificate can take advantage of other, less formal options, such as classes in conjunction with library science programs, lectures offered by historical and other societies, and week-long intensives at institutes around the country.

2. THEY'RE BOUND BY PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS TO CONDUCT "EXHAUSTIVE" RESEARCH.

Unlike, say, doctors or lawyers, genealogists don't need a specific qualification to practice. But they're still guided by professional standards—including the five Genealogical Proof Standards developed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, a non-profit in D.C. The five standards are considered best practices for coming "as close as possible to what actually happened in history," and include 1) "reasonably exhaustive research," 2) "complete and accurate source citations," 3) "thorough analysis and correlation," 4) "resolution of conflicting evidence," and 5) a "soundly written conclusion based on the strongest evidence."

Professional researchers may have differing opinions about what constitutes “reasonably exhaustive” research, but most agree that it means visiting archives and making sure to cover all the bases—for example, looking at not just a death certificate to confirm a name and age, but census, birth, and burial records as well, to build a fuller picture and to corroborate it. "If you don’t do all the steps in the genealogical proof standard, then the conclusions aren’t convincing," Byrne says.

3. THEY OFTEN DISCOVER THEY HAVE A KNACK FOR GENEALOGY WHEN THEY'RE INVESTIGATING THEIR OWN FAMILIES FOR FUN.

Byrne, for example, looked into her family’s history and discovered that “my own father and mother would never have met if my great grandmother in Alsace-Lorraine hadn’t had a goiter.” This medical condition led her to circumvent Ellis Island’s rigorous physical exam in favor of entering the country via Boston, setting a whole new family history—and her parents’ eventual meeting—in motion.

Genealogists will often continue to use their research tools on their own families later in their careers, too. Lee Arnold, who oversees the collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), has used them to research his family’s past. “One of my ancestors fought with the South Carolina militia during the Revolutionary War,” he says, and service records indicated that he’d “lost his horse.” To Arnold, who grew up on a horse farm, “That meant, I fell off my horse and he beat me back to the barn.” He later learned that the phrase actually meant that a person’s horse had been shot out from under him. These are the kinds of details that get people hooked on genealogy, according to the experts—“how their lives compare to mine, how … the things they did and didn’t do helped to form me,” Byrne says.

4. SOME OF THEM CHARGE MORE THAN $100 AN HOUR.

Genealogists in archive examining archival materials
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Genealogists are often hired by families who are curious about their past or hoping to join lineage societies such as the Colonial Dames; by specific libraries or archives; or by companies such as ancestry.com, who have genealogists on staff. Fees generally vary by experience and project, although they tend to start around $20/hour (for simple record searches) and go over $100/hour, with a mid-range of around $55 per hour.

Arnold says there are three levels of genealogical research he’ll personally take on: research limited to HSP’s holdings; research that takes him anywhere in the Philadelphia area; and “our Cadillac version, where we’ll get nana to talk to us about her life in the shtetl.”

5. THEIR RESEARCH SOMETIMES UNCOVERS FAMILY SECRETS.

Be careful what you wish for when you decide to go deep: “I always tell prospective clients, ‘This can be life-changing,'" Byrne says. "'You may find half-siblings and other relatives you never imagined existed.’”

HSP’s director of research services, David Haugaard, says that clients can be stunned to learn about family members who were deliberately kept hidden. "Within so many families there are people who are written off ... somebody might have [had] a mentally ill sibling who was kept secret. It's less common today than it was, so when people are doing genealogy, it's not uncommon to learn about people in fairly recent history [who were ignored]. You start to learn that the family was more complex than realized."

6. BIBLES CAN BE UNEXPECTEDLY USEFUL.

Genealogists use plenty of sources you might not suspect would be helpful. Family bibles, in particular, can offer a wealth of relevant tidbits, since they were once often used to record births, deaths, and marriages. Scrapbooks, tax and church records, land deeds, and the 1870 Census (the first to list African Americans after emancipation) can also be goldmines. So can letters, whether provided by the family or found in manuscript collections, which might causally mention a family member’s birthday or offer snippets about day-to-day existence. “You can gather lots of information from them in a real-life kind of way," Byrne says.

