It appears that the "traditional" photo album, full of high-quality silver-halide images, has come full circle.
Marginalized by picture books with inkjet or other digital images of sufficient quality for most consumer requirements, the photo album simply couldn't be created as affordably or as productively as its new rivals. But in a bit of an ironic twist, it's now benefiting from the very technologies that had threatened to make "the photograph" little more than a topic for your parents' fond recollections.
Earlier this year, MILLER'S PROFESSIONAL IMAGING began offering what might be called hybrid photo albums of high-quality silver-halide images--created at production speeds and pricing levels commonly associated with press books featuring non-silver-halide prints. This feat takes place at the company's "digital lab" in Columbia, Missouri, and relies on a relatively new production device from Switzerland's Imaging Solutions AG--the fastBook photobook system, which creates blocks of lay-flat photo pages at previously unattainable speeds.
According to Jim Jamison, technical manager at the 40,000-square-foot facility, Miller's is now able to create bona fide photo albums "that are really more book-like, with a lighter page, but with silver-halide images." They represent an entirely new offering for the company, filling a critical space between the traditional high-end photo album and the contemporary digital picture book with wide consumer appeal.
These photo albums can be promoted, for example, as wedding album "companion pieces" for important relatives and wedding party members, Jamison says. They offer a consistency of look and quality (all wedding photos are produced on the same imager), but at about a third the cost of the bride's album. And because the albums contain true photos, these products don't "cannibalize" the portions of the lab's product menu that are based on other imaging technologies.
Album vs. Book
To keep things straight on the lab floor and in the catalog, Jamison says that Miller's makes a distinction between picture books-- "multiple-page products with images printed on paper by, say, a NexPress"--and photo albums-- "multiple-page products with photographically developed silver-halide images."
"Calling everything a book doesn't really work," he says. "It tends to cause confusion about what it is you're producing, at least in our mind. The silver-halide products are albums, while paper pulp products are referred to as books."
The importance of that distinction shouldn't be underestimated, because despite the growth of alternative digital imaging technologies, there's still widespread recognition that traditional photos are the best-quality images. Says Jamison: "Despite all the advances in the technology and all the different directions the industry has gone, silver halide is still the 'gold standard' if you're going to print images. Everybody is still pushing up to that."
The challenge has been to try and overcome certain advantages inherent in newer digital-imaging processes. You could emphasize the superior quality and stability of silver-halide images. But once you started quoting price and turnaround time, the typical trade-offs associated with today's digital images became more acceptable.
The knock on traditional photos--at least in the digital age--has been the workflow "gap" between turning images on photo paper into appealing book/album packages in a cost-efficient manner. That's something digital workflows make so simple. But since the market started taking it seriously 25 years ago, the lingering truth about digital imaging has been that its underlying technology was progressive--that is, it was (and would keep )getting better.
"A Totally New Offering"
Now, as Miller's and others are demonstrating, imaging workflows have reached the point at which customers can essentially have their cake and eat it, too. At the center of this new capability is a fastBook photobook system--Miller's was the first lab in the U.S. to install one--introduced last February by Imaging Solutions. It produces book blocks of up to 20 lay-flat pages from creased silver-halide paper. According to the company, production speeds of more than 100 20-page book blocks per hour are possible. Blocks can be organized and bound according to customer specifications.
Jamison says Miller's has set up its fastBook as a stand-alone production unit, although it's equipped with an on-board computer and can be utilized as part of an integrated workflow. Typically, image files are loaded into the lab's system, color-corrected, and printed on one of Miller's Durst Theta photo imagers or another output device. They're brought to the fastBook via "sneaker-net" and quickly crafted into photobook blocks--which ultimately become an entirely new species of photo keepsake.
"To make a photo album like the Imaging Solutions system makes--you couldn't do it before," Jamison says. "Plus it's more productive than other systems we looked at. And it's very competitive, actually, for making a good-quality picture book, compared to the cost of some of the other popular systems.
"Not only is our fastBook-produced album a totally new product offering," Jamison adds. "In conjunction with its release, we created software and production systems that allow our customers to make one multipage design and output it as any of four different products--two album products and two book products. They can order in any combination from one design."
The Miller's product menu now features lay-flat photo albums and picture books, including in square dimensions--10x10 and 12x12--which the fastBook offers and Jamison says are very popular with consumers. Sales of the silver-halide-based products are up, because they're being created more efficiently and more affordably in more variations than was previously imaginable, he says.
And it suggests that, like Mark Twain, rumors about the death of the traditionally processed photograph have been greatly exaggerated. "Of course, we'll offer all the products the market wants," Jamison says. "But nothing images like silver halide."