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Published: Thursday, 5/25/2006

A digital age can leave some things out of focus

It's not that Bob Lubell can't handle change.

And it's not that he can't keep up with new technology.

The guy's a professional photographer, after all, and these have been fast-changing years for shutterbugs. Hey, he made the switch to digital, didn't he?

"I said farewell to film crying. I think film's lovely," he said, "but it was a necessary change."

No, change and technology aren't quite the point.

In shelling out $580 million last year to buy the revolutionary MySpace.com, media baron Rupert Murdoch signaled recognition of the same thing Sylvanian Bob Lubell is also forced to recognize: It's a whole new world out there.

As Bob told me at the end of our second discussion (third, if you count e-mail): "This whole conversation is really about a change in communication."

Bob runs a photo studio with his business partner and wife, photographer Stevie Grand. They do senior high school and family portraits, commercial photography, and of course, weddings.

"Over half of our 2006 brides chose us over the Internet," said Bob. Most of these women "are just voices on the phone, or [an e-mail] presence on the Web" until the Big Day.

Trouble is, Bob lamented, "there is nothing worse than meeting a customer for the first time on the wedding day. Since we have not yet connected, it will take time for her to get comfortable with us."

A photo studio, Bob will tell you, might be a business that relies on the latest photo technology - but it sure would be better off with old-school communication.

"The new media allows for midnight shopping for the busy customer," he said, but convenience can come at the expense of "the personal touch."

Bob would argue that what he has to sell is talent, and not just "so many square inches of photo paper."

Still, more customers buy his services "the same way they're buying stuff at PC Mall."

Not so long ago, he and Stevie counted on spending a solid two hours meeting face-to-face with wedding parties.

"We ask questions you might think are really stupid, but they're important. Like, 'How are you getting to the church?' A two-hour break in a Hummer means, 'We're partiers!'‚óŹ"

But all business owners must adapt to change, however much they could justifiably rail against the reasons for change.

For Bob and Stevie, that's meant offering couples free engagement portraits "just so we can meet them."

"Strange how we have grown to be the most communicating society in history," said Bob, "and have simultaneously returned to Stone Age efficiency in getting our message across."

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