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John and Judeth Burroughs have built a studio that handles a relatively high volume of photo sessions while producing high-quality images and prints. Factors contributing to their success include John’s penchant for manufacturing foam facades and the studio’s in-house printing capabilities.
Village Studio of Photography is part Hollywood back lot, part portrait studio, and part photo lab. Each part plays its part toward a cohesive unit consistent with the vision of John and Judeth Burroughs, who started the studio almost 30 years ago in Fresno, Calif.
John Burroughs says that children and family portrait photography was the studio’s launching pad, a formula that has not changed much over the years, though the ingredients in the formula have been tweaked as the market and technology have changed.
“Our children arrived shortly after we started the studio, and I became fascinated with illustrating the childhood moments, and using my background in commercial photography to do so. When we started working in the children’s market, we were competing with Sears and Penny’s, and the market was wide open at that point. We were also fortunate to get a contract with a local hospital to photograph the newborns,” recalls Burroughs. “We could bring in six children in an hour, and at first glance it might seem like we’re running a low-quality, mill-like operation. But in about ten minutes you’ve just about burnt out a child to get simple expressions.”
Burroughs adds that the studio’s volume peaked from about 1994-1998. “Now everyone photographs children,” he says, “and our market share dropped.” Though the studio’s market share fell off, the studio simply re-doubled its efforts to add value to its products and invest in technology to streamline production, thereby increasing its per-session profit.
Props to Scenes
Burroughs says that in about 1992 he began to experiment with building props out of EPS foam. Hoping to illustrate the “classic moments of childhood,” he set about replicating classic toys for his sets. Soon, a secondary business, called Little Ones Prop Shop, was born.
This original experimentation initiated what would become known as Foamology.com, a set-building educational workshop for photographers and others interested in learning how to shape foam into backdrops.
Meanwhile, the studio’s back lot was filling up with all types of scenery, from a Venetian garden to a rustic barn, complete with all the accoutrements one might find there. The facades created more than simple scenery for use in portrait photography, they created a sense of exclusivity among the studio’s clientele while allowing Burroughs to keep on-location photography to a minimum.
“I know what my number per hour here is at the studio, and it’s much better than it is on-location. So far we’ve been able to attract the clients so I don’t have to leave the studio. But if they want a family portrait at their house, for instance, I usually refer them to other photographers who go on-site,” explains Burroughs. “However, we have started doing a safari or two, such as a trip to Yosemite we’re taking with four families and a City Lights session for a group of seniors.”
Burroughs’ fascination with foam scenery and backdrops almost got him arrested at Disneyland. While his family took turns on one of the latest theme coasters, Burroughs was busily investigating the scenery outside the ride. Burroughs’ unusually close inspection raised the suspicions of park staff, who pulled him aside for questioning.
“I’m fascinated with the imagery and environments Disney is able to create,” says Burroughs, adding that his family was somewhat shocked, but perhaps not surprised, to find him in a Vacationesque Chevy Chase situation after their ride.
The facades that sit on the studio’s back lot are also built in such a way as to provide different perspective and scenery as you choose different angles from which to shoot. So, in the case of the Venetian garden, one angle provides a waterfall, while another provides a classic column as a backdrop.
The backdrops have become extremely popular, particularly among the seniors, who like the rustic, edgy backgrounds. “More often than not, the first thing out of the customer’s mouth is what’s new, and they key in on the background. We really have no classic beauty in town to use as a natural background, which is why we started building these sets,” says Burroughs.
Props to Prints
In addition to props and backdrops, Burroughs has brought almost every other aspect of the photography process in-house, including printing and framing (though they don’t make the frames from scratch). Until about five years ago, Village Studio of Photography had its own chemical lab, and the staff to run it.
Village Studio of Photography's display banners printed on LexJet TOUGHcoat Water-Resistant Polypropylene.
Once inkjet became a viable option, the staff merely re-oriented themselves to the new workflow, though Burroughs says it wasn’t a simple transition. “We went through some challenges, because it’s quite shocking to change your workflow so dramatically,” he says, “But I’ll put my inkjet prints up against any C print in any kind of fading situation and the inkjet prints outshine traditional photo processing by far. For me, printing was more about creating a competitive edge, because I could provide a better service and product faster, but I think the biggest impact is the superiority of the product over the chemical lab.”
Burroughs says he prints almost exclusively on LexJet Sunset Photo eSatin Paper, occasionally printing on a fine-art paper like Sunset Hot Press Rag, or sending out canvas to be printed and gallery wrapped by Simply Canvas.
“From the moment we started using eSatin, our clients said that it was like nothing they had ever seen or felt, based on the weight and sheen of the paper. We print the eSatin in big sheets, and cut them apart. With our other photo inkjet paper, we would easily ding it or damage it, but not eSatin. It’s a beautiful paper that mounts well and is very durable, plus I don’t see any gloss differential, especially printing it on the Canon,” says Burroughs.
Burroughs recently acquired a Canon iPF8100 to handle the bulk of the studio’s inkjet printing. The chemical portion of the lab was donated to a local high school, and the studio’s Epson printers now act as backups to the Canon.
“I’m extremely pleased by the level of black-and-white imaging we can get from this printer, as well as the gamut and how fast it prints. This machine is so quick we shouldn’t need the backup printers; even with four people printing to the queue I still don’t think we can overload it,” says Burroughs.
The ability to print in-house, and the endless varieties and sizes of prints that can be done with inkjet, has provided a boost in profit margin and marketing avenues. “I like the control we have here. If the client is the least bit concerned about a print we’ve made for them, we change it. When they walk out, I want them to be happy, and if we have to re-print we’ll have it ready the next day. You simply cannot afford to toss away that aspect of customer service,” says Burroughs. “I hope my business offers the same level and expertise to our clients as we get from LexJet. My account specialist, Cody Scherer, has been instrumental in moving us along with inkjet, and I know I’ll get the product I need in one or two days.”