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Photo Finish

Old and New Technologies Power Photo Labs

By Thomas Franklin

The term photo lab may evoke a whiff of chemistry, or the antiquated, but the photo lab market has adopted an array of technologies to compete for both consumer photo products and wide format display graphics.

The lab business is typically broken down into three segments: retail—serving consumers; professional—consumers, photographers, and studios; and commercial—business. All three are evolving from an exclusive emphasis on photo-based technology to a broader portfolio that includes aqueous and UV inkjet and toner-based platforms.

One noticeable trend is the trickle down of larger format products from the commercial and professional lab markets to retail. Driven by a steady decline in traditional snapshot print sizes, retail labs now offer photo posters and large wall calendars, says Kalle Marsal, marketing director, retail publishing solutions, Hewlett-Packard (HP). Vendors such as Canon U.S.A., Inc., Epson, and HP provide wide format aqueous inkjet solutions to retailers for consumer and small business poster printing. The offerings range from presentations on glossy photo paper to family portraits printed on canvas, shares Marsal.

Commercial labs branched out the most, incorporating a range of technologies also found from a print service provider (PSP). Inkjet and even UV printer sales are increasingly found in commercial labs today. “Most commercial labs have fully transitioned themselves into PSPs,” comments Christopher Guyett, sales and marketing coordinator, Durst Image Technology US LLC.

However, commercial labs stay true to their photographic roots, offering high-quality photo printing on platforms such as Durst’s Theta and Lambda or ZBE Inc.’s Chromira. To hear some commercial labs tell it, continuous tone photo technology remains unmatched in quality, even though other aspects of the process—for example, eco-friendliness—lost a competitive edge to inkjet.

“The photography portion of commercial labs’ business is continuously strong and is growing along with the entire wide format market,” adds Guyett. Many luxury, top tier brands demand the look and finish that only photo technology can offer.

“Most commercial labs lead with a photo product,” explains Chris Van Zandt, VP/GM, paper and output systems, Kodak. “If it comes down to competition on price, they default to inkjet.”

Popular Equipment
Agfa’s :Anapurna line of UV inkjet printers recently added the :Anapurna XLS. It is capable of a print resolution of 1,440x720 dpi on both rigid and roll-to-roll media up to 100 inches wide. It features droplet sizes of eight picoliters and supports a maximum media thickness of 1.75 inches.

Canon’s imagePROGRAF iPF6000S is an eight-color, 24-inch wide format printer. It uses the company’s LUCIA pigmented inks and clocks in 30 percent faster than the 12-color version—the imagePROGRAF iPF6100. It features a print resolution of 2,400x1,200 dpi and four picoliter droplet sizes due to a pair of high-density printheads with a total of 30,720 nozzles.

Durst continues to support the Theta and Lambda imagers for 30- and 50-inch output, respectively. The Lambda is a laser-based, large format device for output on photosensitive media. Roll materials up to 50 inches wide are compatible with the device.

The Lambda celebrates over a decade on the market, but recently underwent a firmware upgrade providing a 40 percent speed boost over the original productivity specifications, shares Guyett. The firmware upgrade is available on both new and existing machines. The unit now runs on the Linux operating system for greater stability.

Epson recently announced a pair of Stylus Pro pigment ink-based aqueous models—the 24-inch Stylus Pro 7900 and the 44-inch Stylus Pro 9900. Both printers employ the company’s micropiezo TFP printhead technology with UltraChrome HDR inks, including new orange and green. They are twice as fast as previous models and incorporate a built-in spectrophotometer from X-Rite, Inc. to improve color management.

HP’s portfolio of Indigo presses includes the HP Indigo 7000, Indigo 5500, and Indigo WS6000. Currently, 85 percent of the HP Indigo 7000s installed are designed for photo specialty applications. The press produces up to 3.5 million four-color pages per month.

The HP Indigo 7000 complements the HP Indigo 5500, which is aimed at customers processing 300,000 to one million pages per month.

New options on the enhanced model of the HP Indigo 5500 include inline connectivity to an HP Indigo UV coater, thick substrate support, and an additional feeding unit.

Announced at drupa in 2008, the HP Indigo WS6000 features an innovative photo specialty solution that allows for high-volume book cover and lay-flat photo book production. It prints at speeds of up to 120 letter-size pages a minute in four colors.

Noritsu America Corporation is one of the few suppliers selling standard size photo-based minilabs to the lab market. With the new QSS-37HD the aim is to capture the highest quality output possible from professional digital SLRs, explains Larry Callahan, product marketing manager, Noritsu.

The QSS-37HD produces 12-bit prints at 640 dpi. It features the company’s EZController software, which can process RAW image files from most digital SLRs and offers productivity of 2,360 four- by six-inch prints per hour and also has the capability to produce prints up to 12x36 inches in size.

Oce North America’s Arizona 350 XT UV flatbed is a follow-up to the company’s Arizona 250 GT, with a 40 percent productivity boost and new white ink option. The Arizona 350 XT supports printing to rigid media up to 98 inches wide. It comes in a four-color version, which features variable droplet sizes from six to 42 picoliters for resolutions of 1,440 dpi.

The Xerox 700 Digital Color Press is Xerox Corporation’s newest offering. Labs deploy it for the production of photo books and other custom products. It features 2,400x2,400 dpi resolution with automatic duplex printing on coated paper up to 220 gsm. Supporting inline finishing of coated paper, it is ideal for businesses that run between 20 and 75,000 pages per month. Fujifilm U.S.A., Inc. distributes the press.

