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

Written By, Kerry Raminiak

Part One of our interview with Doug Axford of Northlight Studio Ltd. (of St. George, Ontario an hour west of Toronto) found us awestruck with great advice for the team and individual sports photographer. So far, we’ve learned that composite and memory mate products create not only a distinct competitive advantage, they also save a lot of income from copyright infringement. We are also more convinced of putting a copyright mark on each image among other lessons cultivated from Doug Axford’s 40+ years of experience.

In Part Two, we dig a little deeper into Assembly Edition and other complimentary software products that Northlight Studio uses to streamline business.

DARKROOM: This is a busy season for you. What types of projects are keeping you busy right now?

DOUG AXFORD: We are fully booked 6 days a week from early May when the kids are allowed on the fields, until the end of June. Once kids are out of school at the end of June, it’s very difficult shooting sports teams when many teams are missing players and they just don’t want photos taken. One aspect we’ve worked hard on is to make sure that every evening and weekend is booked to our capacity. I will not overbook, so it’s a fun job to schedule everything to make maximum use of our time. I’m not interested in hiring a lot of part-timers and lowering our standards.

DARKROOM: Beyond composites and memory mates, what other products do you offer and sell the most of?

DOUG AXFORD: We sell just about anything that will easily fit into the bag we hand to the league or the coach. That eliminates mugs due to the bulk, but we do offer dye sublimated key and bag tags plus DVD’s, magazine covers, one and two sided trading cards, posed action posters, and the like.

Everything is produced within our studio. Nothing is ever sent out. We have our own digital wet lab that connects to our network of computers and whatever we click to print comes out in 4½ minutes.
Each team has their orders put together in the team folder and the photos come off the printer and get put into the folder, ready for packaging.

We print a lot of traders. Last year, we sold laminated traders to almost 50% of the players. It actually caused us a problem because traders take extra time for production because we have to stick them back to back and then laminate them. On a sidenote, in Darkroom Assembly, printing a trader is so simple, I have it set up to print both front and back with one click of key #1.

DARKROOM: Do you use Darkroom for things other than pictures, for example, do you print yearbook pages, CD disks, publish pictures for sale online, print envelopes, archiving, retouching, etc?

DOUG AXFORD: We used to do yearbooks, but we no longer shoot high schools so we don’t need to offer that service in particular. I use Darkroom for all of our printing for portraits and weddings. Like I mentioned before, we shoot anything as we have a small studio as well. For this type of work I rely on Photoshop. I learned Photoshop before it was owned by Adobe so I know it and Lightroom, very well. Regardless of any graphic design or retouching I do, all images are printed with Darkroom. It’s just so much faster than any other way.

DARKROOM: Do you use Adobe products in your sports work?

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. T&I Sports work is often done outside in very difficult conditions with light conditions changing moment to moment. 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.

DARKROOM: Considering how well versed you are in types of photography and software systems, who would you recommend Darkroom Assembly to?

DOUG AXFORD: Assembly separates the pros from the amateurs. It’s an expensive piece of software that only dedicated pros are going to buy. Darkroom Assembly without a doubt is the one thing that makes us a lot of money. I will say, learning Assembly is a difficult job and the learning never ends. I’m finding new ways to do a job faster every year and new products I can make to earn money. Assembly is the most important part of our system. Without it, I’d be looking for a job as a greeter at Walmart! Our studio would have been one of the 90% that failed.

As I mentioned, we get tons of amateurs wanting to steal our leagues. Our prices are 50 to 100% higher than our competitors and I have to constantly keep templates renewed with good ideas and designs every year. A major part of our success is fast turnaround of orders and our insistence that orders are complete and accurate. We’ll have less than a handful of errors out of 5,000 orders each spring and that is something that we work very hard at. It took me years to finally get the templates sorted the way I like so that I can now print very quickly, probably twice as fast as I was only a few years ago.

So, I think the short answer would be Assembly is for pros that need to invest in a piece of software that really brings them to the next level. It requires a lot of time and energy to learn the ins and outs, so new users need to understand that the training is important and the learning curve will take some time. Once the investment of both time and money is made, however, we’ve found it is recouped quickly.

DARKROOM: Do you have any tips for Darkroom Assembly (or other editions for that matter)?

DOUG AXFORD: Wow. I can think of a lot.

For starters, I’ve set up those templates so key “1” prints one front 8×10 plus one back 8×10 for trading cards. Each number key on the keyboard represents one entire package so production is fast.

I also go through each image twice. It gets corrected for cropping, density and color on one station, then “ripped” and sent to one huge folder with all the sports images for 2012. The data then links the images in that folder. Once Assembly puts the team together in one folder, I go through and tweak the color and density if needed and make the prints. That way, we make sure the color looks as good as we can make it. A typical team is printed in a few minutes. By ripping everything, I have the corrected image on multiple disks in case something gets corrupted on a disc or in Darkroom. It does happen. For example, innocently renaming a folder by accident will lose all of your links – which is how Darkroom saves the changes to the image.

