The Photographic Historical Society of Canada

Recent Changes in the
Professional Photographic Lab

Silvano Venuto Jr.
Program date: November 21, 2007

Silvano
Silvano Venuto Jr

 

Silvano Sign
Silvano Labs

Silvano building
Silvano Labs

Bill Belier at Silvano's
Bill Belier at Silvano's

Showroom
Silvano's showroom

Pritns on canvas
Prints on canvas

Prints on canvas
Prints on canvas

Foto Fun Books
Foto Fun Books

Large prints
Large prints

Colour station
Colour station

Colour station
Colour station

Colour station
Colour station

Film processor
Film processor

A quiet hall
A quiet hall

Small room
Small Room

Copy room
Copy room

Copy camera
Copy camera

Vacuum easel
Vacuum easel

Copy camera
Copy camera

Huge transparencies
Huge transparencies

Huge transparencies
Huge transparencies

Swift loupe
Swift loupe

Book bindery
Book Bindery

Laminating room
Laminating room

Packaging area
Packaging area

Work stations
Work stations

Retired machine
Retired machine

Workshop
Workshop

Repairs underway
Repairs underway

Wrap-up and coffee
Wrap-up and coffee

Thanks, Silvano
Thanks, Silvano

We are living in exciting times for photographers. This is one of the rare industry shifts that changes the very fibre of photography. Seldom do we get the chance to experience first hand such a huge change in any industry with century old companies either adapting or disappearing. After hearing from others on the digital revolution over the past months, this evening we left the cozy confines of Memorial Hall and met at the Silvano Color Labs on Weston Road where Silvano Venuto Jr. gave us a great tour and told us how his family company has responded to digital.

Making a Name.

Silvano’s has been a famous name in wedding photography for some fifty years, providing high quality processing to Toronto area wedding photographers. Our host, Silvano Venuto's father and friend John Sacilotto founded the business in the 1950s. Silvano senior arrived in Toronto in 1952, working initially for the railway. Once established, Silvano senior quit the railway to become a painter. After carrying ladders and paint from job to job, he felt he should change businesses if he was to continue on into his old age. He switched to a trade he first learned and practiced in his native Italy - Photography.

A short period of time as a wedding photographer convinced him he was better suited to process prints than to cater to the whims and wishes of anxious brides and their families. So in 1954, with his good friend John Sacilotto, he started a processing business in the basement of his home. The business prospered, thanks in part to one very successful photographer, who urged Silvano to open a store front to attract more customers.

Their first store fronts were in rented quarters on Eglington Avenue and from there the rapidly expanding company moved to Weston road. Needing more room, Silvano and John decided to buy the building next door and then designed and contracted construction of the present facilities. The company-owned building was a boon to the business - no rent or moving issues, and the right to rearrange and change floors quickly as their business expanded.

Changes Underway.

During our visit there were many signs of construction. The same floor plan had been used for the past decade or two, but now the business is ninety percent digital and it makes more sense to adapt the layout to digital imaging without compromising the optical workflow. Silvano noted that 4,000 square feet of space on the second floor would be changed next year through construction, dry-wall partitioning, and relocating the digital equipment.

New Products.

Silvano displayed a unique canvas printing material recently used for a job commissioned by HP. The product is coated in Switzerland and sold in the USA. Silvano's is the only Canadian company doing canvas prints and as the material is not available here, it is a fight to get a steady supply. A video special for California featured the canvas material being used by Silvano’s but ironically, the video was not shown in Canada. (Note: since the tour, Silvano has posted an update on the Silvano's web site - You can track down the video on G4 Tech TV Channel, episode 95. The episode notes can be seen at The Lab with Leo Laporte. N.b. CITY-TV in Toronto carries The Lab with Leo Laporte - I went to make tea this afternoon (January 1st) and found my wife was watching the program!)

Silvano ventured into the business of making photo books using a recently purchased French machine. The "Foto Fun Books" are printed on photographic paper as continuous tone photographs and bound on-site. Prices start at $9.95 - less than that charged for cheaper quality four colour press versions sold by discounters like COSTCO and Wal-Mart. The web site offers a variety of templates for the purchaser's choice when she places her order. A new web site exclusively for the Foto Fun Books is in the development stages and will differentiate them from similarly produced wedding albums.

