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Pictures perfect at Downtown Photo

CRYSTAL LAKE – Until Priscilla Harper found out about Downtown Photo, the Crystal Lake photographer was regularly driving into the city for her printing needs.

She wouldn’t settle for anything short of a professional-level look to her photos.

“A lot of lesser quality-labs, what happens is they’re happy with the status quo, because they’re more concerned with making money. They’re not going and investing in really serious printing equipment,” said Harper, a nature photographer who has had a photo in the Smithsonian Museum of National History. “The type of equipment (Downtown Photo owner) Jim (Pierce) has is the most recent, the most up to date. And that’s going to put out a much finer print than the lesser-quality equipment.”

Pierce’s commitment to staying up with technology has been a key component to his business strategy since opening in downtown Crystal Lake nearly 10 years ago.

He moved to his current location at 150 Virginia Road in 2006, where he’s continued to grow his customer base offering services like professional printing, framing, photo restoration and photo editing, as well as teaching classes and providing one-on-one coaching sessions on a variety of photography topics.

“There are people who are anti-technology. They’re purists,” Pierce said. “The world changes. You can either stop and get run over or go along for the ride. Those are really the only two choices.”

Whereas Downtown Photo’s printing services have generally been marketed toward people serious about the photography craft, Pierce said he recently has made an effort to appeal to more “hobbyists.”

Things could start to pick up in that area now, following the closing of Wolf Camera & Image, whose parent company Ritz Camera & Image LLC filed for bankruptcy late last month. Pierce said in the last two weeks, he’s had some inquiries about services from people who’ve traditionally done business with Wolf.

Wolf began as a camera retailer but expanded to providing printing, including making specialty items like calendars, memory books and DVDs.

Downtown Photo encompasses similar services, though the store doesn’t sell cameras or equipment.

About a year ago, Pierce added to his services by purchasing a computerized mat cutter, which allows him to lay out custom designs for photo framing. Someone could walk in requesting a custom frame with their name matted down one side, their high school abbreviation down another, and walk out with product in-hand.

Pierce used to cut each matted frame by hand.

“Basically, we were doing just square openings before,” he said.

Pierce also has become an expert at using Photoshop.

“Shortly after it came out, I read about it and said, ‘This is the future,’” Pierce said. “I got a copy and started playing with it.

That was in the late 1980s, with Photoshop version 1.4, he said. Ten versions of the product later, Pierce has won national awards for his photo edits.

Sometimes people come in wanting to be put in the movie Harry Potter. Others want to be turned into half-animal, half-human.

A woman once asked if Pierce could create a photo that would depict her as a sort of free-flying, half-bird creature. Pierce took photos of her in a skin-colored leotard leaning back on a workout ball, put the photo on Photoshop and went to work. He tilted her to look like she was flying, added things like feathers, wings and smoke trailing her flight path and put her in front of an orange-tinted, sunset-over-mountains background – itself a combination of seven skyline shots from his folder of hundreds.

Taking into account all the detailing, enhancing and blending, it took Pierce about 10 hours of work, which isn’t an uncommon amount of time for some of his larger projects. The result was a piece of cutting edge, 21st-century art.

“I’ve been at this for 25 years professionally,” said Pierce, who earned a degree in Photo Production Technology from Southern Illinois University. “I’m still learning. There’s new things coming out all the time. There’s several people I’ve told that if I feel I know everything about this, just go ahead and hit me in the head with a brick because obviously I’m delusional.”

But even though Pierce feels he still is learning more himself, he jumps at the opportunity to educate others about his craft.

He knows nobody is going to learn to turn a woman to a bird during the course of a two-hour class, but he wants to pass on what he can, and hopefully motivate others to get serious about photography – be it from behind the lens, in front of the computer or otherwise.

“One of our goals we have is the education of people,” Pierce said. “Personally, I think if you have the knowledge it’s pointless to not share it.”

That’s another benefit Harper has felt from discovering Downtown Photo about five years ago. She’d gotten into photography before it became clear photographers would have to be masters of the technical in addition to the artistic.

“The thing that’s been phenomenal – I’ve been able to go to Jim and say, ‘OK, I need this part of the knowledge,’” Harper said. “And he’s been able to fill in some major technical gaps for me.”

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