No matter how competent a vendor might be, if quality is sacrificed in the final steps of any project, it becomes difficult for others to appreciate the effort that went into creating it. That’s true of most fields, and it’s certainly true for photographic processing. Cutting corners is often unavoidable, especially in today’s lackluster economy, but if a photo lab doesn’t spend the necessary time and money to build a talented, well-staffed finishing department, then the chances of satisfying the customer—read: of getting repeat business from that customer—can severely diminish.
Although print shops have come a long way with respect to digital photography, there is still a great deal of benefit to be gained from the variety of finishing services available. Full-service print providers are constantly looking for new services to offer their customers, and laminating and mounting can be just the thing not only to enhance the quality of a photo, but also to increase the bottom line.
Stuck in the Past
Skip Allen, owner of Photo Colorgraphix (Thousand Palms, CA), has been in the photo industry for many years and understands how much his business has been helped by the addition of mounting and laminating. “Before digital printing and techniques became prevalent,” he recalls, “most photo labs (which is what we really were until recently) would simply make photo enlargements that would generally be framed. Some people would ask for mounting, but in older days, that involved heat-activated mounting presses, limited in size to 20 x 24- or perhaps 30 x 40-inches.”
The process, Allen explains, initially involved heat-activating tissues between the print and mount board, tacking the print in place to keep it square while applying the heat, and keeping a constant watch to prevent ‘cooking’, or otherwise ruining the print. With the advent of resin-coated photo papers, the process became more tedious due to the need for less heat to keep the ‘RC-print’ from bursting in little spots, ruining the print.
At the time, photo labs also utilized heat-activated sheets of laminate that could be used on the surface of the print. “With some creative bent,” says Allen, “by applying a textured material such as burlap or canvas between the heat and the laminate, an interesting texture could be added to the surface of the print.” Most labs with which he was acquainted had tried those maneuvers once or twice, he recalls, but abandoned them because of the time and number of remakes involved. “Besides, most photo prints were quite hardy and nearly archival—added protection wasn’t generally necessary.”
Heating Things Up
As the photo industry has advanced to producing commercial prints of large size for in-store display purposes, mounting has become a necessity. At the same time, more substrate products or mounting surfaces have also became available, as have the more modern technique of applying adhesives onto the mounting boards “Now we could print and mount products,” Allen says, “up to 4' x 8’ in one piece quite economically, and with more assurance of high quality, less risk.”
According to Allen, laminates were initially all pressure-sensitive, coated with an adhesive applied to the surface of the mounted print. Once the technique was perfected, predictable results were more certain. Most pressure-sensitive laminates were expensive, however, causing a debate to rage on about whether the protective properties outweighed the cost. Plus, a factory flaw in the middle of a roll could pop up at any time, wiping out the whole product. “The intro of heat-activated laminates,” Allen explains, “have considerably lowered the prices of those products—by as much as 60% in some cases—and are much easier to use generally. We have nearly completely abandoned pressure-sensitive products, except for special applications.”
In the years since those early laminators, manufacturers have sought to perfect their technique. To that end, they began promoting mounting and lamination, adding vinyl edges to the mounted boards, and offering hanging blocks to the backs of the mounts. They also started varying the surfaces of offered laminates, from glossy to matte to lustre to textured vinyls.
This made a big different from a business standpoint, Allen states. “We found that people seeing our product in other commercial environments would seek us out since no other comparable service was available locally. Plus, if clients came to us for mounting and laminating, chances are good that they might try our printing services since that was what prompted our entree into mounting and laminating in the first place.”
Covering the Bases
The profit of a print alone, Allen estimates, represents about 15 to 20 percent of the profit of a combined print, laminate, mount, edge and block job. “When we expanded our lam/mount service a few years back,” he says, “we purposely included the largest equipment available to allow us to mount and lam up to 5' x 10’ in one piece. We also keep a smaller laminator available for small and sundry projects, and we maintain a separate mounting machine that does just that.”
As soon as the early digital prints became accessible, their surfaces were much more delicate than photo prints, resulting in quick fading and easily scratched and scuffed surfaces. Moisture caused inks and dyes to run, and unmounted prints kinked and creased easily. Laminating, Allen says, suddenly became a very necessary evil. At the same time, the progress toward more economical and easier-to-use thermal laminates started a new revolution in that market, with several manufacturers vying for the top choice in the industry—thus resulting in higher quality, lower cost and more varied products.
“We have on hand at least 12 to 15 separate laminate products most of the time,” Allen offers. “There are the simple glossy overlams, matte, lustre, and textured ‘show booth’ protective laminates, and there are specialty outdoor and ‘weather protective’ lams, thick and stiff encapsulate lams, floor graphic lams, ultra-thin transfer lams and dry-erase surface lams.” These products, he explains, serve to protect photos from harmful ultraviolet radiation, moisture and surface abrasions, maintaining the “overall product handsomeness.”
During the early days of his business, Allen says he was able to perfect a hand-mounting technique using double release adhesives and a stiff spatula. That only worked for so long, however. “When it became obvious there were a lot of big prints and products to mount out there, we quickly got our hands on a 54-inch Coda mounter,” manufactured by Coda, Inc. (www.coadmount.com).
For ease of operation and minimal hassle, says Allen, the economy and quality of the mounter were great. “We could laminate using pressure-sensitive lams. This machine covered all of our needs for a while, but the creeping need for encapsulate laminating began to haunt us constantly; many inkjet printer users needed a laminate to protect their digital prints; poster collectors wanted fade-proof, wrinkle-proof protection; and map users wanted a way to keep maps flat and stiff and protected, yet able to be easily rolled.”