After almost 30 years operating Camden Photo Centre from the same location, and a lifetime in the photographic industry, Tibor Szopory and his wife and business partner, Nora, are putting their store and photo studio up for sale.
Tibor actually started his career in photography in Europe, leaving Australia in 1971 and working in Germany, first for projector specialist Bell&Howell, then managing stores for the RingFoto photo retailing group. He moved on to sales reps roles and landed a job with Mamiya in the West Berlin and Ruhr regions, which also entailed many hours on the Mamiya stand at the Photokina trade exhibitions in Cologne.
By now married to Nora, and with two young boys in tow, it was time for a return to Australia, where he worked for Leica in a management role with a large product portfolio and meagre resources. His last job ‘working for the man’ was with Australian company Hanimex, which distributed Fujifilm products for several decades prior to the establishment of Fujifilm Australia. He describes his time with Hanimex in the 1980s, where he sold the first of the new-fangled ‘one-hour’ minilabs, as ‘the best time ever in the industry’.
Now, these days, leaving a well-paid and secure job with a large employer to set up a photo shop would seem a little, ahem, ‘courageous’, but those were the Golden Years of photo retailing. Minilabs, along with the first auto-everything compact cameras and inexpensive colour film, created a boom in amateur photography. And the minlab sales role at Hanimex gave him the opportunity to scope the market for locations to set up his own business.
In 1991 he saw potential for a store in Camden, which was at that time evolving from a country town to a south-western suburb of Greater Sydney.
With his Fujifilm connections he was able to purchase an early second hand Fujifilm 27F minlab at a good price, and with Nora opened Camden Photo Centre.
For a while – until just after the Sydney Olympics, Camden Photo Centre was part of the Camera House group. But like some other Camera House retailers operating away from the busy, high-traffic capital cities, he found the Camera House model, based as it used to be on catalogue-driven photo equipment sales, wasn’t a perfect fit. ‘The model was high volume and small margins. Small margins and smaller volumes doesn’t work so well,’ he explained.
After leaving Camera House, Camden Photo Centre dedicated itself to frames and albums and photographic print services, although ‘we still do a bit of hardware.’
Camden Photo Centre has stayed with Fuji minilab equipment, with a Frontier minlab as the workhorse and, importantly, film scanner, and a Fujifilm colour neg film processor. With a view to keeping the business ‘hardware fresh’ they have this year acquired a new Canon 24-inch wide format printer and the latest Epson D860 ‘dry’ (inkjet) printer for enlargements and passport photos respectively. The D860 also provides a handy back-up for the Frontier wetlab.
Tibor mentioned he has a couple of Frontiers ‘out the back’ which he uses for spares – more than handy when a new chemical pump can cost $300 – 400 from Fujifilm!
He said that film sales are coming back and growing, and the modern system of scanning negs and Dropboxing the digital files has been a real boost for profits. They run the film processor for in-house C41, and outsource B&W and E6 slide film. He said they have three distinct groups of film customers: the grandmas who still have a perfectly good compact film camera thank-you-very-much, and want nothing to do with this digital nonsense; the millennials who have just discovered the qualities of film as a photographic medium; and people who still find rolls of film deep in the recesses of old cupboards and drawers.
The most popular film sold at Camden Photo Centre is Kodak Portra in 5-roll packs. ‘They love it,’ he said.
Key supplier is Independent Photo Services (‘iPhoto’), which provides a quality assurance service for the minilab and distributes (among many other lines) photographic paper and chemicals, Kodak film and Epson printing equipment.
‘Their reps bend over backwards for us and the technical people are superb. They are very supportive of independents and always there when I need them.
‘There have been stock issues recently due to Covid so it’s been a difficult period, but they go out of their way to make sure we are OK.’
Also ‘mentioned in despatches’ were Australian frame supplier In2Frames, which Tibor noted as helping generate good profits in tandem with enlargements from the Canon wide-format printer, and Super 8-to-DVD supplier PutitonDVD.com.au.
Camden Photo Centre provides most other services including photo restoration (‘Nora is a genius’), ‘shoebox’ scanning of old negs and slides, and transfer from VHS to DVD in house.
The website, including a sophisticated online ordering system, complemented by an SEO service, has been set up and maintained by a small specialist software developer from Canada, Dakis.
‘The Dakis website is really great. People are always contacting us off the website and the Dakis online ordering system is going gangbusters, especially since Covid, with people at home and doing more on their smartphones.’
Upstairs they ran – and still run – a photo studio. In some ways, Tibor said, the two parts of the business complement each other – passport photos for instance. ‘But there’s a bit of a conflict in that an 8×10 print might be $10, while we are looking for $100 for an 8×10 portrait shot from the studio.’
Tibor concedes that the photo studio, while absolutely frantic at certain times, such as December, when Santa comes to town, is ‘a huge opportunity to develop’ as the photo store demands so much time.
Now in their 60s, and with Tibor having a health scare a few years back, they have decided to put the business up for sale to win back more time for themselves, take the stress out of life and ‘invigorate our minds’.
Both sons have left the business, and while one, Andrew, is now a local wedding photographer, which is great in terms of bringing in regular print orders, their departure ‘sent the succession plan out the window’, said Tibor.
‘We are good at what we do,’ says Tibor, ‘But to be honest after 30 years or so it is no longer as stimulating as it once was. We’d love to have someone come in with the enthusiasm and energy to really exploit the full potential of the business. It’s time for a new broom.’
He said they will miss the love, respect and above all the loyalty of their customers, some of whom are have been with them for the 30 years since they opened. They are now serving the second and even third generations of the same families.
Both the older people and ‘the pram pushers’ respond well to the personalised service Camden Photo Centre delivers.
‘When they go to KMart or Big W they are just pointed in the direction of the kiosks and told to follow the prompts. When they come here and get more personalised service, they stay with us forever,’ Tibor explained.
‘We are at the top of the hourglass, with Harvey Norman, Big W and KMart with their 8 cent prints at the very bottom. That’s how we present ourselves – as a professional independent specialist. We tell people “If you want cheap by all means go to Harvey Norman”.
‘Generally they will say, “OK. we get that.” We are not the cheapest, we are not even middle of the road, but nobody quibbles about price. We would love to have someone come in and continue along those lines now we have established that high-end reputation.
‘This year, even with Covid, has been way busier than last year. We’ve been flat out through December when that really frenetic period used to be closer to Christmas Day,’ he said.
But this will almost definitely be the Szpory’s last crazy-busy Christmas. Tibor still fancies ‘keeping his hand in’ perhaps with a bit of hands-on teaching, helping people move from the ubiquitous smartphone to real cameras.
Whatever happens, you can be pretty sure you won’t be seeing him behind the photo counter at the local Harvey Norman store!