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Tracking the Trends

Photo Labs Capitalize Thanks to Market Demand

By Lorraine A. DarConte

Whether printing a series of posters for a hair salon, wall portraits for a wedding, or signage for a trade show, today’s retail and wholesale photo labs possess a variety of equipment options.

Ben Wolf, creative segment market manager, Hewlett-Packard (HP) works with a variety of businesses—from classic retailers such as Calumet and Adorama, to specialty labs. At the beginning of the year, he was concerned—particularly from an economic standpoint—that printer sales would be slow. Wolf remains optimistic. "HP wants to have a long term presence in photo, graphic design, and other markets."

That said, labs are finding ways to capitalize. "In general," states Joellyn Gray, director, customer marketing and research, imaging division, Fujifilm U.S.A., "while the vast majority of printers were in the professional and photo specialty channel, in the last year and a half there’s been significant growth in the retail channel, primarily in anticipation of market demand."

"Retailers currently see success with posters," continues Gray. "But there are many other consumer products that can be made with photo lab equipment." For example, celebratory banners—Congratulations, Happy Birthday, or Happy Anniversary—where a template allows you to drop in text and photos. This inspires consumers to create similar products.

"There’s also a potential for these retailers to expand into a business base," continues Gray. "Instead of a 'Congratulations Johnny' celebratory banner, print one for the grand opening of a store or to promote a sale. Large format essentially opens up a bigger market for these retailers."

Grand Format UV Printing
"There are a number of photo labs that embraced large format right away. More are now looking at UV as the next step," reiterates Michael White, sales manager, Agfa. "UV allows printing directly onto rigid substrates and it’s environmentally friendly."

Take for example the Agfa :Dotrix Modular. "It’s a single-pass UV printer. It’s capable of very high quality continuous printing on various substrates," explains White. It prints 25 inches wide at about 10,000 square feet per hour (sf/h). "The quality of the print is indistinguishable from offset in a lot of ways," continues White. "It produces a nice glossy print. With the single pass, inks lay flat and have a very glossy finish."

Agfa’s lineup of industrial inkjet printers also includes a $2.5 million screening press for the :Dotrix Modular, which is about $1.5 million, all the way to the :Anapurna printers, which range from $80,000 to $300,000. "The lower priced printers are multi-pass, standalone printers that handle rigid and roll-to-roll materials. But by necessity, they’re a lot slower than the industrial printers like the :Dotrix Modular and the :M-Press. The more money you spend, the faster and more productive the printer is," admits White.

New presses in the :Anapurna line range in price from $80,000 to $120,000. "The :Anapurna M is a six color, high resolution printer. It’s used by full service commercial labs that normally provide a number of services to their clients from prints to photography," explains White. The :Anapurna XLS, which debuted at drupa, has an even higher resolution than the :M-Press, notes White.

"I don't know one ‘commercial lab’ that isn’t into large/grand format printing," states Chris Howard, senior VP, sales and marketing, Durst Image Technology US, LLC. "Many went the digital route around 1990 with the Durst Lambda, which is still an active product for us."

"The only changes to the product were in productivity—it’s gotten a little faster—and every Durst Lambda can be upgraded to the current version," says Howard.

"Most of our Lambda customers now have Durst Rho printers, which are big UV printers." The Rho 800 Presto is a 96-inch wide UV flatbed printer. Retail, trade show, event, and museum signage are its primary output. "That’s where the growth is in the commercial lab segment and in retail and wholesale labs," explains Howard.

Durst also sells the Theta 76 Digital Lab System. It produces high quality prints from 3.5x5 to 30 inches wide by 13 feet long. It is a complete digital imaging system designed for continuous printing on roll media. Plus, its daylight-loading media cassette, built-in cutter/sorter, and linked RA4 paper processor provide minilab performance with ready-to-ship dry image output. The system prints individual images inside a nested file as well as single prints.

Lastly, Durst’s Rho 600 Pictor is an entry level, flatbed, roll-to-roll UV ink machine for all substrates—wallpaper, canvas, and specialty surfaces —finding popularity in photo labs. The Durst Rho 600 Pictor is a compact version of the Durst Rho 600. It comes equipped with proprietary Quadro Array printhead technology for color-accurate images at true 600-dpi resolution. Though it was designed primarily for rigid substrates, the unit prints directly onto virtually any surface up to 62 inches wide and 1.58 inches thick at print speeds of nearly 200 sf/h. 

Photo Lab Equipment Roundup
Canon U.S.A.’s imagePROGRAF iPF8100 printer includes 12 color LUCIA pigment ink, formulated to reduce graininess, minimize bronzing, and resist scratching and fading. The iPF8100 automatically switches between black and matte black while printing. Users simply select the paper type and the printer will use the correct black to optimize print quality. The black ink produces high quality prints on photo glossy-type media while the matte black ink produces high contrast prints with deep black on media such as fine art paper. The printer’s dual printhead system is engineered for speed and advanced image production.

