Focus on the future


POSTED: Sunday, February 15, 2009

A picture is worth a thousand words, but being able to evolve in the digital age is worth a million.

There is no simple way to explain just how fast technology has changed the world of photography while in the meantime driving longtime companies out of business and forcing others to drastically change their strategies to survive.




Ace portrait studio

        » Owner: Reginald Yee

» Address: 1157 S. King St.


» Phone: 591-9220


» E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


» Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Sunday, by appointment only


Ace Portrait Studio, an offshoot of a pre-statehood business started in 1931 by Kwai Yee, whose family immigrated from China, has become a mainstay in an industry that has dramatically evolved over the last decade.

“;The transition part was spooky,”; said Yee's 54-year-old grandson Reggie, who took over the business in 1994 from his father, Richard, 83. “;When I got my first computer I was scared to turn it on, but I was forced to. If you don't swim, you drown. I went swimming.”;

Reggie indeed managed to stay afloat and even master the tricks of the trade, while maintaining decades-old traditions in a niche market that has kept Ace Portrait alive for 78 years.

“;We've been through lots of transitions from black and white to color photography; you have to be one step ahead of your competitors,”; said Richard, a former U.S. Army photographer. “;He was able to keep up with technology,”; he said of his son.

Besides switching to digital cameras in 2000 and investing $90,000 in other high-tech equipment, Reggie mastered the art of photoshopping to retouch pictures, superimpose backgrounds and layer multiple poses.

He also kept to the family's longtime strategy of building relationships and sticking to a niche market: lucrative school contracts, which comprise as much as 75 percent of the business.

While the company has been thriving, with steady growth over the past decade, it was no easy feat to stay ahead of the competition, primarily from freelancers who have flooded the market in recent years. Reggie, a former yearbook photographer for Kaimuki High School, lost lucrative public school contracts to competitors who have fiercely penetrated the market.

To set himself apart from the competition, he began offering customers more choices - 3,000 different backgrounds to be exact - while being more creative with portrait layouts.

Reggie won more than a half-dozen private school contracts for senior portraits and proms, which offset the loss in public school business.

He also landed preschool contracts and continues to shoot weddings and reunions, as well as family portraits and passport photos at his South King Street studio. The mom-and-pop operation has a single employee.

The business is a family affair, with his wife, Jenny - a First Hawaiian Bank loan officer - handling the bookkeeping and sons Jayson and Ryan helping with everything from computer work to digital imaging and editing.

“;The most difficult thing about growing up in a family business is that you've got to grow up faster because you're dealing with customers,”; said Jayson, 20. “;You've got to be more professional. You're always helping out.”;

In addition, there's a lot of pressure placed on the family members, who all have a stake in the business.

“;There's lots of fights; there's a lot of pressure you have,”; said Reggie's mother, Rhoda, 79, who is now retired from the business she once operated with her husband, back when they retouched pictures using pencil lead and added oil color by hand. Color processing in those days was a tedious 12-step process.

“;We worked hard; there was a lot of sacrifices you had to make,”; said Reggie, who grew up sweeping and cleaning his father's studio along with his three siblings starting when he about 10 years old. Those sacrifices included working 14-hour days, seven days a week, even on holidays and weekends.

Like his father, Reggie would often work up to 2 a.m. doing color printing in the dark room prior to the digital age.

But growing up in the business came with perks. Reggie was the only Kaimuki High School graduate with a colored senior portrait in 1972.