Uncharted career: how an engineer decided to craft wedding albums

Mumbai-based Rajiv Panchal creates and delivers handcrafted masterpieces worldwide, drawing inspiration from innovation and overcoming challenges. A report by Vimal Parmar

03 Jun 2024 | By PrintWeek Team

Rajiv Panchal (l) with son Mayank

Rajiv Panchal is the owner of a business that produces high-quality wedding albums and photo books. His speciality is creating exclusive layflat books, also known as flush-mount albums. In addition to catering to the domestic market, Panchal also ships the products to customers in countries such as the UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Mauritius. His customers range from individuals who desire photo books for personal use to professional photographers.
Panchal’s interest in tinkering began in his early childhood. His father, who ran a traditional furniture business, always motivated him to be an entrepreneur. “Eventually, I ended up in the engineering stream,” says Panchal. He completed his schooling and engineering in Mumbai in 1989.

Between 1989 and 2000, Panchal worked at L&T, Otis, Tata Steel, and a few smaller places to gain experience. In 2000, he started a packaging venture, creating garment bags. However, a customer’s request for polypropylene (PP) folders for 4x6-inch photo prints triggered innovation. At the time, such albums were imported from China since only a select few in India produced polyvinyl chloride (PVC) alternatives. Panchal engineered a microprocessor-based sealing machine to manufacture PP-based slip-in photo albums, capitalising on PP’s flexibility, lightweight, strength, and moisture resistance. These albums enabled his entry into the photography market, with distribution nationwide. While demand has waned due to decreased cut-size photo printing, this offers an affordable option reminiscent of traditional albums during the film days.

In 2010, a US client sought a flush-mount wedding album, a relatively new concept at the time made by only a select few. Panchal created a prototype with silver halide paper pasted on thick boards, a norm then, and approved the sample. These album pages are printed on silver halide (AgX), where each finished page is about 2mm thick, lies flat wholly, and looks elegant. “People loved the seamless double-page panoramic spreads in these albums,” says Panchal.

Panchal then started Ultraa Albums, his new journey in flush-mount album designing and printing. “While the entire album is handcrafted in-house, the printing is outsourced,” informs Panchal. “We make albums for all occasions and all varieties.”
Panchal also sells slip-in albums through dealers in India and on websites like Amazon. But customers reach out directly for flush-mount albums. “Many find Ultraa Albums through recommendations or on social media, where we are quite active,” he says.
A team of 10 people, including his wife and son, are engaged in the business. “In 2013 my wife, Vimal joined me and in 2015, my son Mayank joined my business, and he is currently handling all export clients while my focus is on the domestic front.”

The modus operandi
Ultraa Albums uses three print technologies to produce wedding albums and photo books – AgX, electrophotography, and inkjet. Each technology offers a different value at different price points. Ultraa outsources printing to ensure top quality, depending on specifications. UV treatment is performed in-house on certain paper prints using machinery from Rajkot-based Pinnacle Technocrats. “This treatment enhances the durability and longevity of the prints, ensuring they maintain their vibrant colours over time,” says Panchal.
AgX printing uses Fujifilm media on the Noritsu QSS mini-lab. The HP Indigo digital press (electrophotography) utilises on Saraprint non-tear media from Polyplex. At the same time, fine art albums are printed on Epson large-format printers with pigment inks on museum-grade archival media.
While Ultraa outsources its print requirements, it does have an Epson EcoTank L1800 A3+ six-colour inkjet photo printer. “Though our focus remains on custom layout and binding to fabricate premium wedding albums and photobooks with relevant packaging, we regularly use the Epson printer to proofread and visualise critical jobs,” says Panchal, emphasising the importance of printing instead of visualising pages on a monitor, while explaining a significant difference between the two.
Panchal informs that the slip-on albums still sell, which may surprise many. “It’s a small market, though,” he says, adding, “We fabricate the entire album in-house, except for raw materials like PP rolls, PP sheets, and printed cover sheets on PP media from outside sources.”

