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May 6th, 2009

Building a postproduction studio – How GreenBox did it

Posted by Michael Lamotte

Food and advertising photographer Michael Lamotte created his own postproduction studio, GreenBox, a year and a half ago. He explains here how he decided it was time to build a completely separate business out of his studio’s retouching services. Of course, not everyone is ready to open their own postproduction studio, so in his next post he outlines how photographers can decide what level of postproduction is right for them. Don’t miss his past posts about working with stylists, agents, and high-end advertising clients.
The separate images GreenBox Studio composited to create the seemless image below.

Six separate images that GreenBox Studio composited to create the seemless image below. ©Michael Lamotte

We converted to digital capture in 1999, and were curious about color reproduction, image quality, and what we could do with retouching and compositing. Compositing seemed like a powerful tool to create new images from existing ones — about anything you could imagine, you could produce. I got really involved with Photoshop at the very beginning so that I could begin compositing new images. I was lucky enough to be invited to the first Photoshop Invitational sponsored by Adobe introducing Photoshop 1.0 in 1990. This was when I really realized the huge potential Photoshop had as a creative tool, and I knew that in the long term mastering this tool would be important for the success of my studio. Using Photoshop, as well as attending the conference got me more interested in color and color reproduction, and that’s when I really got involved with color management.

Because we were early adopters of digital photography, it made sense for our studio to do simple digital retouching too. It also seemed like the perfect time to offer retouching to our clients, which we started in 2000. At first we had a person working full-time in the studio who focused only on Photoshop retouching. We would shoot one day and she would work on the files the next. Then, about a year and a half ago, we decided to split off a separate business, GreenBox Imaging, Inc. We found a building directly in back of our photo studio, moved everything over there, and made it into a separate corporation that is totally independent of Michael Lamotte Studios.

When we were considering whether GreenBox would make enough to justify being a separate company, we already knew it would since we were already doing it in-house profitably. One of the reasons we decided to split GreenBox off was because it was making enough money to support itself and make a profit. With some projects, the postproduction ends up costing more than the photography. Not because you did a bad job with the photographs, just because everyone is always trying to find a new way to see things; everybody is always pushing the envelope and using retouching as a solution. It’s also a great tool to help photographer solve problems like scale amd lighting that come up on set.

With some projects, the postproduction costs more than the photography.

Up until now GreenBox Imaging hasn’t taken on many projects besides my own images because we wanted to get all the kinks out before we offered our services to others. That’s what we’re in the process of doing now. I hired another person, Ian Stone, who is doing the marketing and sales for GreenBox Imaging. We also have Colin Birdseye, our Photoshop artist, John William Lund, our color expert, and Gail, my wife, who is the CFO. Then we hire freelance Photoshop artists as we need them so we can be flexible; when it gets busy we just bring on more staff. We take pride in our staff and our ability to quickly adapt and serve our clients within their specified time constraints.

Our general workflow works like this: GreenBox gets instructions of what a client wants us to do. Colin may talk to the client first and see if he has any suggestions to improve the image. Then we do those corrections and we send them a JPG or proof and say, “This is the image with the corrections we discussed, and this is how it looks at this point.” That may be final or we may do additional corrections, based on what happens during that conversation with the client.

© Michael Lamotte

©Michael Lamotte

If we create a custom color profile of the prepress house’s proofing device, we can then predict their results, essentially emulating their printer so both outputs will match. The client then makes final comments from our proof, and once everyone approves  it and signs off, we send the prepress house our custom CMYK file and our proof. Using our custom CMYK file, their first output on their proofing device should look pretty close to our proof, which everyone already approved. That’s a better scenario than sending an RGB file to prepress, then they have to separate it, turn it into CMYK, and try to make their output look like our approved output. That’s not the most efficient way to work; it’s just going to cost the client more money in the long run and take more time.

It’s a little difficult sometimes because technology has faded the lines between photographer, retouching, post production, and prepress; its sort of unclear where everybody’s responsibility stops. For me, the more control the photographer has over the image, the better. This way someone can’t take your image and change your original vision. Maybe you have a warm look to your image and you like that look, then a prepress retoucher decides, we should neutralize, the color is off. These are all reasons it pays to build an ongoing relationship with your retoucher, the prepress people, as well as your client. Once all of the components are in sync, it’s much easier to produce reliable, consistent, beautiful work and in a very cost-effective way. It also helps streamline the workflow to get the highest possible quality in the most efficient manner — something that GreenBox is always doing.

The more control the photographer has over the image, the better.

A big reason for a photographer or agency to work with a studio like GreenBox is that it’s a resource  that’s always there, always consistent, always available and most importantly doing the highest quality work. You’re building a relationship where you know what your client likes and needs. And for smaller photo studios, it allows them to offer to their clients additional capabilities. They can shoot it, retouch it, and deliver CMYK files with approved reference prints — everything — with GreenBox’s help. So it can give a smaller photo studio the ability to look bigger, without putting up the money and staff to have that capability on their own.

We’re trying to create more of a boutique studio at GreenBox. We want to be a place that is more personal, not a huge place with a night shift where you’re not sure who’s working on your images and you’re getting inconsistent results from project to project. We want to keep our service focused and personal and really work with clients to get the best results possible. When you send something to a big place, they’re only going to do what you tell them to do. With GreenBox you’ll actually talk to the Photoshop artist, and if he or she has any ideas for ways to further improve your image, they will at least discuss that with the photographer or client. The other thing that sets GreenBox apart is our ability to help you develop a color-managed workflow that will deliver accurate results and save both you and your client time and money.

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