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May 1, 1997 12:00 AM

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Fred Ropkey is making history. Not only is his Indianapolis-based shop one of the few places you can rent a Sherman tank, it is also on the cutting edge of digital photography.

If you want to rent a tank or armored vehicle, Fred's son Rick will be happy to oblige. The Ropkey Armor Museum, an impressive collection of rolling military vehicles, is well known in Hollywood. You can see some of the Ropkey's vehicles in "Mars Attacks," "The Blues Brothers" and many other movies.

As for digital photography, you'll find Ropkey Graphics work on everything from point-of-purchase displays to outdoor signage. The $7 million operation is among the growing ranks of prepress houses, commercial printers and traditional photographers eagerly entering the age of the electronic "Polaroid."

Fred Ropkey explains that adding a digital photography studio maximizes the on-demand capabilities of his digital press, an Indigo E-Print 1000. "Our new signage division is going like a scalded dog," enthuses Ropkey. "It uses everything we do in terms of the digital workflow-the photography, short-run printing on different substrates and so on."

Ropkey's photographer, Andy Bradtke, equipped the studio with a Nikon E2, a portable one-shot digital camera, and a Dicomed 7520, a 4 x 5 scanning back. "Fred told me to buy the best equipment," relates Bradtke. "Since we're competing with scans-4 x 5-inch transparencies-we needed a high quality set-up."

Despite the company's digital directions, Bradtke doesn't think it will be scrapping scanners in the near future, but he does predict that digital photography will become the technology of choice. "That's our long-term strategy-to replace scanning income with profits from the studio."

He acknowledges that some customers have been slow to try digital photography because of quality concerns. "People who haven't used it before are concerned about the sharpness of the image," notes Bradtke. "A digital image is sharp, but a digital proof isn't."

Ralph Brunke, director of photographic services for Chicago-based ASG Sherman Graphics, also has seen his share of skeptical clients. "Some were reluctant to use digital photography because they'd been burned before by photographers with low-end cameras," says Brunke. "But once they see our quality, they're convinced."

ASG's studio includes two Dicomed 5720 Field Pro scanning backs, plus a Dicomed Big Shot 4000, a one-shot removable back. In addition to film and scanning savings, Brunke cites time and delivery advantages. "Going digital lets us take a full week off the production cycle. We also offer remote proofing-that's helped some of our clients save thousands of dollars in Federal Express charges."

How is it possible to shave a week from the production cycle? First, the photographer is on-site, and, in many cases, can send computer files directly to the client for almost instant approvals. Reshoots are rare. Second, the digital photographer is several steps closer to the printing process-there's no film to develop and scan into the document-in essence, the digital camera is the scanner.

Digital photography further reduces the need for "bracketing." Bracketing, which is somewhat comparable to a press operator's makeready routine, is done to allow for equipment and film variables. Using exposures taken above and below the optimal metered light reading, the photographer produces several variations of the same shot. Since bracketing may require a photographer to shoot and develop two or three sheets of film per shot, it's a time-consuming and expensive process. Also, capturing images digitally provides the photographer with an instant preview of his or her work-it is no longer necessary to rely on Polaroids.

Just as Ropkey did, ASG added digital photography to enhance the on-demand abilities of its digital press-a five-color Heidelberg GTO-DI. Since the firm previously specialized in four-color separations, ASG had to reposition itself as a digital service provider.

"There's a certain stigma attached to being a four-color separator," explains John Gagliano, executive vice president. "What we're doing today is capturing, manipulating, managing and distributing images. We're getting that message across to our clients."

Creating a new image hasn't been easy. "At first, some clients questioned our expertise," acknowledges Gagliano. "They wondered if a scanner operator would be working the camera." Gagliano has won many converts by inviting clients to tour the studio, meet the photographers and see demonstrations of their work.

On the other hand, some organizations move toward digital photography is customer-driven. Characters, an $8 million Houston-based prepress firm produces proposals, prototypes and new product roll-out material on an Indigo E-Print 1000. CEO Dave Steitz says requests from several major customers prompted the company to start offering digital photography services.

"It's a logical extension of our image capture process," notes Steitz. "We do product shots for catalogs. With conventional photography, buyers spent a lot of time doing approvals. Now they've got more time to do what they do best-buying."

Characters' studio manager, Susan Monroe, uses a Leaf DCB II, a three-shot back for medium format and 4 x 5 cameras. She's excited about emerging applications for digital photography. "About one-third of our company works on interactive projects-Web page design, Intranet jobs, electronic catalogs and so on. A lot of what we do never goes on paper. We've gone from being a prepress shop to a digital communications company."

Others have looked beyond the catalog market to carve out their own digital photography niches. Steve Hess started his own desktop publishing company, Imaging Graphic Technologies (IGT), in 1990. In 1993, the Washington, DC-based company gravitated towards digital photography. Today, IGT provides archival photography for museums and libraries as well as for catalogs and corporate projects.

"Our equipment gives us ultimate control, " says Hess. "Instead of relying on five different sources, there's just ourselves and the customer."

IGT's studio features Phase One as well as Dicomed scanning back equipment. The company, which also distributes digital cameras and related equipment, is in the process of purchasing a digital press. Ironically, last December IGT moved into a building formerly occupied by 15 printing presses. "The presses are gone," says Hess. "They've made way for the technologies of the next century."