7. THEY OFTEN FIND MISTAKES IN ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS.

List of 19th century births used for genealogy
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Genealogists know it’s key to consult paper sources—and to give a critical eye to the “facts” they offer. Arnold recalls a colleague becoming confused when an ancestry site listed her grandfather as white and from North Carolina, when she knew he was black and from Louisiana. “I was able to go into the original documents and see that they had been transcribed wrong,” Arnold says—a common occurrence for sites outsourcing work to other countries. (Another common transcription error: mistaking a florid handwritten 17th century S for an F.)

That doesn’t mean paper sources are error-free, of course. Sometimes mistakes were made in the original documents themselves: Census workers may have misspelled names or miscounted children; priests may have mis-marked birth dates on baptismal certificates. Pros know how to cross-reference all that, too … with more documents!

8. THE WEIRDER YOUR LAST NAME, THE MORE THEY LIKE IT.

“I often tell people we’re like private investigators looking for dead people—we know your ancestors have to be there; you didn’t just hatch from an egg,” Arnold says. “The problem is, it’s so labor-intensive for a common name; you could spend hours looking at the wrong Smith. It’s better if you have an obscure last name.” Names like Brown, White, Jones, and Johnson are especially tough—although matters can be made easier if family members had a distinctive first name ("Napoleon Jones" will be easier than "John Jones," for example).

9. THERE'S A WHOLE FIELD THAT DEALS WITH LEGAL CASES.

Forensic genealogists—like Byrne—apply genealogical tools and principles to cases with legal ramifications. In the process, they often solve mysteries. Byrne might track down a next of kin for someone seeking the heir to a family fortune, or to repatriate the remains of a soldier killed in action. One of Byrne’s colleagues helped a woman prove that the man who kidnapped her as a girl was not her father—and was in fact a grisly serial killer. Another forensic genealogist discredited a woman who claimed she was raised by wolves and that she killed Nazis while hiding out in the woods. Sometimes, Byrne says, the tip-off comes just from talking to relatives; in the wolf case, for example, “Her first cousin was still living and he basically said, ‘Misha always had such an incredible imagination.’”

The man thought to be the Golden State Killer and East Area Rapist was also caught using forensic genealogy strategies. Police compared DNA found at the killer's crime scenes with DNA test results from an unidentified genealogy site, and found a match with a user of the site. The user wasn't the killer himself, but by going through their family tree for potential suspect who matched clues in the case, police found their man. "The techniques used to find the Golden State Killer combined solid police work with genetic genealogists’ principles," Byrne says. "This is done routinely to reunite children and birth families, to identify the remains of KIA or MIA soldiers, and increasingly to identify John Does, Jane Does, and Baby Does."

10. THEY’RE GRATEFUL TO THE MORMONS …

Person with hand on marriage records
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A good number of online records exist thanks to the efforts of Mormons. For years, they’ve been sending missionaries to HSP and other archives to scan hundreds of thousands of family histories, usually in exchange for a royalty and free access to the scans for the society’s patrons. What’s their interest? Posthumous baptisms for the family members who weren't Mormon—so they can stay together in heaven. Genealogists agree the scans are a tremendous asset to researchers, with a caveat: Not even close to everything is scanned, and mistakes are also common. “You still need to use as many different paper sources as you can,” Haugaard advises.

11. … AND THE QUAKERS.

Some things make genealogical research a snap—for example, if your ancestors were Quakers. According to Haugaard, that’s because the Quakers were always issuing certificates; when someone moved, say, to use as an introduction at the Quaker Meeting in a new town, and also when they were kicked out of the community. “Lots of [mid-18th century] Quakers got in trouble for fighting, or drinking, or marrying out of unity, then were disowned,” Haugaard says. What that means is, “Basically, they kept great records.”

12. GENEALOGY SHOWS DRIVE THEM NUTS.

Producers and participants of "Genealogy Roadshow" speaking onstage during a panel discussion in 2013
Producers and participants of Genealogy Roadshow speaking onstage during a panel discussion in 2013
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Grudgingly, Arnold admits that TV shows like Finding Your Roots and Genealogy Roadshow have “introduced people to genealogy and made it really hot—I mean, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an ancestry.com commercial.” But the shows have also given people unreasonable expectations about what genealogy can and cannot do. Byrne says, “People don’t understand that [the history] is not all laid out in front of you" as it typically is on TV. Arnold says he fields requests from patrons who ask him to “‘Tell me about my ancestors, just like that guy on TV did.’ They think it’s easy and quick.” In fact, what Arnold calls those “ta-da” moments offered by hosts like Henry Louis Gates Jr. are actually made possible by professional genealogists hired to painstakingly research ancestry over the course of days, weeks, months.

