In the age of digital photography, film developing takes special focus
Anyone interested in photography has seen the 1984 National Geographic photo of the Afghan girl.
Her piercing green eyes, peering out from the hood of a muted red robe, haunted readers around the world when it graced the magazine’s cover and is now one of the most recognizable examples of great portrait photography.
Would that indelible image have stuck in minds as much if it were digital?
Inside Quicksilver Photo Lab’s underground shop on Cornwall Avenue, the photo hangs next to a series of National Geographic cover shots — a tribute to the lab’s snug Bellingham niche as the only commercial black-and-white print photo processor in town, and one of the only remaining viable film shops around these parts.
Owner Jeff Daffron has survived the digital age in part because he has refused to fully jump on the ever-evolving digital bandwagon and because of a following of aficionados who still prefer the look of film photography to digital.
“Sometimes you can be on the bleeding edge, instead of the cutting edge,” says Daffron.
In other words, Quicksilver has endured the triage of the market’s shift to digital products by being the saving grace for print photography diehards, while only slowly pumping up its digital repertoire.
Preparing for digital
Quicksilver opened 22 years ago, in what is now Bayou On Bay’s bar area on the corner of Holly and Bay streets, as a custom black-and-white photo-processing lab and gallery.
In the beginning, growth was rapid — about 10 percent a year — and eventually the shop moved to a new location on East Maple Street in 1992 and added a retail component selling film and photography supplies.
Growth peaked during the 1990s, a time when four full-time employees printed black-and-white photos in the darkroom daily, but since then, things have slowed down and flattened out.
The digital age had arrived, but Daffron was prepared.
“I always saw (digital) coming,” he says. “I knew that would be the trend.”
In 1999, Quicksilver moved to its current location below Kulshan Cycles on Cornwall Avenue and has survived as one of the last film-focused centers in the region because of a counterintuitive business decision.
“I didn’t jump into the digital stuff right away, and I think that’s what saved me,” he says. “When you go to digital, you have to spend $150,000 to $200,000 on a lab that you’re charging 19 cents a print on. That doesn’t really make a lot of sense. So I stayed away from that.”
Other businesses weren’t quite as lucky.
In 2006, Bellingham’s two other locally owned film-processing labs closed — King Frog 1 Hr. Photo Lab and Spinnaker Photo Imaging Center, both on North State Street.
King Frog owner Dick Nolan said at the time his shop couldn’t compete with the digital industry. Spinnaker owner Shannon McGuire said at the time the shop had been overextended by purchasing a faulty digital photo-processing machine.
The year proved to be Quicksilver’s best ever in sales.
“Up until that point, I think all of us were struggling a bit — Spinnaker, Frog … there were too many of us for the town, really,” he says. “All of us were on the edge. I just happened to be the lucky survivor.”
Daffron opted to move into the digital market slowly and cautiously.
“You can get into something too quickly and it really hurts. You’ve got to wait for things to settle down and for pricing to come down,” he says. “I prefer to hold off and see what kind of technology is going to be the winner and go with that.”
Daffron shows off a VW Bug-sized hunk of grey plastic machinery like the proud owner of an aging pet dog.
“This Fujifilm minilab isn’t worth much on the market anymore,” he says with affection. The lab, which processes color and black-and-white prints from film, is one of the few remaining of its kind in Whatcom County.
Plans for the nearby darkroom, where the sweet chemical smell of developer, fixer and stop bath lingers from overturned processing tubs, include reducing the space to make way for the expanding digital lab.
Technicians now have only enough work to develop black-and-white prints one to two days a week here.
In addition to film processing, custom black-and-white printing and photographic equipment retail sales, Quicksilver has dodged and burned its way into a niche focusing on fine-art reproductions and photo restoration using a digital lab. It also offers self-serve digital printing kiosks, but not a digital mini lab.
Now, 50 percent of Quicksilver’s sales come from retail and 50 percent from lab work.
Film sales have declined, and one of his steadiest and most lucrative revenue sources — professional photographers — have gone almost entirely digital, he says.
Even so, Daffron says film has helped his survival. Film photography is still the best way to learn about the craft, especially when it comes to learning about how light works, he says. Many people still prefer film quality to digital, or are simply uncomfortable switching over to a whole new genre with new required equipment that can be expensive.
Being in a buy-local focused university town with a strong art community doesn’t hurt, either, he says.
Daffron also stays alive by employing seven dedicated, friendly and knowledgeable staffers, he says. And he’s not a bottom-line business owner, either.
He has worked to reduce and recycle waste from his shop, an effort that earned him a five-star Envirostar rating from the Whatcom County Public Works Department. He also purchases 100 percent of his power from alternative, environmentally responsible energy sources, and Daffron says his loyal customers appreciate his focus on the environment.
Widening the aperture
While 2007 sales remained flat, Daffron is just a few F-stops away from growing again.
His digital department is growing and sales of accessories are steady. Even digital cameras need tripods and camera bags.
His market has grown because of the growing scarcity of film shops around the region, and now he attracts customers from as far away as Everett, the San Juan Islands and, with the strong Canadian dollar, British Columbia.
So while National Geographic may have gone completely digital, Quicksilver’s future, at least for now, is not so black and white.
Digital versus film photography by the numbers
The number of people who have used a digital photo kiosk station, compared to 37 percent in 2006
The projected number of digital photo prints to be made in 2009
The projected number of professional photos that will be taken with digital cameras by 2009
The number of U.S. households that had digital cameras in 2006, up from 42 percent in 2004
The number of respondents in a Photography.com research study that used digital cameras over film
The year that Kodak’s digital revenue exceeded film revenue. Digital sales made up 54 percent of total revenue that year.
Sources: InfoTrends, Digital Photography Revue