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DIGITAL CAMERAS -- Photo Opp?

June 2001
BY MARK SMITH


Digital photography spans two worlds, requiring users to meld near equal parts of artistic flare and technological prowess. This dichotomy has impacted the adoption of the process almost as greatly as advances in the technology. As a result, the business picture has been complicated.

When the first digital cameras were introduced, there was a school of thought that said these devices were most akin to scanners and should be approached as such. The logical conclusion was that digital photography should be a prepress process.

However, the experiences of early adopters soon revealed that the photographer's "eye" still was required to get acceptable results from digital cameras. Knowing how to light the scene, in particular, remains a crucial skill. That's not to say the importance of prepress expertise in optimizing the workflow and results is in any way lessened. Photo-graphers also must contend with the issue of cost, since a complete digital system—camera, calibrated monitor, color proofer, etc.—still is a barrier for many.

Question for the Ages
So who should own digital cameras—photographers or prepress operations? Forming some type of partnership is one answer that quickly has become a common industry practice. Typically the prepress/printing firm purchases the equipment and provides the prepress expertise, while the photographer is responsible for making the magic.

A snapshot of the industry's process adoption trends can be found in the results of the Digital Photography Survey undertaken by the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation. Greg Bassinger, manager of the association's Process Controls Group and Preucil Print Analysis Laboratory, directed the digital photography survey.

According to Bassinger, more than 14 percent of the printers surveyed offer some form of digital photography service, which is up from 9 percent the previous year. Catalogs still are the dominant application for digital photography, he reports, with the remaining top-10 uses including brochures, direct mail, Web images, packaging, magazine ads, retail circulars, labels, free-standing inserts (FSIs) and magazine editorial.

Survey respondents cited "shortening the production cycle" as the leading motive for adopting digital photography, Bassinger says, followed closely by achieving cost savings and customer acceptance of the process. Resolution and bit depth were the top two concerns reported by users in going digital, but 84 percent of the survey sample claimed to have found the quality of digital images to be equal or better than the results achieved by shooting film and scanning it.

One industry company that is a big believer in the business potential of digital photography is Quad/Graphics in Pewaukee, WI. Earlier this year, it made a bold move by opening four new studios—Dallas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Saratoga Springs, NY—raising its total to seven digital studios. The site expansion was backed up by a $1.5 million investment in technology alone.

Cal Newby, director of Quad/Photo in Sussex, WI, points out that the printer actually entered the market by offering film-based photography services in the 1980s. The goal was to get a better handle on the relationship between real life and the printed sheet, he says.

Quad/Photo's adoption of digital capabilities was driven by a corporate challenge to cut 20 percent out of the print production cycle each year, Newby explains. Across the network, he estimates the company shoots 90 to 95 percent of its work digitally today, with on-figure fashion work and location shoots done conventionally. "Lighting is everything," he says, when it comes to getting the desired results from digital or conventional photography.

That's why Quad/Graphics promotes a concept it calls "measured" photography. Originally developed for its conventional photography services, the methodology has been carried over into the digital age. It reportedly involves quantifying and standardizing elements of the process, such as lighting, to produce consistent, high-quality images in print. The process also provides a common "reproduction language" for art directors and prepress/press operators.

All Quad/Graphics premedia centers use the same standard operating procedures, and identical digital photography and imaging equipment. Each offers a range of turnkey services, including color separations, scanning, color correction, page assembly and proofing. The network's standard equipment list includes Leaf America digital camera components that are used on camera systems from Sinar, Hasselblad and Nikon.

While not quite as ambitious a move, the Premedia Technologies group of R.R. Donnelley & Sons also recently expanded its reach by opening a new digital photography and premedia center in New York City's Chelsea District. Called Studio W26, it joins the company's network of photography studios that already included sites in Dallas, Chicago and Seattle.

Studio W26 photographers are said to be equally adept at using film and digital photo technologies, primarily from Leaf America and Sinar Bron in the latter case. The facility also provides color retouching, image enhancement and proofing services. The company's stated goal in integrating photography and color services is to provide quicker turnaround of finished images.

