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Transforming Images, Art, and Documents

The state of Narrow Format scanning Services

By Mike Antoniak

Once a guaranteed profit center for any provider of digital imaging solutions, demand for scanning services has undergone some significant changes in recent years. The size of the market, long term outlook, and opportunities for growth depend on who you ask and where their core business lies.

"Weíre doing quite a bit more scanning than in the past," reports Mary Wilkison, VP and co-owner of Nichols Photo Lab, admitting her market seems to be a little behind national trends.

Their customers are primarily regional portrait photographers. "About 60 percent have gone completely digital, but 40 percent havenít, so weíre scanning their film," she relates.

Randy Baer, chief technical officer with Firehouse Color Lab, a professional photo and digital lab, sees demand for scanning services softening in his area. "Everyone is moving to digital so thereís not as much use of film," he notes. "Most of our customers who had large archives of images and wanted to get them digitized have already taken care of it. Itís a dying part of business."

For Mitch Wolverton, president of Digital Imaging Group, a digital solutions center, scanning services are now a means to an end rather than a profitable area. His company is a provider of comprehensive digital services, from file and document preparation through creative design and digital output in a variety of formats.

Scanning services are offered as part of a turnkey, one-stop solution. "We want our clients to send us their originals so we can do the job right, and get the scanned image we need to produce the output," Wolverton says.

A few entrepreneurs, such as Richard Watson, have turned to scanning services as the sole path to profits with highly specialized services. Digital Scanning Services, the home-based service business he runs with his wife, specializes exclusively in converting film and photographic images into digital files. "Weíve done a little bit of everythingóold photo slides, tintypes, daguerreotype, glass slides, even ViewMaster reels," Watson notes.

Narrow format scanning services continue to thrive in converting original documents, out-of-print books, and material archived on film, into digital files for permanent archiving or broader availability. "A lot of people now expect documents and records to be available on the Web," notes Brian Shillue, president of Digital Scanning, Inc., a document conversion company.

An Evolving Service Category
A decade ago, scanning services served as the bridge between photography, printing, and digital imaging, providing photographers and artists their only means to digitize their work. As creators of all types of content discovered the advantages of being able to work with and view images, art, and documents on screen, they sought out scanning services, fueling early growth and development of this specialty service.

As far as scanning from original film and art goes, some see the best of that business behind them, with demand showing signs of softening. Many early customers for film-to-file conversion, via scanning services, have gone digital. They now use digital cameras for image capture and many have invested in their own scanners to handle the analog to digital conversion.

There remain, however, some who continue to prefer film over digital, and a range of artists for whom scanning services remains an important tool for preparing original artwork for digital manipulation on the computer. That business is not likely to ever completely disappear.

Some growth potential, at least for the short term, remains with the amateur and professional photographers who have lately begun to recognize the merits of having their cherished slides, film negatives, and photographic prints converted into digital files. With that, the rise of the Internet has created a new global channel for distribution and sharing of all types of documents, records, maps, and art. Any organization, museum, or institution with an archive remains a good target for scanning services.

Opportunities Rooted in Equipment
Whatever segment of the market a scanning services provider decides to pursue, their intent and opportunities are largely defined in terms of their investment in equipment.

The affordable price and performance of basic film scanners serves as the foundation of specialty services now offered by a few independent entrepreneurs. Will Bloodworth, president of AlpenGlow Imaging, a film scanning services provider, built his business around the capabilities of the Nikon CoolScan9000.

The CoolScan9000 is a multi-format, multi-purpose film scanner, capable of handling 35mm slides, negatives, and transparencies up to 6x9 inches. Designed for speed without compromise, it scans a 35mm image in approximately 40 seconds at 4,000 dpi. Included software handles automatic image correction and enhancement, and file archiving.

"My aim has been to provide service that is the next best thing to drum scanning," says Bloodworth. "The Nikon gave me the best answer for the combination of speed and quality I was looking for."

Clients are almost exclusively professional and fine art photographers, including some who sell prints of their scanned images in galleries. Most of the work which runs through the scanner is slides from these professional shooters, but he also produces scans for medium format photographers.

"The human element is what some people donít take into consideration," when evaluating scanning services, according to Bloodworth. That expertise can only be developed over time, working with the hardware and software. "You learn to see things and recognize the challenges of the images and how to work around them," he observes. "Thatís all part of being able to succeed with a service like this."

Nikonís 5000 and 9000 film scanners have also been critical to the success of Larsen Digital Services, a Web-based scanning services provider. Here though, most business arrives from amateur photographers. "The core of our business and growth has been in 35mm slide and negative scanning, mostly for consumers," reports owner, Brent Larsen.

He ties his prospects to the soaring popularity of digital cameras. "As consumers become more comfortable working, viewing, and sharing images via computer, they recognize the benefits of having their old slides and photos available there as well."

Thereís more competition in these services today, he says, but the real marketing challenge for a company like his is to convince people itís safe to entrust cherished memories to a remote services provider. "For some, their biggest fear is they might not get their slides back," Larsen notes.

