Photo restoration and editing labs can add a new dimension to your range of services. Here’s how to find a lab and get your customers to dig up their damaged photos

Picture-perfect photo services: photo restoration and editing labs can add a new dimension to your range of services. Here’s how to find a lab and get your customers to dig up their damaged photos

Jennifer Wong

A regular customer walks into your frame shop with a black-and-white photograph of her grandmother as a baby. It’s her only copy, and she d like it framed. Trouble is, the photo has been creased, the emulsion has cracked in a few places, and the print is awfully small. She is looking for a nice ready-made frame or an inexpensive custom frame job for her tiny, damaged photo. Do you sympathetically offer your condolences and give her an inexpensive frame job? Or do you tell your customer that you can fix her photo, have it enlarged, add some reprints for other relatives and give her an exquisite custom frame job?

Many custom framers are restoring less-than-perfect photos and other documents and ending up with happier customers, more custom frame jobs and increased profits by adding photo services to their offerings with the help of outside photo restoration and editing labs.

The photo-finishing market is a $33-billion industry and appears to be growing larger as more Americans are realizing that they no longer have to live with damaged or otherwise problematical pictures. It makes sense to many framers to link up with a photo service to better serve the needs of their customers while adding to their own profit margin.

“The framing world has changed,” said John Gornall CPF, a custom framer for 22 years and owner of Corners in Campbell River, British Columbia. “Framing is more competitive today, and framers need to broaden their scope, offer more services and frame different kinds of things.”

“Framers are missing the boat if they don’t take the opportunity to become knowledgeable about the variety of photo processes available today,” added Gornall. He sees customers walking in with photos to be framed varying from 50-year-old wallet-sized black and whites to floppy discs. “If you can’t deal with their photo issue, you are not going to be able to sell them framing.”

Put the Photo Before the Frame

Jeff Makoff, owner of the Digital Custom Group Inc., a worldwide online photo-finishing service, said framers are in a perfect position to use a photo-finishing service because people already come to them with their most important pictures. “Normally, a framer will look at a photo and immediately start thinking, `Well, how should we frame this?’ With our service, a framer can first look at a picture on its merits.” A framer can point out the obvious–that a person’s eyes are closed or a glare is in a picture–and offer to have it fixed. Most customers are surprised this can be done, said Makoff, but since the picture is important to them in the first place, many agree to the service.

Makoff acknowledged that there is a little reluctance among framers to offer the service because they are not sure if it’s a fit for their business. “It is an easy, profitable service, and we make it simple for framers to offer it. And it yields a high customer satisfaction,” said Makoff.

One of Gornall’s regular customers came in recently with a 2- by 3-inch black-and-white picture she wanted framed to match the other framing his shop had done in her house. She wanted a flame that was about 12 by 16 inches. So, he scanned the picture, sent it off to his lab, had it enlarged and printed on photographic paper, made an extra copy to give to her sister and gave her the custom framing job she wanted. “Instead of someone coming in with a 2- by 3-inch photo and walking off with a 4-inch, off the shelf photo-frame, I turned it around and sold $600 worth of pictures and framing,” said Gornall.

Besides making enlargements of photos, the most common procedure requested, photo-finishing services can offer the framer and their customers procedures ranging from fixing common photo errors like poor lighting, to removing an unwanted person, changing backgrounds and fixing dosed eyes or cleaning up photos damaged by water, fire or creases. Companies can hand-color old black and whites, create montages and vignettes and digitally link photos to create a complete panoramic shot. Many photo-finishing services print on photo paper or watercolor paper and can produce the increasingly popular canvas transfers.

Another reason framers should consider linking up with a photo lab is for conservation and preservation purposes of old photographs. Most professional photographers do not recommend framing original photographs if they are old and negatives of the image do not exist. Experts agree the original should be kept in an acid-free photo album in the dark while copies of the photograph are framed. Photo-finishing services can easily make copies while enlarging the print if desired and repairing any damage that has been done to the old photo.

In addition, some companies work with other mediums besides photos, such as old newspaper clippings or certificates, documents that framers often see in their shops. Recently, West Coast Imaging in Oakhurst, Calif., made a copy of an old, precious document that needed to be preserved for a small church. The copy looked just as it did when it was first created, while the original was placed in a safety deposit box.

Time is on Your Side

Some framers are reluctant to add photo services to their repertoire, fearing they will have to buy expensive equipment and learn to use complex computer systems which will take up too much of their time. But in reality, the cost of linking up with a photo service is miniscule, and the amount of time it takes a framer to handle a photograph takes less time than you would imagine.

Many photo-finishing services charge framers and other retailers wholesale prices for their work while allowing the framer to charge whatever they want for the finished piece.

Danny Evatt, co-owner of PhotoTech and Fast Frame in Midland, Texas, has his photo restorations done by a photo finishing service. “I can basically charge whatever I want to. I am in a small market, and there isn’t a lot of opportunity for my customers to go anywhere else. My markup is sometimes triple what I get charged by my photo service.” The average cost for his restorations run his customers from $80 to $150 with custom framing costs on top of that. When asked if his customers ever balk at his prices, Evatt said, “Not at all.”