13. IT'S EASIER FOR THEM TO RESEARCH YOUR ANCESTORS IF THEY WERE RICH.

Ancestors with less money—who maybe didn’t own property or pay taxes—can be less likely to leave a paper trail. But employment agency, almshouse, prison, and orphanage records can get the research ball rolling, as can advertisements offering rewards for runaway indentured servants. Haugaard explains that charity society records also frequently provide details: Society workers would visit families and “make records indicating the woman of the household’s name, how many people were in the household, what religion they were, and what charity they received, like coal or groceries.”

14. PERSECUTED GROUPS CAN BE A MAJOR CHALLENGE.

Research files being used for genealogy
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Three groups of people looking for their roots make Arnold steel himself for some rigorous research. If the case involves African Americans, Native Americans, or Jews, “I know this is going to be a tough one,” he says. That’s because their records are often scant or nonexistent. Slaves often weren't allowed to marry (or their marriages were never recorded); Native Americans didn’t traditionally write their histories down; and Jews fleeing Europe during World War II often had all family records destroyed as synagogues and villages were torched. Sometimes, their papers were falsified in order for people to survive.

These factors make picking up someone’s trail difficult, if not impossible. “I had one woman come in to a talk I was giving and say, ‘How do I start? All my ancestors were killed in the Holocaust,’” Arnold remembers. “And I said, ‘Alright, then your ancestry starts with you. Document your life for your [descendants].”

15. THEY MIGHT ENCOURAGE YOU TO THINK TWICE ABOUT DNA TESTING.

According to Arnold, DNA test results can be sketchy. His own experience with DNA tests from seven companies yielded seven different results, some of them “bizarre”: “One said my family was from Tuscany, but I’m paler than a Presbyterian. Another said I was 5 percent African American. Another said I was Swedish—and that probably means that they found a gene from some randy Viking pillaging the Scots Irish 1000 years ago.”

Part of the problem is that DNA test kits are dependent on data from other people who have taken the tests, which means they are more accurate for some well-represented groups than others. (For example, an American with Irish background taking the test may get a more reliable result than someone whose ancestors were of Middle Eastern descent, since people from the Middle East tend be less represented in the database.) Also, different companies are working with different data sets, and using different algorithms—which can produce different results.

Haugaard also says that DNA testing may tell you some things you don’t want to know. He recounts a story about a man who connected deeply with his Irish heritage, yet DNA testing undertaken by his family showed he was Jewish, switched at birth with an Irish-American baby. “He passed away before he could learn that,” Haugaard says.

11 Secrets of Butterball's Turkey Talk-Line Operators

Butterball
Butterball

Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line started small. Their first holiday season in 1981, a team of six home economists answered 11,000 turkey-related questions from cooks across America. Things have grown a great deal since then: More than 50 phone operators now work out of the Butterball office in Naperville, Illinois—about a 30-minute drive from Chicago—and they answer 10,000 calls on Thanksgiving day alone. That’s not to mention all the texts, emails, and instant chat messages they also handle.

We spoke to three talk-line operators to find out what it takes to become a turkey expert and why they give up their own holidays to help others avoid disastrous dinners.

1. THEY NEED AT LEAST A FOUR-YEAR DEGREE IN A FOOD-RELATED FIELD.

The talk-line operators don’t call themselves “experts” for nothing. To be considered for the job, they need to have completed at least four years of a food-related program. Turkey talk-line supervisors Janice Stahl and Carol Miller both have degrees in home economics. Nicole Johnson, a talk-line coordinator, has degrees in nutrition dietetics and public health. There are also lots of registered dieticians on staff, and some of the other employees have worked as chefs or food stylists.

2. CONNECTIONS HELP WHEN IT COMES TO GETTING HIRED.

Positions on the talk-line are never formally advertised—only by word of mouth—so it helps to know someone who works there. Stahl says she found out about the job from her mother-in-law, who worked as a talk-line operator for more than 10 years. “It kind of takes a little bit of a connection to get in,” she says. “It’s a hot little commodity job.” In a similar vein, Miller found out about the job from a neighbor, and Johnson learned about it from a former teacher.

3. THE OPERATORS HAVE STAYING POWER.

Once someone does land a job, they tend to stick around a while. Many of Butterball's turkey experts have worked at the talk-line for over 10 years. "It's not a job where people really leave," Stahl told Patch in 2015. "We may hire one person a year."

