An Aqueous Journey
Photographer-turned-print provider Bill Louf finds wide-format success.
In the wide-format digital print world, it’s rare to find a formally trained artist specializing in commercial print work. That’s where Bill Louf, owner of ImageMaster (imagemastersedona.com) in Sedona, Arizona, breaks the mold. His was a long road from the New England School of Photography to custom digital printer, and the evolution was entirely organic.
Today, Louf does nearly as much commercial print work as fine-art reproductions. And he sees each job as an opportunity to showcase not only what he knows about art, but what he has learned about digital-printing technologies and how far they can go to make a print jump off the proverbial page.
Before settling in the remote artist colony of Sedona, Louf worked for years as a custom printer – initially in New England, and then in the Pacific Northwest. His first job out of college at a photographic lab in Boston introduced him to the print side of the photography business, and he leveraged everything he learned then – in the late 1970s – about printing 16 x 20s, 20 x 30s, and other large prints in a darkroom, into a profitable income in Seattle. By the early 1990s, Louf had more business than he could handle doing custom print work for clients such as the United Parcel Service out of his photo lab near Everett, Washington.
Becoming purely inkjet
“Because of the emergence of digital printing, in 1994 both United Parcel Service and Datacom Technologies called me in the same month and said, ‘You know, Bill, we’re starting to go digital and if you went digital, we’d have more work for you, plus we’d be able to keep you as our supplier, because that’s the way the business is moving,’” Louf explains.
“I went home and told my wife, ‘Instead of buying a film processor for my lab, why don’t we buy a computer and a scanner?’ I immediately began taking in work – in fact, I was taking in work before I even knew how to use the thing. That’s one way to learn it, and it’s one way your beard turns white in one summer, too. It was pretty stressful.”
That year, Louf went to a Photo Marketing Association (PMA) tradeshow in Las Vegas, where he first saw a 36-inch inkjet printer in action. “I thought, ‘That would be great for doing banners and posters and all the commercial work I do, because you can change the type on it really easily.’ We leased one – at the time it was $30,000 – and I was the first person north of Seattle to have an inkjet printer. Of course, a year and a half later, they came out with a better-resolution model that had eight colors, so I wasn’t even done paying for the first one, and I bought the second one and got even more business.”
From there, he began producing tradeshow displays, posters, and banners and, finally found himself in a position to return to his roots in fine-art reproduction, because the new inkjet printers were capable of output onto canvas. In 2000, Louf decided it was time to re-brand his business. He sold the photo lab he had been working out of, moved six blocks up the street, and added the name ‘ImageMaster’ to his business cards.
“At that time, I had a Colorspan and an Epson 7600 printer, and I would do artwork for people as well as tradeshow displays and banners. Then, I hooked up with the hockey team in Everett, Washington, and I would do the boards that go around the rink. As a matter of fact, I still do the design work for their pocket calendar and their season tickets and program every year.”
The business, he says, “Just kind of evolved from there, where I became purely an inkjet print provider – I ended up having four big printers in my shop near Seattle.”
A new focus on fine art
In 2006, when he and his wife were looking for a change of pace, and of climate, they loaded up their belongings and moved to Sedona, an artists’ enclave about two hours outside of Phoenix. It was there that they set up shop to focus on reproducing artwork for the town’s abundance of creative-types.
“We just opened a frame shop down here and offered giclée printing and, because we’re such a small, isolated town, I now do more artwork than anything else. Of course there’s also a lot of competition these days.
“Now that you can buy a printer for five grand, though, everybody thinks they’re a printer. I had a couple of customers who were retired dentists who became photographers. They were coming to me in the beginning and then all of the sudden they stopped coming to me because they went out and bought their own printers. Some of these people don’t want to buy anything over a 24 inch, so they have me print anything that needs a 44-inch printer.”
The coffee connection
However, Louf – who considers himself first and foremost a landscape photographer – is something of an expert networker, and he’s not one to turn away a commercial print job when it comes his way. And that seems to happen more often than he initially planned when he relocated to the desert to focus on printing fine art.
