By Olivia Cahoon
In the last decade, the photography industry drastically evolved with the onset of smartphones and digital presses. Today’s consumers now take more photographs but are also more selective about printing them.
Advancements in finishing and media flexibility on digital printing equipment attract new users to the photo printing industry and create new photo work possibilities such as booklets, calendars, and novelty printed keepsakes. Digital print providers need to differentiate themselves from the competition by investing in printing technologies with the latest features targeted to photo-based output.
Above: Photo-quality work created with Ricoh’s digital printing technology.
Defining Photo Quality
Photo-quality printing is a general term that takes on multiple perceptions. In recent years, the term has evolved from traditional photographic quality to encompass a cultural relationship with modern technology.
“Photo quality embodies a combination of quantitative measures as well as perceptions,” shares Greg Gresock, director, product management/VP, print systems division, Kodak. End users perceive photo prints differently based on end use and the print product itself. For example, a typical 4×6-inch print has different benchmark qualities compared to a photobook page, calendar, or 8×10-inch professional portrait.
To be considered photo quality, Gresock says the industry often assumes that a photo print just needs to feature a nice picture with a contrast and color range similar to silver halide. In reality, he says consumer value extends beyond displaying the image to the paper’s texture, rigidity, whitepoint, hand feel, and even how the texture’s amount and specular reflection type interact with the colorants.
For many applications, photo-quality prints also require colorants with great light stability but also dark and environmental stability. “This stability must cover not just the colorants put down by the press but also the makeup of the substrate as well,” explains Gresock.
Image is as important as light stability. According to Gresock, photo images should have a similar tone scale and color reproduction as well as minimize the appearance of grain and the halftone, suitable sharpness, and limited artifacts like streaks and other image disruptions.
While today’s definition of photo-quality output embodies several key areas like paper rigidity, light stability, and image, this is far from its traditional meaning. The evolution of photo-quality printing is partly a result of smartphones and the transition in cultural relationships to cameras and camera quality as well as advanced print capabilities, shares Jay Dizzine, director, marketing, commercial & industrial printing business group, Ricoh USA, Inc.
At the same time, many of today’s photos are printed by consumers at home rather than developed professionally in a dark room. “There are forces at play driving up the volume of photos being printed at the same time that many—not to say amateurs, but perhaps non-professionals—are producing the prints themselves,” explains Dizzine. This leads to lower image quality expectations in the consumer market.
However, there is still a market for high-end, high-quality photo production, coffee table books, and similar applications. While the term photo quality is now harder to define, Dizzine believes several different levels of quality and cost help clarify the practice of offering quality at a premium. “If you’re using quick photos for a project, you are willing to sacrifice some quality for a more amenable price point—wedding photos, however, are an entirely different ballgame.”
Rolando Martinez, category manager, product and solutions, Indigo, HP Inc. agrees, noting that the term photo quality encompasses many components. “One of the main purposes of photos are to preserve memories, to invoke the emotional response of the moment or event, to document a certain life milestone, and to preserve it or use it to decorate our environments with an emotional touch,” he shares. Therefore, longevity is essential.
“Printed photographs have been around for a century and they have a look and feel that consumers are used to. This traditional photography process produces prints that are very rich in tonal reproduction of skin tones, show nice details in highlights and shadows, but also have the ability to withstand time without fading under normal storage conditions,” continues Martinez. “When looking at skin tones, our eyes and brain immediately detect when they don’t look natural. It’s an innate ability, so it is critical that the printing process not only have the appropriate resolution, but the ability to reproduce tonal ranges so they look natural and smooth.”
The Consumer Photo Market
Just as the definition of photo-quality printing has changed, so has the opportunity for print providers in the consumer photo market.
Digital print providers have a stronger focus on quality at a premium while providing different levels at various price points and incorporating that into their business model or selecting the price and quality points that work for them. “Huge strides in digital print in the past decade or so have made high-quality printing more accessible than ever for today’s shops,” shares Dizzine.
To be successful, digital print providers should assess the photo printing application types their business will drive. For example, Dizzine suggests businesses with a strong reputation in art reproduction target higher end, higher resolution, and higher quality applications. Providers that mostly produce flyers for local businesses can add mid-grade photo printing for little cost.
While it seems smartphones have a negative effect on the photo printing market, they actually provide printers with new opportunities. “Smartphones give consumers the ability to capture the moment wherever they are—quickly, easily, and often from multiple angles,” says Dizzine. While the majority of these photos only exist digitally, printing transforms the images into a variety of applications from posters to albums, postcards, and coffee mugs.
“Today’s younger generation understands this,” he adds. At the same time, it means consumers often associate photography with quick and easy, which means workflows should be especially well set up. “Web portals for ordering prints should be effective and intuitive in particular.”
While smartphones result in fewer photos printed, cost-effective, high-resolution D-SLR cameras accelerate the growth in advanced hobbyists and small event photography businesses, shares Gresock. As a result, a higher percentage of printed images become true keepsakes and memorialize life events and activities with more value.
Martinez points out that consumers are generating exponentially more pictures with smartphones, which end up on social media. “The need to communicate and engage using pictures has grown, but those images are lost in virtual spaces and are not easily retrievable for memory preservation. “A physical print represents an ideal and emotional way to preserve those memories and give them higher importance than the thousands shared in social media. Due to this, when images are woven together in a story they become part of the emotion of the moment. Providing consumers with simple ways to print their images as a story has proven to be a valuable way to get consumers interested in printing pictures.”
