New photographers today can buy their first camera, take lessons on how to use it, research photography destinations, order prints and books of their work, and start selling it without ever setting foot in a brick-and-mortar camera store or printing business. It’s hard to imagine how any photo store with an actual sales floor can still survive.
Some definitely aren’t. It’s been more than a year since Ritz and Wolf Camera, one of the larger names in the sector, sold off its remaining physical stores to an asset liquidation firm. Standalone establishments have struggled to hold on as well, and towns from New Jersey to California have witnessed the closing of their local photo shops. That’s a good thing if you like liquidation sales. Otherwise, not so much.
But still some persist, and even flourish, despite tough conditions. In order to understand better how photo shops are competing in today’s turbulent photography market, I spoke with the owners of two different establishments.
Leaving the Darkroom Behind
First, I spoke with Rob Reiter, owner and operator of The Lightroom, a fine-art printing studio for photographers in Berkeley California. He didn’t seem to mind the changing photography industry.
“Everything is far better and easier than ever before,” he declared flatly.
The Lightroom started in 1975, well back into the darkroom ages, and since that time Reiter has worked hard to stay ahead of the curve. He explained that the digital age has made his job easier, not more difficult. When digital printing appeared, he jumped right on board. “I’ve been involved in digital printing since 1985,” he says, “In those days it was pretty crude as far as quality went, but it was fun and interesting.” He made the shift to scanning film in the mid 90s, and started shooting digital in 2005.
Not only was Reiter an early adopter of digital for his personal work, but he was also quick to share it with his clients. He described offering one-on-one tutorials in Photoshop as early as 1993. “As much as anything, the workshops in those days were scanning their film and showing them what you could do with the software,” he added.
Rising from the Ashes
A few weeks after my conversation with Reiter, I drove to Claremont Photo and Video in Claremont, California on a Sunny February morning. There, I sat down with Anthony Brooks, who founded the store in 2008. Not the best year to be starting any business.
Claremont Photo and Video has a very different sort of story than The Lightroom. Brooks started his business with his girlfriend when they both lost their jobs at a nearby Camera Store that was shutting down, another victim of the digital tide. Brooks says he learned a lesson from the death of the store he used to manage.
“The store basically became a showroom for buying on Amazon. You can’t fight that, people coming in with their smartphones and checking prices. You can educate yourself and stay one step ahead, but you can’t really change that fact,” he said.
Never Stop Moving
Brooks and Reiter agreed that keeping up with a rapidly changing technological landscape is essential. Thanks to his early forays into digital, Reiter has been benefiting from an early adopter attitude for years. He’s still working hard not to fall behind.
“I just took down a show on iPad art,” he explained, referring to a display space at his store, “I had four different artists using four different apps on the iPad and creating artwork. I’ve also had shows here of iPhone art, and those have been the two most popular shows we’ve had at our gallery!”
What else matters? Flexibility, for one thing.
Reiter says manageable expenses allowed The Lightroom to survive during the lean times. “I’m basically a one person studio here,” he said, “So I didn’t have a lot of extraneous employees that I would need to cut back on when the dark room died. Also because I was small, I didn’t invest in a lot of equipment that would go out of date long before it was paid off. I could be nimble, I could buy stuff after I researched it well.”
Brooks echoed that sentiment. When I asked him about his photo printing facilities, he gestured simply to a computer at the desk he was sitting at and a pigment printer behind him. He also pointed to the importance of staying ahead of the curve. “I think it’s all about reinvention, all the time. It’s about seeing where the need is and adapting to that,” he said.
Claremont Photo and Video doesn’t focus on selling cameras and lenses. There’s a few film cameras on display in a glass case by the main sale desk, but Brooks explains that they focus instead on services. “Services like video transfers, transferring any kind of analogue media to digital media, helping organize it along the way,” he explained.
Slide scanning and custom photo printing also make up a large part of Claremont Photo’s business. Brooks looks for services that aren’t offered by competitors. “We don’t try to reinvent the wheel, I realize that Costco is very inexpensive for 4×6 prints, so we let them do that kind of thing. We do what we do well, which is the custom prints, the 16x20s, the 11x14s.”
Reiter and Brooks both rode the digital tsunami that consumed many similar entrepreneurs. For photo shops, just like any other business in a competitive and rapidly moving industry, it’s essential to keep moving and to keep an eye on coming shifts. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up being blindsided.
There’s no reason to think that the photography industry is going to become any more stable in the next decade, so I asked both Reiter and Brooks what they thought of as keys for continued success.
Reiter focused on premium service. He wants to give his customers a reason to come into his store rather than look for a comparable service online. He had a lot to say about specialty printing papers, for example: “I stock well over 20 different papers here, more than any other studio I know of. I can print on really nice thin mulberry paper out of Japan, nice thin paper with deckled edges.”
He also stressed the importance of educating customers. He offers numerous seminars and workshops on photography and printing, many of them for free. Reiter explains “I want them to say ‘Hey, here’s someone who’s putting stuff out that’s about more than just making money.’ That’ll keep them coming out.” That’s also why he posts pages of educational material on The Lightroom’s website and Facebook page.
Brooks at Claremont Photo emphasized a slightly different approach. Rather than rising above rapid shifts in technology, he wants to take advantage of them.
Much of the work that his shop has been doing in transferring analogue formats to digital formats is starting to dry up. He said “A lot of the video transfer market, the VHS to DVD, has kind of dried up. The 8mm to DVD is starting to dry up. That’s the way this business goes, it changes all the time, it changes monthly, we see that the drop off on one service and the pickup on another kind of service.”
But Brooks didn’t seem worried, and he explained, “As technology’s getting more sophisticated, it’s getting a lot more complicated for people. People are shooting on DVD, Mini-DV, SD formats, and none of these formats are compatible. We’re gonna be doing these data transfers forever.”
It’s interesting to note the similarities and differences in the outlook of the owners of The Lightroom and Claremont Photo and Video. Both lasted this long thanks to their flexible business models with low overhead costs and their willingness to change with the times, but they’re also relying on different strategies to succeed in the future.
Reiter is convinced that he can keep his customers coming back by focusing on providing a premium experience, and wants to attract new customers by offering free educational resources. That requires a loyal base of customers for repeat business, and relies on Reiter’s capability to provide a product that is clearly worth paying more for than your standard Mpix or Shutterfly prints. His more than 30 years of success in his industry, though, is strong evidence that he has a lot of people convinced.
Brooks offers custom high quality printing too, but is more reliant on a steady stream of customers looking to transfer their media from one form to another. For him, rapid shifts in technology are good news because they’ll bring in a whole new crop of people looking to update their photos from the old format to the new.
In either case, The Lightroom and Claremont Photo and Video are standing proof that there’s still a place for the brick-and-mortar photo shop in the modern-day. Whether or not they’ll last forever remains unclear, as online alternatives continue to get better every day. But, for now at least, Reiter and Brooks are convinced that some people are looking for a physical space and some human interaction while they’re shopping for cameras or printing their work.