His job is to plug in the smile

Portrait photographers in Juneau are capping their busiest season

Posted: Thursday, December 12, 2002

A portrait photographer makes use of many tools during family photo shoots for the Christmas season: a top-of-the-line camera, lights, a computer, scanner and printer, backdrops, furniture and rugs and, of course, puppets.

"I want you to meet a friend of mine," said Juneau photographer Cam Byrnes during a portrait shoot last weekend. A puppet shaped like a cow sat on his left hand, and a noise similar to that of a cat's came out of his mouth.

"What's that? Cows don't meow!" he said.

The two children and even the baby in the Barber family, whom he was photographing, burst out with smiles. Parents Sam and Sabrina Barber seemed to relax as Byrnes kept talking with the puppet on his left hand and hitting the shutter button of a camera with his right.

Juneau portrait photographers are wrapping up their busiest season, that of high school and family portraits, this month. For most, being able to make small children smile is one of the most valuable tools of the trade.

"I've been at the will of 2-year-olds more than once in my career," said Juneau portrait photographer David Gelotte.

Most families get their portraits done in September and October, the same time that high school seniors traditionally have their portraits taken. Families use portraits for Christmas cards, or give away larger prints as gifts.

"Normally from September to December is about 80 percent of my portrait-sitting work," said Byrnes.

Sam and Sabrina Barber and their kids Jorah, 4, Micah, 2, and Kysa, 3 months, decided months ago to get a family portrait.

"We knew we wanted to a long time ago, but me being pregnant and then having a baby so young - we put it off," Sabrina Barber said.

Finally, they were able to schedule time for the portrait, but not early enough to use the photos as Christmas presents.

"We'll order prints later," Sabrina Barber said. "Now we just want Christmas cards."

Although the end of November usually marks the deadline for getting portraits in time for Christmas, the Barbers will have their portrait on cards seven to 10 days after they sit for the portrait, Byrnes said.

Once proofs are delivered from Byrnes' processor in Tacoma, Wash., the family will choose a photo for their cards and Byrnes will drop off the negative at Front Street Photo, the photo processor in downtown Juneau.

"I won't make any money off the Christmas cards," Byrnes said. He makes very little money on the $65 photo shoot, either, after using an average of four rolls of film that cost $15 apiece to purchase and have processed. Profits in the portrait business come from prints the family orders.

The photo shoot, though it lasts only 30 to 50 minutes, is the most energy-intensive part of the portrait business. After spending 25 minutes checking lights, shifting family members to different positions in the studio and playing with puppets, Byrnes was out of breath.

"You really have to move fast, huh?" Sabrina Barber said.

Occasionally Byrnes re-schedules portrait sittings with young children who don't cooperate.

"We all (portrait photographers) have sittings that don't work," Byrnes said. "You know right away, and I'll just speak right up and say it, because I want them to be happy with the pictures."

Although Byrnes still uses film, he is making a gradual shift to digital technology.

"I don't shoot family groups digitally, but much of the work these days has gone through some digital process," Byrnes said.

He will scan film and retouch it digitally on his computer, or do rush orders of prints with an ink-jet printer in his office.

Digital technology "is hard to keep up with, and it's expensive to keep up with," Byrnes said.

But he plans to offer his customers digital proofs, eliminating the paper proofs from which the family chooses photos to order.

With a digital proofing system, Byrnes will send his film to a processor in Tacoma, Wash., and the processed film will be scanned to a Web site. Byrnes will edit the photos and delete ones he doesn't want the customer to see, then give the customer a code to access the photos.

The customer will choose the photos and order the prints directly from the Web site. The processor will send prints to Byrnes so the photographer has a view of the final product before it goes to the customer.

Byrnes has not offered this technology to his regular customers yet, but he is doing test runs of the system to ensure it works efficiently for the customer and protects his property rights to his work.

"Copyright for photos is really hard in this digital age," he said.

Byrnes risks customers downloading proofs without paying for them when he puts the proofs on the Internet. New technology, such as digital "water marks" that render a photo blurred when downloaded, can greatly reduce that risk.

Digital cameras, which convert light into images stored on a computer chip rather than on film, were introduced to consumers in 1994. High-quality digital photography can produce an image almost equal in quality to that of film, and allows the photographer to produce a print soon after the photo is taken.

Gelotte began the switch to a digital system about 1 1/2 years ago.

"I started small, with doing school portrait packages and sports things," Gelotte said. "Then as I became convinced that the quality was equal to film for larger enlargements, I started incorporating it into the studio, particularly for people who needed rush orders."

Now, with thousands of dollars invested in the new system, Gelotte does almost all of his work on digital. The system significantly reduces the amount of time a customer waits between the photo shoot and receiving final prints.

"I could do next-day service if I had to, but normally a couple of weeks turnaround time would be typical," Gelotte said.

Before he switched to digital, Gelotte's customers waited almost 1 1/2 months to receive prints.

"What I'm getting now is, 'Gee, I didn't think about this until now. Can I still get it before Christmas?'" Gelotte said.

Byrnes and Gelotte expect the family-portrait business to increase closer to Christmas, when family members arrive from out of town to celebrate the holidays here.

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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