The Epson Stylus Pro 7880 wide format inkjet printer, which can be added to any Fujifilm Frontier system, creates mounted poster prints up to 20x24 inches. "We’re successfully serving both the retail and professional lab markets with this product line," comments Tom Curly, director of marketing, imaging division, Fujifilm U.S.A. The unit boasts eight color ink technology, Epson UltraChrome K3 inks, featuring Vivid Magenta pigments. Fujifilm supplies the complete line of inks and papers for the Epson Stylus Pro 7880, including Fujifilm Inkjet Media Photo Paper Satin 270 and Fujifilm Inkjet Media Photo Paper Glossy 240.

The HP Designjet Z6100 is the most recent addition to the HP’s line of Z series printers. "It’s a production capable product," states HP’s Wolf. According to HP, the Designjet Z6100 printer series is ideal for print service providers (PSPs) and technical customers looking to create high impact prints. The printers produce photo and fine art pieces, exhibition graphics, POP displays, drawings, maps, presentations, and short term outdoor signage. The printer is available in 42- and 60-inch models and delivers more than 500 feet in one hour. The Z6100 utilizes HP Vivera pigment inks, which deliver water- and fade-resistant prints.

Noritsu America Corporation’s LPS-24 PRO large format silver halide printer is designed to print on a wide variety of image sizes from five by seven to 24x100 inches for portrait and commercial professional labs. Dual magazine capability allows both 12- and 24-inch magazines to be loaded simultaneously. Processing capacity ranges from approximately 27 prints per hour for a 24x36-inch print to approximately 51 prints per hour for a 12x180-inch print.

Océ North America manufactures the Océ Arizona 250 GT large format flatbed printer with UV curing, the first printer to use VariaDot imaging technology. "This allows it to achieve near photographic quality with only four colors," states Tom Giglio, national sales support manager, Océ North America. The company recently announced a roll-to-roll option for the flatbed. With the roll media option, users can print onto flexible media up to 87 inches wide. The machine uses four color CMYK UV-curable inks and delivers a true production print speed of 172 sf/h.

Also offered, the Océ LightJet 430, a 50-inch wide format printer delivering 4,000 dpi apparent resolution. The printer is ideal for photo lab environments with high productivity and fast turnaround projects. In addition, the Océ LightJet 430 is able to load and unload both exposed and unexposed media from the same side of the unit, eliminating the need for operators to travel from one end of the printer to the other for media loading or unloading. The Océ LightJet 430 supports roll media in 30-, 32-, 40-, and 50-inch widths.

Substrate Options
"It’s amazing what labs are printing on these days—glass, doors, fabric—and they’re highly durable prints that can handle abuse from people and weather," states Agfa’s White.

"In retail, media ranges from .060-inch thick polystyrene to 2-, 3-, and 4-mil PVC. Those are the two main types of signage followed closely by a third, which is printing second-surface to clear acrylic," states Giglio.

"Océ has a division that makes substrates for roll goods" he continues, "but as far as rigid substrates go, one company we use is Alcan Composites USA, which makes everything from foamcore to PVC to outdoor signage board. Elmer’s Products, Inc. recently got into the market. They bought the art company Bienfang, which makes matte boards," notes Giglio.

"Satin photo paper continues to be one of HP’s best sellers. But I’m seeing a trend toward a variety of both high and low end papers. We have photo paper called HP Everyday, which offers slightly lower performance with a much better price point," says Wolf.

"On the flip side, I see huge diversity in cotton rag and fine art papers, and a great deal of experimentation on the higher end. Whether it’s an increase in the adoption of specialty papers or people looking for new outlets, I’m not entirely sure yet," admits Wolf.

Varied Impact
"Web-to-print hasn’t affected the wide format sector too much," states Giglio, "because there’s so much data needed to print, even if you’re dealing with RGB images on the photo side and you want a 48x60-inch poster. You still have to deal with bandwidth that is somewhat cumbersome for the Web to deliver. I think the only time you’ll see the Web impacting business is if people have online libraries. It all depends on the size of the image and the turnaround time. People always want it now."

Fujifilm’s Gray agrees it’s not happening in photo retail on a large scale yet. "I think the product forms themselves are almost ‘too special’ for the consumer and they like the idea of talking to the lab clerk to make sure they’re getting the product they want because the occasion is so important." Gray believes average consumers will eventually become more comfortable with the idea.

However, John Placko, senior product manager, wide format inkjet products, imaging division, Fujifilm U.S.A. believes Web-to-print is fairly prevalent and growing in the fine art reproduction area.

"I don’t think consumers quite understand how easy and how much of a value large format is. We often forget that consumers can log onto a Web site, order a poster, and pick it up on the way home from work," continues Placko.

