EPSON Helps Loftipop Grow from Etsy to Amazon

In 2013, Rachael O’Neill and her husband, Ryan, started their Sarasota, Fla., based company Loftipop as an Etsy shop. Today, they conceive, design and print their décor products in a 2,500 sq. ft. warehouse to ship across the country and through Amazon.

“I looked at Etsy and I saw people selling art prints and thought it was cool,” O’Neill says. “I told Ryan we could do it. We both brainstorm ideas and then he runs with them and designs.”

O’Neill did her homework before deciding which printer to choose for the art prints. “When we were researching, we noticed that Epson was the top of the line. Now, we love using their printers for our art prints,” she says. “I don’t think we’d ever switch to anything else. When our StylusPro 7890 finally died, we stayed with Epson and bought a SureColor P6000.”

A printer is often the first big purchase for a small business, and O’Neill feels that Epson has played a part in the success and growth of Loftipop. “The printer helped us launch our business and to this day the art prints are still a big part of our business, and they always will be, even though we’re doing other things,” she says. “We’ve always had great results and no major issues with them.”

The right printer needs the right media to create the perfect art print, so O’Neill uses LexJet Premium Archival Matte for its longevity. It is an acid-free paper and achieves 200-year archivability when partnered with the Epson inks.

In the beginning, O’Neill thought Loftipop would be a fun side project and never expected it to blossom into a full-time business. “We just opened a shop and put a couple of designs up. They started selling and it went from there,” she says. “We thought it would be cool to have a little side business, but we didn’t imagine where it’d go.”

Once they were comfortable with aqueous printing, they brought in a dye-sublimation printer so they could offer home décor and coffee mugs. O’Neill says it works great having both aqueous and dye-sub printers because they have been able to grow their product offering.

“The art prints launched our business,” she says. “We started doing the prints then expanded to other products, everyone has wall art and drinks out of a coffee mug.”

Growing from an Etsy shop to an e-commerce company didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t easy, but O’Neill says that they are grateful that they could grow it into what it is today and look forward to continued growth. “We did it in a very safe way. We didn’t quit our jobs to start it,” she says. “We still worked full time for a good three years. We worked on it after our regular jobs and on the weekends.”

Right now, it’s just her and Ryan and a third employee. She says it can get a little hectic during the holidays, but they make it work. “There is work that you have to put into growing a business,” O’Neill says. “But for us, we really enjoy, it’s fun for us.”

In November, they will celebrate their 7th anniversary and are adding new designs and offerings all the time, but it’s the prints that started it all. The right designs, the right printer, the right paper all create the products people want and have taken Loftipop from a small Etsy shop to an Amazon Prime reseller.  O’Neill is excited to see what they’ve built. “Now, we’re happy, we love what we do, and we love working for ourselves.”

LexJet brandUP: Cool Community Projects Powered by Print

If you’re looking for inspiration for your next office remodel, retail upgrade or community event, head over to LexJet’s brandUP video page to discover some of the projects we’ve helped bring to life through the power of print.

Over the last few years, we’ve worked with community organizations, businesses, non-profits and event planners to enhance their messaging efforts with printed graphics – from windows to walls and from stickers to signage.

On our brandUP page, you’ll find stories about:

  • How we used a variety of print technologies and applications to help with traffic flow and event messaging at the Suncoast Jeep Festival
  • How students from Ringling College of Art + Design used print to promote a virtual reality game at a SXSW exhibit, featuring branded water bottles, banners, vehicle decals and other eye-catching prints
  • How some clever graphic ideas spruced up a new dog grooming business with window graphics, wall murals, paw prints on the floor and so much more

Check back to the brandUP page to see what we’re dreaming up next!

Do you have a community print project that you’d like to share with our readers? Tell us in the comments below or email us.

Photographers for Charity: A New Way to Make a Difference

In the late 1990s, then Professional Photographers Association president Bert Behnke created PPA Charities. “It was a way for photographers to work together and make a difference. People are impressed when someone gives a big check, but so many of us can only give $5 or $10 at a time,” he says. “PPA Charities was a way people bonded together to show how our industry helped people.”

After 20 years of coordinating charitable activities and organizations, PPA Charities was shuttered in 2018. Behnke felt there was more the industry had to offer to the organizations that received donations and assistance from the original program and Photographers for Charity was born.

“Last summer, we finally got all the paperwork completed,” he says. “In fact, PPA was generous enough to give us a $2,000 donation – our first – to help us get started.” Currently, it’s just Behnke and his son, Al, putting things together. “This program just started. We officially launched at Imaging USA [in January 2020],” Behnke says.

Right now, they are slowly exposing the organization to the industry. “We will have a small presence at PhotoPro Expo in Covington, Ky., and we have some other marketing programs with Marathon Press,” Behnke says. “We hope to reincarnate Celebration of Smiles, an event PPA Charities held where photographers offer a mini session and a print for a $25 donation. We want to launch that in May, but we’d like to have a little more participation.”

Some of the organizations that will benefit from the generous donations of time, talent and money include:

Behnke is partnering with a former PPA Charities trustee to bring in more groups and plans to hold a charitable marketing conference sometime in 2021.

