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The Boutique Photographer: Outsourcing or In-House?

In-house computer work and printing or lab services? How to decide what works best for you?

By Sara Frances, M.Photog.Cr.

Like many other boutique artisans, I want to handle as much of the post-production work as possible. Our theme: integrated imaging from concept to delivery. Here’s how I weighed the pro and con before becoming my own lab.

I love the magic of Zone System film technique, retouching and book design. It was easy to preserve those same concepts once our digital light bulb turned on. Being a “pixel surgeon” and printer gives me creative joy I never felt when outsourcing production. My best images have found artistic life through experimentation with materials, collaboration on cinematic projects and even serendipity. My friend the late film maker Stan Brakage said, “To make art you have to set yourself up to let your subconscious come through.”

Ask these questions to determine which workflow suits your temperament and business model.

    • Learning Skills: Can you take the time and have the patience to learn Photoshop, Painter and other software? How to print and finish images? Money is made equally behind the camera and in post, but can you afford to become a technician?
    • Attention Span: Can you take the strain of hours at the computer, just like in the darkroom? Retouching can become a repetitive chore. Unique album design can eat huge amounts of time.
    • Techie Stuff: Are you detail oriented enough to conquer resolution and color space, sharpening and interpolation? Do your have the colorist’s eye to maintain continuity in your look from start to finish?
    • Investment: Can you afford a sophisticated computer, the latest software, peripherals, inkjet printers and a finishing and storage facility? Who will manage equipment maintenance? Are frequent upgrades too costly to justify?
    • Space: Postproduction takes sizable space, cleanliness and organization. Can you allocate a dedicated workshop with lots of accessories like cutters, assembly tables, scanner, drying racks, sink, tools, glues, spray, etc.?
    • Collaboration: Are you clients intrigued with your process, or would they rather not be involved in too many artistic choices?
    • Sales: Who is selling your next job while you’re doing the art work? Are you charging enough to be able to do just a couple of jobs at a time?
    • Seasonal Rush: Can you handle fluctuating workload? Seasonal employees?
    • Free Time: If you do everything yourself, or with a small staff, how will you take a vacation or allocate family time?

Printing in house is an easy and economical way to compare image variations before deciding on a final version. Pictured left to right are noted photographers Bruce Elsey, Lito Tejada-Flores, Linde Waidhofer, Burnham Arndt and Sara Frances.


“Cut and paste” to create a finished album takes time, but provides great reward as your work comes to life in three dimensions. 

Most photographers feel the central, tough decision is what printer to buy. As an Epson Mentor, back when convenient small printer systems were being introduced, I learned that the RIP software and the hardware interface are key. These hidden ingredients make inkjet printing a snap, save time and money and boost creativity as well.

The brand new Epson Stylus Pro Portrait Edition printers and software are the perfect match for the boutique artisan. Once set up, this system with its own server managing up to 4 printers at once is literally one-touch output. Sometimes I don’t print for a week or more. Print heads are locked down during periods of inactivity, but start right up again, rarely needing cleaning. It takes less than five minutes for the warm-up protocol, nozzle check and to send an image to the print queue. Printing on demand is not just for high volume/low cost studios; the boutique also turns rapid printing into a tremendous artistic and customer service advantage.

In-house printing is cheap, fast and good.

    • Rush Service: On demand in a matter of minutes.  
    • Quality Control: The ultimate—damage and inaccuracies easily replaced.
    • Beauty: Detailed, saturated, much wider gamut than ever, most long lasting prints on variety of media.
    • Economy: Less than labs; odd sizes easy and cheap.

Can anyone argue with awards? Inkjet printing speeds up and simplifies the complicated process of competition.

Some production facets require outsourcing, and therefore a choice of provider.

    • Traditional Albums: Seek out a few unique designs and the best customer service, since the market is overloaded with book makers that are mostly quite similar. The best book binders are now inkjet friendly. Look for simple and sophisticated designs you assemble yourself.
    • Press Books: Ignore this trend at your peril. Since consumers have access to press print houses themselves, your designs and merchandising must give them something they can’t do at home. Look for the lab offering the most flexible options for page count, sizes, paper and cover materials. Some press products fall apart easily. Test for quality construction.
    • Small Print Sales: On-line posting and fulfillment services eliminate the hassle of loose print sales from events. Hard cost is not the issue. Order taking, payment, packaging and shipping will probably eat up any profits you could realize on low dollar orders. The boutique never gives away copyright, but consider the profit potential of selling limited usage rights as a benefit for placing a substantial album order.
    • Mural Prints: If you sell just one or two very large prints a month, it may not be worthwhile to own and maintain a wide carriage printer.
    • Accessories: Equipment to make specialty items like purses, mugs, tiles, tee-shirt, chocolates, jewelry etc. is not affordable without significant volume.

Sara Frances and her business partner and husband, cinematographer Karl Arndt, own Photo Mirage in Denver, Colo.


Sara Frances teaches Creative Album Design, May 18-20 

At the Colorado Imaging Workshops, Sara Frances’ Creative Album Design Mini Session May 18-20 will teach you to be a Photo Hero. The evolution of computerized design and album manufacturing have catapulted our job as documentarians into chroniclers of relationships and emotions that touch every age group. Suddenly we are novelists, telling stories with the poetry of light and feelings. Just like learning to see the light, Sara will lead you to previsualize how any collection of photographs can become an impactful photo story, with rhythm, grace, chapters and details. Differentiate yourself from typical dependence on graphics and preset devices with unique image flow that reads with meaning from start to finish. Everyone will applaud you as the hero, preserving memories that would otherwise remain hidden on the hard drive. Whether you prefer templating or free-form design in Photoshop, this class will bring out your inner artist on the happy way to higher earnings and recognition.

Cost: $495 for PPC, PPA or WPPI members. $595 for non-members. (Balance due 30 days prior to event.)

Call 303-921-4454 or visit Colorado Imaging Workshops