Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

The Rise of the One-Stop Photo Shop

This elegant jewelry ad, created by Iridio’s Darren Emmens, was made for Coldwater Creek, an upscale mail-order catalog company. “We really push each other and feed off each other’s creativity, which is something I didn’t get when I was shooting by myself.” This elegant jewelry ad, created by Iridio’s Darren Emmens, was made for Coldwater Creek, an upscale mail-order catalog company. “We really push each other and feed off each other’s creativity, which is something I didn’t get when I was shooting by myself.”
© Darren Emmens / Iridio

To meet the needs of a new digital market, some studios are offering clients a full-service package, providing assistance from concept to print.

It’s no secret that over the last two decades digital technology has sparked a revolution in the way printed materials are made. That change has now swept into the high-volume photography studio, and it involves a lot more than just buying and using a different kind of camera.

Even when an image is captured on film instead of in bytes, sooner or later (and these days it’s usually sooner) it enters the digital world through scanning. That’s when the real changes kick in.

“Years ago, when we shot food, we shot it on 8x10 film always,” says photographer Ric Peterson. “I could go through racks of hamburger buns to find the perfect bun to photograph. Today we’ll still search through many, many hamburger buns to find the right one, but we don’t have to be that exhaustive.”

With computer software, he adds, “I can move this sesame seed, or take that crack out. . . . It’s helped immensely in the production of a photograph because we can correct the image in post-production as well as in front of the camera.”
Peterson is now director of photography in Seattle for Arscentia, a just-launched consolidation of an existing design firm (Marketplace Design), photography studio (Photogroup) and prepress house (Wy’east) in Portland, Ore., and Seattle. The merging of the three operations “allows us to be more efficient, more productive, and maintain a quality standard for our clients,” Peterson says.

The new company is one of several that have rearranged themselves to offer “one-stop shopping” for clients who want a full-service package that will take their projects from concept to print-ready digital files under a single roof — at least metaphorically.

“We have two facilities here in Washington,” Peterson says. “Our design company and photo studio are in one building, and our digital media production is in a separate facility. At some point we may in fact merge everything into one facility.”

That’s what Iridio, another Seattle/Portland company that combines photography, color services and digital printing, plans to do by the end of this year. Now a subsidiary of Chicago print corporation R.R. Donnelley & Sons, Iridio started in the 1980s as a small photography studio, says photographer and studio manager Darren Emmens. “We did food, we did clothing. . . . It was a typical boutique shooting shop.”

Today, Iridio bills itself as a full-service visual communications production company. “We throw ideas off each other; it’s a very open work environment,” Emmens says. “We critique each other. . . . We really push each other and feed off each other’s creativity, which is something I didn’t get when I was shooting by myself.”

Each arm of the company is managed separately, and clients can use one, all or any combination of services. “If a client just wants to use photography, they’re by no means bound to use our prepress facility, and vice versa,” Emmens says. However, many do make use of the full service, “because they’re getting extremely high quality . . . and they bring (their job) to us and we can solve all their problems.”

That’s a key point for Arscentia’s marketing director, Steve Ater. “We used to make products, and we packaged services,” he says. “Now we’re solving problems and building relationships. If we’re doing an integrated project, our creative director and our art director and photographer would be meeting very early in the project.” Based on those meetings, he adds, the photographer and art director each can get a pretty good understanding of the other’s concerns, eliminating many problems before they even start.

The digital workflow

When a picture is taken with a high-resolution digital camera, or when an image on film is scanned, the image is saved to a computer. From there it can be copied in low resolution and e-mailed to a client or art director for approval. Tasks like color correction, retouching and conversion to CMYK color mode for printing are done on computers, and the final image is inserted by the graphic designer into a layout that is delivered to the printer as a digital file.

When these services are well coordinated, the whole process is faster than traditional methods. “We can turn a job around in a couple of days,” says Greg Carter, photography studio manager for NuVisions in Irvine, Calif. “It’s quite incredible. . . . A client will come in on Monday and say he has to have his brochure printed on Friday, and we’ve actually done that.”

