In 1/1000th of a second -- faster than you can lip the ch in cheese -- memories that will last a lifetime are frozen onto wallet-sized glossy paper.
Captured in that shutter frame are the moments parents want to frame and display on fireplace mantels. Teens will trade the images between classes. It's a rite of passage you can hold in your hands: prom photos.
"Chin this way, head down just a bit," photographer Rob Paino said at El Segundo High School's prom Saturday. "Chin down, gentleman, just a bit more. Big smile!"
Ruben Figueroa, 18, wearing a zoot suit and a fedora hat, had one hand on his girlfriend's back, another by her elbow. On "three," they smiled broadly.
His date, Emily Curtin, explained the significance of ritual -- the part they'd remember.
"It's not the picture," she said, "it's the moment."
Millions of such moments are captured this time of year, when teenagers across the nation don gowns and tuxedos for this hallowed high school tradition. And like a lot of high school traditions, it can be exciting, giddy, and, as many adults will remember, a little awkward.
Here in 2004, technology has made for some changes. Rather than wait three weeks for the photographs to arrive by mail, couples can review pictures on a computer screen and select their favorite.
And due to the influence of the movie "Dumb and Dumber," which featured two dweeby characters in pastel tuxedos, traditional black tuxes are so five years ago. Retro colors are back, Paino said. Pick any school dance today, and you'll find baby blue and cream orange ruffled suits, top hats with matching canes, and heavy gold chains worn ostentatiously around the neck. The El Segundo prom, held at Ft. MacArthur in San Pedro, even included a couple with a kilt and matching dress.
High-tech advances and cultural shifts aside, much of prom photography remains the same. The cheesy backdrops. The stilted poses. The uncomfortable closeness of "just friends" cuddling up for a picture.
"Look right here. I'll take two pictures," one photographer said. "One, two, three big smile!"
Bradley Harris' lips were twitching. As the photographer counted to three, he waited until 2 1/2 to display his toothy grin. A bright flash illuminated the couple's faces, and then, a sigh of relief.
"It was kind of weird; they were pushing us close," the 17-year-old said of the pose.
His date, Christina Pellican, 17, compared the two pictures on the computer screen.
"I like two," she decided.
Picture No. 2, not much different from picture No. 1, showed the couple standing in front of a simple, not-too-cheesy magenta backdrop with clouds and twinkling stars. He wore a classic black tuxedo, she a flowing, light blue dress.
This is the busy season for Paino's photography studio, which handled five other school dances last weekend. Typically, his company will gear up for 50 proms each spring.
"I'm a firm believer this is the most important picture of their high school career," Paino said. He recalled his own prom photos, which his father's company took. "Being in the yearbook is not something as important as prom pictures."
At his company, Albert and James Photographers, there's a hierarchal chain of jobs based on experience, Paino said. The most coveted position is the group photographer, who handles large clusters of teenagers who want to be photographed together.
"It really is a different ballgame," he said. "It's a shot in the dark in many cases; you have to get 15, 20, 30 smiles."
Matt Roberts, who graduated from El Segundo High, led one such assembly. His group of 16 people decided to take a group shot, and he played cashier, trying to collect $80. Packages for couples range from $8 to $60, and can even come in book or CD-ROM format.
"I still need money from Megan and Adam," he said. "Oh, and Susan and A.J., too."
Once assembled, the ladies squeezed onto two "granite" benches, made of plastic. The gentlemen stood behind their dates. But one of the guys, wearing a white suit, was throwing off the all-black tuxedo color balance and kept trying to find the right place to stand.
"OK, we need to hurry up and take the picture," someone said.
"Dude, I'm real hungry," another complained.
"Why are we doing this again?"
"Why does he need to be in the middle? It's way off-balanced."
The camera flashed, and the group scattered to the dining room.
One step down in prestige from group photographer, though equally important, is the couples photographer. Novices will typically begin their careers as posers. But Paino said that could be the toughest job of all.
"Make sure his hands are on her shoulder blades and not showing any finger tips," poser Irma Olivas instructed a trainee. The trainee asked the couple to keep their fingers together.
"Very good," Olivas said in approval.
A lot of posing is based on gut instinct.