Digital technologies are transforming the professional photo lab industry at a mind-numbing pace, and Joel Schulman of photo.graphics.art in Steamboat Springs thinks he has discovered a niche upon which he can build.
Kodak announced this week it would close five traditional film processing labs in the United Kingdom next year as part of its company-wide shift toward the digital market. At the same time, Schulman's one-man "digital lab" is growing so fast that he worries about growing at a measured pace. It's all part of the upheaval in the photographic industry.
Schulman expanded his business after leaving his leadership role with the design and publishing shop MacMedia. When the change came, he saw an opportunity to tie together two very different chapters in his career.
"I realized the reproduction of images has gone almost entirely digital," Schulman said. "And I realized there was a big niche for extremely high-quality large digital output."
The bulk of Schulman's business entails producing large prints of photographs and fine-art paintings for individual artists and commercial accounts. Many are resold as fine art, and others are used in displays at trade shows. He recently completed a job for the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Fine art nature photographer Jim Steinberg is having a collection of winter images printed at photo.graphics.art. He continues to shoot with slide film (chromes), often with a large format camera that produces exceptional detail. He said Schulman has an ability to understand the nuances he hopes to capture in a print of his originals.
"Joel is a master printer, and those of us in the industry here are fortunate to have someone of his caliber," Steinberg said. "He's not just a technical person. He has a very good sense of the aesthetic, as well. You don't get that from everyone."
Schulman knows all facets of the photo reproduction business. His wife, Karen, is a noted fine art photographer. When the couple moved to Steamboat Springs in 1991, he had sold his own traditional photo lab in Hollywood, where he served clients in the film and entertainment industries. He arrived in Steamboat just as desktop publishing was transforming the magazine and brochure publishing industry. As a beta tester for the ubiquitous image-editing software application Photoshop, Schulman became an expert in the prepress process needed to get photographs into publication.
Today, he's able to draw on all of his experience at photo.graphics.art.
Schulman has invested tens of thousands of dollars in a high-end drum scanner, computer systems and a pair of large format Epson inkjet printers that allow him to reproduce photographs and other art with startling clarity. He calibrates his monitors to the printers on a daily basis to ensure faithful reproduction of color.
Professional photographers and many serious amateurs are aware that they can make good 8-by-10-inch and 11-by-14-inch prints in their offices. Schulman's business takes digital printing a step further with prints as large as 44 inches high and 6 feet wide or even wider if that's what the client requires. For fine artists, he can make prints on heavy watercolor paper. And the computing power packed into his office in Copper Ridge Business Park means he can crank out large volumes of those smaller 8-by-10 and 11-by-14 prints more conveniently than a photographers can in their studios.
There are other advantages. Schulman creates a digital archive of his clients' images. That means when they want to reorder prints of their best sellers, there's no need to relocate the image in their own systems. A simple call to Schulman puts the wheels in motion. Schulman said he tries to surprise his clients consistently with his prompt turnaround time.
"This business is all about providing good service," he said.
The term "inkjet print" isn't very glamorous, and many fine art printers refer to their output instead as a "giclee" print. Whatever you call it, Schulman said, the big breakthrough in the past five years has been the development of archival pigment inks. The new inks remove any doubt about inkjet prints fading after a couple of years and result in prints that will outlive the photographer by decades.
Photo.graphics.art is equipped to work with images supplied by photographers shooting with traditional film as well as the increasing number of photographers shooting with digital cameras.
Typically, fine art painters working in oils, watercolor and acrylics hire a professional photographer to shoot their work for scanning and inkjet reproduction.
"Non-photographic artists are really embracing the pigment technology," Schulman said.
The advantages are fairly obvious. Inkjet prints allow painters to effortlessly produce new products at a more modest price point without the need to invest thousands of dollars in limited-edition litho prints. The new pigment inks allow painters to create fine art copies of their work that are worthy of hanging above even the largest couches.
For film photographers who don't have a digital scan of their print, Schulman will produce a drum scan up to a file size of 50 megabytes for $25 (bigger files cost more).
In the case of digital photographers, no scan is needed. Clients can burn their images to CDs and bring them to Schulman or, if they prefer, simply bring in their compact flash cards from the cameras, and Schulman will pull up the photo files and take it from there.
There are times when customers need Schulman to work with a digital file that is too large to e-mail practically. In those cases, he maintains an FTP, or file transfer protocol site, that allows those customers to upload their work to a Web site where he can retrieve it.
When necessary, Schulman can use a piece of software that allows him to make bigger prints from files that typically wouldn't support a big blowup. The software uses a mathematical algorithm to fill in the widening gaps between digital pixels as a print is enlarged.
"The computer software is so advanced, and we have so many tools available, it's truly amazing what you can do," Schulman said.