NuVisions started in the late 1980s as a post-production/prepress house. Carter, who was studying photography in college at the time, worked there as a film stripper — “basically, the person who’s been made redundant by the Macintosh computer,” he says. “As the technology evolved, we got involved with Macintoshes and then design, and one thing led to another.” The company now offers creative design, photography and even web site design, in addition to the new electronic version of the prepress services it started with.

This team approach offers several advantages for photographers. Having color correction experts on staff can free the photographers to take more pictures, secure in the knowledge that their work is in good hands. “I enjoy shooting images,” says Arscentia’s Peterson, “and I’m more effective for my clients sitting behind a camera as opposed to sitting in front of a computer.”

Jerry Taylor, Peterson’s counterpart with Arscentia in Portland, says he enjoys working with the company’s in-house art directors because “we have good relationships. We’re used to working together, so we tend to partner well. There’s . . . more of a bond, a little bit more of an understanding between two disciplines.”

“Not only is it lucrative,” Ater agrees, “it’s fun. It’s created a different culture. . . . There’s a brain trust between the team that wouldn’t exist if we were in separate companies.”

Iridio’s Emmens says that extensive in-house testing between photographers and digital technicians gives his clients a better product than they would get if each step in the process were done by a separate company. Another plus, he adds, is that “we have been able to test every single digital camera that comes out, every year . . . which would be extremely expensive for somebody to do if they were not associated with this kind of business.”

From a business perspective, having a full team of creative minds in-house can help even out income peaks and valleys. Each branch of the company can help funnel potential new clients to the other branches. They are careful, however, not to step on any toes while doing so. “A lot of our clients are agencies and other design firms,” Peterson says. “It would be counterproductive to try and migrate our clients’ clients into our creative services, and we certainly wouldn’t attempt to do that.”

Asset management

To further enhance the digital experience for their clients, Arscentia and Iridio both offer digital asset management, which involves storing the client’s digital images on servers and providing the client with ongoing access to those images through the Internet, usually through a web-based interface.

“Digital asset management is essentially a library,” Peterson says. A client’s marketing manager can log into that library, search for a certain image, and download it, and the server software will convert it to the desired format and resolution. “It’s becoming increasingly important for many, many clients.” Arscentia wrote its own proprietary software for this purpose about 10 years ago, and maintains it with a staff of software engineers in its Portland office, he says.
Together with its parent company, Iridio also developed an asset management system, Emmens says. For client J. Crew, for example, “we house all of their digital imagery, and they are able to download high-res or low-res images from that system.” The servers involved are huge, holding terabytes of information, and are used to store copies of every picture taken by Iridio’s photographers — even those originally shot on film.

“Anything that passes through our doors is backed up,” Emmens says. “A client could call us three years from now and say ‘I did a shot in January of 2001, and I need the file,’ and we could get it for them.”

Market pressures

The evolution of digital technology has brought bad news as well as good to studio photographers, especially in combination with the recent economic downturn and the aftereffects of the Sept. 11 attacks last year. The resulting chilling effect on advertising at the end of 2001 has continued well into this year.

“Photography is becoming more accessible to clients, and it’s becoming easier for clients to go in-house,” says Carter of NuVisions. “The web’s an enormous threat now, with clients doing away with their catalogs, going online — and, let’s face it, online photography doesn’t have to be that good.”The ready availability of stock and royalty-free photography is another threat that, Peterson says, “is certainly here to stay.” However, although both Arscentia and Iridio have had to lay off photographers this year, he remains optimistic about the future.

“I believe with economic recovery will come an increase in original photography,” Peterson says. “As companies try to separate themselves and their brand from their competitors, the best way to do that is with original creations. . . . And I think that photographers, in general, need to figure out how to fit into an ever-changing market. The old days of shooting everything for everyone are gone.”

Ater says the new market is, in some ways, good news for photographers, because it’s the less creative work that clients are starting to take in-house. “What we were doing three years ago was huge catalogs and hundreds of shots,” he says. “What we’re seeing now is higher-end, art directed. . . . We’ve moved upstream.”

