YIKES! It has been over a year since I blogged – this is my seventh or eighth attempt. Every time I think I’m ready to post, some significant change in personnel, equipment or products makes it necessary for me to go back once again and revise. Someday maybe I’ll get around to finishing all the other missives I started, but for now, here is my Blog of the Year, before it turns into the Blog of the Century.
Here’s a memory exercise … see if you remember some of these names: McDaniel’s, Qualex, ColorCraft, Rothor, Fine Print, Lightsource, Black Dog, Berisford’s, Jax Color Lab, Apex Color Lab, Paul’s One Hour, Express Photo, Beaches One Hour, CPS (Creative Photographic Services), Quality Photo, CVS (Commercial Video Services), Fotographic.Net, Brad’s Fast Photo, Gaston’s, Wolf Camera, Ritz Camera, Chelsea, Brandon’s, A-1 Photo, Riverside Camera, Living Image, Desktop Darkroom … not to mention all the local photographers who had their in-house labs. All of these photo labs were either in business when we opened or have come and gone since then; some are still in business, but not offering lab services to the public.
When I started working in a local color lab in 1979, there were maybe two or three other commercial labs in town, a couple of giant wholesale labs in the region, and probably a half dozen or so labs owned by professional photographers. My time working for the lab was brief and not very positive; even so it fueled my passion for photofinishing. I saw so many possibilities, but I also saw what not to do if I ever owned my own lab, especially with regard to fair treatment of employees and customers.
By the early 1980s Saundra and I both had jobs related to the graphic arts industry, but we moonlighted doing photo projects out of our home darkroom. We incorporated FotoTechnika in 1981 with the notion of creating a hybrid lab that could bridge the photo and various graphic arts industries, but in those days combining the industries was like mixing oil and water, and we didn’t quite have the spark necessary to motivate us to open full-time. Then in 1985 Saundra and I watched a PBS documentary called “In Search of Excellence” which chronicled eight successful American companies and some of their creative approaches and philosophies. In particular we became fascinated with Disney and Apple Computers. We knew we wanted to launch FotoTechnika as a full-time venture, and the documentary inspired us to consider operating differently from all the labs we had encountered. We started putting all the pieces in place, and finally opened our doors to the public in March 1987.
Not long after opening, several of the aforementioned (now defunct) labs proclaimed that we would soon be history. They could probably tell that we were woefully ignorant of the processes and had limited knowledge of the equipment necessary to run a photo lab. But even though we were naive about the business world and the photo lab industry in particular, we had confidence in our potential. I had an innate sense for color and Saundra had a gift for design (and the patience of Job). We both instinctively recognized high quality work and had a knack for figuring out ways to achieve said high quality, even if they weren’t orthodox – it was not unusual for us to employ reverse engineering to figure something out. We have always been ideally suited to work together as a team and this gave us an edge when we needed to adapt to new systems and technologies. In 1987 independent one-hour labs were already established, but we weren’t at all that impressed with the quality coming out of most of those shops — we suspected the fault was in the operators, not the machines. We figured that our niche would be to offer services the other labs couldn’t or wouldn’t. The only problem was that there were at least four established commercial labs in town offering similar services and we were rookies, so we offered two services the rest didn’t. One: we produced R-prints (direct “reversal” prints from slides and transparencies, the opposite of printing directly from negatives), and two: we offered personalized service itself. Not only that, we operated out of an early 1900s-vintage two-story house in an historic district, not in an industrial park or shopping strip. It didn’t take long to acquire our “unique boutique mystique.”
Back in the sixties and seventies almost all snapshooters dropped their film off at grocery, drug or discount stores when they came to shop and picked up their prints on the next visit to the store. In the mid-1980s one-hour labs were starting to cut in on the photofinishing business that those stores had dominated for decades. We figured it would only be a matter of time before the stores responded, and we were right. They did so by installing their own one-hour labs, then proceeded to price much of their photo work as loss leader, banking on purchases of high mark-up items like diapers and candy bars while customers waited for their film to be processed and printed. No more coming back days or weeks later – most work was done in-store, in the space of one shopping trip. This eventually put most of the independent one-hour labs and even the big wholesale labs out of business. In the meantime, we continued to concentrate on services the chain stores couldn’t offer on-site. Sure we processed color negative film, but our specialty was E6 and B&W. We offered automated proof prints too, but we also offered custom color and black & white enlargements in addition to our R-prints.
By 1997 the market had already thinned out quite a bit. The move to digital cameras and digital printing had already begun when we assumed a lease on a wide format inkjet printer from a fellow lab owner who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. This started our evolution from an analog lab to a digital lab, but it certainly wasn’t a painless transition. With our building constraints we knew that high volume wide format commercial inkjet printing was not an option – we just didn’t have enough space. But with our talent for color rendering and high quality, we thought fine art printing might be a possibility. Fine art printing is a specialty that requires a lot of one-on-one personal service, and that seemed to be right in our wheelhouse. Around the same time it was our good fortune to find that another staff member, Brian Wanta had exactly the talent and temperament necessary to work with artists to create reproductions that are faithful to the original art. Becoming fine art printmakers gave us a service the other labs didn’t have, but at the same time it put us in a head-to-head competition with an offset printer that had specialized in fine art printing for decades. Inkjet technology was as new to them as it was to us, but their real problem was that they were lithographers, so they were used to printing 200-line screens on offset presses. Our advantage was that we were used to producing photographic resolution, aka continuous tone prints. We did loads of research on print longevity and made sure our inks, media and UV coatings were matched to be archival, while the print shop used cheap inks on inexpensive paper with no UV coating. Their “good enough” quality meant that within a year, many of their prints started fading, and their lack of individualized customer service, especially with artists, made their foray into fine art giclée printing short-lived.
