Photo evolution: More pictures than ever, but fewer prints

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Gina Duwe
Friday, April 18, 2014

JANESVILLE--People are taking more pictures than ever, but most of the images are never printed.

That reality forced the recent closure of the photo lab at the Woodman's store in Janesville, Vice President Clint Woodman said.

“The thing is, people just don't print pictures anymore because they can look at them on their phones and on their computers, and there's no need to print them,” he said.

When film photography was commonplace, each image captured was processed into a print, regardless of quality. In today's digital world, many people print only a handful of pictures to frame. The majority of image files sits on computer hard drives.

At Woodman's, photo print sales dropped 25 percent a year for the past 10 years, Woodman said.

“It got to the point where we started closing photo labs three years ago because they were losing so much money that … financially, it didn't make sense to keep them open,” he said.

Photo labs at stores in Janesville, the west side of Madison and in Rockford, Ill., were the last three in the Woodman's chain to close because they were the busiest, he said.

But even those labs had been losing money for a couple years, he said, and it got to the point where Woodman's was keeping them open only as a service to customers.

One customer who was upset by the Woodman's lab closures—“quite frankly, mad as hell”—is Jim Meldrum of Beloit, a member and past president of the Janesville Camera Club.

He used to shoot up to 300 rolls of film a year but reluctantly bought a digital camera and computer last summer after the photo lab at the Beloit Woodman's store closed early last year.

“That really frosted me when Woodman's shut their lab down. That was uncalled for, I think,” he said.

Meldrum shoots “anything and everything,” though his specialty is portraits, he said. He stills makes black-and-white prints in his own dark room but now goes to Wal-Mart for color prints.

Local Walgreens stores have seen an increase in photo printing since Woodman's closed its photo labs, said Tom Sporleder, Walgreens community leader for Janesville and Beloit.

Still, the gradual trend over the past few years has been a decline in printing in favor of social media sites, he said. The exceptions are the big life events such as vacations, weddings and baby photos, when people still want hard copies, he said.

More of the sales have been in photo products such as collages, posters, calendars and gifts such as coffee mugs and canvas prints, he said.

Technology allows users to upload photos from their mobile devices or computer using websites or apps and order prints or products instantly.

Marsha Mood, an avid hobbyist and volunteer photographer at Rotary Gardens in Janesville, is in a couple online photo clubs where people talk about how they need to get going on printing photos. People store them on memory cards and never do anything with them, she said. Others display them through their computer's screen saver, she said.

“I think there's something to be said about photo albums,” she said.

She has a dozen albums her grandchildren enjoy.

“That makes me feel good that I took time to print out the pictures,” she said.

Many people have photos in boxes, and Mood said she's always felt the hard copy was special.

Improvements in home computer printers led people to print more of their own pictures, which also led to a decrease in retail photo sales, Woodman said.

“Anybody could print quality pictures on their home computer,” he said.

In the printing heyday, 15 employees worked in a lab. By the end, only one employee was needed per shift, he said.

“We tried to add more (products), added a lot of things to keep the sales up,” he said. “It couldn't sustain the decrease in the amount of customers.”

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