On most days Essential Photo Supply is open, Ken Sintz — the store’s co-owner, as well as a passionate photographer and enthusiastic teacher — will be there.
“My dad always had a dark room, literally in the house,” Sintz said, reciting his origin story. “Sitting in the dark room, underneath the sink, … you’re just literally watching, waiting for him to make his exposure. To watch the developer, watch the print coming up.”
The process, Sintz said, sparked his curiosity. “Getting more and more into just how he would see the world,” he said. He would look at his father’s photos, and ask where he shot them — and Dad would say things like, “You were standing right next to me. We’re up in Big Cottonwood Canyon.”
“To see how someone saw a plant or a bird, a mountain or a grove of aspen trees, was kind of fascinating to me,” Sintz said. “To be able to grab something or look through it and be like, ‘I can literally portray this however I want.’”
After that, he said, he signed up for every photo class he could find in junior high school and high school. His dream, he said, was to be a photojournalist — but after college, he realized it wouldn’t be easy to do that job with a family. So, in 1992, he started working in a small camera store.
After managing another Salt Lake City photo business for years, Sintz, along with his wife, Lisa, opened their own business, Essential Photo Supply, in 2021. The business is located at 959 E. 900 South, in Salt Lake City’s 9th and 9th neighborhood, just more than a block west of the street’s giant whale sculpture. The Sintzes oversee a staff of nine.
A place to ‘play and learn’
Ken Sintz said he was sold on the white building immediately.
It has an abundance of natural light, creaky wood floors, basement space and a greenhouse in back. The space is small, but feels open and easy to navigate — even with the glass case of traded-in cameras, displays of camera bags and straps, an area dedicated to disposable and Fujifilm Polaroid cameras and a table stacked with photographic books on every topic imaginable.
For years, Lisa Sintz said, she and Ken went to other photo stores whenever they could. “The hallmarks of a typical photo store are dust and those glass cabinets where there’s someone behind and you can’t touch the cameras, can’t really play and learn,” she said, grinning. “We knew that’s for sure what we didn’t want.”
The building has some history, too, Lisa said. Built first in 1888, it also has a bit of history, according to Lisa. It was first built in 1888, and until recently was home to Orchid Dynasty — a flower shop and greenhouse that moved west to the Granary District.
The Sintzes have preserved as much of the white building’s original structure and character as possible. For example, the refrigerators that were left behind by previous occupants have been refurbished, and now store film.
The lab space, in the basement, is cozy with equal amounts of exposed concrete and content chaos — including a walk-in film fridge, a cool draft, strips of negatives are hung up to dry, and a collection of unique disposable cameras.
The staff members process orders and make prints here, as music plays in the background. Each staff member has put up one photo they have taken, with details on the camera and type of film they used to take them.
There are two processing machines for black-and-white film, one for color film, and a handful of scanners. They are ancient, the staff members say, but are still the best out there. The staff has given them names: Peggy (which makes jpegs), Tiffany (which makes .tif images), Dory, Calvin and Hobbes.
“We do a lot of processing,” Ken said. “We’re starting to do some printing, some little packages.”
The fun part of the lab, Ken said, is that it’s open to customers, who can go into the basement and see the prints being made. Younger people, he said, are coming to the store and asking for actual prints, not just scans.
The greenhouse, behind the building, has been turned into a photo studio. Strings of light bulbs descend from the exposed wood beams, and the original windows are covered to diffuse the sunlight — creating a natural, soft light throughout the space.
Several companies — including Contender Bicycles, Backcountry, Cotopaxi and Kodiak — have used the studio. During the NBA All-Star Weekend, in February, athletes came to be photographed. The space is also used for video production.
‘A teacher, first and foremost’
Ken Sintz said being essential isn’t just in the store’s name, but something they try to put into practice every day.
Doing that requires having enough things for sale that people need for their craft, but also a welcoming environment where people can come and learn.
The aim, he said, is to help people with photography, whatever their skill level or equipment. “Keep their focus with them, but encourage them and help them along,” Ken said. “This is what they’re asking about, this is what they want to improve on.”
It’s his favorite part of the job. “For me, being in the industry for so long and wanting to continue to be in it — it’s this right here, just talking to people about photography, and it’s so much fun.”
Ken is “a teacher, first and foremost,” said Victoria Hills, and it’s what attracted her to Essential Photo Supply as a customer. Now, she’s the store’s outreach manager.
Hills said she has watched Ken help people learn how to use cameras they have owned for years, or had inherited, or had just bought.
“I’ve been shooting films since I was like 17, so I’ve been to all the different film labs in the city,” Hills said. “When I found this place, it kind of just brought a new life to it for me. It’s just so open and inviting. I would come in here and Ken would be, like, ‘Hey, nice to see you again.’ [I was,] like, ‘You remember me?’”
Making a sale isn’t what the store is about, she said. “Photography itself, you don’t need the fancy lenses and gear. All you need is an eye, a camera and a basic knowledge of how to use your machine to capture what you’re seeing.”
The store, Hills said, “really is a community. They’re interested in the projects you’re working on.”
Hills had the idea to operate a booth at the Kilby Court Block Party in May. The store sold disposable cameras and film, and promised a 24-hour service for developing photos.
The staffers were busy during the block party, she said, and the booth was a success. They even mailed prints to concert goers from out-of-state. (Lisa said that’s the business’s next growth area — letting people mail in their film, and sending back prints.)
Pieces of the past
The best part of the job, the Sintzes and their staff agree, is helping people bring their memories to life.
Hills recalled an older gentleman, whose wife had recently died, who brought in some slides. “There are all the photos that he had of his wife,” she said. The staff digitized them, which Hills said brought his wife back to life for him. Hills said she didn’t get to talk to the man, because she was working in the basement, but learned his life story through the pictures.
“Right now, we’re doing a project where we’re scanning a woman’s great-grandparents’ wedding photos,” Hills said. “Some of them are negatives, some of them are prints, but we’re digitizing them so that she can see them again. It’s those moments that are so special for me. Bringing something back to life, that some people thought they’d never see again, because film is dead.”
Essential takes part in the Salt Lake Gallery Stroll, on the third Friday of the month, displaying the work of a local photographer. In May, photographer Ron Winsett showcased his work, under the title “Journey Behind The Lens,” featuring panoramic shots from Utah’s outdoors. In June, for Pride month, Garrin Evans showed the series “Paid Time Off,” capturing her life as a “queer photographer, athlete and observer of Salt Lake City.”
As more people carry smartphones with cameras in their pocket, Ken Sintz noted that there is more integration between the technology of cameras and phones. There are even apps, like Canon’s Camera Connect, that allow someone to control their camera through their phone.
But while some may see film photography as an old physical medium, Sintz sees something everlasting.
People, he said, “want a tangible thing. They want the look and to see how the lab is portraying their images and how they saw Bryce Canyon or whatever, differently than their phone does.”
With camera phones, “all of us are so used to immediate gratification,” Lisa said. “In an age where everything’s so immediate, … film makes you slow down and be intentional.”
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