4. NEW TRAINEES HAVE TO COMPLETE “BUTTERBALL UNIVERSITY.”

"Then and now" photos of Butterball's kitchen
Butterball

During their first three years on the talk-line, all Butterball “freshmen” have to complete a one-day training seminar, dubbed Butterball University, at the start of each season. They’re assigned a specific method of turkey preparation, and spend the day cooking in the Butterball office kitchen. Butterball U attendees have tested out every possible appliance, from deep fryers to charcoal grills to sous vides.

“At the end of the day we’re looking at 10 or 12 turkeys that have been cooked in all these different methods,” Miller says. “Then we compare the appearance of the turkey, we compare time, we compare the juices that are in the bottom of the pan—Is there a lot of juice? Is it brown juice?” That way, “when the phones start ringing or the texts come in, you have actually visualized it," she says.

All of the experts also have to complete “advanced training” each year, which covers Butterball’s products and provides a refresher course on how to operate the phone and computer systems. (The computers are used to keep a record of the type of questions received, which are sometimes discussed in future training sessions.) New this year is a system that allows callers to hang up and have an operator call them back, instead of being put on hold. The wait can be short or long, depending on how many callers they have that day, and how chatty they are. "Sometimes the call will vary from 30 or 45 seconds to 30 to 45 minutes," Johnson says.

5. THEY HEAR ALL KINDS OF CONFESSIONS.

Because the talk-line operators are so sweet, affable, and non-judgmental, many callers feel comfortable telling them all kinds of personal details. “We are kind of like a confession hotline,” Stahl says. “We’ll get the husband on one line and the wife on the other because there’s been a dispute about what temperature the oven should be.”

One year, a new bride called into the hotline in a panic. She was nervous about cooking for her in-laws and couldn’t tell whether the turkey was done. They could barely hear her whispering into the phone, and when they asked her why she was speaking so softly, she replied, “I’m in the hallway closet.”

Another time, a man wanted to propose to his girlfriend by placing a ring inside the turkey, then cooking it. Miller, who took that call, advised him against it. "At the time I was worried about food safety and the romantic moment! Crunching down on a diamond—either big or small—could have been a problem for the bride or whoever found the ring," she explains. “I convinced him it would be just as dramatic if he took the ring, got a piece of ribbon, and tied it on a drumstick and then brought the turkey into the gathering and proposed that way.” This happened in the mid-’80s, and Miller still wonders what happened to them, and whether the woman said yes. “By now they could have kids and grandkids, and I can just imagine grandpa telling that story.”

6. THEY SHARE THEIR TURKEY MISTAKES WITH CALLERS.

Two talk-line hosts are shown answering calls at their desks in 1988
Butterball

Some of the talk-line operators have had a few turkey mishaps of their own, and they'll share these personal stories with callers to let them know they’re not alone. “We’re all human. Everybody knows somebody that’s left that little treasure bag in the wishbone cavity of the turkey,” Miller says.

One time, Miller had an extra-large turkey but didn’t have a suitable pan to hold it, so she used a cookie sheet instead. “That was not a good idea because I spent I don’t know how much time bailing [the juices] out of the cookie sheet so that it wouldn’t go out and over the pan and into the oven,” she says. Another time, she “burned the heck out of a turkey” on a charcoal grill.

Stahl has a similar story. Once, after moving into a new home, she bought a turkey before checking to see if the oven worked. It didn’t, as she discovered on Thanksgiving day. So they ordered pizza instead.

7. THEIR CALLERS TRY TO THAW TURKEYS IN SOME PRETTY STRANGE PLACES.

Pools, bathtubs, dishwashers, jacuzzis—all have been used in attempts to thaw turkeys. One dad was bathing his twin kids and decided to put the turkey in the tub with them. Another family was having a large reunion at a hotel, and plopped 10 turkeys into the bathtub to thaw. “Picture the maid coming in and seeing that,” Miller says.

Turkeys have also been stored in some creative places when freezer space is lacking. Operators have heard from callers who left their turkeys in the trunk, only to discover that the weather warmed up the next day and ruined them. In states where it starts snowing in November, it’s not unusual for people to leave their turkeys outside in a snowbank. One year, someone did this and called into the hotline because they wanted to know how to find it. “The Midwest stories are the best,” Stahl says.

