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The Internet – every prolab’s future profit-base

When enterprise and relevance dictates, successful prolabs in the digital arena look further than the latest hardware. John Chillingworth examines the motivation, which is helping them to lock regular professional customers into an impressive range of on-line services.

It does not take a genius to be aware that the last year of the 20th century is already the olden days, as far as the Internet is concerned.

The number of ways in which the Internet is being exploited for commercial purposes, are now legion. In the photo industry, alone, e-commerce is becoming big business.

It was only a handful of years ago that we were all impressed at the apparent enterprise of professional photographers, who promoted themselves on their own web sites, but look at it now!

Prolabs, too, are acutely aware of the theoretical wisdom of having a presence on the ‘net’, as the demand and applications for digital images continue to increased dramatically.

The debate still rages about the ability of a digital image to compete on grounds of quality with film, but not everyone engaged in that futile pastime understands that analogue and digital images operate in a parallel universe.

Dependent upon the end use of images film, at a professional level, still has a place, even though the results of a shoot are often rapidly scanned before delivery, to meet client requirements.

The methods by which an individual photographer educates and retains his or her clients to accept digitally generated images or, more likely, the way in which they respond to client demand for digital files, as well as a fast turnaround of prints print orders are also changing.

Back in the sands of time, part of a picture editor’s brief to a magazine staff photographer was always, “I want it good and I want it Tuesday!” Today, commercial, advertising and social clients are more likely to expect delivery on the day.

The challenge of change is increasingly being met successfully by the prolabs, which service both imaging professionals and other photographically oriented clients.
How do they do it?

Ploughing an individual furrow
Amongst a number of major prolabs, which have addressed the key requirements of professionals who need to order prints from digital files, which they have despatched online, is the Dunns Imaging Group.

Dunns Director, Gary Denham, started to investigate the digital options some years ago. As a result, the Dunns’ online service called ‘Digicourier’ has 140+ wedding, portrait and commercial photography users, who have registered free of charge.

Each user has 1gb of storage space on the system, which until recently was based on the Internet Gateway online technology provided by WAM!NET. Having got the feel of the professional requirements, Denham initiated in-house system development, which promises to eventually cover all aspects of the Dunns Imaging Group’s services.

Exclusively available to Dunn’s customers, Digicourier provides secure, high-speed transmission with delivery tracking and job ticket facilities, which provide confirmation of receipt of the customers’ images.
Test-driving the system, the speed and simplicity of access is impressive. For busy professionals, uploading JPEG files, placing an order and receiving confirmation is achieved at a few clicks of a mouse button.

The company is also aware of the customer’s need to present colour managed image files. It runs a daily calibration routine to maintain consistency in all output devices and offers Digistudio, which provides specialist support for colour management issues as a service for its customers.

Another online ordering package is ‘my event picture.biz’, a complete proofing and printing service for event and wedding photographers. Also, aware of the volume of analogue business, which still keeps them busy, there is a new ‘Print and View’ online reprint ordering system attached to the Digicourier site as well as the self explanatory ‘Process and Scan’ service, also for film users.

In addition, Dunns provides a host of other services, available to professionals on the company’s web site. It could be said, without going OTT, that companies like that deserve their place, high in the pecking order of digitally aware prolabs.

The ‘come and join us’ principle
However, major prolabs have addressed the online ordering concept in other ways, one of which has proved to be more than satisfactory to prolabs like highly successful Loxley Imaging in Glasgow.

Last year, readers may recall that IGIe Systems, an IT based systems developer with 99.9% of its business with the photo industry, offered an online ordering solution called ‘Easy Prints Pro’. It had Europe-wide coverage and a wealth of expertise, which was making steady progress in improving the fortunes of strategically placed prolabs.

Their impressive digital workflow concept, which improves the lot of both the prolab and its professional customers is aimed largely at digital photographers with regular print production requirements. Easy Prints Pro is usually renamed by the participating prolabs and marketed to the prolab’s customers as a fully automated, secure and colour managed way in which to deliver high quality prints.

This year, theirs is a new manifestation! When IGIe Limited found itself facing both ways, on one hand the Easy Prints Pro software service and on the other, a project started four years ago, to design and produce a digital print processor, so something had to give.

There are now two entirely separate companies. IGIESO Limited, operating from the Cranfield Technology Park, concentrates on software packages for digital asset management, like Easy Prints Pro. Digeprint Limited, now an scientific design company, based at the University of Warwick Science Park, launched its revolutionary new print processor, the Digeprint DPP 305 with a flourish at the House of Commons in February.

The relevance to both photographers and prolabs is simple to perceive, when examining the IGIESO concept of digital print order fulfilment.

The exactly opposite side of the same coin to the ‘independent’ approach to online organisation and administration of prolab print production, the Easy Prints Pro and its derivatives are part of a sophisticated, centralised image hosting system. It provided a secure, accessible Internet base for photographers, who have been persuaded by their prolabs to place digital print orders on line.

