The Digital Professional
by Bill Schiffner
A First for Fiber
New Mexico lab makes digital magic with a DeVere Digital EnlargerAfter the color-to-black-and-white conversion, the image is cropped and sized in Photoshop. Image by Kathleen Neville, Heirloom Portraits, Novi, MI. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The same can be said of the San Miguel Photo Lab, which recently had the distinction of being the first lab in the world to offer black-and-white fiber-base prints made directly from digital files using their DeVere 504 Digital Enlarger. "The technology is truly magic, and the prints are astounding," said San Miguel Photo Lab manager Lee Dubois. "It’s great to be a part of photographic history."
San Miguel is a mail-order, black-and-white photo lab, serving both amateur and professional photographers coast to coast and internationally since 1989. The lab’s DeVere 504 Digital Enlarger is the only one currently installed in the United States.
"We’re thrilled to have this enlarger in-house," added Dubois. "Photographers from all over have been asking us for years to come up with a real solution to produce black-and-white prints from their digital camera files."
Up until 2001, the lab was still seeing growth in black-and-white processing. "But after that, when roll counts started to decrease, we realized that we needed to add digital services but we didn’t see anything we liked. We looked at inkjet; it was not up to par back then as it is today. We then experimented with making internegs on a film recorder, but we didn’t care for the quality. We continued to look for another solution, and when we heard about the DeVere 504, it sounded like the ideal thing for us. It takes digital files and creates the exact level of quality that our customers are used to with traditional film."
How It Works Lab manager Lee Dubois with the DeVere 504 Digital Enlarger. Photo by Debbie Fulgenzi, San Miguel Photo Lab staff.
Dubois, a 27-year photofinishing industry veteran, gives a rundown of how the system works: "The DeVere Digital Enlarger is a high-tech device that takes digital files and prints them onto real black-and-white photo papers. It is an enlarger, not a computer printer of any kind. It works just like a film enlarger. In fact, it is a film enlarger whose negative stage has been removed and replaced with a sophisticated digital imaging system that utilizes a high-res liquid crystal display to simulate a conventional negative. We call this a ‘virtual negative.’ The enlarger’s computer systems convert digital files into virtual black-and-white negs, which appear on the DeVere’s panel in a fashion similar to how image files might appear on your computer screen. The panel is clear, so light can be projected through it. When the panel is active and the enlarger’s shutter is opened, the enlarger projects the file onto the base board, just like a film enlarger projects a negative."
The lab’s primary digital offering is custom digital black-and-white enlargements. "This is a hybrid process," he continued. "It starts digital and ends traditional. We think it uses the best of both worlds. There are amazing things we can do in Photoshop to fine-tune images that can’t be done with film. In the middle, we’ve got world-class Rodenstock Rodagon optics and the subtle control of light mixing, and at the end we have real silver paper for an unrivaled final product."
The First in Their Field
San Miguel Photo Lab currently serves almost 3,000 professional photographers, studios and photographic artists in all 50 states. The lab is among the first in the country to be certified by PMA as a Qualified Digital Processing Center (QDPC).
The lab’s full lineup of services includes film processing, film proofing, custom hand-printed enlargements, and exhibition printing from both film and digital files, as well as print toning and archival print matting. In-lab turnaround time on average orders is one to two weeks.
About 50 percent of the lab’s client base is from portrait and wedding photographers, 25 percent is from fine-art professionals, and 25 percent is from lawyers, doctors and consumers. "Fine art is a growing area for us," said Dubois. "We are also seeing more portrait photographers asking for our digital services."
Photographers can FTP their image files directly to the lab or send them in on CDs. Interland is the host of their FTP site. They pay Interland $69.95 per month for hosting both the Web site (www.bestlab.com) and the FTP site. Once the file is in-house, the lab converts the photographer’s color file into a black-and-white image in Photoshop. "Files are FTPed to our server," said Dubois. "Remote files can be uploaded 24/7. We then download them to our workstation and do prep work. We have three different conversions, choosing the conversion that best suits the photo. Some files render into black and white better using one particular method, while other files look better using a different method." Although the lab loses time by doing multiple conversions, he says it’s worth the cost to ensure the highest possible quality for the lab’s customers.
After the color-to-black-and-white conversion, the image is cropped and sized in Photoshop. The lab’s printing staff then makes myriad small adjustments, including contrast and density tweaking, as well as dodging and burning.
Once the files are prepared on the imaging workstations, they use the DeVere Digital Enlarger to hand-print the image file directly onto real black-and-white photo paper. They use both RC and Fiber Ilford paper. Digital-hybrid prints receive exactly the same processing and washing that their film-based prints do.
Service Equals Customer Satisfaction
The back end of the workflow is the same for digital prints as it is for prints from film. That includes Ilford black-and-white silver paper, true black-and-white chemistry, filtered warm-water washes and infrared drying. Or, in the case of fiber prints from digital cameras, the prints are still hand-processed in trays, given the full Ilford archival wash sequence, and then air-dried overnight before being flattened and spotted if needed.