Digital Processes.

Our next visit was to the digital correction workstations. Each order received via the internet generates a bar coded pick sheet. The operator at the digital workstation reads in the bar code and all the images for the order that need correction appear on his screen. While image corrections in the optical workflow are limited to RGB colour density, the digital image workflow also addresses contrast, gamma, and saturation.

Although digital has more scope for corrections, there are also more things to go wrong. For example, many photographers still don’t realize the benefits of shooting raw rather than shooting in jpeg format. The two formats are like transparencies vs. colour negatives. Jpegs, like transparencies, have no leeway to correct blown highlights while raw files, like negatives, allow a stop or so correction to highlights, colour balancing, etc. after the camera exposure.

Today’s professional photographers need to be educated in things digital like ICC profiles, white points, and even the value of bracketing key shots. While Silvano's can work with raw files, it costs more than if the photographer shoots in raw form and then corrects and converts her images to Jpegs before sending them to Silvano's for printing. Silvano's schedule regular evening talks with professional photographers to introduce them to digital workflows and the use of tools like Photoshop - the most popular software for digital photographic image correction.

Silvano noted that their workflow results in good and consistent skin tones in each set of prints. The first file in the series is carefully corrected and then used as a guide for each of the remaining images. This requires skilled operators who have a colour critical eye. The result is much better prints at a bit higher cost (to save money, the discount stores don't bother with any such corrections).

Continued Research.

Silvano's continues to research new products to find best available solutions for their customers. For example, an Epson 9600 printer can make B&W images that look good, but under closer scrutiny, they are not true B&W. Ilford paper was tried and made very stable B&W inkjet prints but they marked easily with moisture. Processing the Ilford digital RC paper in the Durst Lambda printer gives gorgeous, stable prints. In spite of this, Silvano’s staff are now investigating a fibre-based alternative paper. The older digital printers are no longer used since the lasers in the Lambda printer produce prints with better colour and a wider dynamic range.

Optical Processes.

Silvano's still do optical processing - the old “dip and dunk” darkroom workflow, for B&W in 35 mm and medium format and a C41 processor for similar format colour negative material. Prints from film are even printed optically rather than digital, giving better results. Silvano noted that film has been losing market share slower than expected.

Silvano's recently installed an E6 colour slide processor, just as other labs in the country are discontinuing the service. The processor cost less than a tenth of the $60,000 or more price tag of two decades ago. However; Silvano's do not offer Kodachrome processing - the only processor of Kodachrome left in the world today is Dwayne’s Photo Service in Kansas.

Copy Work.

We next visited the copy camera room, complete with a huge horizontal vacuum easel and a large horizontal view camera that can be equipped with a 4x5 back. Silvano explained how they got into using a huge copy camera: While studying for an engineering degree, he was recognized by the school photographer, who suggested Silvano’s take over his processing duties - a service that ultimately paid for most of his education.

In those days, school portraits were shot soft to minimize skin flaws. The individual portraits were mounted on a paste-up and shot with a copy camera to make a negative that was used to print a group photo for each graduate. An unsharp mask was used to make the much reduced individual soft images acceptable in the class print. Switching to digital, the 4x5 negative could be scanned and sharpened digitally before printing making it five to ten minutes to go from paste-up to print vs. a day or two. Today, the majority of class photos arrive already “pasted-up” by the customer in Quark, Illustrator, Photoshop, etc. Today, the copy camera with a digital back fills a niche service copying paintings and other fine art.

Commercial.

We moved next to an empty area of the floor near the Agfa and Kodak print processors. Silvano noted his plans to make the area into offices for his commercial division. Commercial customers need large prints - often transparent for signs and advertisements - which the Lambda printer can handle. But sales people are needed on the road to market the Lambda print services to a sector new to Silvano's. There are no sample prints as yet - as soon as the printer was installed, Silvano's was called by another lab whose printer was down to do a big job for Rogers. The speed and quality of the Lambda printing clinched an assignment that kept their Lambda busy for almost a month.