8. THEY CAN TELL YOU HOW TO MICROWAVE A TURKEY.

Butterball’s talk-line operators are trained in all methods of turkey preparation, including microwaves. After all, things go wrong and ovens stop functioning, so they need to be capable of guiding callers through the next-best-case scenario. In 2005, they got tons of calls from people living in FEMA trailers after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their homes. The shelters had microwaves but no ovens, and they wanted to know whether they could still cook a proper Thanksgiving meal.

“You can do it, but it’s gotta be about 12 pounds or less,” Stahl says. “You can even stuff it, stick it in the microwave, and we can walk you through all the steps. It works and it actually tastes really good. You wouldn’t know the difference.” The presentation, however, isn’t as nice as a turkey cooked in an oven. “It’s not pretty when it comes out of the microwave. That’s the only thing,” Stahl says.

9. THEY GET ASKED TURKEY-RELATED QUESTIONS EVEN WHEN THEY'RE OFF-DUTY.

While many of the turkey experts proudly wear a jacket with Butterball’s Talk-Line logo on the left side, they also know the risks. Namely, if they’re going to be leaving the house while wearing it, they should ensure they have plenty of time to talk turkey. “If you ask everybody in [Butterball’s office] on Thanksgiving day if they’ve ever been stopped somewhere out of the house with their Butterball jacket on and asked a question, I’m sure they all would say yes,” Miller says. She’s been stopped at the library, at soccer games, at Home Depot, and at the grocery store, so she always has to be on top of her game.

Stahl says she was at the grocery store when “some lady came after me in aisle three.” The woman didn’t know how to cook a turkey or even which aisle carried them, so Stahl sat down with her at a coffee shop inside the store and explained how it’s done—from start to finish. She didn’t mind helping, but conceded, “A grocery store is never where you want to wear a Butterball coat.”

10. THEY UNSUCCESSFULLY PETITIONED FOR A THANKSGIVING TURKEY EMOJI.

Butterball’s turkey experts launched a change.org petition last year to get Unicode, the leading authority on emojis, to introduce a cooked turkey icon. When responding to questions by text, the turkey experts sometimes throw in an emoji to make it more friendly and festive. However, they weren’t satisfied with the live turkey emoji because, as Butterball’s longest-standing talk-line operator Marge Klindera explained in a promotional video, “If your turkey looked like this, even we can’t help you.” Unfortunately, support was somewhat lacking—they got a little over 7500 signatures—and they never received their Thanksgiving emoji. “I think it might take a couple years to get the emoji,” Johnson says.

11. THEY DELAY THEIR OWN THANKSGIVING TO HELP YOU "HOST LIKE A BOSS."

Butterball’s turkey experts are scheduled to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving day (and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve), which means they have no choice but to delay their own holiday celebrations. When it’s time for lunch, they order soup to help soothe their throats, since their voices are often hoarse by the end of the day. They don’t seem to mind one bit, though.

“All of us love to do this, and the really funny thing that people are kind of surprised to hear is that we actually all love to be there on Thanksgiving day because that’s the day when people need the most help,” Stahl says. “Those are the panicked calls that come in, like ‘I have a frozen turkey and it’s Thanksgiving morning. What am I going to do?’”

The rewarding nature of the job and the countless human connections they’ve formed are why so many talk-line operators keep coming back year after year. Johnson says the job is “exhausting in one way, but you still feel really good” for having helped save people from “turkey trauma.” So if you have a burning question about your forthcoming turkey feast, go ahead and give them a ring at 1-800-BUTTERBALL. They’d be happy to help.

16 Secrets of School Portrait Photographers

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iStock.com/HKPNC

One by one, they form a little conveyor belt—throngs of students lining up to sit in a chair, look into a camera lens, and smile. For millions of kids, picture day is a way to memorialize their appearance in a given year, although later the out-of-fashion clothes or cosmetic growing pains may be a way to memorialize pure awkwardness. For the photographers tasked with the job, however, picture day means corralling hundreds of children and establishing a comfort level without any time to waste.

“We get about 30 seconds per kid,” Kristin Boyer, a photographer in Atlanta, Georgia, who has been taking school portrait photos for eight years, tells Mental Floss. “And it’s amazing how much impact you can have. You want to make them feel like a million bucks—beautiful, awesome, and smart.”

To get a better sense of what goes into the job, we asked Boyer and two other school photographers to divulge some of the more interesting aspects of wrangling kids for posterity. Read on for some insight into uncooperative subjects, why mornings make for the the best shots, and the importance of booger patrol.

