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Picture This!

Professional Photo Lab Equipment—Faster, More Capable, and Less Expensive

By Lorraine A. DarConte

All professional photo lab organizations are not created equal and each has clientele with a wide variety of requirements. What they do have in common is the need for equipment that is fast, reliable, and performs multiple tasks. Here, we profile some of the most innovative lab equipment available in today’s competitive marketplace.

A Series of Sizes
Durst Image Technology U.S., LLC offers the Theta 76 series of printers which includes a basic model, high-speed model, B&W model, and roll-to-roll model. Additionally, the Theta 51 high-speed, 20-inch laser machine is designed for large online and pro customers with high-volume needs. It prints approximately 900, 8x10-inch prints per hour while the Theta HS pumps out approximately 550.

According to A. Ronald Waters, president and CEO, Durst Image Technology, the ideal [printer] size for many of its professional portrait customers is 30 inches. The Theta 76 offers a 30-inch width and the ability to print panoramic images up to 13 feet long. "Its size range is wider than anything on the market," states Waters. There are also optional cutters for the back-end.

With the Theta 76, professional portrait labs can set up digital workflows based on the largest size print in the package ordered. "Before the Theta 76, labs printed images up to 20 inches on one machine and switched to another machine for 30x40-inch and bigger. This caused an inconsistency in the look of the prints because the colors were different," Waters notes. "Now, if a lab has 30x20- or 30x40-inch prints, they can output them all on the Theta 76 and they all look the same."

We’re not likely to see another Theta model from Durst anytime soon as the company believes it has given customers everything they want. "They were looking for faster, pure B&W, variable back-printing, the ability to do Duratrans, auto-nesting, and the ability to use various paper sizes," Waters concludes.

Photographic Teamwork
Xerox is known for its quality printers—but not necessarily within the imaging industry. To gain a foothold and credibility in the marketplace, the company teamed up with color experts, Fujifilm USA. The two companies joined forces to provide professional and commercial labs with a complete printing solution—the Xerox DocuColor 240/250—that capitalizes on the growing market for specialty photo products such as books, calendars, greeting cards, and posters, which use double-sided printing, binding, and/or finishing.

Xerox sells its DocuColor 240/250 to the graphics business, but when it came to photo labs, it turned to Fujifilm for help. According to Tom Curley, director of marketing, Lab Solutions, Imaging Division, Fujifilm USA, "We know the photo lab business, we know color management, and we know the customers that the pro labs use. There’s a whole different level of color quality requirements involved [with imaging]," notes Curley, "because professional photographers are a lot more discerning in that regard."

The Xerox DocuColor 240/250 printer features speeds up to 50 ppm color and 65 ppm monochrome; an impressive image quality at 2400x2400 dpi; delivery of first copy in 4.3 seconds monochrome and 7.8 seconds color; the ability to print images up to 13x19 inches; and an optional finisher that punches, folds, staples, and makes signature booklets.

"Right now, we’re using Fuji color management expertise when representing [the DocuColor]. Typically," explains Curley, "a customer that installs a piece of equipment like this counts on the supplier to have the expertise to help them become successful and competitive. A big part of the DocuColor solution is what’s referred to as the digital front end—the color server—the workstation that manages the data going into the DocuColor that it will output," notes Curley. As for software to run with the DocuColor, Fujifilm recommends EFI’s Fiery.

Fujifilm also introduced the Fujimoto SHP5080 Digital Lab System. According to Bob Harvey, director of marketing, Imaging Group, Fujifilm USA, "We’re going after the poster print market, which spans several areas of the photo market, but primarily these are going to be niche market labs—portrait, school, and sports photography."

"Every customer is a potential poster print customer," continues Harvey. "The Fujimoto prints posters up to 20 inches wide. We’re also trying to position this product as a supplement to our Fuji Frontier line. We’re offering out-of-the-box color balancing to the Frontier."

"Our intent is to offer this piece to locations where there is a demand but they don’t want to spend $250,000. With the Fujimoto SHP5080," Harvey concludes, "labs can begin to expand their business to offer high-quality poster and panoramic print services without breaking the bank."

Analog & Digital
Agfa’s d-lab.2plus prints up to 1,700 images per hour in 4x6-inch format with optimum d-TFS quality from both analog and digital media, as well as large format prints up to 12x18 inches. The capacity for prints from digital media is more than 50 percent higher than the previous model, the Agfa d-lab.3. The Agfa d-lab.2plus boasts a few technical improvements including a high-capacity image processor for rapid handling of large volumes of image data and an integrated film scanner.