If you are interested in becoming a member, there are three donation levels: $250, $500, and $1,000, or you can pledge monthly $25, $50, $100 for a year. To help create excitement for P4C, Behnke is offering charter memberships, which recognizes donors as founding members, and they are part of the “Honor Wall.” The wall will be limited to 200 members and will be part of a 10 ft. x 8 ft. backdrop for P4C tradeshows and events.

“We are still in our infancy, so we’re still finding our way around,” Behnke says. “The website isn’t complete, but our Facebook page is active.”  If you are interested in charter memberships, the Honor Wall or to learn about upcoming projects and missions, you can email Behnke for more information.

Prints that Win: Stubborn Determination

Sacramento, Calif., photographer James Trapp decided to follow his heart and leave the safety of a corporate job to pursue something different about 20 years ago. “At some point, I said things have got to change, and I need to follow my heart rather than my head,” he says. “I found a small photography company that was looking for a studio manager, but at the time, I’d only ever had Photography 101.”

One day, the lead photographer was sick and no back-up photographers were available to shoot the customer sessions booked for the day. Trapp was surprised when he learned he would be the one behind the camera that day.

“The manager told me to pick up the camera and start taking pictures,” Trapp says. “I thought he’d lost his mind. I was so nervous, it felt like my stomach was going to leave my body, but I got through that day. About mid-way through, I realized I was having fun, so I relaxed and enjoyed the moment.”

Nowadays, Trapp is obviously more at ease behind the camera and recently won his first Sunset Print Award with “Stubborn Determination,” a piece that was captured when he was doing a Facebook Live lighting demonstration to promote the Georgia PPA State Conference. Working within a 10-foot square show booth, Trapp began taking pictures of the model and discussing the importance of lighting. Once he got home and looked through the images, one stood out. “There was something about it. I didn’t have a grab on it, but that’s what happens, sometimes,” he says. “I really liked it, but I didn’t know why. It [the image] just grabbed me and pulled me in.”

Once he converted the image to black and white, he entered it into a local Sacramento affiliate show. The image was well-received, so he submitted a printed version to the Professional Photographers of California competition. “I firmly believe in submitting images in a print format rather than a digital format, especially for competitions,” Trapp says. “If it is a digital file, anything can alter how it’s viewed on the other end. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way. I made the conscious decision to only submit prints because when it leaves my home, I absolutely know what the judges will view on the other end.”

The importance of print isn’t the only lesson that Trapp has learned from competing. He believes education is one of the most important reasons any photographer should enter a competition, even if it’s just a local camera club. “The things I’ve learned along this road and how I’ve improved compared to where I was during my first competition in 2013, I’m a totally different photographer,” he says. “I attribute that 100% to competitions.”

Trapp believes going under the microscope at a competition can only benefit a photographer when it comes to working with clients. “What you used to think was difficult is now done at the snap of your fingers,” he says. “You learn techniques to improve an image for competition, and then you start using for your clients’ images. It separates you from other photographers in your local area. That, to me, is the biggest benefit of competition.”

The friendships that Trapp has developed with other photographers is another reason he continues to enter competitions. “You have this little camaraderie, which helps with confidence to go to the next level. Next, you enter a state competition, then your pool of friends starts increasing a little bit,” he says. “Then you really get brave and enter a national competition and you realize your friendships are spreading from east coast to west.”

Having friends who understand the intricacies of photography is almost as important as taking classes. For Trapp, one of those friends is Reno, Nev., photographer Pete Rezac. He has influenced Trapp’s love of black and white photography as well as continued use of film. “I called him about five or six years ago to see what he was doing with film cameras,” he says. “I started in film before digital was a thing. It’s always held a special place in my heart. When you’re in a dark room and see that image appear out of nowhere, you realize that is something that you created.”

From the early days in film and watching an image appear before his very eyes to printing award-winning images on his Canon PRO-1000, Jim Trapp has come a long way from the nervous photographer he once was. One piece of advice he offers is photographers should never quit competing.

“I don’t need to keep putting images in [competitions], I already have my Master of Photography degree,” he says. “I do it because it still surprises me and I’m still growing.”

2019 International Photographic Competition Winners Recognized

Congratulations to the 2019 International Photographic Competition winners. Earlier this summer, the top images were selected from the PPA District Sunset Print Award recipients:

1st Place – Brian Castle “Sins Broken Chains

2nd Place – Kimberly Smith “Owl Always Kneed You

3rd Place – Brooke Kasper “Solitary Journey

Each year, the judges award the top three prints that best embody the 12 Elements of Merit. This year’s district winners included everything from a rocky rush of water in Kari Douma’s “Just Around the River Bend” to a burgeoning chemist in Vanessa Longuski’s “Science.” As always, the talent at the district level makes it difficult for the judges selecting the National IPC winners.

Castle, who took third place in last year’s event, was once again inspired by a dream. “I dropped to my knees and prayed, this light came from above and Archangel Michael came and loaned me his wings to rip the chains apart so we could ascend to Heaven,” he says. What he didn’t expect was to be so personally affected by the photo shoot. “What did people go through back in Biblical days when they were chained like this? I teared up, it was emotional, I couldn’t hold it back,” he says.