Fad or for real?

There’s also a concern that some clients simply won’t believe that any one company can do all of these tasks well, particularly when the services bridge the traditional divide between creative and technical work.

Jim Felt of Studio 3 in Seattle, for example, is not prepared to be impressed. He calls the photographers in full-service companies “cogs in a large wheel,” and views his neighbors Arscentia and Iridio as prepress houses that have added photography in an effort to stay afloat as technology made their traditional services obsolete.

“We’re a photo studio,” Felt says. “We sell ourselves on the art of our photography . . . and name the photographers and market them individually.”

Studio 3 started in 1974 when Felt and two other photographers joined forces to share studio space. Today the company boasts seven photographers in Portland and Seattle. Its services include digital photography, “virtual reality” clips (allowing web site visitors to rotate images of objects or look around a room) and “digital art” created through the marriage of traditional film and software.

“When we first got into [digital photography] we spent $185,000 on our equipment . . . because we wanted, as photographers, to do what we’d always done with film, which is to have 100 percent control of our (images),” Felt says.

Embracing digital technology hasn’t changed the company’s focus, he says. Although Studio 3 also does its own prepress work, and even occasionally does it for other photographers, “It’s not our business model,” Felt says. “From both of our studios we can give digital output that is prepress ready — a digital file than can go to press. We don’t own a big drum scanner because we feel that should be done by a technician.”

Felt says that Studio 3 stores its digital images on DVDs or CDs in metal cabinets bought from an eye surgeon who converted from file cards to computerized records. Their clients may not be able to get instant copies over the Internet, but, Felt says, “we can find images from 1995 — high-res digital images.”

Iridio’s director of business development, Eric Arpe, says, “A lot of clients are married to their photographer, but the prepress and the printing side is more [often] considered manufacturing,” in which coming in at the right price is what matters most.

To avoid the appearance of juggling too many things, Emmens says, Iridio markets each of its services separately. “If we’re phoning photography clients, we say we’re a photography studio. If we’re phoning design/packaging clients, we tell them we’re a design/packaging house. . . . If a need for a studio arises, that’s when we’ll tell people that there’s a studio available, and vice versa.”

Emmens says Iridio also makes a point of promoting the talents of its individual photographers. “You’re not selling a widget,” he says. “You’re selling the work of a certain photographer.”

Digital destiny

Altering the perception that large companies are less creative than small boutique studios may be an uphill battle. But few would disagree that full-service firms are well positioned to take advantage of the digital workflow. They can afford the latest equipment; their design, photography and production staffs can communicate freely at all stages of a project; and, since they use the same servers, they can shave their turnaround times.

Arscentia’s Jerry Taylor sees a future in digitally combining imagery; for example, shooting a car in the studio and then combining it with a scenic background or exotic landscape. “We can do that much cheaper than hauling a car out to the desert to shoot it for four days,” he says. Arscentia’s photographers all spend time just taking pictures for in-house stock or portfolio use — even though they sometimes have to do this in the evening or on the weekend. “You lose creativity if all you’re doing is producing commercial work eight or 10 hours a day,” he says.

Ater says that Arscentia, as a whole, already offers every aspect of preparing a hard-copy document short of printing it, and is moving in the direction of Internet and browser-based tools for online and interactive media. “At some point, we will probably be adding UI [user interface] design and source code writers, developers and interactive designers,” he says.

With all this emphasis on digital imagery, does this sound like a death knell for prepress houses? Or will they just metamorphose into the full-service studio models set by Arscentia and Iridio? It may be too soon to tell. As for the future of studio photography, Emmens says that he sees it being all digital within five years.

“I’m not saying film’s going to go away, but the simplicity and the cost-effectiveness for the client of digital is pushing it to the forefront,” he says. “I love shooting film, so it’s hard for me to say that on the one side, but on the other side, our business is changing. It’s getting more into solving our clients’ needs.”

Anna Peekstok
Story Author: Anna Peekstok

Anna Peekstok is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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