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The Digital Professional: Labs Pace Digital Transition to Match Markets, Growth Strategies



Labs Pace Digital Transition to Match Markets, Growth Strategies

Across the country, wedding and portrait labs are transitioning from analog to digital imaging technology. Most labs agree that, with time, digital imaging will be the dominant platform for most wedding lab services. But the pace of this transition varies widely, depending on the adoption of digital by regional photographers, local economic trends, and differences in individual lab owners' business strategies.

Jim Smith examines prints generated from the lab's Lambda auto cutter.

Testing the Digital Waters
At one end of the spectrum is Pacific Color in Seattle, WA. Darrell Johansen, who along with his brother runs the lab their parents founded in 1967, has seen a slowdown in local wedding business, which he blames on the sluggish economy. "The good news is we're showing strong growth in underclass and sports photography," Johansen says. "And that's offset the drop in our wedding business."

As it happens, much of the lab's high-volume photography business is digital. So it's no surprise that Johansen credits the lab's commitment to digital technology with its survival. "If we hadn't started switching to digital seven or so years ago, we wouldn't be here now," he says.

But the local wedding market is a different story, and for these photographers, Pacific Color is still testing the digital waters. Of the lab's film photographers, a minority - but a growing one - is requesting digital services through the lab's Kodak ProShots System. For these customers, the lab digitizes their film negatives using a Kodak Professional HR500 Film Scanner configured with the Kodak Professional Long Roll Accessory. Photographs that require retouching are also scanned and directed through the digital side of the lab.

But the majority of the lab's wedding photographers who want digital services originate their images digitally. Of these photographers, comprising 10 percent to 15 percent of the lab's wedding business, 95 percent send their photos to Pacific Color on CDs, along with instructions on what prints they'd like.

Debbie Ramos runs digital files from the workstation that controls Pacific Color's Noritsu minilab.

Regardless of whether the images arrive as negatives to be scanned or digital camera files, the next step is the lab's digital imaging workflow. Print production is managed by Kodak Professional Digital Print Production (DP2) software. Typically, a test print is generated to check color balance and then the final order is produced.

Today, the lab sends most of its digital print jobs to its Gretag Mileca digital printer, with a 30-inch Chromira printer standing by to handle larger print sizes. But the Gretag printer will be phased out, Johansen says, when the lab receives its Kodak Professional RP 30 Laser Printer, now on order. "We think the new printer will improve our throughput," he says. "It will also give us new capabilities, like print back-writing, that we think we can use to help our photographers transition to digital."

Helping photographers through the transition is one of Johansen's key challenges in the coming months. After he began offering the ProShots system last year, some photographers embraced it, but others are taking their time. "Photographers who are computer literate become comfortable with it more quickly," he notes. To help photographers who are not, Pacific Color offers a blend of on-site training and one-on-one consultations. "We're very new to this and our photographers are, too," he says. "So we're learning together."

Another source for help, Johansen says, is Kodak, which has introduced upgrades to both its ProShots system and DP2 software. "With the refinements to the software, we think more of our photographers will make the switch," Johansen says. And even if they don't, Pacific Color is in a win win position. "Because we're a ProShots lab, we're gaining incremental wedding business from photographers who want this type of service," he says. "We can also offer it to existing customers if they want to try. But if they don't, that's okay, too. We're able to take care of them no matter what blend of analog and digital services they need."

Happy With the Plunge
In contrast to Pacific Color, LustreColor Inc. in Canton, MA, funnels 95 percent of its wedding business through its digital workflow. "Today, over half of our wedding photographs originate as digital camera files," says Ken Wilson, vp, sales and marketing. And when the Kodak Professional DCS Pro14n Digital Camera becomes widely available, he adds, "I wouldn't be surprised if that percentage jumps to 70 to 75 percent."

Doug Delong (left) and Jason Duggan discuss a job being sent to the lab's Durst Zeta printer.

LustreColor has a clear niche in digital imaging services, thanks in part to its early adoption of software that lets photographers select, size and crop their photographs digitally, as well as e-mail print orders back to the lab. Today, LustreColor offers these services on a number of platforms, including Kodak Professional Studio/Lab Link Software and the ProShots system. In addition, the lab hosts a website - www.WeddingPrints.com - where photographers' customers can log on, select images and create wedding albums.

Images that originate on film are digitized on one of the lab's two HR 500 scanners, and then sent to the lab's DP2 system. Digital camera files are typically uploaded to the lab to one of its high-speed FTP (file transfer protocol) sites, which are also linked directly to the DP2 software. Proofs and prints are generated using the lab's five printers: two Kodak Professional LED II printers and three Noritsu MP 1600 printers.

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