All images are re-numbered when they are imported from the camera card. We start new numbers each year, so if someone calls us for a re-order, I can find their photo out of thousands within seconds. If they don’t know the image number, I can find it in the database within seconds. We can almost always pull their own order form within 30 seconds. That’s one order form out of ten thousand in half a minute! Lots of parents call us and have no idea even the name of the team their child plays on! House league teams are like that BUT we find house leagues to be more profitable than all-star teams. The kids on all-star teams seem to be in every sport that exists and parents already have tons of photos. House league parents want to imagine their kids as stars and they buy more photos. I also find that coaches on house league teams are so much easier to work with.

I touched on this before, but all player sheets have a small strip on the edge that has the player’s name, the team number, image number plus our name, phone number and copyright info. That extra strip is well worth the cost.
We’ve created a template that creates one 5×7, two 3x5s, plus five 1×1 3/4, all on an 8×10 sheet. I learned that idea from Guerrilla Marketing and it’s our biggest seller. It’s so easy to make a custom template to suit your needs. One click and it’s printed. Custom templates allow you to be one up on your competition and Darkroom does templates so well.

DARKROOM: Do you have any business tips for us?

DOUG AXFORD: Parent and player feedback is absolutely vital to us. We constantly have people complaining about our competition. It’s one of the few things that puts a smile on my face. It’s amazing that we get players from other leagues that the competition is photographing show up for our shoot and ask for a package. We simply package it with their brother/sister’s pack or we can mail it for $10 more.

The one thing I love about sports, compared to schools – we get a chance to talk to the parents. Their feedback actually helps me create new ideas. One thing I changed was making our laminated trading cards the exact size as credit cards so they would fit into wallets perfectly. Such a simple thing but no one had thought of it.
Then one thing I consider one of our innovations: we don’t use payment envelopes for sports. A full-color double-sided sales flyer goes to the parents one or two weeks prior to the shoot. At the shoot we have a staffed payment table so all money is separated and paid in full prior to the kids coming to the camera area.

One quick tip is that the cost of this extra staff is well worth it. They have the time to answer questions, show samples, suggest extra sales and get lots of feedback from the parents. We can also take credit cards and debit on our wireless credit card machine. In Canada, that’s a huge benefit because so many people want to pay by debit and you must have a bank device to do that. Keep in mind that debit via iPhone or Android is not legal here and debit cards are very popular.
On our color flyer, we custom imprint the league prices, team information, photo date and times for each and every team. We get a lot of coaches who think they can change our shoot schedule and once it’s printed on the flyer, we have eliminated that problem. It also allows us the flexibility to add new items when we want. I have 12,000 flyers printed but the package contents and the prices are all blank. It’s easy to run those through our laser printer and customize them for each league. Almost all leagues are ‘player pay’ but we do have one that is ‘league pay’. For all of the above we use the same forms and just change prices.

I just completed photographing the ‘league pay’ teams we acquired after another photographer messed up. I’m happy to say that after 3 years of sub-par sales, it’s now getting close to our regular leagues. It takes time to get parents and kids excited after having poor photos. I still prefer ‘player pay’. Once parents have their credit card out to pay, it’s not difficult to up-sell when they see the samples.

All data and images are backed up at least three times on multiple disks and multiple computers. I have backups for everything in the entire studio: 2 printers, lots of cameras and computers but only one ‘me’. I just wish I could find a few more!!

DARKROOM: After all these years, is there anything you have learned recently that has changed things for you?

DOUG AXFORD: For Darkroom Assembly in particular, one thing I learned on the forum a month ago was how easy it is to add a player to a team’s folder after Assembly has merged the files. We get parents who missed photos and ask for one after the finished packages have been delivered. We charge an extra $10 for the custom merge plus another $10 for shipping. I’m shocked that so many are willing to pay this surcharge, but it is an effort on our end to get it right for them.

DARKROOM: Doug, this has been incredible. We here at Darkroom really appreciate what you do and your support of Darkroom. Thank you.

DOUG AXFORD: Thank you! I have to say, I am very happy with how new ownership has reinvigorated the product for me. I have tried every photo production software that is on the market that I know of and Darkroom allows me the greatest flexibility for a fair price.

One competitor I tried years ago was on a yearly contract but after two years, when I decided not to renew the license, it locked up all my data at the end of the contract term. I was so angry. I will never again make that mistake. With Darkroom, you have the choice of upgrading when new options are available or stay with the older version. I love that.

Years ago, I was a vocal critic of the software with poor support and so many bugs. We pulled our hair out constantly. Now, with a great set of updates over the years and improved support, I rarely need to call but when I do, the new Darkroom people are listening and want to make the software better.

Finally, I want to mention that Assembly Edition has so many suggested options for workflow that it should suit everyone. Over the years, I have tweaked the way I want things to be. Darkroom Assembly has never forced me to change my ways to suit the software. It’s fully adjustable to do what I want it to. I love that too. I type in the name of the league or division to setup the shoot, skip through to import the data, then go straight to production. It couldn’t be easier.

About Doug Axford and The Northlight Studio Ltd.
Doug Axford founded Northlight Studio in 1975 as a storefront, portrait studio. Over the years Northlight Studio has become a successful team sports photography photographer in Southern Ontario. During Part One of our interview with Doug, we learned he was President of the Professional Photographers of Ontario in 1981. He has been using Darkroom Assembly Edition since its invention (when it was developed out of ExpressDigital Sports and Event); and he’s a stickler for policy and routine as a matter of business.
Click here to read Part One of this interview.

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