First it was the old black and white photographs taken with a large, clunky camera, printed in chalk. Then, after a long period of experimentation came coloured photographs. Then Polaroids. Today, it’s all digital.
Like the photography industry itself, what’s now known as Brian’s Foto Source on Arthur Street in Elmira has seen a number of changes and developments.
For more than 20 years, Brian McHugh and Dianna Weltz were co-owners of Elmira Photo Lab; this past year the two went separate ways.
“Last year it was time for me to move onto other things and so I gave up my share of Calla Studio to concentrate on the photo business alone for the long haul,” said McHugh. Given the changes, the store reopened as Brian’s Foto Source with McHugh noting the past few months have been a period of transition and growth.
McHugh began his life in the photo industry when he worked for a weekly newspaper in Elmira as a reporter and photographer.
“Back then I didn’t have any experience with photography. They just handed me a camera but nobody bothered to show me how to use it, really.”
His first assignment was to shoot a canoe trip on the Grand River, and the only photo on the roll that turned out properly was one he had taken in the parking lot, of a canoe being run over by a Jeep.
“I failed entirely. I was learning by the seat of my pants.”
Noticing a need in the community for a retail photography store – at the time, Elmira residents had to travel to Waterloo to have their photos developed – Brian and Dianna opened the photo lab. There, too, McHugh was learning as he went. He had only taken one seminar on retail photography before opening the store. By now, however, he has it all pretty much figured out.
The business offers a wide variety of services to its customers, including photo finishing, photo enlargements, sale of cameras and accessories, and even photo restoration and recovery.
“People come in here with a whole host of requests,” said McHugh. “We had someone in here this week that accidentally lost the photos from his sister’s wedding, around 1,000 of them. We are working now to see if we can get them back.”
Unlike some bigger chain photo development stores, the employees at Brian’s Foto take time for personal attention to their customers, he stressed.
“We look at every frame and try to make the best possible picture we can for our customer by making colour and density improvements.”
Alongside evolution of the industry came new challenges for the business, mainly a decrease in customers wanting to print their photos.
“People can show their photos on the camera screen, or on their TV or computer – there are so many way to view photos these days the customers feel like they don’t need to print them,” said McHugh. “But I am worried that this might be the generation that will have no photos of their children.
“They only have digital images. People store their photos on computers or flash drives or whatever they have on hand – but what happens if this digital media crashes?”
He does, however, think that digital photography has made taking great photos much easier for the recreational photographer.
“Now, with digital, people have an educational tool right there in their hands,” he exclaimed. “They can see the photo and say, ‘Oh, this isn’t turning out, I should do something else.’ I love digital cameras for customers because now their photos are all turning out well and they’re excited about taking them.”
McHugh thinks the next big revolution for the industry will be the integration of cameras with other forms of technology, including cell phones and video cameras.
“At some point, you are going to have a tool in your hand that is your camera and your cell phone and your video camera and whatever else you can think of. The quality of the photos will be so good that you won’t need a separate camera.”
To help stay on top of the market, McHugh enjoys hiring young people to work in the shop with him. With the help of students who are savvy with digital services and new media including Facebook, Brian’s Foto can offer leading edge products and services.
“The young people in the office are familiar with the newer devices and they use them easily,” he said with a laugh. “I am learning from them. I am from the old-school; it’s so important to keep on learning.”
As for McHugh, he is in charge of making sure customers are happy when they leave his store.
“The customers are the most important part of any business. Being a part of the community is so important to me. I love seeing the friendly face of a return customer, or meeting one for the first time.”