Agfa, Kodak printers
Agfa/Kodak printers
Agfa, Kodak printers
Agfa/Kodak printers
Agfa, Kodak printers
Agfa/Kodak printers
Durst Lambda 131
Durst Lambda 131
Durst Lambda 131
Durst Lambda 131
Processor
Processor

Printing.

The Agfa and Kodak printers at Silvano's are basically the same device. The second Agfa D-Lab was modified and re-branded by Kodak as an RB30. The processors use lasers to make prints up to 12 x 18 inches at a resolution of 400 dpi. The machines are air tight facilities that receive their images over an internal network from the digital workstations. The images are then printed, chemically processed on photographic paper, cut and sorted without exposure to dust (staff keep the facilities cleaned daily to minimize any dust problems). There is no loss of quality with this automated process. And for large volume customers, special borders and lettering can be added to their prints at no additional cost or delay - part of the changing business and the flexibility possible with strong in-house technical skills.

The Durst Lambda 131 is a large gray box. 7 x 7 x 6 feet in size. It is the fastest printer in Toronto, running at 26 inches per minute. Darker chemistry can be used to increase the D max which was the clincher for the Rogers job. Lambda prints are up to 50 inches wide and as long as needed - up to 150 feet! The printer can work with transparency, flex metallic and regular silver based photographic paper at either 200 dpi or 400 dpi (larger prints use a lower resolution as the images are intended for viewing at a greater distance) which exceeds the resolution of most of today's cameras.

The Lambda took over a darkroom and feeds directly to another darkroom facility. The Lambda was installed before Silvano's had sufficient work for it. Branching into commercial work is adding load and should allow recovery of Lambda's cost in twelve months - continuing demand will mean installing a second Lambda at that time. With the exception of laser replacement, the Lambda is maintained by in-house staff trained by Durst (saving thousands of dollars in annual maintenance contracts - most labs lack the staff to do this).

Laminating and Binding.

The lab has a walled off lamination room, soon to be expanded to accommodate cutters and supplies now housed on a lower floor. The separate room protects this process from the 70% humidity necessary in the rest of the facility to keep dust down. In addition to laminating, Silvano's does book binding in-house. The decision to add book binding was made after a trial outsourcing took six weeks to delivered books which fell apart in two days.

Workshop.

Our final stop was the workshop (we didn't visit the basement or third floor). The workshop and its staff have allowed Silvano's to make quick changes to both facilities and machines as needed to keep ahead of the competition and keep costs down. For example, Silvano’s have used a lot of Kodak products over the years so when Kodak Canada was closing its Mount Denis campus, they gave Silvano's a hard to refuse offer. Kodak, trying to find a home for their large LED printers, had the best offer from Italy, but shipping costs sunk the deal. When Silvano was called, he declined saying he didn't need them. “They are free” Kodak replied. Silvano drove over and picked up three LED printers in varying condition. He took them to the workshop and the staff were able to make two working printers from the parts.

The workshop is full of other machines in various states of repair and modification. Special parts and things like knives for the paper cutters are made here (except Lambda cutters which cost $50,000 - $60,000). Silvano’s had two large paper processors but never used them both at once, so a decision was made to dismantle one and take it to the “elephant’s graveyard” of old machines in the building basement were they will eventually be dismantled and scrapped.

Wrap-up Talk.

Following the tour, we gathered in the rest room for a candid chat with Silvano about his company and his ideas for meeting the challenges of the digital world. These are the points he mentioned in roughly chronological order.

Selling old images. Silvano received some old glass plate negatives from Al Gilbert - mainly Hollywood material. The plates could be scanned and printed for sale on the Lambda.

Web Site. The prime Silvano's web site is frequently updated. Other web site are planned to offer specialized services. Silvano's online digital ordering system is one of biggest changes for the company and reflects the fact that today about 85% of the customer orders arrive via the internet - and 90% of the pictures printed originate in digital cameras - no one expected the digital cameras to improve so quickly and become so widely available this fast.

