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Can The Printed Photo Ever Regain Its Former Glory?

By streamlining the photo printing process with automated monthly deliveries, Timeshel wants to bring the physical photo back.

Most Kickstarter campaigns launch with a flurry of emails. Last October, Timeshel, an iPhone-centric photo printing service, launched with a party.

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In a borrowed Tribeca space, cofounders Sean Pfitzenmaier and Phil Anema decked the walls with printed images taken by photographers they admired, from fashion editorial to philanthropic marketing campaigns. There was a signature cocktail, a brief sales pitch, and, of course, a photo booth.

It was the kind of marketing flourish a fledgling company will need to survive in a market crowded with dozens of photo printing options. Pfitzenmaier and Anema exceeded their $50,000 Kickstarter goal, but the road ahead is littered with competitors’ Instagram-fueled success stories and brand-name cautionary tales.

Timeshel functions as a subscription service–and at $14.95 per month, it’s neither for the occasional photographer, nor for the professional, but for the elusive person in-between; that committed documenter of backyard BBQs and baby’s first steps. Through the company’s iPhone app, customers create a collection of 30 photos over the course of each month. On the last day of the month, the photos making the cut (doubles are permitted) are automatically sent off to print. The images arrive about 10 days later, printed on fade-resistant archival paper (in one of two sizes–3.5″ x 4.67″ or 3.5″ x 3.5″) and housed in a white plastic “shel” that doubles as a stackable storage system.

Most of the photo printing apps on the market today emphasize choice and efficiency, happily slapping family portraits on coffee mugs or turning travels adventures into custom calendars. Not Timeshel, which labels those solutions “transactional” and instead funnels users into a controlled monthly “ritual.” Is the young company destined to become the design solution to photo printing that smartphone users have been waiting for, or another App Store also-ran?

“We ordered from all those services, and we figured we could do a better job,” says Pfitzenmaier, a former product manager with two startups under his belt. “[The prints] weren’t easy to get, the quality was awful, and no one knew what to do with them once they arrived.”

Pfitzenmaier explains the service as a kind of “slow photography” response to the social media phenomenon of “Instagram envy.”

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Indeed, that part of the Timeshel promise held up in my experience with the service. When my shel arrived, I found myself happily poring over moments from wedding weekends, Slovenian travel adventures, and family visits. It had been easy to combine square and rectangular shots in my order, and I liked the weight and feel of the paper. On the other hand, the images themselves were a bit dark, a difficult variable to judge when the iPhone’s brightness settings are constantly in flux. As for the shel, it didn’t have the gravitas of the leather-bound albums of my childhood, though I did like knowing that it would keep my prints safe.

At this point in my life, I’m not Timeshel’s ideal subscription customer. It’s hard to imagine wanting to print 30 new photos each month, and the $14.95 price tag is a bit steep. But if I were a grandparent, I’d happily discover a new shel in the mail once a month, rather than navigate through the dross on Facebook in order to see my smiling grandkids. Plus, if it were possible to order shels for one-off occasions, I could easily imagine pulling together photos from a bachelorette party and sending a shel to each of the friends who attended.

For now, Timeshel’s deliberate design decisions leave the company in an in-between space. It needs to attract Main Street customers like young parents, but at this early stage its most vocal users and early adopters are filter-savvy photo fiends. Transitioning to a new and broader audience is not impossible, but it’s no given either.

“There’s this really strong desire for printed photographs,” Pfitzenmaier says. True enough, but now he and Anema need to translate that consumer impulse into a similarly strong desire for Timeshel.

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About the author

Senior Writer Ainsley Harris joined Fast Company in 2014. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.

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