The d-lab.2plus has two, 12-inch paper cassettes and a 14-inch tray sorter. The lab processes all standard sizes of CN film and mounted 35mm slides, plus digital image data from CD, DVD, ZIP, floppy disk, and all standard digital camera memory cards. Its network interface works with several different front-end stations, such as the Agfa image box and the pixtasy image editing station.

The Workhorse
The Noritsu LPS-24 Pro is a wide format silver halide printer that outputs images from 5x7 to 24x100 inches. According to Gregory Joe, marketing manager, Noritsu America Corporation, the LPS-24 Pro is ideal for professional, portrait, and event photography. Its dual magazine system increases productivity and allows users to print different sizes simultaneously without changing magazines. Designed to keep up with the high production and quality demands of commercial and pro labs, the LPS-24 Pro recently won the Digital Imaging Marketing Association (DIMA) Digital Printer Shoot-Out Award in its category.

"It’s positioned as having an excellent price-to-output ratio—high-quality output at a reasonable price," states Joe. "The list price is $111,000. For a printer of that type of caliber and size it’s very competitive, and because of its laser engine it provides superior output. It’s a workhorse," continues Joe.

A Fine Performance
Océ offers a line of wide format photo laser printers. The Océ LightJet Series consists of the 430 and 500XL models, $166,995 and $259,995, respectively.

"The Océ LightJet Series is used primarily by photo labs. However, I have seen installations at exhibit houses and digital print shops. The common factor among these segments is the need for high throughput with superior quality images," says Kelli Ramirez, director of communications, Océ Display Graphics Systems.

The Océ LightJet 430 is a 50-inch-wide printer that outputs up to 465 square feet per hour, at 4,000 dpi. The company recommends this printer for high productivity environments and fast turnaround projects.

The Océ LightJet 500XL is a high-speed, superwide printer that images at up to 490 square feet per hour, onto photographic media up to 76 inches wide, at 4,000 dpi. The printer is geared towards oversized applications where seaming is not desired, such as fine art photography.

"The Océ LightJet Series is unique in how it images the media. It uses an internal drum system that holds the media stationary while imaging, ensuring the best possible accuracy from edge to edge. The laser spots are not distorted towards the media edge, as can happen in a capstan style printing system," Ramirez adds.

Universal Pictures
At the 2007 HP Graphic Arts Summit in Rome, Italy, Hewlett-Packard (HP) highlighted the HP Indigo press 5500. According to the company, the machine is the "one true digital offset press that combines the look and feel of traditional offset with genuine photo quality. Capable of printing over 1.5 million color pages or more than 5 million monochrome pages per month," the machine is a, "truly universal production device."

A new feature is the HP Indigo Light Cyan and Light Magenta inks. Geared towards photo-finishers, the new light colors deliver high photo quality for the professional album and photo specialty markets by providing smoother skin tones and greater color saturation. HP also offers the HP Indigo Image Enhancement Server, a standalone application product.

Pro Labs Weigh In
For professional/commercial labs, getting the job done right, on time, and for the least amount of money is key to their success. Bryn-Alan Studios, a school portrait studio and lab, depends on three Noritsu printers to keep its work flowing—the LPS-24 Pro, 32 Pro, and 34 Pro. States Kevin Steffey, VP of operations, "We photograph everything from kindergarten to proms to sports teams and other campus events—on location as well as in the studio. Historically," explains Steffey, "we printed everything from film on optical printers. Last year, we were producing about 40 percent of the high school senior images digitally. Now it’s 100 percent, which is why we needed the additional Noritsu."

Bryn-Alan Studios has 22 locations and during its busy season it photographs close to 4,000 school portraits per week. One very busy lab prints the images from all those studios. It uses the LPS-24 Pro to print senior portrait packages and event photography images. Packages—printed in sheets—usually include a collection of 8x10-inch, 5x7-inch, and wallet-sized images. The lab also uses the machine for digital retouching and to produce digitally enhanced products. But the main reason the studio/lab installed the Noritsu LPS-24 Pro was to print 16x20- and 20x24-inch large format images.

"The quality of the equipment—in particular, the color—is outstanding and they have integrated well with our automated [Kodak] lab software," notes Steffey, who also likes the fact that the printers cut the prints as they’re coming out of the machine. "There are higher capacity printers available that are faster," he admits, "but they don’t cut the prints, too." For Bryn-Alan Studios, it’s all about getting as much work as possible through the printers each day. "We haven’t had any issues and Noritsu’s support is outstanding," concludes Steffey.

