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Photo revolution

R&R Custom Color Lab makes transition from film to mostly Web-based business

Steve Riffle’s photo processing company, R&R Custom Color Lab, developed about 1,000 rolls or sheets of film a day back in 2000. Even then, Riffle could tell film was dying.

Today the company, with offices in north Spokane near the Spokane Arena, handles about 100 rolls of film per day. “Mostly it comes from those photographers who still love film,” said Riffle. Most of them are professionals in Seattle.

In 2004 Riffle looked around and knew that the company needed to shift to online processing or be left in the dust.

“For us, it was a matter of survival to develop an online business,” Riffle said.

R&R became one of a handful of Northwest commercial photo processors who handle orders from customers uploading digital images and getting prints made quickly and with attention to detail.

About 75 percent of all images and pictures R&R handles come from online orders.

Those orders come from all over the country, with California and the Puget Sound accounting for a large share of that business. Riffle said he also gets business from as far away as New Jersey.

“Adding online printing capabilities was a way to expand our business. The online portion of our total business is still growing, so it gradually became a large part of our business,” Riffle said.

Film hasn’t totally disappeared. In fact, one of R&R’s new regular customers is a Seattle architecture firm that uses 4-by-5 or 8-by-10-inch film sheets for high quality photos.

Joe Mentel, project photographer at Callison, a global architecture firm with head offices in Seattle, has turned to R&R as the company’s main film processor. In this case, the decision was partly due to logistics.

“The last photo lab in Seattle that could process 4-by-5 (inch) sheets went out of business. We looked around and we found R&R,” Mentel explained.

R&R started more than 30 years ago in Sandpoint. Riffle has been with the company all that time and helped move the lab to Spokane in the 1984. Back then, Spokane had about a dozen companies that processed film. Today, R&R is Spokane’s largest full-service commercial film and digital processing company.

Riffle said R&R makes about 1,000 prints dailys. Most of those are for professional photographers or corporations needing high-quality prints.

Riffle said the online side accounts for half of R&R’s total sales revenue.

The ordering process is no different than what many other processing labs have. Customers download and use a software tool that uploads digital photos to the Spokane lab. When those images are chosen, the customer can crop an image, rotate it and make other choices. If color correction is required, the customer asks R&R to do that when making a print.

If an order comes in early in the day, Riffle said R&R can print the images and pack and ship them by 4 p.m.

The industry has been enjoying continued growth in online ordering. Over the past 12 months, prints ordered and shipped to customers by commercial labs increased 25 percent from the year before, according to the Photo Marketing Association.

Dozens of smaller commercial companies are also accounting for some of that growth. Customers, for instance, can bring disks or thumb drives to Costco and Wal-Mart, select images for printing, then come back in a day and pay for them.

The difference for companies like R&R is the ability to handle large-volume orders, and to provide high-quality printing and service, said Riffle.

“We are able to offer a great many print products and produce them quickly at a consistently high quality,” Riffle said.

Area customers for R&R range from professional portrait photographers, such as Bob Hess, to large companies needing poster-size color images for displays, such as Huntwood Industries. R&R’s printers can handle orders 48 inches wide by nearly any length. Most very large prints run about eight feet long.

The transition to the online operation wasn’t altogether easy. A few years ago, Riffle could only laugh as he threw out film processing equipment that he had originally bought for several hundred thousand dollars. By the time he tossed them, he couldn’t find anyone to come and haul the equipment off, he said.

In 2005, the company had shrunk from 20 employees to six. If the size of his workforce starts growing again, Riffle said it will mean he’s getting even more online orders. The way the film and color printing business works, half the battle is just enduring and hoping people find you, said Riffle.