Smith, who consistently finishes with district and national wins, had a most unusual image serve as the inspiration for her 2019 entry. “I had to have a knee MRI and they sent me home with the disk,” she says. “As I’m going through them, I noticed one of them looked like an owl.” She combined an image of a tree from a previous photography session and the base image from the MRI into an artistic image of an owl and her owlet. She won the PPA Southwest District award, subsequently leading to her second-place national finish.

Kasper says her award-winning image is extremely personal. While she may be on her own “Solitary Journey,” she has a strong faith in God, so she knows she is never truly alone. “We all have our own personal stories, and this one represents how I’m charting my course,” she says. “We may feel abandoned and alone at times, but we are surrounded by so many wonderful memories of people and things that have given us strength, even in solitude.”

Along with an engraved crystal trophy, the winners also receive cash prizes: $2,000 for first place, $1,000 for second place and $500 for third place. The awards for the winning photographers will be presented at Imaging USA – Nashville in January.

We want to thank all the participants in the 2019 Sunset Print Awards. You can see these and other winners on our newly redesigned Sunset Print Awards site. If you are interested in the 2020 Sunset Print Awards, have your chairperson fill out the application. The Sunset Print Award is offered to those competitions judging a minimum of 150 printed entries.

Prints That Win: Sins Broken Chains

Last year, Kingsport, Tenn., photographer Brian Castle not only won a PPA Southeast District award for his portrait “Heaven’s Hands of Hope,” but he also took third place in the 2018 IPC awards, in which he saw stiff competition from all of the District PPA Sunset Print Award winners. Because he had such a personal connection to his 2018 award-winning image, Castle wasn’t sure if he could surpass it in 2019.

As it turns out, he not only exceeded his 2018 accomplishments, he blew them out of the water. He once again took home a Sunset Print Award for PPA Southeast District Portrait with “Sins Broken Chains” and, after the judging was finished at the 2019 IPC, it was revealed that Castle would take first place in this year’s competition.

“I was a handler at this year’s competition, so I put each of the competition images on the turntables for the judges,” he says. “It was a neat experience to see the live judging, especially since my image received a ‘Unanimous Loan’ from all five judges.”

Like his previous image, “Sins Broken Chains” came to him in a dream. “In the dream, I was in a dungeon with a family member who couldn’t get free of the shackles,” he says. “I dropped to my knees and prayed, this light came from above and Archangel Michael came and loaned me his wings to rip the chains apart so we could ascend to Heaven.”

To recreate the dream for his photo shoot, he knew it was going to take the right setting, light, staging and props. The day of the shoot was a true family affair. “My whole family was helping: my wife, my mom and dad,” Castle says. “My dad taught me how to shoot on a film camera, so who better to have on-site than someone who has experience and who can set up the lights.”

Castle says the actual shoot took about nine hours from setting up to costuming and makeup, as well as additional action shots to get the chains breaking. “We rented the basement of an abandoned department store, originally built in the 1920s,” he says. “I borrowed the pants from a local theater group, I bought a brand-new white t-shirt, ripped it with a razor and dyed it with teabags. I took theater makeup and smudged it all over to give me a dirty look.”

As he was shackled for the shoot, Castle had an unexpected emotional reaction. “I had these big logging chains attached to me and I had this quarter-inch plate shackle around my wrist, all I could think was ‘What did people go through back in Biblical days when they were chained like this?’ I teared up, it was emotional, I couldn’t hold it back,” he says. “The chains were so heavy, and they wore my arms and shoulders out. I felt the pain a little bit.”

One thing Castle has learned over the years is that it’s important to get every angle, light setting or version of a shot while the scene is set. “For example, to capture the broken chain, my dad whipped the chains and I photographed it several different ways to make sure I had enough for the image,” Castle says. “Newer photographers don’t know to get those extra shots. Through competitions, I’ve learned to think about editing before I’m through shooting, that way if I missed something, I can get it then and won’t need to redo it, later.”

Castle has accomplished quite a few things in 2019. Not only did he receive the top prize in the Sunset Print Awards competition for the first time, but he also completed his first two photography degrees: Master of Photography and Photographic Craftsman. “Now I am going for the Master Artist degree,” he says.

Castle says he uses the Sunset Bright Velvet Rag on his Canon PRO-4000 because the paper came highly recommended by fellow Sunset winner Kimberly Smith. “Kim told me about it, and I want every piece to be printed on Velvet Rag; I love it. I will never go to another fine art paper,” he says. “I know LexJet sells other brands, but that Velvet Rag produces more accurate colors, and it’s not as expensive.”

He also travels around the country for speaking engagements where he shares his experiences and success stories. “I travel from Memphis to Atlanta and from Florida to Virginia and I always mention LexJet and the papers,” he says. “I tell them ‘when you buy from LexJet, you’re not just buying the printer and the paper, you’re buying their customer service, too.’”

With another Sunset Print Award-winning image and a first-place finish in 2019, it seems that Brian Castle’s work really is the stuff of dreams.