The professional lab continues to play a vital role in a photographer's workflow, offering products and services that can help image-creators grow and market their business; and more effectively share their talents with the world. Our 2008 Lab & Imaging Services Directory takes a look at what's transpired in the past year-from which lab products and services were top sellers to growing trends in the marketplace-and looks to the future to see what products and services are on the pro-lab horizon to aid you, the professional photographer in your business endeavors.
The first indicator that can help labs plan their future strategies is which products were their best-sellers over the past year. Press-printed products proved lucrative for a slew of labs in 2006. "Press-printed books, especially," says Craig Monson, marketing manager of AMERICAN COLOR IMAGING (Cedar Falls, IA). "Layflat (spread-page) books are our fastest-growing product." "Our press-printed proof books, magazine-style proofs and digital albums have been by far our most popular products so far this year," says Ken Wilson, owner of LUSTRECOLOR (Canton, MA). "I expect our press-printed fine-art cards and companion albums to come on strong in the last quarter."
Todd Coleman, president of MILLER'S PROFESSIONAL IMAGING and MPIX (Columbia, MO) concurs: "We introduced press products in June 2006. The offering has evolved into one of the largest selections of press products in the industry. All press products are printed on Kodak NexPress systems. Sales of digitally printed color products will account for approximately six percent of sales this year, all incremental." Kathleen Taylor, controller of PROLABEXPRESS (Grand Rapids, MI), also noted that press-printed products and gallery mounts had a strong showing this year.
For KEN LIEBERMAN LABS (New York, NY), archival direct digital fiber black-and-white prints showed growth, says Ken Lieberman, the lab's president. In addition to its silver-halide straight prints or template prints, BAY PHOTO (Santa Cruz, CA) witnessed growing momentum of its gallery wraps, watercolor giclées, albums, and press-printed cards, according to president Larry Abitbol. Similar items (notably inkjet-direct-to-canvas gallery wraps and press-printed photo books) grew at a "fantastic pace" for CPQ PROFESSIONAL IMAGING (Cleveland, TN), says president and COO Paul Kimball. Ryan Millman, president of NATIONS PHOTO LAB (Owings Mills, MD), says, "Flush-mount albums have become very popular. They're beautifully crafted and come in a variety of sizes and colors."
"For us, the hot product this year was a photographic print," says Pete Casabonne, president of MYPHOTOPIPE.COM (Atlanta, GA). "That's our focus. Our portrait guys charge $3,000 to $5,000 for a sitting; one lousy print blows the whole economic equation out of the water. We're here to help our photographers create value for their services. Our biggest news was a major print initiative with iStockphoto.com. When you select a photo at istockphoto, you see two tabs: one for downloads, one for prints, co-branded with myPhotopipe.com. That was a high for us."
Trends That Have Taken Hold
Keeping an eye on what's going on outside their walls (or outside their web browser) is critical to knowing how to service their customers. "New services that free the photographer to market his skills and have a better quality of life at prices that make sense are the trends we see called for by many," says Jay Perskie, president of THEWEDDINGLAB.COM (Baltimore, MD). ACI's Monson talks more about the blending of photo and press. "It's not an either/or buying decision for the consumer," he says. "Press-printed items enhance the photo line with two-sided products and textures that are not available through photo."
Helping photographers with their marketing initiatives seems to be another good way labs can differentiate themselves from the competition. "Photographers are constantly finding new ways to market their services; pro labs need to be providing these services over and above other providers," says CPQ's Kimball. "For example, there are many excellent image hosting sites available, but few have a superior printing option for fulfillment. Same for fulfillment on things like promotional items and brochures."
Nontraditional items are also taking hold, notes Coleman of Miller's and Mpix. "While silver-halide prints still comprise the majority of our revenues, hardcover press-printed books are by far our most popular nontraditional product," he says. "Customers are figuring out new ways to incorporate books into their offerings. In the beginning, they were typically used for weddings and senior work. We've recently noted an increase in photographers using books for proofing purposes. Additionally, customers are beginning to use books for vacations and newborns."
"Many photographers are moving (or have moved) to reduce their proofing cost, especially wedding photographers," says LustreColor's Wilson. "There's no question that there are fewer weddings than ever before, so photographers have to maximize their earning potential on the ones they get. As a result, we've created several alternative proofing products for our customers."
Wilson has also noticed that both wedding and portrait photographers have a tremendous interest in new products and services. "We've spent a lot of time creating new portrait and wedding press-printed services, along with fine-art giclée prints and gallery wraps," he says. "Also, photographers are looking for relief from the more labor-intensive areas of their business. To help, we've added in-lab album-designing services, along with a more streamlined auto fulfillment e-commerce feature to our web services."
Andrew Wei, CEO of DIGIPROOFS (Moffett Field, CA) notes the trek to the internet. "[A trend I see is] tools and features that will allow photographers using a traditional selling or fulfillment process to migrate their process to online," he says. And keeping a smooth workflow going is also key. "More and more photographers are realizing the importance of outsourcing production work so they can concentrate on what they do best," says Nations' Millman. "This is why we launched our design service for our flush-mount albums."
Creativity and artistic freedom are taking back their rightful spots as well, according to myPhotopipe's Casabonne. "The professional is doing more than printing a 20x30," he explains. "They're showing their clients 33x77s or powerful panoramics. They're applying creative borders to appropriate images and using papers more creatively. Pearl from Fuji: It's the HDTV of photographic prints. They're selling new ideas to their clients, ideas expressed through their prints. They're pushing us to be flexible, so we are. We've created several new ways to simplify their workflows so they can focus on taking pictures. It's freedom, [and it] gives them an edge. And it won't go back to a handful of choices. The horse is out of the barn."
Frank Hurst, president of PECHMAN IMAGING (Kaukauna, WI), agrees with the creativity assessment. "Some photographers are attempting to leave their competition behind by applying Photoshop skills in a totally creative process for portraiture and wedding albums," he says.