Magazine Article


The New Landscape of Commercial Photo Imaging

As digital photography and printing continues its march toward dominance, the lines are blurring between the commercial photo/graphics industry and the smaller photo shops and labs. Digital technology has forced the industry to build a better mousetrap, so to speak.

The blue background images on this tradeshow booth for Convergys were created with Fujiclear images and mounted to the fluted acrylic using MACtac's Permacolor optically clear mounting adhesive. Photo courtesy of Convergys and Group360 Display Graphics.

Advancements in the digital arena have furthered the agendas of shops both large and small. Photographers and studios now have the ability to do much more on their own, thanks to decreasing prices and increasing availability of inkjet and digital laser photo printers. Smaller labs are adding inkjet printers and are able to accept online photo files. Large-format printers are now being seen in places no one ever would have thought just a few years ago. And, large commercial and professional labs can do more with photos and with greatly improved clarity and quality than ever before.

"This trend has accelerated due to the decrease in printing equipment costs and improved quality and speed of the equipment's output," says George Marsh, VP, sales and marketing, MACtac Graphic Products. "In return, the number of competitors has increased dramatically, since more print providers are able to produce near-photographic quality prints."

Equipment Is King

Take a quick poll of photo labs today on equipment changes over the last five years, and there tends to be one common thread - no more film. "Photo labs are really becoming digital imaging companies. This fits with the trend of installing digital printing equipment, which now dominates production of their output," added Marsh.

For Group360 Display Graphics, a full-service imaging firm based in St. Louis, MO, all of its traditional photo processing jobs are now digital. Having forgone working with film over three years ago, the company now offers two types of print services - digital photographic processing using a high-resolution laser printer and photo paper, and inkjet printing.

Digital photographic processing includes scanning the image or importing the file directly into the machine, and then digitally imaging it onto photographic paper. The process is often called "continuous tone color," as the laser component of the printer allows for superior color and print reproduction.

This colorful display wall for Busch Gardens was created by Group360 Display Graphics using Fujitrans printed on their Durst Lambda 131 Plus printer, and mounting the image to 1/8-inch acrylic sheets using MACtac,s Permacolor. Photo courtesy of The Spark Agency for Anheuser-Busch.

Inkjet printing follows the same steps to acquire the image, but instead of lasering the image on photographic paper, the image is laid down in a series of sprayed dots. While photographic processing still holds the edge for high-end quality, digital inkjet printing is quickly making up any lost ground.

"Your processing choice depends mostly on the substrate you plan to use, as well as cost. The inkjet technology is more affordable in most cases, costing 15-20 percent less than the digital photographic process, and the equipment continues to improve," says Jack Curran, senior account executive, Group360.

Group360 fulfills photo processing requests using two Durst Lambda laser printers-a 131 Plus and pi50, producing C-Prints, Duratrans, Duraflex, Duraclear, and Metallic C-Prints. In the last 18 months, the company also purchased a VUTEk UltraVu 3360 SC printer to help meet grand-format digital printing requests.

Significant investment in digital equipment and printers is becoming the norm in order to stay competitive. Inkjet printing continues to replace electrostatic and thermal transfer due to improved quality and durability of images. Large-format printing is still growing in popularity as the price of printers goes down, print speed increases and resolution of images continues to get better.

VUTEk UltraVu 3360 SC Staff at Group360 Display Graphics oversee the output on their VUTEk UltraVu 3360 SC super-wide digital inkjet printer. Photo courtesy of Group360 Display Graphics.

"The split between our business is about 60 percent large format and 40 percent grand format," says Curran. "We define large format as 48 inches or less, and grand format as output over 48 inches."

Wide-format flatbed printing is cutting into the screen-printing business and thoughts are that many digital imagers are planning to purchase flatbed inkjet printers once prices start to come down. Super-wide printers are appearing on the scene and many new models are being developed in Asia.

"We've seen a slight trend toward the high-speed, large-format inkjet printers for proofing and short runs at high speeds," says Curran. "Also we've seen a trend towards flatbed printing with the 60-inch or 72-inch machines printing directly to a variety of substrates."

Improvements and introduction of new inks is also a hot topic. The development of white ink for wide-format digital inkjet printers will be a welcome product for commercial digital photo shops because of its color-mixing and coating ability. Low-solvent, environmentally friendly inks maintain their spot on the radar, and the most influential ink developments look to be those in the UV-curable market.

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