ZBE’s Chromira ProLab uses LED technology to produce photo prints at sizes up to 30 inches wide with a 36 bit color depth. It features daylight paper loading, a 300 ppi resolution and is compatible with all off-the-shelf RIPs and color management programs.

Media Trends
Photo labs usually use photo papers based on speed, cost, and consistency, shares Bing Liem, VP of sales, Imaging Division, Fujifilm. “This is a technology that’s been around for 100 years,” adds Kodak’s Van Zandt. There are few surprises involving photo labs. The industry is cost competitive because most of the hardware is long paid off. Still, even at its advanced age, both traditional photo paper vendors and inkjet providers are evolving portfolios.

Labs demand products much like other PSPs—diversity of substrate, hints Brian Segnit, marketing manager, book publishing, Xerox.

Fujifilm continues to support photo technology with its Fujitrans, FujiClear, and Fujiflex line of display papers. In the Spring, Fujifilm began shipping its new Excellight display film for backlit displays produced on an inkjet platform. The polyethylene terephthalate-based paper features a new inkjet receiver layer that allows the back lighting to be shut off. It is available in widths up to 54 inches.

Demand for Kodak’s ENDURA Metallic Paper is credited to its distinctive look and characteristics, says Van Zandt. The paper, available up to 50 inches wide, incorporates a proprietary laminate layer, which allows it be used in applications such as in dry erase boards and calendars.

You’ve Got Pictures
The Web is a huge driver of business for retail print labs. Nearly half of the prints produced in a retail environment in 2008 originated online, according to the Photo Marketing Association (PMA). Research firm InfoTrends predicts that the majority of prints made in retail in 2012 will originate from an online order. As retailers begin to roll out larger size prints and custom products, the Web is expected to be a key driver for consumer orders.

The photo specialty market’s production peak is from October 1 to December 31, which is “the time period when consumers order photo specialty products for the holiday season,” explains Raffael Kraus, photo product manager, strategic marketing, Indigo, HP. Much of this ordering is done through the Web. During the product peak time period of 2008, HP Indigo customers worldwide printed 87 percent more pages than in 2007.

Many studios use online albums as virtual proofs and online storefronts for weddings and other events. The Web enables viewing of proofs and purchasing orders by a much broader spectrum than would be accessible via traditional proof books.

Labs such as White House Custom Colour, based in Eagan, MN and Mesquite, TX, offer these types of services. Given the large file sizes associated with commercial workflows, the Web does not drive the order process as much, but does fulfill crucial business management functions, comments Van Zandt.

Don Thayer’s roots are in photography. His father helped bring the famed Minox spy camera to the U.S. in the 1950s. The company that is now ePixel began as Minox processing facility. As enthusiasm for the Minox waned and consumers turned to digital cameras, ePixel branched out. The 300 people lab, based in Elmont, NY, recently bought out a faltering competitor.

The company utilizes Fujifilm Frontier minilabs for standard photo print sizes, a ZBE Chromira 30-inch photo printer for portraits, and wide format Epson inkjets for displays.

Though the company has roots in chemistry, Thayer sees the industry heading toward dry printing. “The print quality is superb.” The business coming off of his Epson is creating new opportunities as other portions of the photo business taper off.

“The industry is very competitive,” observes Thayer. He notes that the Web played a role in positioning ePixel for growth. The lab offers online ordering, batch photo scanning, custom products, and large format mounting and cut-outs to customers.

BWC Photo Imaging
The storied BWC Photo Imaging in TX encompasses both professional and commercial lab work across two facilities. It made its mark in B&W printing, and that business is still thriving, says Lou George, owner, BWC.

“Our photo background is a definite edge for us when competing in the commercial space for trade show and retail graphics projects. We offer some really beautiful prints from digitally prepared files,” she adds.

The company is deeply attached to photographic technology, owning a pair of 30-inch Durst Thetas and a 50-inch Lambda. BWC also houses Epson inkjet printers.

Large format is thriving too, particularly in the company’s portrait work. “Large photos have impact,” George notes. BWC recently completed a series of color and B&W portraits for a home featured in Extreme Home Makeover. Sizes spanned from 30 to 50 inches and were output on Durst Thetas and Lambdas.

“Every time someone says B&W is dead, we find people keep coming back to it. It goes in phases,” she says. The company does B&W processing nationally, and has captured a lot of business lost to labs that have closed or abandoned the service.

George observes that size typically determines which jobs are produced using photo technology and which will go to inkjet. “Our commercial world is still heavily silver halide,” she says. One of the lab’s specialties is face mounting prints to acrylics up to 50 inches in size. They use Fujifilm’s Fujicolor Crystal Archive paper as well as the company’s new Fujicolor Crystal Archive Digital Pearl paper and Kodak’s ENDURA Metallic Paper.

The company also enjoys a strong demand for fine art reproductions, which they produce on an Epson printer.

The Times Are A’ Changing
While the market for photo prints at the retail level forced labs to branch out into new products and technologies, professional and commercial businesses enjoy the fruits of the evolution. As new toner and inkjet technologies join traditional photo platforms, labs leverage their eye for color and high-quality standards to compete in wide format print.

Aug2009, Digital Output

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