Love in the Time of the Digital Camera

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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Why photo labs have not gone out of business

One early morning in May last year, public relations professional A Shetty woke up in his ground floor flat in Borivali, Mumbai, to hear his landline ringing. His sister-in-law at the other end asked him why he’d been giving her blank calls from his mobile phone. Shetty affirmed that he had done nothing of the sort, and then went to check his mobile. It was not there. He noticed his window was open, and the grill had a square cut out of it. It dawned on him that someone had robbed the house. Missing along with the phone (why the thief chose to ring his sister-in-law is still a mystery) was his wedding album. It was large and looked like a little briefcase. It would have been of no value to the thief, surely, but to Shetty, it meant something, and not just in emotional terms. “It cost Rs 20,000 to make,” he says. 

About 35 years ago, his father too had had a black-and-white wedding album made. It was small, slightly broader and thicker than a notebook, and it cost only Rs 1,000, a twentieth of what the son had to shell out.

Wedding albums are expensive things, and the business of making them is an unusual one in more ways than one. Consider this: if there were no wedding albums, all the photo development labs in the country would go out of business. The culprit is technology. Till about ten years ago, cameras were analog. You put a film roll inside, shot 36 photos, and developed all of them. Then came digital cameras, and you could see what you photographed on the little screen. Then mobile phones happened, and everyone became a photographer. 

Along with this, a paradox emerged: the number of photos being shot has increased phenomenally, but none of them are being printed. It’s almost as if photos are being willfully forgotten once they are shot. “One worldwide survey found that just 3 per cent of digital photographs shot were printed,” says Appadurai, business development manager, Imaging & Printing Groups, Hewlett Packard (HP). To photo labs, this would have meant certain doom if it were not for wedding photographs. The only images which make it to paper now are of special occasions, and weddings occupy that category almost entirely.

Way back in 1981 when TS Ramanan started GLO Colour Labs in Coimbatore, 40-50 per cent of his business came from wedding photographs, 30-40 per cent was amateur printing or photos shot by home cameras, and the rest was industrial and commercial photography. “Now, almost 90 per cent is weddings,” he says.

Estimates of the number of weddings held in India every year go up to 10 million. Almost every wedding has a photographer. Across India, there are hundreds of thousands of lensmen. Earlier, they would get their photos developed at a local photo lab. But things are changing. 

Thanks to a peculiar expansion of photo labs into the printing business, wedding albums are being replaced by photobooks. A photographer in a Punjab village can easily send all his images of a wedding to a facility in Bangalore, and get a book with the photos printed in it. “To print a single book for a wedding 

is like publishing a book for a wedding. That’s amazing, isn’t it?” asks Phiroze Havaldar, owner of Mazda Labs in Mumbai. Mazda started with small 4x6 film prints 28 years ago, but bought a second digital printing press last year. Such a press costs at least Rs 2.5 crore, an investment made worthwhile by the returns.

The largest player in this field is Canvera, set up by two IITians, Peeyush Rai and Dhiraj Rai, photo hobbyists who returned to India from the US and sensed a business opportunity. Dhiraj had worked for Shutterfly, an online digital images company that would let customers upload photos and get an album delivered home. But the two realised that this wouldn’t work in India because few amateurs want to create an album, so instead they decided to make photobooks for professional wedding photographers. 

Says Aditya Kothari, vice-president, sales and marketing, Canvera, “If you use any other social occasion, people would use their own point-and-shoot camera. Most of it would not print well. But for weddings, you always call a professional photographer. It is the only photo occasion where more than 95 per cent of snaps get printed.” The start-up 

employed a sales force to engage wedding photographers across India. “We service more than 10,000, and 70 per cent of our business comes from wedding photographers,” says Kothari. Such a business was impossible in the old days, since conventional presses cannot print a single copy of a book. Digital printers, such as HP’s Indigo machines, can do it. “One lakh albums are produced by our Indigo presses every month,” estimates HP’s Appadurai.

Ramanan’s GLO and Mazda are the other pioneers of this service. As the idea catches on, now 20-30 more lab owners have installed digital presses to make photobooks. Typically, the wedding photographer gives them the image files on a compact disc. Most labs do everything, from designing the album to making multiple miniature copies of the same album to distribute among family and friends. 

“We have 100 plus designers across the country right now,” says Kothari, “They understand the kind of design which goes with, say, a Gujarati or Punjabi wedding. The album, once designed, goes online for a preview by the customer, who puts in comments and clicks ‘okay’. We print it and send it.”

The business is big and expanding. Canvera prints about 45,000 photobooks a year, the price of each ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 40,000. That’s revenue of anything between Rs 50 crore and Rs 150 crore. And the photographers they cater to are not even a fraction of the all-India potential. Says Ramanan, “In Tamil Nadu itself, registered photographers are 25,000-30,000. Most of them are wedding photographers. Even a small village will have a photographer for 15-20 families.” 

Photographers are pleased too. Says Kothari, “A couple of days ago, we had a customer from a small town in Punjab coming to our facility in Bangalore. He was a small-time photographer when he heard about our company at a photo fair. He told us, “I have been able to make a house from the sales I have done with photobooks in the last two years.”