1. SCHOOLS GET A CUT OF THEIR FEE.

While deals can vary by school, photographers typically get paid when parents order photos. The school then takes a percentage of that fee.

To select a professional, schools will often take bids. "I make a presentation," Boyer says. "I'll explain what I do. Sometimes schools are looking for certain things." Boyer takes more dynamic shots with ambitious outdoor backgrounds; some larger schools herding 1500 or more kids, she says, may want to opt for a simple portrait to expedite the process.

As for what schools do with their portion of the revenue, it depends on the school. But many usually sink it back into student programs.

2. PARENTS TAKE PICTURE DAY VERY SERIOUSLY.

A child poses for a school photo
iStock.com/HKPNC

“Parents are very passionate about their kids getting good school photos,” Courtney, a photographer based in Canada, tells Mental Floss. They might send along a note with their kid describing what they didn’t like about the previous year’s photo. “When I started, I didn’t expect the level of hostility with parents when a photo doesn’t go the way they want it to.”

Boyer has sometimes had parents ask to stand behind her while she shoots so they can take their own pictures. “I usually say no cell phone photos. If they take theirs, they won’t buy mine.”

3. THEY TRY TO TAKE PICTURES BEFORE LUNCHTIME.

For younger kids, mornings are better. After lunch, photographers are likely to need the help of photo-editing software. “One of my first-graders got spaghetti on them,” Boyer says. “You don’t want to let them start to get markers or food all over.” Boyer’s most unusual Photoshop request? “I edited out a cookie once. The kid would not sit down unless he had a cookie.”

4. KIDS ARE SOMETIMES TERRIFIED OF THEM.

A little girl in a yearbook portrait photo
iStock.com/HKPNC

Portrait photographers typically work across a spectrum of ages, from kindergarteners to high school seniors. If a child is very young, it’s possible the entire idea of sitting for a portrait will scare them silly. “You always get one or two that are just terrified,” Grant, a portrait photographer who works on pre-K to 12th grade, tells Mental Floss. “I’m a big, beefy dude, and sometimes a kid will get in there and see me and go, ‘Oh, I’m not doing this.’” To placate the pensive pupils, Grant makes a big show of leaving by stomping his feet, then lets one of his less-threatening assistants take the pictures.

5. YOUNGER KIDS TAKE EVERYTHING LITERALLY.

Photographers need to be careful when giving instructions to kindergarteners and first graders, who tend to process things with little nuance. “Sometimes I’ll ask a kid to high-five me and I'll act like it hurts,” Grant says. “I’ll ask for a Band-Aid. Sometimes they’ll look very serious and say, ‘I don’t have one.’” Another time, Grant asked a kid to point his knees toward a nearby computer. “He came over and touched his knee to the laptop.”

6. SOME KIDS INSIST ON HAVING PROPS.

A student poses for a school photo with an electronic keyboard
iStock.com/RyanJLane

A lot of photographers are switching up the conventional portrait by snapping pictures of kids outdoors, in "action" poses like jumping, or against more eclectic backgrounds. Kids are getting more creative, too. Like prop comedians, they will sometimes arrive for picture day armed with accessories. “I’ve seen everything from Halloween costumes to dogs and other pets,” Courtney, says. “Or they want to wear hats or sunglasses.” If it’s within reason and OK with the school, she’ll take one traditional photo and then let the subject pose with their prop for the second.

7. SELFIES HAVE MADE THEIR JOB HARDER.

Posing for a professional portrait can be a strange experience for a kid who has spent considerable time on a cell phone. “Kids have gotten much more comfortable in front of the camera, but it’s bad selfie behavior,” Boyer says. “Doing duck lips, thrusting their arms out to make their shoulders straight. You kind of have to re-train them.” Boyer lets them know it doesn't look good, but "I say it in a nice way."

8. “ORANGE CHIN” IS A PROBLEM.

A child poses for a school photo
iStock.com/imagedepotpro

Sometimes, fashion can betray kids. “Fluorescent green and orange tops seem popular now and light tends to bounce off of it and on the chin,” Grant says. “The bottom of the chin tends to turn orange.” Unless they happen to have an extra shirt or request a photo retouch, they’re stuck with it.