His coffee habit, for instance, scored him a recent job with a local Starbucks franchise located inside the town’s Hyatt Resort.
Louf recounts the evolution of his partnership with the coffee shop: “Back when it was a corporate store, one of the managers wanted to create their own coffee blend, so they came up with the idea of this Sedona Red Special Blend. Starbucks corporate approved the formula but wouldn’t help them market it.”
Eventually, Starbucks closed down the corporate store, but the Hyatt owners jumped through hoops to license the location as a franchisee. Once they got the nod, one of the new manager’s first priorities was to resurrect the Sedona Red brand. Which is when Louf came into the picture.
“I’m one of their customers, so they see me all the time – I go for coffee there every morning. The Hyatt said to me, ‘We’re going to come up with the blend and start selling it, and we want a label.’ Nancy, the manager, asked if I had any images of Snoopy Rock, a red rock formation that you can see from the Starbucks. I told her about one I shot after a thunderstorm with a rainbow coming right out of the top of the rock formation, against a dramatic gray sky.” The photo in question, which Louf shot using his Nikon D300S camera, would eventually become the “face” of the Sedona Red blend – but not without a dramatic overhaul.
“I did nine versions of the label. The first one I did was the version they wanted and when they looked at it, they said, ‘We don’t like that.’ We went back and forth a ton. They asked if I could put some coffee beans on it, so I took a photo of some coffee beans piled up on a table, clipped them out and put them in the foreground like a little hill. They liked that, so then they said, ‘What would it be like if there was a coffee cup on it?’ So I put a coffee cup on it. Of course, their reaction was, ‘No, we don’t like that! Get rid of that!’ so I took it back out. Then, I think they’d almost approved it when the manager at the Hyatt said, ‘I don’t like the gray sky, though, can you put in a blue sky that’s got puffy white clouds?’”
Louf’s reaction at this point: “Well, then you’re not going to have a rainbow there, and the rainbow is what’s really cool about the picture!” But, like any compliant designer, he headed back to the drawing board – in this case, utilizing a combination of Adobe InDesign and Photoshop to see if he could make the changes the client envisioned. “I took this image I’d shot at Sand Dunes up in Utah that has really dramatic white clouds in it. I managed to superimpose it in PhotoShop behind the rock formation and still keep the rainbow. Even though it was less saturated, you could still see there was a rainbow. And, boom, that’s the one they liked.”
A peel-and-stick solution
With consensus on the label design, Louf and his partners at the Hyatt Starbucks were ready to move forward with printing. Because the private-label coffee was something of a marketing experiment for the store, they didn’t know how much they could expect to sell. Starting small, with only 100 labels, Louf knew there was little chance of finding a label company willing to print such a small batch for a reasonable price. So, instead, he offered up his own machine – a 44-inch Epson Stylus Pro 9800 – for output onto LexJet 11-mil Sunset Photo eSatin 300g paper, using Epson Ultrachrome K3 aqueous pigmented inks with three-level black-ink technology (simultaneous black, light black, and light light black).
All told, Louf says, he can output, cut, and mount 100 labels for Starbucks in less than an hour. “Basically, I gang them up so they’re 11 images across on a 36-inch roll, and then I print them three rows high, so I’m printing 33 at a time. I always print some extras, because I know they’re going to order them, and I just put them in the drawer until I run the next run.”
The labels are applied by hand, peel-and-stick fashion, to white coffee bags that have a picture of the Pike Street market store, the Starbucks label, and brown printing on them. But, because the media Louf chooses to print on is not self-adhesive, he has combined ingenuity with his years of experience to come up with a solution for the client.
“They’re printed on eSatin paper, which comes on 100-foot rolls x 36-inches, because that’s what I stock. When I get done printing them, I sled them upside down with a piece of 3A Composites Gatorfoam that I run through my 33-inch Coda roller press [laminator] and basically put an adhesive on it. I don’t take the release sheet off, I leave it on because it’s Teflon coated, so anything I run through there is not going to stick. Then I flip the prints upside down so they’re face down on this sled and I run them through the Coda again with the adhesive this time, and the adhesive goes on the back of the print. When I flip them back over, I trim away the outside edges that are bigger than the print was, and I end up with a sheet of these labels that have an adhesive backing on them that’s peel-and-stick. Then I take my Rotatrim cutter and, in 20 minutes, clip them apart into a stack of 2 x 3-inch labels that they can peel and stick onto the coffee packages.”