What customers prefer
Panchal informs that Ultraa creates an average of 200 to 250 monthly albums. The most popular sizes are 12x18-inch (closed size), 6x9-, 8x8-, 12x12-inch, and 12x15-inch. “These sizes are preferred for occasions like baby albums, travel memories, and festivals such as Diwali and Christmas. In addition, they are ideal for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and other similar events.”
Ultraa caters to various events, including corporate gatherings and marathon event books. According to Panchal, photo albums can be created for every occasion. In India, buyers usually prefer electrophotography printed photos produced on HP Indigo presses, while overseas buyers prefer silver halide and fine art printed albums.
Panchal notes that direct customers tend to opt for higher-quality albums despite the cost, while professional photographers often seek lower prices to meet contract needs, especially when providing a free wedding album. “Educating photographers and customers on the value of printing albums can benefit both parties. If the albums have the photographer’s brand name, there is a chance of increased referral orders for the photographer,” explains Panchal.
The Panchal family is environmentally conscious and minimises waste at home and work. “We collect waste paper and send it to be recycled through dealers,” informs Panchal.

A buoyant optimism
Panchal remains optimistic about the future of his business despite facing challenges. “There is growth because of ease of sharing and transferring high-resolution photos online, the affordability of album prices, and the convenience of ordering and printing photo books.” Expanding on his business strategy, Panchal asserts, “To stand out in a competitive market, it is important to focus on offering unique features, maintaining high quality, providing exceptional customer service, and exceeding expectations.” He believes that by doing so, success is inevitable. In addition, Panchal emphasises the importance of effective marketing to promote the advantages of printed albums. “Reaching out to a broader audience to highlight the limitations of digital-only archiving is critical.”
He suggests, “There are numerous other occasions and opportunities for printing albums besides wedding albums, and it’s essential to make end-users aware of them.”

The emerging trends
Luxury fine art albums are promising products, says Panchal. “This is a niche market where prints are created on museum-grade fine art paper using pigment-based inkjet printers. These result in high-end photo books.
Panchal adds, “The demand for wedding albums will grow due to the increasing number of weddings in India, which is currently estimated at 10-million per year. He also points out that there are other subjects for photo books, such as corporate events, birthdays, and travel, which will further bring in additional volumes.” Overall, Panchal is optimistic about the future of photo books and wedding albums.
Panchal’s company uses social media, websites, and follow-up calls to attract customers. He says, word of mouth is also a significant asset, with satisfied customers driving referrals. “More than half of our sales are to international buyers. Prices start at Rs 5,000 domestically and Rs 15,000 for exports.” The company’s focus is on hand-crafting each album as a masterpiece. “We prioritise customer satisfaction over financial gain,” asserts Panchal.
Panchal shares an emotional story about a group of friends who created an album to remember a deceased friend. They made 35 copies, and the feedback they received overwhelmed them. “The album served as a tangible reminder of their friend and became a cherished possession.”
Panchal is inspired by his company’s photographer clients, who push to deliver better-quality premium albums. “Their feedback is instrumental in helping us improve our craft.”

Time away from work
On the personal front, Panchal says he looks forward to spending time at home after a busy day. “While we are together at work, the discussion is always work-related, but at home, we are more at leisure. My wife and son both help me in business. We are a team; I would not be what I am without them.”
Panchal enjoys going on vacations with his family and friends. He takes a few short trips and one long trip each year and especially loves visiting mountains like Ladakh and Spiti Valley. His close friends and he take time off to meet twice a year.
Although Panchal is not a big movie buff, one Hindi movie that inspired him is Guru, based on the life of Dhirubhai Ambani. He is also an ardent cricket fan and supports everyone in Team India. However, Virat Kohli is his favourite. Panchal admits to being a foodie, but he cannot cook. “I love Goan food and listening to old Hindi songs on good music systems.”
Panchal also collects old coins, although he has been collecting less lately. Fitness is crucial to him, and he enjoys running the Tata Mumbai Marathon. “I have completed the 21-km run five times.”
When asked about his favourite quote, Panchal shares a line from Gujarat’s famous poet Sursinhji Takhtasinhji Gohil, also known as Kalapi. “Nishan chuk maaf, nahi maaf nichu nishan, which translates to, Missing a goal can be forgiven, but aiming low cannot,”
Panchal concludes, “This quote inspires me to always aim high in what I do, and I often share it with my team to motivate them.”

(Vimal Parmar is an independent marketing consultant and digital print evangelist)