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ColoRich Lab envisions future with digital wedding/portrait pros.

Digital images go directly to photo printers without scanning

As the impact of digital imaging thunders across the photofinishing industry, labs are searching for profitable business models. Among professional people photography labs, ColoRich Color Lab, San Diego, Calif., believes it has found a market with solid potential. ColoRich services a spectrum of customers in the wedding, portrait, event, and sports team photography businesses--categories closely dovetailing with the management's vision of where the digital future is headed.

Serving the digital customer

"We see a growing number of social photographers going 100 percent digital," reports Howard Bosworth, owner of ColoRich. "We want to be there to satisfy their needs." Currently, the lab serves a mix of film shooters and digital image-makers, but it's gearing up for high-production package printing of digital images.

"Today's digital printers are more efficient. There are no requirements for masks, gates, and cropping specialties used in analog printers. There are no limits to the sizes--our digital package printer can use up to 12-inch-wide paper, and we can print anything from wallet-size to 12-bys on the same unit," he continues.

"Our first digital photo printer was a 30-inch Chromira (ZBE Inc., Santa Barbara, Calif., www.zbe.com). As we offered digital services, we found increasing demand for digital prints in traditional proof and package print sizes. And, while the Chromira is a great machine, it is not particular suited for that work. We decided the Noritsu MP-1600 (Noritsu America Corp., Buena Park. Calif., www.noritsu.com) could fulfill our requirements," explains Bob Grier, general manager,

"One of our biggest problems was our customers wanting digital proofing to be the same as they had when they shot medium-format film. This requires numbers to be back-printed on the proofs so they can identify the photos. The Noritsu equipment's main functions are to provide numbered 4-by-6-inch proof prints and print portrait packages. Proofs from digital files are made the same way we make proofs from film negatives--full frame without cropping. If the job involves cropping or image altering, it's not a proof and goes into a different category.

"Our package work includes event photography, proms and dances, and senior portraits. Typically, a package may contain 8-by-10s, two 5-by-7s, four 4-by-5s, and eight wallet-size prints. For package printing, we employ Packagizer software from Plug-In Systems, Nederland, Colo. (www.pluginsystems.com), which is a stand-alone program with predefined packages. You drop the TIFF or JEPG files into folders, and the program automatically 'packagizes' the images in the units you've chosen for printing," he adds.

Digital workflow

Immediately after an event, the majority of the lab's digital customers download digital camera memory card images to their computer hard drives, and then "burn" their own CDs. Usually, they make more than one CD copy (or make a master CD for studio archives), and send an edited version of the wedding images to ColoRich for proofing. Although ColoRich has the capability for online FTP delivery of images, photographers prefer conveniently shipping CDs to the lab. FTP delivery is generally employed only for rushes and remakes. For package print orders, customers organize their images into different folders on the "order" CD that indicate what kind of packages they desire.

"Much of our print and negative retouching work, formerly done by hand, is now accomplished digitally from scanned film or original artwork. Images are sent to a workstation for digital correction, and prints are made from that file. Artwork is scanned on a CreoScitex EverSmart Pro flatbed scanner that approaches drum-scanning quality," Grier offers.

The Noritsu printer requires a Windows OS computer, as well as a stand-alone server from which the operator cues the workflow according to paper-width requirements. The system is networked to the lab's imaging workstations, where computer operators make Adobe Photoshop color corrections and retouching per the photographers' instructions, as well as prep files for finished printing. Proof print images go to the printer with no corrective work.

Nearly all the images sent to the Noritsu are in Hot Folders pre-defined for specifically sized prints. The paper roll light-tight magazines are a workflow consideration, as each magazine contains one paper width size and cannot be automatically switched between different jobs. Therefore, production must be planned for either 4-by-6-inch proof prints or 8-by- 10-inch-format package print jobs.

The Noritsu printer also accommodates 11-inch-wide and a maximum 12-inch-wide roll magazine, so it can produce 11-by-14-inch standard prints, and oversized 12-by-18-inch prints, which are considered special order jobs at ColoRich. Prints larger than 11-by-14--such as 16-by-20 inches--are printed on the Chromira.

