March 3, 2009--Las Vegas/PMA--At last year's PMA, I wrote an article about how the pro portion of PMA seemed like it might be shrinking, even though photo prints are getting bigger and bigger and are being produced directly from DSLR camera cards. Ten megapixels used to be considered sufficient, but today 10 is becoming the minimum, and photographers (and even consumers) are going to 12 or more. But the question remains: Will more pixels help traditional photo printing? Probably not.
As printheads, inks, and substrates improve and yield a longer tonal range and wider color gamut, fewer and fewer photo lab producers are making RA-4 prints. Instead, they're imaging on wide- or large-format inkjet printers. For years, PMA was the place to see this technology, so where is it today? What companies are still at PMA promoting their big reproduction equipment?
A few remain: ZBE, Xerox, Canon, Durst U.S., Hostert Pro, Epson America, PTS Consulting and Service Group, and Hewlett-Packard (any Iíve missed here will be covered in future show issues). It's also important to mention the materials suppliers exhibiting, including Eastman Kodak, Fujifilm, Liberty Photo Products, Oriental, Sawgrass Technologies, Ilford Imaging, Tara Materials, HahnemŁhle USA, InteliCoat Technologies, WYNIT, and Mitsubishi Imaging.
Labs Reinventing Themselves
Over the past two years, the original commercial photo labs that have survived are now into signage. One owner said to this reporter last week, "We've reinvented ourselves three times." He went on to say that he started as a photo lab, then became a digital retouching shop and inkjet printer and now is making signs, sometimes without any printing involved--just cutting and painting.
Does this mean a commercial imaging shop has to be a little bit of everything? That's something to think about, because one trend has become evident: Once-commercial photo labs are facing competition from offset printers, sign makers, and screen printers. When commercial photo labs were just labs, they only had to compete with each other (the pro people/social labs still enjoy this position).
I think Don Burrell of Burrell Colour Imaging said it best: "We'll do anything the customer wants." He may be known as a people lab, but he sees no limitations to what he can do and is willing to invest in systems required to compete in today's diverse imaging marketplace. After returning to the business over a year ago, he invested in two NexPress on-demand print systems to satisfy the book market, plus an Epson Stylus Pro wide-format printer.
Last year I wrote that the market has peaked for wide-format digital photo printers. This trend is more prevalent than ever in 2009. Just consider Durst, a company that's synonymous with photo exposure and printing. Is it here at the show? Yes, but it's sharing space with PTS, distributor of its Jota photo-album production system. Today, Durst is also selling more of its Theta 76 medium-format printers than the Lambda 50-inch-wide digital printers that are special order.
The same holds true for ZBE, which is bringing only its Chromira5x ProLab medium-format system to PMA. ZBE has forged some good partnerships. For example, Fujifilm is now distributing ZBE's ProLab. ZBE is focusing on marketing versatility, including Fuji's workflow software, plus ROES, DP2, and Frontline, software that allows Chromira customers to branch out into new markets. Zac Bogart, ZBE president, has faith in RA-4 photo media because the old adage holds true: RA-4 printing is cheaper and faster, particularly for quantity printing.
Hewlett-Packard, Canon, and Xerox are the booths to visit (in addition to Epson) for wide-format inkjet printers. Epson and Xerox are touting eco-solvent inks, while HP's Z Series printers are using proprietary Vivera inks. Xerox is showcasing its 8254E wide-format printer (which it introduced last year) at PMA. The company has come a long way since it led the wide-format market in the early '90s with electrostatic printers. Xerox says that these variable-dot printers yield up to 172 ft.≤/hr. and produce prints that will last outdoors for three years without lamination. The question is: Will eco-solvent printers overshadow aqueous or UV-curing inks?
Making a Business Out of Books and Albums
Photobooks led the way last year at PMA and at photokina. This trend continues to grow in the online consumer and pro people-lab arenas. People/social labs especially are becoming skilled at adding extra revenue with books and albums. A new way of producing photobooks and other profitable products is the MGI USA My PhotoBook Shop turnkey system (see sidebar on page 32).
Commercial imagers, on the other hand, including the few photo-processing labs that remain, have not embraced photobooks. Even those shops that have purchased HP Indigo on-demand print systems have skipped over these profitable books and complementary products such as calendars and promotion pieces.
On-demand printing continues to be hot partly because of its variable-data printing capability--we're in an era of personalization. The HP Indigo, Kodak NexPress, Canon imagePRESS, and Xerox iGen4 are the leaders at the top of this market, but there are also lower-priced offerings from Ocť, Konica Minolta, Xerox, and Canon to get you into the on-demand print business.
Any photo lab can run off prints from a photographer's disc or downloaded images, but it takes some finishing smarts to produce good-looking photobooks and albums. Companies such as Unibind and Pro-Bind can help finish book products, and digital press vendors with inline finishing can support you and make your life easier. Labs using offline finishing and/or a digital photo press can require a lot of hand-holding if they donít have the bindery expertise in-house.
At photokina, I met Lee Simpson, managing director of Sim2000 Imaging, whose exclusive business mission is producing photobooks and albums. Simpson came to the photo lab business with a college degree in bookbinding and working in a printer's finishing department. Heís not a printer, but there are plenty of those technicians around, so his binding expertise put him ahead of the photobook game.