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ID Photography: Your Passport to Profitability



With the prevalence of digital imaging, the photo imaging business has achieved advancements to ensure customers are receiving higher quality photos. Moreover, small businesses are enjoying higher profitability and higher efficiency. Still, there are precious few sure bets in this uncertain world, so it’s vital to reach out and grab one when it comes along. For the small camera shop owner, that sure bet is ID and passport photography.

Imaging service providers have known for years that the ID photo market is a reliable profit center, one that actually pays for itself while serving to increase traffic. Passport and ID photos aren’t a luxury, like glamour shots or holiday portraits. They’re a vital service, increasing in demand, and to resist offering them in your shop is tantamount to opening the window during a storm while the cash register drawer is wide open.

EASY DOES IT

Michael Seraderian, owner and president of Nanor Prints in Belmont, MA, has offered ID and passport photos in his shop for more than 20 years. Seraderian swears by Polaroid’s digital camera line. Polaroid offers a number of ID/passport cameras, among them the MiniPortrait 203, which produces two identical or different portraits on the same piece of film for passport, INS, and identification photos. The MiniPortrait 203 features a sonar rangefinder, built-in development timer, bounce-flash capability, sync with studio flash, and a removable camera back.

“Polaroid made it easy for us,” Seraderian says, “the way they designed the software within the camera itself. It’s easy to operate. For example, this morning I had a gentleman come in, and he wanted a British passport, which has different dimensions from the American. Now, if you go to a big chain and you try to explain it, they look at you and they don’t know what to do with it. But I know exactly what a British passport requires, so I can go to that mode and take the photograph accordingly, and that’s it—a one-time shot, and it works. Or, if it’s a gun permit or a builder’s permit, there are specific sizes that different towns or cities require. Polaroid made templates for each of these, and that makes it easier.”

ID and passport photos, he explained, make up a “good profitable, section” of his store’s business. In addition to American passports, he deals with immigration photos, citizenship photos, and passports for different countries. “For a straightforward passport photo, typically it’s easy to do, but there are other things involved that you have to be very specific about—Canadian passports, British passports—they all require specific sizes, so you have to be familiar with all that.”

According to Seraderian, it’s vital that photo minilabs and specialty shops offer this service to their customers. “It’s important for them to do, versus big chains like CVS and other places, where they’re not really trained to do it. You have one employee today, you have another employee tomorrow.” In fact, he says, Nanor Prints often receives returns from customers unsatisfied with photos taken by the larger chains. “It’s a simple thing to do,” he said, “but you have to do it consistently and you have to do it right. It’s a passport—if somebody’s going to send it by mail and three weeks later it comes back refused, then they have three weeks less, and that might be very critical for that person, especially for immigration. You cannot guess.”

Passport and ID photos, he said, must follow exacting guidelines regarding the size of the head, and from the top of the head to the bottom of the chin; they must have a white background; they must be sharp; the skin tone has to be properly lit; and there should not be any shadows in the back. “These are simple things that we have to follow. That’s what the Federal requirements are.” Luckily, Seraderian states, Polaroid designed their passport cameras according to those requirements, so there’s no need to deal with settings. “We should not play with that kind of stuff—they’re preset, and you don’t have to manipulate them.” He urges shop owners to educate their customers on those Federal guidelines, not only to save time but also to increase business.

VAIN ATTEMPT

Frequently, Seraderian says, people dislike how the passport looks—it’s a flat picture, and some people don’t like the way their profile comes out on film. “So their husbands or their wives take their own pictures and they bring it and say, ‘Look, I want to use this one.’ But you can’t do that, because the head size is wrong, it’s printed on a different kind of paper, and it’s not acceptable. That makes things more complicated, so we tell people, ‘Don’t waste your time. Just pay the seven or eight dollars and we’ll do it and get it over with.’”

Still, he does understand why this happens: “Most of the time, they do it not because of the money, but because they’re sensitive. Some women don’t like the way they look and want to take a different profile of the face to make it look better. But that’s not what the Federal requirements are—you have to follow the guidelines, especially now with Homeland Security. You have to be natural-looking—you can’t have a big, giant smile on your face.”

Pamela Kahle, co-owner of Stuart Photo in Stuart, FL, with her husband Dennis, says she has run into the same scenario quite often. “You always have those people who want to look like a movie star in their passport picture,” she says with a laugh, “and after you shoot it three times, you can prove to them, ‘You’re not going to be a movie star! It’s a mug shot, hello!’” With today’s digital technology, however, the customer is much happier. “Now you can show them the picture before they print, and if they’re vain and can’t stand their picture, you can certainly shoot it again and it won’t cost anything.”

Although Stuart Photo once used another passport camera, the Kahles now use the Olympus passport camera. “It’s got this little head in the middle,” she explains, “so you can size things right. It’s definitely better, because you can see when people’s eyes are open before you take it. With the old cameras, people would blink and you wouldn’t know it until you pulled it, and then you’d have to do it again. So that saves you money.”

Olympus offers a variety of ID and passport cameras, chief among them the P-400 ID Passport. Besides working with the A6 and A5 format, this 314 dpi dye-sublimation model produces A4-sized prints in photo-realistic quality and is, therefore, suitable for portrait prints. With this camera, a set of laminated passport photos are ready in under a minute, and with the use of a special ink ribbon and paper, printing costs are kept down. For Kahle, the key element to why she uses the Olympus camera is simple: “it’s right there, and you can see it before you print it.” When vanity strikes, this is a very useful feature indeed.

Stuart Photo does about 3,000 passports per month, proof of just how big a market there is for such services. “The passport business is very brisk here,” Kahle says. “It’s absolutely worth it. If your shop is not doing passports at all, then do it—it brings people into your shop, and you build store traffic that way. People who have never seen you before come in for a passport, and they see what else you’ve got. It’s definitely something you shouldn’t not do.”

VITAL SIGNS

Ken Ishiyama, owner of New York City’s DOI Camera, couldn’t agree more. Passport and ID photos, he maintains, are a vital service for minilabs. “ID photo service is a must for all photo shops—if you are not offering it, you are a donut shop that doesn’t offer coffee.” Ishiyama has owned the store since 1977, and ID and passport photos have been a staple part of his business since day one. More than 40 percent of his revenue, in fact, comes from ID photos.

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