Digital Custom Group Inc. has done a study of the amount of time a retailer needs to invest to use their service. “The process for the framer to send an image to us takes less than four minutes per order,” said Makoff. In addition, the survey found that the average profit a store makes per order exceeds $30 to $40. “If you list all the ways that stores make their money, there would be very few of them that make $30 or more in profit in four minutes,” said Makoff.

Gornall, who has a daily courier service run to his photo lab 100 miles away from his store, said it takes his employee about 20 minutes per day to manage the photographic orders. Meanwhile, he sees a tremendous amount of custom framing from these orders alone.

Little to No Equipment Required

As for buying additional equipment to work with these services, there is little output needed by the framer. Some photo-finishing services accept work by the postal system and will telephone frame shops with their estimates and send back the original and restored copy to the framer via the mail system.

If a frame shop has a computer, Internet connection and scanner then no other equipment is needed to work with a photo-finishing service. A framer can make a high-resolution image of the photo or document, send it to the photo-finishing service with their requests and receive a restored copy or copies back via mail or by e-mail if the framer has printing capabilities.

However, just a computer and Internet connection is all that is needed for framers to work with the online Digital Custom Group Inc. The company gives stores scanners and teaches framers how to use them if they agree to order a certain number of restorations in a year. Digital Custom gives its stores free point-of-sale materials, easels and a brochure listing 10 ways to sell the service.

Makoff’s company spends between $200 and $500 per store supporting them with materials and whatever else is needed to promote the service effectively. Digital Custom can afford to do this because their retailers generate so much revenue on a per store basis that the company can make that back within two or three months.

PhotoSave, a photo-finishing company in Columbus, Ohio, takes orders by U.S. mail and via the Internet. In addition to promotional materials that include before-and-after samples and a dealer poster, withe every order, owner Jeff Brown mails his clients a free archive CD that contains a low-resolution image of the restored photo. It’s been very popular with stores’ clients because they use it to send out the images via e-mail to family members or post the image onto a family Web site. “Our service is so easy to use that framers can be virtually hands off and do what it is that they do best, which is run their custom framing business,” said Brown, who has been a custom framer himself for 17 years.

While most of the work done by today’s photo-finishing services is done digitally, there are a few labs that can make copies of an original photograph by creating a silver-gelatin print in a dark room and restoring it using airbrushes and paint. These photographs are produced on double white fiber paper and come as close as possible to looking like the original did on the day it was taken.

This method is more expensive and doesn’t allow for a great deal of manipulation but it may be an option that framers want to keep in mind for their customers. The Dark Room in San Carlos, Calif., does a good amount of this kind of work while also offering clients digital options, according to Danny Nolan, lab manager. His custom shop serves many in-state and out-of-state clients.

Selling the Service

The service can virtually sell itself with the right display or if it is suggested when a customer brings in an item to be framed. Here are some ways to sell photo services effectively:

Create a simple display of an old, restored photo. Karen Gast, owner of Karen Gast Photography in Lockport, N.Y., is a photographer and custom framer. She has displayed an old photograph taken of Niagara Falls around the turn of the century that generates a lot of photo restoration and framing business for her. “People will look at the photo and say to me, `You know, I have a picture of my grandmother and I’ve got to bring that in.'” It’s as simple as that for Gast to get additional work.

Create a photo restoration/edition museum in your shop. One of Digital Custom Group’s successful stores displayed samples on their counter of their clients’ work using before-and-after photographs (after getting the clients’ permission). Customers invariably gravitate toward the little museum and start asking questions about the process, the shop reported. This method of display takes no counter person time at all except for answering the questions generated by the display. It’s an effortless way to generate interest in the service and usually results in additional work for the store.

Create a story by framing personal items with a photograph. Gornall does what he calls, “storybook framing.” His clients will come in with a picture of grandpa in his army uniform, and his sales people pounce on that as an opportunity to tell a story. They suggest to their clients to bring in his medals, war records, badges and find out what unit he served in to engrave on a plate. Currently, his shop is framing just such a piece. “We’ve gone from someone coming in with an 8- by 10-inch photo and wanting a $14.95 ready-made to a triple suede $300 frame job. And the customer loves it,” said Gornall.

Storybook framing can be used to create an elaborate frame job or something quite simple such as including a photograph of a child with his or her artwork that is brought in to be framed. A framer could frame a vintage purse alongside a restored photo of a relative or lace gloves worn by a bride along with her picture. The use of photography in framing is limited only to the imagination of the framer and his or her clients.

When considering whether or not to offer this service, framers should keep in mind the ultimate end, which is to give customers a better product and generate more custom framing jobs. If the service interests you, do a little research by contacting companies, talking with them and asking for references. In addition, ask professional photographers or other framers at trade shows whom they recommend.

Gornall strongly urges fellow framers to learn about photography and link up with a photo service. “Go out and learn what you can do with a picture in your hand,” he said. “You can make it bigger, smaller, turn it into a black and white, restore it, put it on canvas–and in all of those forms you can frame, frame, frame. Use the knowledge about photos and what you can do with them to create framing business.”


The Dark Room (650) 592-8586,

Digital Custom Group Inc. 866-668-8880,

PhotoSave (614) 306-4880,

West Coast Imaging 800-799-4576,

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