9. THERE'S A REASON THEY ASK KIDS TO TILT THEIR HEAD.

Aside from some unfortunate fashion choices, one staple of school photos is the head tilt, with kids cocking their faces off to one side. According to a school photographer on Reddit, there's a good reason for that. "These photos are going to be used for the yearbook (more than likely) and everyone should have somewhat of the same head pose," they explain. "The way we stage our lights does not flatter the subject when they're looking straight at the camera. If you tilt your head you're more likely to also move your chin in that same direction, which makes for a more interesting highlight/shadow play and also has the added benefit of making the face look smaller (if you're a little overweight)."

10. THEY USE A SYSTEM TO TRACK EACH KID.

A child poses for a school photo
iStock.com/HKPNC

With hundreds of students at a given school, photographers need a reliable system of identifying kids and making sure their names match up to their portfolio. While systems vary, one of the most common is to collect school data and then print a unique ticket with a student’s name, grade, homeroom, and a number. “Those have a barcode,” Grant says. “So they come up, we scan the ticket, and pull up their record. It’s like scanning soup at a grocery store.”

It’s also error-free, unless some senior decides to trade tickets with a friend so their names get mixed up on their school identification cards. “They don’t seem to think it out, though, because the homeroom teachers pass the cards out and will notice the picture isn’t of them.”

11. THEY HAVE SOME SILLY STRATEGIES FOR MAKING A KID SMILE.

Photographers have less than a minute to relax a kid enough so they deliver a broad, genuine smile. To facilitate that, Grant says he keeps a laundry list of groaners at his disposal to provoke a laugh. “It’s like a script tree that a telemarketer would use,” he says. “If a kid says they play soccer, I’ll say, ‘Oh, so you like kicking people?’”

Photographers also rely on another age-old technique: embarrassment. “In grades four to six, if you ask girls to say ‘boys’ and boys to say ‘girls,’ it’s so scandalous,” Grant says. “For a second shot, you ask them to say, ‘cute boys’ or ‘cute girls.’ That typically works.” Grant can also provoke smiles by asking about pet names. Elementary kids react to being asked to say, “trick or treat, smell my feet.” If they remain stubborn, Grant will pull out all the stops and request they say “stinky feet.”

12. SOMEONE NEEDS TO BE ON BOOGER PATROL.

A child picks his nose
iStock.com/RichVintage

While photo-editing software can address rogue snot, no one really wants to spend the extra minutes digitally erasing boogers from photos. Boyer typically enlists volunteer parents to make sure faces are wiped clean or has assistants armed with tissues, combs, and other grooming products to make for a stylish and snot-free image. “We usually try to catch things like that before they get in front of the camera,” she says.

13. SOMETIMES THEY REGRET ASKING QUESTIONS.

To build rapport, photographers are always looking to get kids to talk about themselves. Once, one of Grant’s assistants asked if a child had any pets. “Yes,” the kid responded. “Rabbits. But we ate them last night.”

14. KIDS LIKE TO MESS WITH THEM ...

The older kids get, the more they tend to commit acts of subversion. “One kid came in with his jacket on, took it off, sat down, and was ready to go,” Grant says. “I knew something was going on. I looked at his shirt and it said ‘Student of the Month.’ Except he put masking tape over the ‘ent’ so it read ‘Stud of the Month.’” (After consulting with the principal, the kid was allowed to keep it on for the photo.)

Courtney had a kid sit down with what looked like a nice shirt with birds on it. “It was actually middle fingers,” she says.

15. ... AND SOME KIDS ARE JUST A PAIN.

While most kids are cooperative, Grant will sometimes see subjects who want to make their life as difficult as possible. "Seniors tend to fool around more and be difficult on purpose," he says. "Some of them are just perpetually in a bad mood or feel self-conscious." Sports teammates might egg each other on to not crack a smile. One school photographer who works for Lifetouch writes on Reddit that there are one or two "problem kids" per class: "You just have to remember they're just doing it for attention because they aren't getting it somewhere else."

16. ACCORDING TO THEM, THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A BAD SCHOOL PICTURE.

A student poses for a school photo
iStock.com/RyanJLane

The internet is overflowing with awkward and embarrassing school photos, from unfortunate backgrounds to unfortunate hairstyles. But according to Grant, “bad school photo” is a misnomer that gives photographers a bad rap. “There’s a common idea school pictures are bad,” he says. “No. School pictures are like shooting fish in a barrel. Is a kid going to smile? Is a kid going to lean into it? Or is it going to be bad no matter what I do? If you think the picture is bad, well, no, that’s you. The picture was fine. The bad haircut wasn’t.”

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