Arts & Culture

How Nations Photo Lab Became One of the Country’s Largest Photography Printers

Yes, people still want physical copies of their photos—and the Baltimore County business has made printing them a national phenomenon.
Nations Photo Lab president, Harvis Kramer, with his company’s fine framed prints. —Photography by Matt Roth

While just about everyone carries a camera around in their pockets or purses these days thanks to smartphones, and we mostly share our perfectly filtered, red-eye-removed snaps on social media, there’s actually still money to be made in the tangible photo print industry.


Turns out people still want physical prints of their photos—something they can frame and hang on a wall or put on a desk or send to grandma. And they want something of a higher quality than you can make with an at-home printer or pick up at Walmart.

Baltimore County-based Nations Photo Lab tapped into this need early, and despite a serious detour during COVID-19, they’ve taken a small business that relied on a clientele base of sororities and fraternities and turned it into a national phenomenon, with a reputation as one of best photo labs in the country.

Before we get to that, let’s tell the origin story. Nations Photo began in earnest when its president, Harvis Kramer, met its founder and former CEO, Ryan Millman, back in 2002. As is common in Smalltimore, they had known of each other while both were attending Pikesville High School years before, but Millman was a few years ahead of Kramer.

Millman, whom Kramer refers to as a “serial entrepreneur,” had just launched his first business, called GreekYearbook, which takes photos for fraternities and sororities all over the country. (The business is still going strong today, with a network of roughly 200 photographers doing high end portraits, group photos, and event photos for about 500 universities.)

Kramer, a Reisterstown native who was president of his fraternity while attending the University of Maryland, College Park, connected with Millman via GreekYearbook. After graduating in 2002 with a degree in criminal justice with a concentration in business—he originally planned to become a lawyer—Kramer became Millman’s second full-time employee, turning down jobs with Merrill Lynch and other well-known companies.

“My family thought I was insane,” Kramer, 44, says. “But I just really believed in Ryan and what he was doing. Since then, I’ve been a founding member of all the other businesses that we’ve either started or acquired.”

As for what his family thinks now, more than 20 years later, “They think I might know what I’m doing,” says Kramer with a laugh.


Millman comes from a long line of entrepreneurs, and while in a fraternity at the University of Arizona, he had the idea to create a website that was like social media in that it allowed Greek members to connect through photos on the site, Kramer explains.

“Today, we do more high-end portraiture, but back then, we were doing more of the event photos. Each fraternity and sorority has weekly events, and we’d send photographers out to photograph them and put them online,” says Kramer.

If this origin story sounds familiar, the similarity isn’t lost on Kramer. “Mark Zuckerberg always says that he got the idea for Facebook from a Greek fraternity photo site, and there were only a few of them out there,” he says. “I actually reached out to him back in like 2003…but he never got back to me.”

Nations Photo Lab came about in 2004. As GreekYearbook grew, Kramer says they had been outsourcing all of their photo printing to other labs. “It got to a point where it made sense to bring in our own printers and really start to control the quality, the turnaround time, and the cost ourselves,” he says.

Millman started with a mini-lab in Owings Mills, because he was familiar with the area, but named it Nations Photo Lab because although they were serving mainly local photographers at the time, he knew they could grow it into something much bigger. That happened quickly, and they began printing photos for wedding photographers, school photographers, sports photographers, and others all over the country. The New York Times said in a July 2023 “Wirecutter” review, “After our latest round of testing, we remain convinced that Nations Photo Lab is the best online photo printing service for most people,” citing their simplicity in ordering online and their color-correction.

What makes their prints different is that most places offer digital printing, which is done with much lower-quality paper and ink. Kramer says that theirs are silver halide prints done with high-quality chemistry and mostly Fuji photo paper. It’s this attention to detail that keeps customers coming back. Megan McLaughlin, director of Football Information for the Baltimore Ravens, has been working with them since Nations was based in Owings Mills (they’re now in Hunt Valley). Nations produces a wide range of items for the team, including action photos, gifts, and more.

“They do many of our immediate printing needs. They’re great to deal with. If I need things on short notice or corrected, they’re always willing to help out,” McLaughlin says. “I like the fact that we’re supporting a local business. I can get them on the phone, and they’re easily accessible.”

For the last seven years, Baltimore wedding and portrait photographer Alicia Wiley has used Nations Photo Lab, not only because they’re local, but because of the products they provide.

“I do a lot of printing there—both professional and personal. I really wholeheartedly believe in shopping small. I also love the quality of their work. If there was ever any issue like a printing or shipping error, they are quick and accommodating to fix it so that it doesn’t affect my own clients’ experience,” she says.

Besides creating prints, Nations Photo Lab also makes unique photo products through its sister company, Artsy Couture, which it acquired in 2010. Artsy Couture became their innovation arm.

