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How a Kenmore photo lab is surviving the digital revolution

Few industries have seen such sweeping disruption in the digital age as photography, whether it's Kodak film reaching near obsolescence or cameras being replaced by iPhones.

But the Campos Group is one photo-based business that has successfully made the transition.

Founded by George Campos on Sheridan Drive in 1979, Campos Photography Center started as a darkroom rental facility. In the 1980s, it added a photographic imaging services lab, print mounting and laminating, followed by digital imaging services including layout, design and restoration in the 1990s.

The company is still growing, with a renewed focus serving artists and photographers across the country. Via its website, launched in 2003, Campos, his daughter Sara Campos Saak, and eight employees provide photographic printing and other services online, with most of it printed, packaged and shipped from its Kenmore facility.

The Campos recently talked to The Buffalo News about how one simple change boosted sales, why they take same-day orders as late as 6 a.m. and what you should be doing with your photos that you probably aren't.

Q: How have the changes in the industry changed what your day-to-day work looks like?

George Campos: The work now is actually pretty exciting.The smartphone you carry in your pocket is an amazing camera that has lots and lots of features. In the old days, if you walked out with a few good prints you would feel awesome, now 99 percent of the time you get good work.

Q: How do you compete with national and global players online?

Sara Campos SaakThere are a lot of print houses out there in the world. There aren't that many that are focusing on artists. It's sort of a niche that we're giving artists this kind of attention.

Q: Do you have a photo service for regular consumers, like Shutterfly or Groovebook?

Campos: The type of consumer that likes Snapfish may come to us because we're local but we're not really geared to them. We print the pictures the way you send them to us. So if you send  us a picture that is really saturated or dark, we'll print it that way, whereas consumer labs assume you don't know what you're doing.

Q: How has the digital revolution changed pricing?

Campos: The work is dramatically better and the cost is dramatically cheaper. An 8x10 in the 1990s, we were charging $20 for. Now we're charging $2 and it's 20-some years later, and it's actually a better-looking product. It enables the artist to buy our work, pay us what we want and turn around and mark it up five and ten times and sell it at an art show or Etsy or Amazon or a gallery.

Q: Do you have long-term customers who have stayed with you over the years?

Campos: When we went from the local business to the internet national business, we went cold turkey. We almost 100 percent closed our local business and went 100 percent internet. If I had to do it over again, I think we should've made a bigger effort to bring our local customer base with us. A lot of people are still rediscovering us and they're amazed. A lot of time they think iprintfromhome is a national with a local production house, and they're amazed to find out that it happens to be based here and that it's a descendant of Campos Photography Center.

Q: Are there things people could be doing differently with their photos?

Campos: People are getting amazing pictures even though they're not photographers and they're sharing them and that's pretty great. But what they're not doing, and this is going to sound self-serving but it's true, they're not printing them. A year from now or 20 years from now, when that photo is going to be insanely valuable, nobody is going to know where it is.

It never rested on a piano or never sat on a wall. So these amazing pictures that are flowing through your life every single day, they're not taking some of them and making them part of their life. Chances are you have more pictures in your home that your parents took 30 years ago than that you took, so there's a gap that your family is experiencing.

Campos Saak: This generation growing up, I've heard it described, is going to be the lost generation in terms of pictures for historians. Every few months I go through my phone and print up some 4x6s and throw them in a shoe box for my kids so they'll have pictures in their lives when my iPhone dies.

It's obviously causing problems for businesses in the photo printing industry, and that's why I think our focus on the artist is so important for our success because that's a customer that needs prints and will always need prints.

Q: How else do you keep up, aside from technology?

Campos: Every time we remove a little bit of friction, it's amazing how the world finds out about it and responds magically.

Campos Saak: A lot of artists are working in these non-standard sizes in the art world, like 11x16 watercolor paper, and want to make a print. So one summer, we tripled the number of sizes available. We just put all these weirdo sizes on our website that most of the industry didn't pay attention to. Within days, sales went up big time. It doesn't have to be majorly complicated. It's just seeing what people want and helping them get it.

Campos: Since day one, if you order by 6 a.m. we have it ready for you the same day or ship it the same day. My friends said, "Who's gonna be ordering at 5 a.m.?" Well, I knew that artists are crazy. I knew artists are up halfway through the night doing stuff. People who love what they're doing at 4 a.m. can't fall asleep. To this day, a lot of our business is people who are ordering at 4 and 5 a.m. The artists are moms with little kids, people that work other jobs trying to develop a sideline for themselves. They're people with passion who are doing their 9 to 5 thing, but at 3 in the morning, they're doing what they love. And I knew those people exist.

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