Business Trends
Digital Transitions
Making The Switch, And Thriving

The Photographer's Travel Guide

Many photographers who have made the switch over to digital have survived, and thrived. What are some of the business advantages? Where are the best markets for digital photography? What are the pitfalls you can expect? For this topic, we interviewed photographer Sandy Stroud of Stroud Photography (www.stroudphotography.com) and Daniel Wilmoth and Mike Sondag of United Color Lab, Inc. (www.unitedcolorlab.com).

Shutterbug: How long have you been focusing on digital products for photographers?

Mike Sondag: United Color Lab (UCL) was started in 1992 by owner and president, Mr. Daniel Wilmoth. Dan has been in the photo industry for many years prior to '92. UCL has been in business for 11 years, and started working with digital about three years ago.

SB: How did the consumer portrait photography market influence the decision to help photographers you work with switch to digital?

MS: Dan has always been on the cutting edge of developments in the photo industry. He saw the trends of where the consumer portrait photo industry was heading, and felt it was important and necessary for the future of his company. Dan has worked cooperatively with Digital Photography Innovations, Inc. (www.dpilab.com) in helping them develop and refine OzE, the software we use in our digital imaging operation. This was a strategic move to preserve the future of UCL and the franchise business he is a part of called Lil' Angels. Lil' Angels is one of the most highly successful photography franchises in the country today with over 100 franchisees now in the US.

SB: Dan, describe your work with Lil' Angels, how did you get started and why is it so successful?

Dan Wilmoth: I have known for years that daycare was a great market for the photography of children and portrait sales. The trick was convincing people around me of it. With United Color Lab growing as fast as it was, my hands were full and I knew that I needed help. I talked two of my better customers and my salesperson into giving it a go. We started Lil' Angels, LLC (www.lilangelsphoto.com) in June of '96 with the philosophy of empowering people to succeed for themselves. That has been a key factor in the success of this business. Since franchising the company in December of '98 we have added a partner and grown by leaps and bounds. This year we were listed by Entrepreneur magazine as the number one photography franchise and are expecting to soon have over 100 franchises.

SB: Mike, specifically what kind of assistance do you offer a photographer making the transition to digital?

MS: Dan and his UCL staff offer photographers consultation services on all types and kinds of cameras that may be available in the digital and film industry. Dan is very good with helping photographers "ease" into the digital era. He is also very good in helping customers avoid many of the traps, disappointments, and pitfalls associated with digital. UCL also has cameras on hand, and often demonstrates them to customers, and makes suggestions to them on their use and capabilities. UCL offers training to photographers on the OzE software we use here and on other applications/software used in the digital industry.

SB: Dan, when you are talking to a photographer considering digital for the consumer photography market, what are the specific options and alternatives that film does not offer?

DW: From the retail side of things the most prominent issue is the vast array of products that photographers can now offer. Although many of these products are more novelty in nature, they sure can help sell portraits.
Another major benefit is "control." Many portrait issues can be fixed that may not have been caught during the shoot like pimples, glass glare, and that ubiquitous hair flying around that has plagued every portrait photographer since they shot on silver plates. For those who shoot volume type work like schools and sports, we now have software that can merge the digital image with related information such as names of subjects. That is revolutionary for someone who needs composites or baseball cards. Storage is also a wonderful benefit. No longer does a photographer need an extra garage to store all of his or her negatives. Digital memory is now abundant and cheap. And when someone wants a reorder we no longer have to mess with clipping negatives.

Portrait And School Market
Stroud Photography was started in 1975 in Memphis, Tennessee, and is a portrait studio with a strong emphasis on high school seniors and school related photography.

SB: Sandy, how did you get started with digital photography?

Sandy Stroud: After digital cameras became "reasonable" in cost and were able to produce salable quality images, I became convinced that it was only a matter of time before I had to make some changes. The only question that remained was how I was going to start to manage images I could not hold in my hand (e.g., negatives). With the "front side" studio and the "back side" lab system of the OzE software system of digital image management, it offered an appealing opportunity to make the jump to digital. We did so, completely, in January of 2001.

SB: What kind of difference has the transition to digital made for your photo business?

SS: The advantage of using the digital technology in photography that is most important to me is the speed at which I can produce images for my clients. Additionally, there are image enhancement advantages, instant feedback on image quality and lighting, image portability, back-up copies of image files, and ease of archiving and locating images. On reflection, I must say any difficulties we encountered were, in large part, due to the "newness" of the challenges I faced. I was not as "computer literate" as I believed I was. There were some issues directly related to my lack of understanding in that area. Perhaps the most glaring example of a shortfall would be the lack of "computer power" and, most importantly, storage. I now have a large array that houses all my images, where before we were working from smaller (120GB) drives. Big mistake!

SB: Dan, what are typical "hiccups" or pitfalls a photographer can anticipate in the transition to digital?

DW: The digital photographer has to have another mindset than the film photographer. For instance, in film an image can be two stops overexposed and the lab can save it. Underexposing even one f/stop will cause serious color issues. With digital portraiture we can save a significantly underexposed image, but are powerless against the posterization of overexposure.
Many of the hiccups that the photographer suffers come from simply not following good procedures. Little things, like not making a back-up copy of your files, can be disastrous. Or not paying close attention while ordering prints. Computers do what we tell them to do--not what they think we want.

And of course, the lab is always an issue. As many of your readers have probably found out, just because a lab might be good at film processing doesn't mean they're good at digital image processing. They're different animals almost entirely. Most people with half an eye for color can sit with their digital image, a PC, and a printer, and make a pretty good print. Producing professional studio quality prints at a high rate of volume and economically is a challenge not for the faint of heart. It takes piles of money, years of learning curve, and an unbelievable amount of patience and perseverance.

We frequently hear people who have a bad experience say, "Don't do any of that digital stuff. I don't like the way it looks." The truth is good digital processing is not only possible, it should be expected. It's kind of like a good hair transplant: you've seen it, you just didn't notice it. Make sure your lab knows the difference.

Any new technology brings its own set of problems and issues. One can get into serious trouble by dismissing or ignoring them. Think of the farmer who kept his donkey because he didn't want to be bothered with fixing a tractor. The digital wave is definitely here to stay and will eventually replace film. It's time to surf or sink.

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