“We have more than eight patented products through that brand that we either sell directly to our consumers or we resell to other businesses, such as cruise lines, drug stores, or theme parks,” says Kramer. The standout among their patented items is the canvas click frame, which essentially imposes a photo onto a 3D canvas that can be easily framed, requiring no tools and minimal training. “If you’ve ever purchased and received a canvas product on a cruise ship, at a resort, or in a retail setting, there’s a strong likelihood that it was our canvas click frame.”

Some of the other patented items are wooden photo cubes, cube ornaments, and photo magnets. By expanding this way, they’ve been able to work with clients like Disney, Under Armour, Universal, The White House, luxury resorts, and many more.

Kramer believes that because they launched their business at the dawn of the true age of digital photography—a time when digital cameras became more affordable and smartphones put cameras in almost everyone’s hands—they were able to have a proverbial “leg up.” Lots of preexisting photo labs were scrambling to switch from film to digital processing, Kramer says. But Nations Photo Lab started with digital processing. “I think that really gave us an advantage—the timing of when we came into the industry.”

Capitalizing on that timing has been everything. Kramer says that about 93 percent of photos are now taken with a smartphone, and perhaps as many as five billion photos are taken a day.


Nations’ focus on innovation has not only enabled them to expand, but to keep the business running during the pandemic. Kramer says that in March 2020, business went down 70-80 percent. So Millman and Kramer, along with some employees, were trying to determine what they could do to keep the company afloat.

“It was a really scary time, and trying to figure out how long [the pandemic] was going to last was impossible,” explains Kramer. “I think we’re just an innovative group. We realized that a lot of our machinery was able to actually produce face shields.”

In fact, Kramer says that, for a time, they had the largest fleet of Computer Numeric Control (CNC) machines in the Mid-Atlantic region. “If you want to cut a piece of wood or glass or plastic, it’s a machine that can do huge six-foot sheets at a time, so that you can cut a bunch of stuff at once,” says Kramer. “We use them to cut our wood to produce some of our products, but we realized we could utilize those machines to cut plastic.”

Remember, this was a time when hospitals, fire and police departments, health care workers, and regular people desperately needed face shields. Millman and one of Nations Photo Lab’s engineers deciphered a way they could produce a face shield that was not only compliant, but made of the best materials available. At first, Kramer says that they were manufacturing face shields to keep their staff employed and to produce something that was helping with the pandemic.

“We were initially donating face shields to businesses, police and fire departments, and hospitals and the like to help out with the pandemic and keep our folks employed,” says Kramer. But then, they became known for their exceptional product. “We weren’t taking shortcuts. We got the best plastic and best elastic out there and made these face shields high-quality, whereas everyone else was getting a very low-quality face shield from China or wherever,” Kramer says.

They were so well done that a doctor at LifeBridge Health referred to Nations as the “Mercedes-Benz of face shields.” As a result, and as the demand for the personal protective equipment (PPE) increased, businesses, health care facilities, and local folks asked if Nations would begin producing them for purchase.

“We wanted to help the community out, and then, for a period of time, it turned into a small way that we could keep the lights on and keep people employed,” says Kramer.

When the face shield business ended, a new opportunity awaited. Remember during the pandemic when nearly everyone was either working from or staying home? People began to see what they liked and didn’t like about their homes. From this came the home décor boom, which inspired plenty of people to spruce up their walls with framed photos.

“We had a huge holiday season that year of people ordering stuff to decorate their homes,” says Kramer. The boom continued into early 2021. Later that year, events resumed, as did photo printing. In addition, Nations says there were an estimated 2.6 million weddings in 2022—the highest number since 1984—as many had been postponed.

It all adds up to a business success story where a lab born out of taking pictures at fraternities has not only kept the lights on, but has grown into one of the largest of its kind in the country. Today, the business has about 220 employees, 180 in Maryland and the rest in York, Pennsylvania, where most of the patented products are made. All of the products are available online.

As for what the next trend will be in photography, no one really knows. But chances are, Nations Photo Lab will be a part of it.

“One of the reasons we’ve been so successful is that we’re always looking ahead and watching trends. We’re thinking, ‘How can we increase this through innovation?’” says Kramer.

They’ve already made it easier to print not only on paper, but on metal, canvas, and wood. By buying do-it-yourself kits from them, photographers can now create party favors like cubes of photos at the end of an event or on a cruise.

“We just keep investing in technology that makes the process of producing a photo product much easier,” says Kramer. “People don’t print as much as they used to because they’re fine with a photo being on their phones. But there’s an authenticity to holding a photograph in your hand. It grounds the memory in reality and makes it feel more tangible and real.”

This piece appeared in our March 2024 issue. For more great Baltimore stories, consider becoming a subscriber.