In 2002 we purchased our first digital minilab, a Noritsu 3001. One year later we purchased a 30” wide ZBE Chromira – an LED printer that output on traditional, chemically-processed photographic (silver halide) color papers. At the same time, several of us started learning Photoshop, and it didn’t take long for Saundra to transfer her art training to image manipulation. Our transition to digital was complete. We still offered a variety of analog services, but requests for those services were diminishing at an alarming rate.
As we were investigating even newer digital technology at a trade show in Orlando in 2005, the owner of the shop where I had worked in 1979 bumped into us at the Noritsu booth. He started quizzing us on everything digital. When he asked how much some of our equipment cost, my answer drained most of the color from his face. Back then the less expensive, used digital equipment market was practically nonexistent – everything digital was too new. Within a couple of years, my old boss had shut his lab down, but at the same time several other purely digital shops opened. For years we grew at a steady pace, enough so that in 2006 we expanded our services with major equipment purchases and software upgrades. For one year we experienced unprecedented growth, but then in late 2007 our growth sputtered. At the time we didn’t realize that we were experiencing early stages of the housing collapse. We later deduced that if new houses weren’t being built, folks wouldn’t be purchasing fine art reproductions to hang on the walls.
The common belief was this was just your garden-variety recession, and the expression “hang in ’til twenty-ten (2010)” was the mantra. Only things didn’t get any better in 2010, so we ended up cutting staff in order to survive. We went through some very lean times, all the while the photofinishing industry was shrinking because digital images, especially on smart phones, didn’t require hard copies. Digital capture had officially overtaken film, which meant the photofinishing industry would soon be a mere shadow of what it had been when we started.
In 2008, in a search for more affordable ways to stay in business, we discovered IPI (Independent Photo Imagers). We joined the organization and have since become friends with our lab owner-colleagues all over the country, sharing knowledge to better cope with an industry that is still in flux. We have gotten to know lab owners in Gainesville, Tallahassee, Charleston and Atlanta with whom we frequently share our philosophies and common interests. In the photo lab business, there is nothing to fear from our fellow lab owners, and we have come to the conclusion that anyone trying to enter this industry needs to have their head examined. Running any small business is not for the faint of heart, but this industry has experienced more than its share of challenges just in the 30-plus years we’ve been involved in it. And what we have found, more than once, is that we have to expand into other related services that can supplement what we offer currently in order to survive.
By 2012, pretty much all of our local competition was gone. We were officially the last lab standing, but we were teetering on the brink. We decided that in order to branch off in another direction we would need to return to our graphic arts roots. We started by leasing a Konica Minolta C6000 digital press, which opened the door to more commercial applications for our photography customers, but using toner technology. As with all the equipment we’ve used over the years, we pushed the image quality to a level higher than the manufacturer thought possible. With the press we finally had the makings of the hybrid company we had originally envisioned, but the fact that we had it, didn’t mean people were beating down the doors to bring us printing jobs. Eventually we decided that our best course of action was to move the business to a more “retail/business friendly” environment.
In late 2013 we sold the old house on Lomax and moved to the Mudville Grille Plaza at 3119 Beach Blvd in St. Nicholas. We now have huge windows where we can showcase what we do to pedestrian traffic, and we actually have plenty of customer parking — most of the time (except when Mudville is particularly busy). We also took opportunity to update some pretty antiquated equipment including a newer Noritsu minilab and two new Canon wide format inkjet printers. Our most recent upgrade is a Noritsu D502 Duplex Photo Inkjet Printer. As opposed to our Konica Minolta C6000 that uses toner technology, this printer outputs photographic quality with the option of more archival materials and, unlike most other inkjet printers, can print on both sides of specially treated papers.
To our knowledge we are now the only photo lab offering any of the “vintage” services in Northeast Florida; particularly, developing film in-house. Grocery stores gave up traditional photofinishing long ago; now the drug stores and discount stores are producing prints through mostly lackluster do-it-yourself inkjet systems. Others may offer to outsource film to an out-of-town lab, but do not return the customer’s developed negatives, only providing a proof-size jpeg file on a disc.
Since traditional lab services are no longer the mainstay of the photo industry, our business included, saying that we are the “last lab standing” these days is not a great claim to fame. But as technology marches forward we continue to evolve with it; when old processes decline and opportunities arise, we offer new products, and pay more attention to interactions with our customers over the internet.
Being the last lab isn’t enough… we would like very much to remain standing. And as long as our commitment stays true to our original vision – to provide innovative, imaging services of high quality, with personalized attention to our customers’ needs – we believe our future looks very bright.