Evolving business. The evolution of the company has accelerated in recent years. About a year after its inception, the business was defined as a wedding photo lab. This original business plan has broadened into a wedding company - interacting with the end customers as the number of wedding photographers shrinks and destination weddings became popular - pictures are taken and handed to the bride and groom on a CD and they arrange for printing. The Foto Book business started as wedding albums, but Silvano couldn't give them away. Professional photographers had their own set packages for the brides. So Silvano turned to “gorilla marketing” - he rented space at bridal shows and encouraged future brides to ask their wedding photographer for the Foto Books.

Changes Affecting the Print industry. 1. TECHNICAL. The rapid shift from film to digital cameras. On vacation this year, Silvano noted that all the tourists had digital cameras. Not a film camera in sight. 2. SELLING. “Bricks and mortar” have given way to “clicks and order”. Storefronts are not a necessity today - a web site is. 3. STAFF. In his father’s time, the workshop gave Silvano’s an edge in keeping current and innovative. Today, this is augmented by software smarts. For example, they found an order system they liked and negotiated the right to access the source code and modify it to fit their needs.

Risky Business. The traditional giants in photographic supplies are fast disappearing. There is no Agfa, or Konica, or Mitsubishi any more. And there is no longer enough printing business to support two big paper manufacturers. Kodak no longer owns its paper mills - they were sold off to Gerry Schwartz in Toronto as Kodak shrunk to a shadow of itself. The 2,000 or so Canadian Kodak staff have shrunk to about 300 - two-thirds of them manning a call centre. Kodak no longer has a professional technical support team to hand-hold its professional customers. Those printing companies with technical staff can move forward, while the others are out of luck and will fall by the wayside. PCM, Benjamin, Charles Able and many others have disappeared. Other printers are streamlining their services - few do optical processing now. Rapid changes in technology make digital equipment expensive with a much shorter life. One wrong decision and your company is gone. For example, Durst also makes a huge roll printer, but to be economical, the printing company must have a high volume business. Some labs bought them only to find now that they owe far more for the machines than they are worth.

Loss Leader. The commoditization of 4x6 prints - who saw day when colour 4x6 prints would sell for eight cents each in the USA? Some businesses are offering the 4x6 prints as loss leaders for less than the cost of materials. Discounters like COSTCO and Wal-Mart thrive by selling on price rather than quality. Many professionals go to the discounters for prints. The brides see the prints and object to the cost, knowing they too can go to Wal-Mart for 15 cent prints. So the photographer shaves costs but loses referrals. There are fewer wedding photographers today and brides are more knowledgeable. Using bridal magazines, internet searches, and discussions with recent brides, the modern bride-to-be is well briefed even without a technical background.

Social Changes. Many people don’t bother with traditional prints, simply viewing their photos on a computer or television. On a family vacation today, the children consider internet access essential so they can contact friends online. Social sites like YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook are very popular. For many, the computer and TV screen are taking the place of the paper print and album.

The Future. Silvano's have an infrastructure in place (e.g. Lambda printer, book binding facility, web based services) to make the lab more relevant in the coming decades. Trained staff are essential and cross training for optical, digital, customer service, scanning, etc. means Silvano's have five or six people on staff who can cover a given job. An ongoing need is to eliminate bottlenecks in the digital workflow as they turn up. With the lines blurring between the professional labs, mini labs, wedding labs, etc. Silvano's looks to strategic alliances such as the one with Devine Imaging to enable the company to offer a wide range of services (Devine Imaging is located in the Silvano building and run by Dave Devine, one of Canada’s foremost experts in colour management and inkjet printing).

In addition to the commercial market, Silvano is interested in the amateur market, camera clubs, retail stores and even outsourcing services to his competitors. Offering true B&W printing and now E6 processing, it is worthwhile to help the competition. This gives photographers the option to go to their preferred printer and still get Silvano's quality work. On the other side of the coin, Silvano's is willing to outsource for their customers (e.g. for Kodachrome).

A bit more very candid conversation about the industry and Silvano's strategy to survive and grow put the wraps on this very interesting and informative meeting.


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