The photographers have the advantage of knowing that they have their images documented, filed and accessible, off site, in a highly professional way. The prolabs know that their clients are locked into a system, which is a fail-safe image storage facility, which does not clog their own computer systems.

By carefully negotiating contracts with a nation-wide cross-section of strategically placed prolabs, IGIESO ensures that there is no conflict of interest.

To provide a prolab with an additional profit centre, in the past year, the company has created a consumer version of Easy Prints Pro. It is an e-browser, which can also be re-branded by the prolab. It works off-line and enables consumers to view digital images on their own desktop and to order prints and photo-related gifts, using a standard Internet connection.

IGIESO has also announced the launch of a triple-level eGallery service for professional photographers. With no start up costs and no monthly rental, the company individually brands, supports and manages the system. Its payback comes as a percentage per order; a concept which ensures that photographers have minimum overheads, while receiving the Internet exposure and sales opportunities for their images.

Although there is yet to be real proof that online print sales will develop into a worthwhile income for photographers, the system is designed to send resulting print orders, automatically, to the contracted prolab member of the IGIESO network. In theory, the photographers gain global exposure due to the nature of the Internet, with the eGallery system promoting their stock images world-wide, rather than nationally. Time will tell!

Engage brains
Punch in ‘Digiprints’ to your search engine and you will be inundated with offers of online print production from Hong Kong to New York and points East.

Despite its being an overworked ‘digiword’, London-based Visualeyes, which claims to be the premier prolab to the PR, marketing, music and entertainment industries, has called its new online print ordering service ‘Digiprints’!

Waxing lyrical about its revolutionary digital printing system, Visualeyes confidently claims that the new system enables the laboratory to produce photographic prints of unrivalled quality, with improved service times, enhanced captioning and free image enhancement.

Unlike the IGISO system, which accepts compressed image files from time-strapped photographers, if Visualeyes clients wish to avoid a file preparation fee, client files must be sent in uncompressed PhotoShop or TIFF format. They have to be prepared in the final output (print) size, eg: 10” x 8”, at 254dpi, preferably from an RGB scan and not converted from CMYK.

The brains behind the Visualeyes ‘Digiprints’ service are massive! They emanate from the admirable team of ‘boffins’ at Digital Asset Solutions Limited, with its headquarters at the Research and Enterprise Centre at the University of Teesside.

The company provides a range of services that have an innovative approach to the management of digital assets, which include custom build of systems and the provision of 'off the shelf' solutions for photographic print fulfilment.

The original concept called The Photo Order, is a fully automated Lab publishing system, which creates a duality of all the photographers’ images, whether originating from a digital camera or from film scans.

Designed by Brian Cooke, Systems Architect & Managing Director, with Colin Russell, the Systems Development Manager, the Photo Order Enterprise was launched in January 2003 as an online web album, print ordering and workflow management system for prolabs and their customers.

Today, the system also has a manual option, which is used by a total of thirty UK prolabs, which serve hundreds of professional photographers.

Phil Chisholm, who is responsible for new business development at DAS was, for many years, one of the most sought after wedding and event photographers in the north of England. He invests a lot of his time, now, in giving lectures to photographers on digital asset management.

What is more, the proof of his personal success in use of the system is in the Lab sales report from his studio, which lists a total of 694 print sales from 8” x 6” to 30” x 20” over a period of two weeks.

Jumping on the bandwagon – slowly
Using such a business control system and with a much wider range of services, prolabs should be able to take digital imaging to a much higher plateau and carrying all those technically challenged digital photographers with them.

It is, perhaps, surprising that the major equipment and consumables manufacturers have largely moved with lead feet on this area of digital development.

For Kodak UK, if more productivity, flexibility, confidence, growth and customer loyalty is of primary concern, they would do well to complete the long, careful research into the launch of a prolab oriented digital ordering and fulfilment system.

It has been achieved in America, using products like the Kodak Proshots System. Marketed vigorously to US prolabs, it is clearly not suitable for UK and European applications.

The latest manufacturer to create software, which will help lock the digital prolab to its regular clients, without insisting on a degree in ‘rocket-science’ is, of course Fujifilm.

Launched at last, after year long promises, the Fuji LabLinkPro (Panorama July 2004) will enable the photographer to feed in his images to the programme. It will optimise them, automatically, for printing and subsequently downloading them to the prolab operating a Fuji Frontier. Sounds familiar!

Thoroughly tested in the field, pre-launch, twenty-five prolabs were already operating the system. Panorama readers who normally use promotional CD’s as convenient ‘coasters’, should think again with the LabLinkPro CD.

Despite one’s aversion to being locked into a system, a photographer with an eye to the future in terms of digital capture and print fulfilment, are clearly spoilt for choice, when it comes to prolab services in the digital age.

Don’t just go with the flow. We have only scratched the surface of the burgeoning concepts already on the market, like Fotoware’s ‘fotoweb’ and utility systems like Everybodysmiles, so look hard and long at the available options. Some prolabs already have the technology, so forget the ‘old-boy’ network, photographers should go where the best, most convenient deal is on offer.

© Copyright John Chillingworth