Capital Color Imaging—A Division of Capital Filmworks—in Montgomery, AL, uses the Xerox DocuColor 240/250. The full service lab, which handles work from a variety of sources including sports, wedding, and portrait photographers, purchased its DocuColor last September. "The trend right now is to do something different," notes Keith Hildebrand, VP, whose lab now provides senior announcements, wedding invitations, cards, postcards, books, posters, etc. "We’re also doing tri-fold brochures, 11x17-inch flyers, and proof envelopes—for school packages—which feature the image of a child and their personal data on the package.

"We like the fact that we can provide a very nice press product for a reasonable price in a good turnaround time," states Hildebrand. He says the DocuColor is currently handling his lab’s volume well. "At Christmas, it seemed like it wasn’t quite enough. But if that happens again, we’ll purchase another machine or a larger one. The only limitation we see now is it doesn’t have a varnishing attachment. But we’ve heard from our customers that the straight print off the DocuColor is close to what other labs are getting from their equipment with varnish."

Shoob Photography in Modesto, CA is a family business that first opened its doors in 1918. According to Alex Shoob, whose grandfather began the business, the lab has worked with everything from print trays for developing pictures to the latest Noritsu equipment. "We photograph about 50,000 school children every year," says Shoob, who notes they’ve had the Noritsu QSS-3200 for about 18 months. "We had earlier generation digital equipment—the Sienna line—prior to this. When we needed to expand further into digital we decided to go with Noritsu. We’re 100 percent digital now; we haven’t used film or made a conventional print in about four years. We run all of our school photography and studio work through the QSS-3200. The only thing that doesn’t go through it are prints larger than 11x17 inches, which we print on an Epson 9800."

Shoob likes the fact that the QSS-3200 prints and cuts his images. "We came from a conventional lab environment with package printers and film processors, etc. In those days, I had to employ a full-time maintenance man that did nothing but make sure the stuff was working. It cost three grand a month just to keep it running. With the Noritsu, we’ve had maybe two service calls in 18 months; nothing serious. The machine works day after day, hour after hour," says Shoob. "It just cranks out the prints. My biggest problem in business is finding more prints to send through it!"

At this year’s PMA, Shoob looked at the Noritsu 3400 series and depending on how fast business expands, may purchase one. "We’re also wondering how fast inkjet is coming on. Noritsu showed a 10-inch, roll-fed inkjet printer for $20,000 that was printing 100, 8x10-inch [prints] an hour; that’s pretty impressive. If they cut the 45-cent per print price in half, increase the feed a bit, and keep the price at $20,000, we may never buy another photo printer," he laughs. "It all depends on how fast inkjet comes on line." With the QSS-3200, Shoob gets 300, 8x10-inch prints per hour. "I’m very pleased with the machine and Noritsu; they’ve built a very reliable product."

At Dynamic Photography, a Noritsu QSS-3200 and QSS-3400 handle the portrait and school photography. "We do everything but weddings," owner Kevin Barry states. "We started with the Noritsu 3011 and two years ago picked up the QSS-3200. Our volume got so great we picked up the QSS-3400 this past January. The features we liked were its reliability, color consistency, and its ability to print 12x36-inch prints—we do a lot of panoramas," Barry says.

"We also can adjust the machine so we don’t have to make any cuts after the job comes out—for packaging and handling it’s great. It’s minimized the number of people we have on the production line. We used to have people with paper cutters that had to trim everything. The other nice thing about the 3400 is everything comes off in order; we can sort it really fast," Barry continues. The lab plans to take advantage of the machine’s other features in the next 6 to 12 months, such as the ability to use the Noritsu hot folders to download work via the Internet.

The bulk of Mike Snelson’s customers are also professional portrait and wedding photographers. Snelson’s Color Lab in UT is a full service lab that prints packages and individual prints, both large and small. Snelson’s has been running a Noritsu 3212 for about a year now. "It’s solidly built and it’s reliable," notes Snelson. "We like the construction and the fact that it has three paper magazines, which is advantageous to us so we don’t have to switch paper so often. The other big plus is the film scanner that’s incorporated into it. When we bought it, we had several customers still using film and we have a couple of customers that use film today. We scan all of that film and print from the scans; we don’t do any optical printing."

Snelson’s lab also utilizes a Fuji Frontier. "There’s nothing in particular I like more about the Noritsu than the Fuji machine," he says. "But the Noritsu machine has a better scanner and the 3-paper magazine." Will Snelson be making any new machine purchases in the near future? "That depends on what happens within the industry," he concludes.

New and Improved
Without doubt, the industry will continue to improve the technology and capabilities of printers in the near and distant future. Whether you’re a portrait studio that prints its own work or a high-volume commercial lab pumping out school portraits, weddings, and other images, there’s bound to be a bevy of printers to choose from that can handle the job and then some. So be sure to look to these pages next year for what’s new—and improved—in pro lab equipment.

Jul2007, Digital Output

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