Production wise, the scanner gives Larsen all the capabilities he needs. "No matter how fast the scan system is, our computer system never seems to be fast enough," he explains. "Weíve had to upgrade our computer system just about every 18 months," to increase the workflow.

Watson employs the Epson Perfection 4990 Pro flatbed scanner as well as a Nikon film scanner. The Epson can be used to scan any original measuring up to 8x10 inches, as well as for batch scanning of slides and film negatives. "Itís a decent medium resolution solution for what our customers are looking for," he says. He has used it to digitize all types of originals, including old photos, prints, and maps.

Companies which cater to the exacting demands of a broad-based professional clientele look for more versatile and faster equipment. Both Baer at Firehouse Color and Wilkison at Nichols Photo Lab handle film scanning with a Durst Sigma system. This system can scan original film, slides, and color or B&W negatives up to 4x5 inches. Once scanned, it outputs the files in a choice of file formats for archiving or direct printing from the file on a range of output systems. The unit can scan a 35mm original in as little as 3.5 seconds, and can be quipped with a special feeder for automatic scanning of film rolls.

"We purchased our Sigma system to replace an older Imacon scanner, which was only good for a single negative at a time," reports Wilkison. "Now we have the speed we need to handle rolls of film."

Firehouse Color has employed a range of Epson flatbed scanners for digitizing flat art and photo prints. Baer says the companyís hope is that the Durst Sigma will be its final investment in a film scanner. "We purchased it to replace a Kodak CD system we had used for ten years," he reports. "We chose this for the quality and speed it provides. Weíve done some jobs that required scanning 30,000 images. When youíre talking about that kind of volume, you canít be waiting on a slower scanner."

When Digital Imaging Groupís Wolverton searched for a scanner upgrade for the company, he investigated all available options, then chose the Kodak EverSmart Pro (formerly a Creo product) as a versatile alternative to a drum scanner. The flatbed unit has a scan area of 12x17 inches, 3,175 dpi resolution, and can produce scanned enlargements up to 2,700 percent. "We were looking for quality, productivity, and versatility," notes Wolverton.

He had to sell Digital Imaging Groupís customers on the capabilities of the unit, however. "We had to do tests early on to convince customers that this could deliver results as good as what could be achieved with a drum scanner." He took the same original piece of film and had it scanned on a drum scanner, and scanned it with his equipment, then produced a 16x20-inch print of each file. "We won a lot of people over with that example," he says. "They could see the quality."

Nevertheless, some misconceptions persist, even among photographers and within the creative community. "There are still people who look at some of the inexpensive scanners out there and think they want to do this for themselves," Wolverton observes. "With scanning technology, you get exactly what you pay for. Thereís a reason thereís such a cost difference between this and some of the other scanners out there," he says. "You may not see it in small prints, but once you start printing from a scanned image at 8x10 inches or larger, you really start to see the difference."

At Hamilton Color Lab, The EverSmart is often employed to create scans from transparencies of fine art projects for area artists. "Weíll take a picture of their art and then scan a 4x5-inch transparency," explains digital imaging specialist, Mary Durkan. "Itís reliable, and does a good, clean job, especially at this time of year when the weather is cold and thereís a lot of static electricity to attract dust to the film."

For Durkanís more routine, everyday work for consumers, scanning is handled with the scanning capabilities built into Fujiís Frontier digital minilab system. "We use the Frontier for scanning and saving film images to CD, or to make digital files of customersí old slides and negatives they want to preserve," reports Frontier operator, Mike Sgier.

Document Solutions
An entirely different set of narrow format scanning solutions are employed in document scanning and conversion services. Providers of this specialized niche use their systems to create digital archives of all sorts of information previously stored on paper, books, even microfilm.

At Digital Scanning, Inc., equipment includes a Fujitsu 4097 flatbed sheet-fed scanner, Xerox DocuMate scanner, an Epson Xpress 1000XL color flatbed scanner, and a Wicks & Wilson microfilm scanner.

In fact, it was a customer inquiry about scanning microfilm years ago which first alerted company owner, Shillue, to the potential opportunities in digital document conversion. Today, his business is specialized in two areas.

"We work with book publishers to scan some of their out-of-print titles so they can be made available again as needed, through print on demand technology." The Fujitsu and Xerox systems handle conversion of book pages and grayscale graphics, while the original color cover art is scanned with the Epson flatbed.

"Weíre also working with public companies and government offices to digitize public records into PDFs, and convert them so they can be available and searchable over the Web," he reports. Here again, a combination of equipment is used, depending on original source material.

"This part of the business is competitive, but thereís more to the service than just scanning originals, according to Shillue. "Anyone can scan a document, but what these clients need is a document file thatís properly indexed and fully searchable."

"People expect all types of records and information to be available online now," notes Shillue. "Weíre able to provide that kind of service."

Feb2006, Digital Output

 
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