Assembly Edition, 40 Years of Photography, and How Setting High Standards Improves Reputation and Rates

Written By, Kerry Raminiak

While finding a veteran sports team and individual photographer is not particularly difficult, finding one that we can pin down during a busy season is nearly impossible. Imagine our surprise then, when Doug Axford of Northlight Studio (in St. George, Ontario) not only returned our messages for an interview but his doing so was so insightful, so interesting, and so sincere we had enough for not one but two feature articles.

The following is part one of our two part interview with Doug Axford. We hope his 40 years of expertise, a mastery of Darkroom Assembly Edition, and a totally kind, funny and warm candor is as apparent reading this as it was to us learning more about his work.

Stay tuned for Part Two in the coming weeks. Sign up for our newsletter to have it delivered to you!

DARKROOM: Thank you for your time Doug, tell us a little more about yourself and where you see yourself in the professional photography spectrum of things.

DOUG AXFORD: Hi. You’re welcome. As you can see from our website, Northlight Studio is very well versed in pretty much any type of ‘people photos’. We started in 1975 as a full time storefront studio and after some time, my tenure during the PPO [Professional Photographers of Ontario] and observing some of the trends in professional photography, I became disillusioned with the BS that pervaded the profession. So many great pros I knew were not earning enough to pay the bills and were dependent upon their wife’s job to put food on the table.

Even though I had the expertise to take great portraits, I quickly found that shooting school and sports photos was the real money maker. For the past 20 years, we’ve been located in a rural area with a 2,000 square foot studio beside our home. We’re open by appointment only and in the middle of winter, we just close up and go to the Caribbean. We’re not wealthy by any means but I now call myself semi-retired.
I’ve been a full time pro for 40 years and I’ve lived through a lot of changes.

DARKROOM: School and sports, huh? Which do you do most and enjoy more?

DOUG AXFORD:For the past dozen years we’ve been mostly T&I (team and individual) sports. We still photograph some schools and preschools but the profits are just not as good as sports anymore. Plus, the sports work suits my personal tastes more. Schools seem to drag on for months; sports are fast and furious.

DARKROOM: You just mentioned that you’ve seen a lot of changes. Are there any in particular in the T&I market you think are particularly pervasive?

DOUG AXFORD: Lots of amateurs have been pushing the limits of insanely low prices and I prefer to work on larger leagues where it takes more organization and skills to get the job done and delivered on time. We’re in a very competitive market but I think that’s true for all photographers now.
In addition, we believe that personalized products are now essential. They reduce the chances of people copying team and class photos and giving them away to others. For example, we sell 8×10 team composites for all of the house league teams and 8×10 premium memory mates for the all-star teams. All of these have the player’s name in bold on the photo they are buying. This personalization is great feature of our service, while it also saves us a lot from mass duplication.

DARKROOM: What is your sales process and the workflow that goes along with it?

DOUG AXFORD: As mentioned, we sell the 8×10″ team composites to almost all of the house league teams and 8×10″ premium memory mates for the all-star teams. Like I said, all of these have the player’s name in bold on the photo they are buying. We’ve been using our ‘star composite’ template for around eight years. We changed our memory mates around five years ago. The newer memory mate took a year to implement fully so that it is completely automated into our workflow but it works very well now.

All data is keyboarded into Darkroom Assembly Edition after the shoot. Sometimes we get the data from the league in advance. With the information, when we are printing, the template puts each player into the right place with the correct name and I simply click “Tab” to go to the next. Then I hit the “1” key to print an 8×10. Then it’s “Tab” again for the next. It’s super-fast and accurate.

DARKROOM: To go back a bit, you said that this process –with the personalization afforded to you with Assembly Edition– is key. Will you elaborate a little more for those reading this that are not completely sold on the idea yet?

DOUG AXFORD: Sure. There are a few BIG reasons that come to mind.
For one: If someone wants to make a copy of one of the composites with a different player as the ‘star’, in the middle, it’s pretty difficult with the composite and memory mate I am selling. Of course, I cannot stop the most creative thieves, but I know from our numbers that it’s very rare. We’re selling 90% of the players in all age levels. Our competitors sell mostly standard 5×7 team photos for less than half our price and we know that many get copied and given to the other players.

Secondly, it becomes a matter of policy. If a player or coach wants just a team photo without the ‘spotlight’ or ‘star’ spot, the answer is “sorry, you MUST have your own photo taken, I can’t make a print without”. Most photographers back down when pushed. I don’t, it’s my livelihood. Once you set a good policy that is fair, stick with it.