ColoRich uses Fujifilm Crystal Archive Type PD color paper especially designed for digital photo printing of portrait/wedding images. The analog side of the lab uses CrystalArchive Type P paper, which has the same luster finish, so the lab can mix digital and analog prints without any perceptible difference in appearance.

"Ninety percent of the images we print on our digital printers are captured with digital cameras by our client photographers. Although we do have a scanner and offer scanning services, we don't normally scan film for this printer; and we don't have the Noritsu scanner front-end on the unit. We purposely didn't go down that road, since enough of our customers are shooting with pro digital models.

"For our output, anything from 250 to 400 ppi is fine and produces professional results. Our lab standard is 300 ppi, which is the Chromira resolution. But, we found both digital printers have the ability to do interpolations; so, we can print at resolutions as low as 150 ppi and the result is better than what happens in Photoshop. There's very little difference in prints made at 150 ppi and 300 ppi," says Grier.

Photographers face learning curve

"In the wedding market, we always believed, to be successful, digital had to be reliable and at least as good--if not better--for the same price. And, those requirements have been met," Grier comments. "There are a number of customers, however, who have put off buying digital equipment. They use 35mm cameras for wedding candids and sports team photography. They see the fabulous advantages of digital capture for their applications, particularly in team photography, where there's a need for adding text and graphics. But they have two problems: One is the investment required to buy digital-capture equipment. And, two, they don't want to commit themselves to the time and effort required to learn how to capture digital images properly. They know how to shoot film with analog equipment and are temporarily getting the advantages without digital equipment by ordering reasonably inexpensive CD scans and proofs of their negatives," explains Bosworth.

"We feel the scanning is a transitional step, and digital capture for social photography will become the standard. The length of the transitional period is open to question; there may be a market for scanning customers' images for a year or more. The digital future isn't perfectly clear. We're betting negative scanning is a transient service, and we're defining our business niche without high-speed scanning," he shares.

"For a pro lab, there's a bit of an amateur flavor to the 35mm negative to CD scan process. Some professional photographers, however, have found a legitimate use for the procedure. Without question, pro labs are losing some business due to this. There will always be holdouts. Some people will be stuck in the analog film business forever, no matter how far the industry strides ahead of them.

"We looked at our market and believed the professional industry would make the transition to completely digital capture in a relatively short time. The change is taking longer than we expected, so we still are examining our decision.

"The majority of our customers are still shooting film. But, things are changing quickly. I hesitate to predict it; but, by next year, our digital-capture accounts may overtake our analog business in dollar volume," Bosworth forecasts.

"The greatest source of anxiety for wedding photographers is virtually eliminated by digital capture. They are able to know immediately that images are successfully captured--not discover problems days later, when the proofs arrive. Most risks are avoided with digital capture--equipment problems are identified on site, no chance of lab mistakes, no film lost in shipping--there's little to go wrong. The photographers know what they have when they shoot it. If there is any doubt in their minds, they can bring an image up on the camera's LCD screen," Bosworth states.

"If there is a down side to digital wedding photography, it's the gap in latitude between negative film exposure and digital exposure. The latitude in digital exposure is much narrower and color sensitive than the 'three f-stops over/one f-stop under' latitude of color negative emulsions. Digital wedding photographers have to pay a great deal more attention to making correct exposures, particularly when they are working in quickly changing lighting conditions. Typically, wedding photographers have to contend with indoor, outdoor, mixed lighting, fluorescent, and available tungsten lighting. There's a host of different illumination situations. To get the same kind of quality proofs and prints they are accustomed to getting from film, digital photographers must make dead-on exposures.

"ColoRich recommends, if there is any question about exposure, photographers should measure the light often with hand-held meters. Whip out that light meter 12, 15, 18 times during the wedding festivities. Some feel this may be awkward, doesn't look professional, or they just can't fit metering into their shooting regimen--but it may be necessary for professional results. Auto-exposure film cameras have made the exposure determination too easy, but that's not the case in digital photography. If a lab is sent a digital file that's 1.0 f-stop or 1.5 f-stops underexposed, we have a problem--and the photographer has a problem. Generally, the results will be substandard prints," Bosworth advises.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Product Snapshot
Author:DeBat, Alfred
Publication:Digital Imaging Digest
Date:Dec 1, 2002
Words:1623
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