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Most photographers, both amateur and professional, rely on photo processing workers to develop their film, make prints or slides, and do related tasks such as enlarging or retouching photographs. Photographic processing machine operators and tenders operate various machines, such as motion picture film printing machines, photographic printing machines, film developing machines, and mounting presses. Precision photographic process workers perform more delicate tasks, such as retouching photographic negatives and prints to emphasize or correct specific features. They may restore damaged and faded photographs, and may color or shade drawings to create photographic likenesses using an airbrush. They also may color photographs, using oil colors to produce natural, lifelike appearances according to specifications.
The following jobs are examples of the work that machine operators perform. Film process technicians develop exposed photographic film or sensitized paper in a series of chemical and water baths to produce negative or positive images. They first mix the developing and fixing solutions, following a formula. They then immerse the exposed film in a developer solution to bring out the latent image, immerse the negative in stop-bath to halt the developer action, immerse it in hyposolution to fix the image, and finally immerse it in water to remove chemicals. The worker then dries the films. In some cases, these steps may be performed by hand.
Color printer operators control equipment which produces color prints from the negatives. They read customer instructions to determine processing requirements. They load the rolls into color printing equipment, examine the negatives to determine equipment control settings, set the controls, and produce a specified number of prints. They inspect the finished prints for defects, and remove any that are found, finally inserting the processed negatives and prints into an envelope for return to the customer.
Paper process technicians develop strips of exposed photographic paper; takedown sorters sort processed film; and automatic mounters operate equipment that cuts and mounts slide film into individual transparencies.
Precision photographic process workers, also known as digital imaging technicians, may take a conventional negative and, using a computer, vary the contrast of images, remove unwanted background, or even combine features from several different photographs. Precision photographic process workers in portrait studios, on the other hand, deal in very high volume, and tend to work directly on the photo negative, rather than on a computer. These workers include airbrush artists, who restore damaged and faded photographs; photographic retouchers, who alter photographic negatives and prints to accentuate the subject; colorists, who apply oil colors to portrait photographs to create natural, lifelike appearances; and photographic spotters, who spot out imperfections on photographic prints.
In recent years, more commercial photographic processing has been done on computers than in darkrooms, and this trend is expected to continue. Work generally is performed in clean, appropriately lighted, well-ventilated, and air-conditioned offices, photofinishing laboratories, or 1-hour minilabs. At peak times, portrait studios hire individuals who work at home retouching negatives.
Photographic process machine operators must do repetitious work at a rapid pace without any loss of accuracy. Precision process workers do detailed tasks, such as airbrushing and spotting, which may contribute to eye fatigue.
Some photographic process workers are continuously exposed to the chemicals and fumes associated with developing and printing. These workers must wear rubber gloves and aprons and take precautions against chemical hazards.
Many photo laboratory employees work a 40-hour week, including weekends, and may work overtime during peak seasons.
Photographic process workers held about 57,000 jobs in 1994. Photofinishing laboratories and 1-hour minilabs employed about two-thirds. About 3 out of 10 worked for portrait studios and commercial laboratories that specialize in processing the work of professional photographers for advertising and other industries.
Employment fluctuates over the course of the year; peak periods include school graduation, summer vacation, and Christmas time.
Most photographic process machine operators receive on-the-job training from manufacturers' representatives, company management, and more experienced workers. New employees gradually learn to use the machines and chemicals that develop and print film.
Employers prefer applicants who are high school graduates or those who have some experience or knowledge in the field. As preparation for precision work, proficiency in mathematics, art, chemistry, and computer science, as well as photography courses that include instruction in film processing are valuable. Such courses are available through high schools, vocational-technical institutes, private trade schools, and colleges and universities.
On-the-job training in photographic processing occupations can range from just a few hours for print machine operators to years for precision workers like airbrush artists, spotters, and negative retouchers. Some workers attend periodic training seminars to maintain a high level of skill. Manual dexterity, good hand-eye coordination, and good vision, including normal color perception, are important qualifications for precision photographic process workers. They must be comfortable with computers and able to adapt to technological advances.
Photographic process machine workers can advance from jobs as machine operators to supervisory positions in laboratories. Precision photographic process workers generally earn more as their skill level and the complexity of tasks they can perform increases.
Employment of photographic process workers is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2005. Most openings will result from replacement needs, which tend to be higher for machine operators than for precision process workers.
Digital cameras, which use electronic memory rather than a film negative to record the image, are now available. However, these cameras are much more expensive than conventional cameras, and generally are not capable of producing an equally sharp image. Also, traditional photo development will coexist, rather than compete directly, with electronic photography for many years. As this technology improves and the prices decline, photographic process machine operators may be displaced.
Technological change is unlikely to affect demand for precision photographic process workers because the adjustments they make to pictures need to be done to digital images as well as to negatives. No matter what improvements occur in camera technology, there always will be some images which require precise manipulation.
Because photographic processing services are luxuries for most consumers, the number of job openings decreases during recessions.
Earnings of photographic process workers vary greatly depending on skill level, experience, and geographic location. Median earnings for full-time photographic process workers in 1994 were about $327 a week. The middle 50 percent earned between $245 and $469 a week. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $201 a week while the highest 10 percent earned more than $611.
Precision photographic process workers need a specialized knowledge of the photodeveloping process. Other workers who apply specialized technical knowledge include chemical laboratory technicians, crime laboratory analysts, food testers, medical laboratory assistants, metallurgical technicians, quality control technicians, engravers, and some of the printing occupations, such as photolithographer.
For information about employment opportunities in photographic laboratories and schools that offer degrees in photographic technology, write to:
Photo Marketing Association International, 3000 Picture Place, Jackson, MI 49201.
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