Another advantage of personalization is the trend in the last decade for parents to name their children with strange names and innovative spelling. These are the ones that LOVE to see their kids’ names in big bold letters on everything. It really sells. Darkroom Assembly also allows us to incorporate accents in the fonts. We don’t get many but we take the time to make sure it’s on the photo correctly and it makes us money.

DARKROOM: For Part One of our feature articles, do you have any quick tips to share before we take a break and then get more into your business model and products?

DOUG AXFORD: Sure. To start, I would say getting most leagues to switch to composites, instead of basic prints, took very little persuasion but has proven to be a winner for us. If a player is missing during their team time or even that day or night, we can photograph them just about any time at any field we’re shooting at for the entire week. Having players show up on time was getting harder every year. Parents have their kids signed up in multiple sports and we see lots of kids arrive at the park after the game has started.

I finally switched to composites when I had a mom screaming at me because she showed up three minutes after the team photo was finished. Many of the players had already left the park, so a reshoot was impossible. Now we can photograph any player on any team in any sequence. It doesn’t matter. Darkroom Assembly works great because it allows me to offer that kind of flexibility. As long as we know what team a player is on, many will show up when we’re shooting another league, even another sport entirely. No problem in getting everything to sort because the software does it all.

Our time limit for photo make-ups is usually three days after the scheduled photo day but we can sometimes extend that an extra day or two. I can do this because all teams go into one giant database. When we’re ready to print a division, or two or three, of 20 or more teams, I just “sort and grab” the teams I need for Assembly to merge.

Another thing we do to protect our work is to imprint a copyright symbol on each print. All player photo sheets are printed with our name in the bottom corner on each and every photo (except mini wallets). A .png file is made every year with the studio name, year and copyright symbol in gold. This is mandatory for us. All team photos have the same info printed on them also in a color appropriate to the design. The text file is “© %year% The Northlight Studio Ltd” that we place very easily using Darkroom.

Yes, people can take this to a self-serve photo kiosk and have copies made, but in most cases, if a store staff member sees the copyright, they will refuse to copy it. I don’t know of anyone else who puts their studio name on every photo they sell. It’s vital to us.

Of course, most important of all: You need to make sure that the photos your customers are showing everyone with you name on it are really great quality. Nothing will hurt more than a bad photo with your name on it. We had one single complaint last year and it was from a competitor. She complained to our client that we were using untrained high school kids to shoot for us at minimum wages. The part-time staffer in question was actually a high school teacher/part time photographer that was paid $25 an hour.

DARKROOM: What version do you have of Darkroom Assembly Edition and what equipment do you use and bring to the shoot?

DOUG AXFORD: I have two Assembly 8.9 dongles. We just shoot on site. We don’t ever take a laptop or anything like that. Everything beyond taking the picture is done in the office for editing and input.
I understand that Assembly Edition supports peripheral equipment and software like barcode scanners and accounting software. We do have a barcode reader but there are not many leagues that can supply us with an accurate list of players, unlike schools. All data is keyboarded in using MS Access and it works very smoothly with Darkroom. I prefer a database to a spreadsheet. We do have Quickbooks but we don’t use it together with Assembly for automated invoices. We use Darkroom Assembly Edition pretty thoroughly, but for some of the business stuff, it just makes sense to use a different computer, a different system.

DARKROOM: How long have you been using Darkrooom?

DOUG AXFORD: That’s a tough one, I’m guessing 10 years, probably more.

About Doug Axford and The Northlight Studio Ltd.
Doug Axford founded Northlight Studio in 1975 as a storefront portrait studio. Doug was President of the Professional Photographers of Ontario in 1981. Throughout the changes in photography, Northlight Studio has stayed in business and has moved into digital and assignment productions with a small studio available by appointment only in rural St. George. After 40 years, Doug considers himself “semi-retired” for reasons he explains in the article.

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In Part Two of our feature article with Doug, we get deeper into Darkroom and discuss what products and commercial tips are essential to his business.

As a quick preview, here is just a small part of Doug’s response to when we asked, how he uses Adobe products with
Darkroom:Everything we shoot is full size raw plus jpg. My goal is to never have to use any of the raw files but if the exposure or color is off too far, I bring all the raw files into Lightroom, do a batch adjustment, then export them for final corrections in Darkroom. Last week I had to shoot one team photo in the full sun but packed the wrong flash so I couldn’t sync above 1/250th. They were way overexposed but Lightroom and raw saved the day and the prints are perfect.

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