Building brand momentum
The label experiment was a solid success, with Starbucks selling out of 100 packages of coffee in the first month-and-a-half. To maintain the branding momentum, Louf then proposed developing a series of signs and P-O-P displays, and Starbucks jumped on board.
“I made them a small sign mounted on 3A Composites Sintra and they put it on what used to be a Starbucks point-of-purchase display. They put the sign on top and put nine bags of coffee with the label on it and set it right by the register,” says Louf.
He also created several 16 x 20-inch signs using LexJet Photo Tex peel-and-stick media, featuring the label image and the words, “A Taste as Unique as Sedona,” and had Hyatt put these on the window. “That way, if someone tells them to take it off, they can just pull it off and put it back on whenever they want or if they have different promotions. They ended up putting them up on the window and they’re still there today and it’s been a year and a half. Now, they sell more of that brand of coffee the Sedona Red Blend, than any other coffee.”
Then, when Starbucks approached him about printing inserts for clear plastic coffee travel mugs featuring the Sedona Red Blend image, Louf jumped at the chance to try something new.
“I printed those on LexJet Archival Matte paper with the same printer and inks. I said, ‘You pay me a royalty fee, I’ll print them, and you can trim them and put them in yourselves to increase your margins since Starbucks corporate is charging you retail on the cups themselves.’ Those things started selling like hotcakes and we realized it’s because of all the tourists that come here and they see that and they want to take it home.”
Louf admits he never imagined when he was studying photography in college that he would find himself all these years later becoming a commercially oriented print provider. “It’s all evolved organically,” he says. “I guess I’m a good networker, and I just keep falling into these commercial-type jobs.”
The fact that he knows a thing or two about marketing from all those years of working with companies to promote their own messages hasn’t hurt Louf’s self-promotional efforts, either.
“It’s like anything else: When times get tough, you go looking for work that you know how to do. That’s how I fell into the Cliff Castle Casino job,” Louf says. “I was doing a design job for another client and when she samples of my work, she said, ‘I should hook you up with my husband – he’s the marketing director at Cliff Castle Casino.’ I went and showed him my portfolio and the next thing you know, I got a photo shoot there. I told him, ‘Your backlit transparencies look just terrible.’ There was banding on them, and you could tell they were using like 50-percent ink coverage. So I ended up getting that gig, too.”
Another recent job fell in Louf’s lap earlier this spring, when he was approached by an electric-car dealership in Sedona that was looking for help with a new tradeshow display.
“I say to the client, ‘Tell me what the tradeshow booth display is like.’ I’m told it’s a 10-foot booth. So I design this thing for a 10-foot-wide booth. Then, three days before the tradeshow, I’m told that it’s a 50-foot-wide booth. I say, ‘Do you have a budget?’ and the client says, ‘Not really,’ so I said ‘I’m going to have to add some banners and stuff to fill up this space.’”
Undeterred, Louf set to work with InDesign and Photoshop to create enough compelling images to fill up the empty spaces on the display, which the client called, “Go Electric.”
“I ran a bunch of banners on matte canvas and I ran some on banner material. I did a bunch of little signs I designed that say, ‘Gasoline’ at the top, like a gas pump, and it says ‘regular, high test, premium,’ underneath. All the pricing numbers are ‘0’ because they’re electric cars and they don’t use any gas,” he explains. “We didn’t do any of the signage on hardboard, so they could roll them up and put them all in one box. The client also had me do a bunch of those gas pump signs on Phototex to stick on the cars.”
In the end, the client was happy and Louf says he enjoyed the challenge – especially now that he can look at it in the rearview mirror of life – and see that it was another success in his repertoire.