Magazine Article


Capturing History with Boston Photo Imaging

[fiximg] wenty-seven years ago, Bill Smith faced a decision - continue to pursue a PhD in Theater at Ohio University and end up in the noble teaching profession, or pursue his other passion - photography. If asked at that moment whether he had visions of becoming an industry pioneer - the answer may have been 'no'. But today, Bill has become well known across the country as a forerunner in digital technologies for the professional photo lab market.

Once the decision had been made, Bill entered the exciting world of public relations photography for the arts including television, theater, and the movies. "It wasn't long before I realized I needed my own lab capability" he laughed. Consequently, in 1989, Boston Photo Imaging was launched. Partnering with his wife Carol, they have built the business into a national company with two facilities in Boston.

Changes in the market and forced adaptation came quickly. Bill has seen film processing down 75% in the past three years, largely due to the advent of the digital camera. In the 'old days', processing 800 rolls of slide film a day was the norm. "We're lucky if we get a 50 roll day now," he claims. What seemed to be the demise of one part of the business translated into opportunity - moving the entire history of film and flat art into digital data. Boston Photo has capitalized on this by transforming the business and focusing on three main applications: archiving, collections, and reproductions.

Boston Photo's client list includes some of the most prestigious companies in the world. "We are one of only a few major scanning service providers in the country for museum and library archiving," Bill says "A typical customer would give us 10,000 to 100,000 slides and 5,000 to 20,000 pieces of flat art." The company recently completed a project for Connecticut History Online - a complete compilation from Connecticut historical societies and museums - which involved capture of thirty to forty thousand pieces of flat art. Other customers include Harvard, American Express, and the Boston Public Library. Many libraries do not have reproduction services, so the Boston Public Library outsources to Boston Photo.

"We consider ourselves a full service photo lab - going through the transition necessary as our industry becomes redefined by the impact of digital capabilities," said Bill. "Our ability to recognize how to apply technology to meet customer needs has been a key factor in our success," he adds. For example, Boston Photo Imaging was the first company to adopt the Kodak Photo CD technology. The company was also the first professional photo lab to purchase an EverSmart scanner from Creo. "This piece of equipment has virtually become the cornerstone of our entire operation - a true profit center."

Bill chose the EverSmart scanner because it fully met his demanding standards: the absolute highest level of quality capture, the flexibility to accept diverse originals, and the speed to accommodate large volume.
Obviously, Boston Photo's target customers are demanding when it comes to quality. For example, the company recently acquired the Polaroid Museum Replica business, a collection of film, 8 x 10-inch transparencies, and negatives of some of the most famous and valuable paintings in the world. "We saw a great opportunity to translate this collection to digital data and provide reproductions. The EverSmart was used for the entire process and did an incredible job of capturing every subtlety." Bill is also convinced the scanner does a better job of scanning color negatives than any other flatbed scanner they have seen. Plus the software for conversion of negative to positive is excellent.

The flexibility of the scanner is key to the lab's ability to accept all types of originals including glass negatives and lanternslides. The EverSmart has enabled the company to accept a wide variety of jobs, and continue to land new business.

According to Bill, "The bottom line is, can you make money with scanning services, and I think we've proven that in the sheer volume of work we bring in - our largest order to date was 350,000 scans from one customer." Boston Photo also creates opportunity by utilizing the scanner in other ways. One novel approach has been to run contact sheets, replacing the traditional film based methods. Bill admits that there are dots, but points out that contact sheets have always been a necessary evil and are largely used for reference - not to make color or quality decisions. This single change allowed Boston Photo to shut down a darkroom and reduce labor by one person.

As an astute leader in technology for the photo processing market, Bill is a frequent national speaker, and continues to engage in voice of the customer processes with both hardware and software vendors who are developing the next generation of digital techniques and technologies. There are several key trends he sees for the future, particularly as it relates to his business. "One of the next big jumps for quality will come with support for 16-bit capture," he states. "Of course, being able to open a file that large in Photoshop as it ships today is impossible. Not to mention, there aren't any output devices to my knowledge that even support printing that level of data. So even though customers are asking about this capability, it is still not a reality."

According to Ziv Argov, Product Marketing Director for Creo, the 16-bit workflow has been a part of Creo's approach for nearly a decade. "We created the full bit depth workflow for our high end customers - including Time, Inc., Getty Images, and Corbis - and saw quick adoption of the Creo Digital Transparency (DT)." Although the debate continues on the value of 16 verses 8 bit images, its clear that the industry is moving forward with enabling technologies. Adobe has just announced support for 16-bit files in the new Create Suite of Photoshop, enabling widespread adoption for photographic service providers. By creating digital archives for clients in DT format, photo labs can cost effectively scan volumes of images and create customized conversions as needed; CMYK or RGB, 72 or 1200 dpi - services that differentiate them and provide new revenue streams.

Future Growth
The future holds promise for Boston Photo Imaging, although they face competition from many different types of businesses. In particular, Bill notes the trend toward corporate accounts trying to do the work in-house. "Everyone thinks they can scan and print," he states. Boston Photo combats this by helping clients understand what is involved. The cost of acquiring the right equipment can easily exceed $250,000, not to mention the expertise of the people needed to operate the systems. "Many of the projects we accept are large, but a 'one-time' shot - what will the customer do with the equipment once the project is completed?" he asks. "Plus we have the track record of dealing with valuable originals - we've gained the trust of the community."