According to Michael Rodriguez, technical director for R.R. Donnelley in Chicago, the company didn't expand into photography services until acceptable digital cameras were introduced. The reason being that the company felt digital capabilities would be simpler and easier to integrate than conventional photo-graphy, he says.

Some clients are still committed to film, Rodriguez admits. In fact, he's doubtful about when, or if, motion photography will go digital. Time and quality are the primary concerns for clients who have made the transition, the technical director reports. "Customers expect to get high-quality images with less work using digital photography, so your processes need to be optimized," he advises.

The investments and business ventures of the biggest printers have a higher profile for obvious reasons, but they are by no means the only players in the digital photography market. Consider the example of Color Ink in Sussex, WI. This progressive sheetfed printer does about $20 million in annual sales and employs approximately 100 people.

A Bigger Picture
In February, the company expanded its Digital Imaging department to include a 600-square-foot photo-graphy studio with all digital cameras. This new service is just the latest extension of the company's philosophy of trying to capture more of its clients' print work internally, says John Zamorski, the studio manager and photographer. He points out that the printer has been doing prepress in-house for about eight years and also has expanded into specialty finishing capabilities at the back end of the process.

"We use technology as a tool to give our customers a better total-service solution," Zamorski explains. "Trying to meet their needs—in terms of efficiency, turnaround times and quality—dictates that we use new technologies as they are emerging."

In response to client demand for the process to be faster and cheaper, Color Ink's Digital Imaging department focuses on providing predictable, ready-to-print CMYK files, Zamorski says. He believes photo-graphy and prepress/printing expertise should be tightly integrated in the digital photography workflow in order to reap the maximum benefit.

Cross-experience Helps
"When you are setting up a shot, if you understand that certain colors will lose saturation or shift when the image is converted to CMYK, you can suggest changes at that point. You can impact the customer's bottom line by reducing the need to try to fix colors after they are converted," Zamorski adds. "This approach does require more than just hiring a photographer to do the capture and turning the files over to a separate prepress person/department for conversion. That is the way a lot workflows have been set up, though."

(See the sidebar to read more about Color Ink's digital photography operation.)

While they may be somewhat biased, these users firmly believe that prepress/printing operations can add value to the digital photo-graphy process. Owning digital cameras has proven to be a real business opportunity for them.


Picture of Success

Color Ink's decision to add photography services to its Digital Imaging department was customer driven, but not because of a specific project. "Our intent was to do macro photography, the tabletop work like product shots for customers' sell sheets or catalogs," reports John Zamorski, department manager. "We very quickly evolved into doing fashion work and shooting live models, including going on location. The response has been greater than we anticipated."

Digital Imaging was created to support the company's larger production functions, but as a separate department it also can operate autonomously, Zamorski says. "Clients can contract with us for digital photography as a standalone service."

Along with the range of applications, the nature of some of the work has been a surprise to the photographer. "Digital photography is increasing the use of component shooting," he explains. "Sometimes all a client really needs is to have the subject or product captured at its best. They may have an idea about a specific type of background they want to add, so they are just going to put a clipping path around the product. We are not interested in shooting the perfect picture. We are more interested in giving clients the best file for their needs."

The studio has a selection of tools to meet its clients' range of needs, but its workhorse is a digital Sinar Back 23 that it uses in the studio on a large-format Sinar p2 view camera and on a Hasselblad medium-format camera for location shoots and studio work with models. The digital back also has a Macroscan adapter for capturing a scene in multiple exposures to increase the file resolution. In addition, the department has a Nikon D1 digital camera it uses for total flexibility on remote shoots.

The company's choice of equipment reflects his guiding philosophy of "first class or no class," Zamorski says. "In my opinion, Sinar Bron has the best technical standards of any company that produces digital equipment. Sinar has been in the optics business for more than 50 years, and Broncolor Lighting is the standard for lighting in the photography industry."
 

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