Photo studio evolves in digital world

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Radium Photo operated in a couple of storefronts on Western Avenue in Muskegon. Courtesy Radium Photo

Radium Photo was established in downtown Muskegon in 1909. Paralleling the continuously changing photography industry, the small family business has managed to prevail through four generations and recently celebrated its 110th anniversary.

Radium Photo offers high-end photo finishing and an array of specialty wall décor. The company specializes in printing for photographers, artists and businesses.

A big part of the business includes taking photos for many area schools and sports leagues, as well as local fine art and scout camps. The company also uses Photoshop to digitally repair scanned photos that may be old and damaged.

The business was established by Joseph Cihak and then sold to his brother, Charles Cihak, in 1915. In 1961, he sold the business to his son, Charlie Cihak II. It’s currently owned by Charles Cihak III, who purchased the business in 1983, and is managed by Charles Cihak IV, who is set to become the next owner.

The business, along with several others, had to move from its first location to make room for the now-demolished mall in downtown Muskegon. Radium spent two years in a double-wide trailer before moving into its current location, at 835 Terrace St., in 1975.

Charles Cihak IV knows the business started out as a portraiture parlor. Looking at old photos, the store appeared to sell frames, but besides that, the family is unclear about everything the business did. Even after his sister did some digging in local archives, they’re unsure of the exact date the store opened.

But one thing is for sure — in order for the business to exist today, the family has had to significantly adapt over the years.

Around the 1920s is when Radium began taking photos for schools and sports leagues.

“Probably one of the bigger turning points for us would be in the early ’80s when we decided to purchase our own printing equipment,” Cihak said. 

That’s what led Radium to become what it is today. 

Unlike some other professional printing labs, Radium’s printing services and products are available to anyone. The trend lately is that photographers release digital files to their customers, who can then have photos printed wherever and however they want. 

“They could bring their files to the same place, get that same quality that the photographer would have provided them if they were making prints for them,” Cihak said.

Though the company started out as a portraiture studio, it ended that service, including senior photos and weddings, to avoid competing with its customers.

“As we became a professional lab, we had local photographers from West Michigan bringing us their work,” Cihak said. “We don't want to go into competition with our own friends and our own customers.”

About six years ago, Radium purchased equipment that allows it to print affordable yearbooks typically purchased by elementary schools, as well as business cards and other similar products. That has allowed the business to tap into a market following a decrease in photo printing.

“Not everybody prints as much as they used to,” Cihak said.

People used to need to print all their negatives to know what photos they had. Now, people can preview photos digitally and print only what they like, and many people are happy viewing photos on small screens rather than having them enlarged.

“Our school picture division and our sports photo division has really bloomed over the last eight to 10 years, to where that really helps us out to compensate for maybe the lack of printing from photographers nowadays,” Cihak said.

For those who decide they’d like to have photos printed, he said the staff’s knowledge of the options is what sets the business apart from an online printing store. Someone could order an expensive canvas through a store online, for example, and not know how it will look until it’s printed. Radium staff can answer questions and make suggestions regarding quality to avoid disappointment, he said.

“What makes us relevant and popular with West Michigan is the fact that somebody could come in and talk to us, and we're knowledgeable and we're there to help,” Cihak said. 

The company’s use of a dark room dwindled with the rise of the digital camera until it was finally no longer needed. When Cihak started about 17 years ago, the company still was using film and just getting into digital photography.

“We want to get that perfect shot every single time, so being able to see the photo and check it if needed is a huge advantage,” Cihak said.

Besides expanding the school and sports photography, he said he plans to continue working in commercial printing. Cihak said the company has worked with a couple of banks in Grand Rapids to update wall décor with local photography. 

“Wintertime slows down a little bit for photography and for people printing,” he said. “Working with businesses is something that can be done year-round.”

Cihak has a daughter and a son — Cameron Charles — but is unsure yet whether they’ll continue with the family business. 

“I think we're going to be relevant enough to really be around as long as we want,” Cihak said.

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