Out of the Darkroom

Despite working within the ever-changing industry of photography, McBain Camera has remained competitive for more than 60 years

As general manager, Neil McBain runs McBain Camera with the same values espoused by his father.

Stop for a moment and think about how photography has changed during your lifetime. Perhaps you remember taking your first colour photo, or the excitement of being able to get your photos back in less than an hour. Or maybe you grew up using 35-millimetre film and couldn’t wait to get your first digital camera. Founded in 1949, McBain Camera has witnessed a technological evolution, embraced it, adapted, and thrived.

When McBain Camera opened its first store in Edmonton, the camera industry was just beginning to flourish. Despite this, the success had its share of challenges for Ross McBain, the company’s founder. With minimal capital to start and no history in the photo business, some companies like Kodak were hesitant to enlist McBain Camera as a dealer. The company persevered, and by 1953, Ross had invested into a photofinishing lab. By 1955, he was already expanding to a second location. The company contributes this to good customer service and knowing when it was time to grow.

“My father was quoted in a 1952 newspaper article saying, ‘The customer is more than an individual who walks in to make a purchase; he’s a fellow photo enthusiast,’” says Neil McBain, Ross’s son and the current general manager at McBain Camera. “His philosophy was that you were there to educate the customer, not just sell to them. That’s something we still keep in mind today.”

McBain Camera continued to grow one store at time, covering more of Edmonton and becoming more convenient for customers. In addition to growing its number of locations, the business also began to diversify its offerings to keep up with the latest developments in the industry.

In 1979, McBain Camera opened one of the first one-hour developing labs in Edmonton. It also began to offer audiovisual and camera rentals, video duplication, and large printing services. In addition, the company doesn’t just sell camera equipment; customers can also purchase bags, cases, printers, scanners, lighting, books, and more.

Neil became the general manager in 1988, right before the business began to face two of biggest challenges: larger competitors and the digital age. However, during this time, Neil was able to grow from six stores to nine across Alberta, and the company grew to the 92 full-time employees it has today.

The first challenge came when customers started switching from film to digital, and the photofinishing side of the business declined. For Neil, though, it wasn’t time to stay in the darkroom; it was time to adjust.

“We realized that people with digital cameras weren’t printing their pictures,” Neil says. The company downsized from five photofinishing labs to two. For those stores without labs, kiosks were installed for customers to edit digital photos and order prints. Those orders are sent to one of the labs, and the company delivers the finished product the next day.

“With digital cameras, customers are no longer in a rush to get their printed pictures back in an hour,” Neil says. “They know what they look like; they don’t mind waiting a day or two.”

Another opportunity for growth presented itself when digital SLR camera prices dropped below $1,000. With this price drop, more of the general population became interested in higher-end photography and all of the accessories that go along with it. Neil says this has allowed them to compete against the big-box stores, because general-electronic stores don’t always carry a lot of specialized accessories, such as flashes, tripods, camera cases, and lenses. Plus, the big-box stores can’t offer expert advice on how to use it all.

“At those stores, you have the same guy who’s selling phones and iPads working in the camera department,” Neil says. “The people who work here are really into photography. We also offer classes and workshops to not only educate our customers but also to get them excited about all the other equipment we sell at our store … A happy customer is the best advertising.”