Additionally, Gresock believes freeing format and substrate types from traditional silver halide paradigms creates new application possibilities.
“These new applications, sizes, and substrates continue to be an area of growth and opportunity for digital print providers,” he shares.
There is also a need for continued advancement. Consumers have more purchasing power with phones and online providers at their fingertips. With high-memory capacities on the devices, cloud storage options, and rights-free professional imagery, Gresock says consumers can easily have new print products made. “To stay relevant and capture attention in the crowded space for consumer spending, print providers must introduce new products that capture the imagination.”
“Consumers love to use their pictures and display them everywhere. Digital printing and new automated digital finishing options allow very creative ways to give consumers incredible options that have reignited interest for printed pictures,” offers Martinez.
Digital Print Engines Deliver
Digital print engines bring several benefits to the consumer photo market space when compared to traditional photo printing methods, including finishing equipment, a vast product range, substrate differentiation, and image quality.
For years, digital print technology focused on boosting quality and productivity. As a result, digital printers deliver improved workflows, faster turnaround times, and more economical short runs. “While a one-hour photo promise for every single order may be tough to uphold in a digital print shop, that shop already has the infrastructure—in the form of web to print, end-to-end workflows, and expert operators—to make getting a photo printed almost as quick and easy as snapping a picture on your smartphone,” explains Dizzine.
He believes that what really sets digital print engines apart from traditional photo printing methods is finishing equipment, both in terms of its capabilities and in how seamlessly the devices integrate into the production process. “Digital print can deliver finished products, on demand, via a simple consumer experience.”
With digital print engines, print providers offer more products than ever before. This is partly due to digital technology’s format size capability, which enables new product types beyond typical consumer prints and photobooks to a variety of greeting cards, posters, novelty printed keepsakes, perfect bound books, saddle stitched booklets, and complex folded and die cut pieces, shares Gresock. Further, digital presses allow operators to easily print on both paper sides while avoiding additional steps like gluing photo prints for a double-sided page.
Digital presses also offer the ability to print on a range of coated, uncoated, and textured papers as well as synthetic and non-tearable materials. Compared to traditional technologies, Gresock says photo paper has a more limited range of weight and surface options. “This also contributes to the innovation in the printed product and really differentiates what consumers compare to traditional silver halide.”
Over several decades, traditional photo and professional prints improved in consistency and quality. However, Gresock says this photo look—tone scale, sharpness, color gamut—is far less than what a digital printing press reproduces. For example, if printed products have graphics and text, a digital press can produce a much sharper and more attractive final print product while simulating subtle tones, softness, and constrained colors.
Facing the Competition
To be successful in the photo printing market, digital print providers must overcome certain challenges, such as differentiating themselves from the competition and ensuring equipment investments are profitable.
One of the biggest challenges digital print providers face is differentiating themselves and demonstrating their business-specific value. This comes down to several factors, including faster turnaround time; professional quality, finished books; and special features. “Know what you do best, know what you’re known for, and invest appropriately in technologies, training, and marketing to make sure what you do best and what you’re known for are the same thing,” advises Dizzine.
Print providers can also speak directly with customers regarding business values and needed improvements. “Research or discuss with consultants the workflows, engines, and finishing equipment that best position you to capitalize on your unique value add, from delivering a better finished product to driving down costs, and especially making the ordering process simple and straightforward,” he adds.
Finishing equipment investments and print quality control also present challenges. For example, Gresock suggests print providers justify the press and associated finishing equipment investments based on potential future volume if they are not currently in the photo application space. Adjusting print quality control measures and procedures help meet the high consistency and quality demands that photo customers expect.
Features for Success
Some of today’s digital print engines are designed with features that help print providers compete in the consumer photo market space.
To be considered photo quality, digital print engines should be able to provide enough resolution to print at least at 175 lpi with five or six colors minimum, according to Martinez. “Photo prints can be printed with traditional process color, but to achieve photo-realistic colors and quality, it’s recommended to add light cyan and light magenta colors or light black ink to increase dynamic tonal range,” he explains.
The ability to deliver resolution and color management is of utmost importance as both are major contributors to consumer happiness. “People want the finished result to match the image they sent, which is often chosen with care from among dozens—if not hundreds—of options,” shares Dizzine.
Media support and inline finishing also go a long way in delivering a professional appearance and expanding options for photo-based printing.
Understanding the shop’s needs in terms of resolution, media support, and finishing ties back to knowing the customer base and the applications it wants to produce. “Not every customer or job needs or even wants high-end, high-price production. Do some soul—and data—searching, develop a plan for targeting the jobs and customers you want to target, and execute accordingly,” advises Dizzine.
He cautions print providers to be aware that pursuing new markets can keep staff busy from bread and butter jobs. Therefore, it’s important to plan job management methods, whether that’s batching similar press jobs together or creating low-touch, highly automated workflows to add efficiency.
Additional features to consider include a range of substrate sizes, high-speed digital front end software that handles high volumes of photo-rich jobs, workflow tools to reduce touch points, light and dark environmentally stable colorants, and multi-bit imaging for smooth highlight/shadow details, offers Gresock. Specialty colors and surface enhancement offerings for matte, gloss, and textured prints also help digitally printed photo products stand out.
Photo-based applications are popular in consumer markets, but achieving acceptable output for photographic imagery can be difficult with digital technology. Digital print providers competing in the photo market space must first overcome equipment investments and quality control challenges. Luckily, features such as media flexibility and diverse finishing options are available to help print providers be successful in this vertical.
Jul2019, DPS Magazine