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Film Photo Processors Strive to Adapt to Digital

August 13, 2007--Len Totora Jr. has seen and survived much since he was a combat photographer toting his camera into battle during the Korean War. But these days, as one of a dwindling group of independent photo processing store owners on Long Island, he wonders how much longer such mom-and-pop businesses can last as big national chains and online operations attempt to woo his customers away with low prices and convenience.

"We used to have five camera stores in Huntington alone and they're all gone except me," said Totora, who opened his business, L&L Camera, on New York Avenue in 1956. "Most of them had mini labs because that's where the money was, developing film. Now that's gone by the wayside."

Since the sales of digital cameras overshadowed sales of film cameras in 2003, Totora and other independent photo shops have found themselves in a continual struggle to keep up with new technology, changing consumer habits and new competition. They've had to invest heavily in the latest equipment and constantly expand the list of services offered.

CVS, Walgreens, Costco and Wal-Mart often offer customers prints at half the price as well as the convenience of shopping for other items. And with digital cameras, customers can be more selective, choosing to print fewer images and storing their pictures on online albums. Shop owners have seen their revenues from film developing and printing drop drastically.

"When film was king, if you wanted to be involved with photography, you had to print everything whether it was good or not," said Gary Pageau, the publisher of the magazine for PMA, an international photo imaging trade association. "The industry had a 100 percent profit center. So now the number of prints made is declining and that's impacted the retail segment tremendously.

"A lot of independents have decided that this is a good time to retire or they have reinvented their business as a boutique-type business."

With decades in the photo finishing industry, the independent photo store owners are pitching quality and knowledgeable service as their strengths. They, too, offer in-store kiosks where customers can print their own digital photos and the stores make high-end photo books, personal cards and thank-you cards with images.

But it's a pitch that's hard to make when they can't afford to advertise.

"When people say to us, 'Why does it cost more money here than in the drugstore?' [it's because] the drugstore doesn't correct the prints," said Catherine Sando, who owns Syosset Imaging with her partner, Sandra Prentice, who make sure their customers' print orders are of high quality.

"What they pay for is me standing by the machine color-correcting their prints," Sando said.

Images of digital success

A turning point in the national photo industry came in 2003, when the number of digital cameras sold was about 13 million, surpassing sales of film cameras by about 1.8 million, according to marketing research by PMA, the trade organization. Digital camera penetration hit 40 percent in 2004 and, the following year, the population with a digital camera and a broadband Internet connection exceeded 20 percent, laying the foundation for online ordering, a PMA industry review and forecast noted.

The stand-alone kiosks and printers - which allow customers to instantly print their digital images in the stores - had been the fastest-growing digital print segment until 2005, when other options, such as ordering prints online either for delivery or for pick-up in the store, became more available.

Prints made on home printers also have been increasing. In 2006, prints made at home totaled 4.9 billion, compared with 4.6 billion made in retail locations and 2.4 billion ordered online, according to PMA.

A photo career develops

Sando reminisced about her discovery of photography as she stood in a now-defunct black-and-white darkroom in the basement of her store on a weekday afternoon. The adjacent color darkroom is also dormant.

Sando said she used to have seven people working full-time in these darkrooms. Recently, she donated most of the equipment to the North Shore Hebrew Academy because she was unable to sell it.

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