Of course, you don't need a digital press to enjoy the benefits of digital photography. Mid South Press, a Nashville-based commercial web printer, produces advertising circulars for several grocery store chains. On any given day you might find photographer Gary Bentley using his ScanView Carnival 2000 removable back to digitally capture anything from a plate of beans to a full-blown Thanksgiving dinner.

"One of our main reasons for doing this was our customers," claims Bentley. "I can shoot something, and using telecommunications, send it to a customer in Louisville. The customer can see the image and approve it in minutes. It's perfect for what we do."

There's no press, digital or otherwise, in sight at Images Photography (Des Plaines, IL). Robin Bailey, creative director, explains that in addition to its own clients, the 18-year-old studio takes on jobs for printers that don't have enough volume to justify putting in their own equipment. The company added its digital capabilities three years ago. "Two of our biggest clients do huge catalogs," relates Bailey. "When they decided to go digital, so did we. It's worked out very well-about 80 percent of our work is done digitally now."

Bailey adds that his company is frequently asked to do more than photography. "We're being asked to do the design, production and printing. And just like printers, we're trying to offer a little more. Customers want to go to one person, drop all of their materials on that guy's desk and come back in a few days and pick up the printed piece."

Although there are a rich variety of digital photography service providers, most are similar in at least one respect-they used to specialize in something else. Ropkey Graphics has come full circle. It was founded in 1890 as a photoengraver-a photography studio was added shortly thereafter, but it was phased out in the late 1940s. "I'm one of the last leafs on the tree," recounts Fred Ropkey. "I still remember the Golden Age of photography." ASG, as previously mentioned, originally was a color separator, and Characters was founded 20 years ago as a typesetter.

These days, no one has much time to reflect on the past. Ropkey has just installed a six-color Heidelberg press to supplement its Indigo and ASG's Gagliano is eagerly awaiting the delivery of the Quickmaster-DI he has on order. Character's Monroe notes the company recently had to postpone an open house for her studio. "We designed an invitation, but the open house hasn't taken place because the response from our clients already has been so strong. One day we'll be able to sit back and relax long enough to spend an afternoon entertaining our clients, but so far the work is coming in too fast to slow down for that long."

For more information, please refer to the illustration on page 70 of the May 1997 American Printer.

There are three important factors to consider before getting started in digital photography: workflow, workflow and workflow. To justify the expense of staffing, building and equipping a studio, you'll need a steady stream of image-intensive jobs. Once you determine that digital photography is appropriate for your workflow, you're ready to look for the single most important ingredient for any successful studio: the photographer.

Although some pundits have dubbed digital cameras "scanners on a stick," it's not that simple. "Lighting and some of the more technical things aren't as easy as just running a scanner," concedes IGT's Steve Hess.

"You can do some things when you capture an image that will make it easier for the prepress people to manipulate it," concurs Mid South's Gary Bentley. "There are things that the photographer needs to be aware of such as not piling on too much black in an image or too much contrast, that type of thing."

Bentley adds that one sure sign of trouble is any captured image accompanied by the reassurance, "you can fix it in Photoshop."

"If you don't know anything about lighting, you can make somebody work twice as hard in Photoshop to correct it-and some things can't be corrected. You still have to be a photographer. Whether the image is hitting film or hitting a chip, everything's still pretty much the same out in front of the camera."

What should you look for when hiring a photographer? Obviously you need someone who knows conventional photography. Other qualifications will depend on what role you expect the photographer to play.

"I'm a department head," explains Ropkey Graphics' Andy Bradtke. "I answer to the general manager and the production manager. We have a color specialist who oversees the scanning department and color correction. He reviews all the proofs from the scanner and the studio and he has the final say in terms of improving final color."

Color management experience is a plus, since the photographers are no longer simply handing over film, but digital images. "You're creating an RGB file that will become a CMYK file," explains Bentley. "What looks good on the screen, will not necessarily look good on the press."

Professional quality cameras range in price from $9,000 to $60,000. Almost all of the photographers contacted for this story followed a similar decison-making process. After reviewing product literature and industry publications, the photographers visited other studios or phoned other photographers for recommendations. Next they evaluated certain models either by renting the cameras or asking the vendor for a demonstration. "A couple of salespeople couldn't get their equipment to run," recounts Character's Susan Monroe. "Well, if they can't get it to work, how am I supposed to get it to work?"

Bentley found that he was uncomfortable with some models. "A couple of the cameras required you to be at arm's length from the camera-to focus it, you had to look at the computer monitor and I couldn't get used to that."

Generally, the final choice will depend on the end application-if you want a portable camera, you may have to sacrifice resolution. Similarly, if speed is a factor-as in food photography-you'll probably have to look beyond the low-end cameras. (For an overview of digital cameras, see DIGITAL & PREPRESS LINKS, October 1995.)

Beware of equipment vendors who claim that digital photography can be a cash cow. "When the first digital cameras came out, you had a bunch of people selling them who didn't know beans about photography," recalls Images Photography's Robin Bailey. "They were telling people they'd be making a lot more money, because you're saving $75 or so in scanning and film costs per shot. Well, clients don't care. They want the shot in perfect color and they want it for less money. You're always up against price."

On the other hand, some clients are applying the material savings to other aspects of the job. "What clients save on film, they might put toward higher quality paper, Pantone colors, spot varnish-bells and whistles they might not have specified before," explains ASG's John Gagliano.