Another reason consumers may be hesitant to order online says Fujifilm’s Curly is because the "wow" factor disappears. "For consumers to get excited about enlargements, they need to see examples in their face, not a little thumbnail on the screen. Professional photographers, however, know exactly what they want," he admits.

According to Durst’s Howard, Web-to-print is making an impact on the commercial sector. "Retail sites, trade show companies, and end users are choosing files and placing project orders online. Usually, graphics and proofs are given, approved, matched, and once it’s all ready, the order system starts online. Durst’s Theta customers can process their orders online through hot folders that grab images and dump them into a queue. It is an automated workflow."

A Growing Business
Many labs are drawn to wide format because of price. Since the cost of printers versus the cost of replacing a silver halide processing machine is inexpensive, some labs can buy several at a time. "It’s easier to change with the technology now than it used to be," states Curly. "Today, labs invest $10,000 in a machine, throw it away in three years, and get the latest and greatest. Ten years ago it was an emerging market limited to a number of highly specialized labs due to the sophisticated color management required to run the machines."

Gray sees growth in both wholesale and retail labs, with a differentiation in the marketplace between the two. The wholesale lab focuses on a higher end product, different media and finishes, and perhaps faster delivery times. On the retail side, she says, we’ll see more volume and more consumer-type products like birthday party banners. Additionally, Gray sees business development in retail as consumers discover the quality is strong enough for them to shift their printing from a commercial lab.

According to Howard, it’s the commercial labs on the whole that are making the most of large format printers. "It’s amazing how much volume there is in large format. It’s a growing business, which is why so many people have gotten into it."

Now Accepting Digital Jobs
Manhattan’s MV Photo Labs & Archival Supplies recently purchased a Canon imagePROGRAF iPF8100 printer. "We got it because we now offer digital services at the lab and we want to include output," states Jason Knobloch, printer, MV Photo Labs & Archival Supplies. The lab appreciates the printer’s two user serviceable printheads. "For instance," explains Knobloch, "if you come to the end of the printhead’s life span in another printer, you have to either send it back to be refurbished or replace the printer. With the imagePROGRAF, you simply replace the printheads."

"Also," he continues, "there are 12 print cartridges including green, red, and blue, which include a wider gamut than any other printer out there. It also prints in native 16-bit so aspects of posterization are drastically reduced."

"I introduced digital to the lab about one and a half years ago," states Knobloch, "and we now provide services like archival inkjet, giclée-style printing, and posters for advertising." Knobloch notes that, in order to get the best results from a printer, it’s really important to have a background in traditional printing before going digital. Thanks to the addition of the imagePROGRAF printer, MV accepts digital jobs they were unable to take on in the past.

Jim Megargee, co-owner and master printer, MV Photo Labs & Archival Supplies periodically takes advantage of his lab’s large format printer for personal use. The image of a fogged-over store window containing three wedding dresses he originally shot in the 1970’s is part of a series on a small steel mill town in PA. "The series," states Megargee, "was about the changing social and economic climate that was taking place at the time." He still receives a lot of requests for large prints of the image, which, along with other photos from the series, are on display at the lab.

Custom Backdrops
Chris Lui owns and operates 14 fully digital Yuen Lui Studios in three states—CA, OR, and WA—that specialize in portrait, school, and wedding photography. "We’re a unique business," states Lui. "We’re large enough to have our own photographers as well as our own lab, so we only print work from our own portrait photographers—about 40. We service more than 40,000 customers per year."

The studio currently works with two Epson wide format printers, a Stylus Pro 9600 and 9500, to print its high end family portraits. Both printers were purchased when the models debuted a few years ago. "We thought they were a great option as opposed to our chemistry machine. Our chemistry printer outputs up to 20x24 inches; the Epsons print up to 40x60 inches. We use the Epsons to create a lot of photographic canvas prints here. We print a lot of 24x30-inch and 30x40-inch wall portraits, and once in a while we get a request for a 40x60-inch."

The lab also utilizes four digital chemistry printers. "We keep our eyes on all the new equipment whether it’s Epson, Fujifilm, or Kodak. But at this point, I hope I don't have to buy a new printer soon," confesses Lui. "We find Epson Stylus Pros to be relatively inexpensive, so every time a new model comes out we’re looking to upgrade. The prices, which range between $5,000 to $10,000, are a lot lower than $100,000 high speed machines."

Besides printing custom wall portraits for its studio clients, Yuen Lui Studios uses its printers to make custom backgrounds. "We prep all the artwork in Adobe PhotoShop," says Lui. "We print two sizes, a 44x90-inch background and a 120x120-inch background that’s pieced together with three prints." Lui typically uses a photograph as a base and then manipulates it in PhotoShop to "make it a little more artistic. We also design some backgrounds from scratch."

Jul2008, Digital Output

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