Down the Road

Roads and life and how roads are like life

What’s a guy who still shoots film supposed to do?

44

It is a sad day for this camera collector – my neighborhood CVS has stopped processing film. Theirs was the last one-hour color lab (that I know of) near my home on Indianapolis’s Northwestside. Goodbye, $6 processing and scanning.

BurnedCVS

Just a few years ago I could get my color film processed all over town: Wal-Mart, Meijer, Target, Walgreens, CVS, and Costco. These labs have shut down one by one. Oh, for the halcyon days of Costco’s startlingly good processing and giant high-quality scans for about four bucks.

I do have options. A camera store on the Northside still has a one-hour lab. But their processing and scanning is expensive at about $15 per roll, and I’ve had too many of their scans feature stray hairs that got into their equipment. Of course I can keep sending film off to The Darkroom or to Dwayne’s Photo, the mail-order processors I use most. I send all of my medium-format and black-and-white film to them already, because the drug-store labs won’t process it. They both do very good work, and they process almost anything you care to send them, including defunct film formats such as 110 and 620. Their prices for processing and scanning are reasonable (but go up fast when you send in odd formats or ask for higher-resolution scans). But thanks to shipping charges the overall cost starts at $14 per roll, which isn’t much of a bargain. And then you have to wait a week, give or take, to get scans back.

CVSSignI’m cheap and impatient. I’m thinking seriously about processing my own film. For an initial outlay of no more than $100, I can buy all the equipment I need to process black-and-white film. (The sources I read say that color film is trickier to process and many recommend just leaving color processing to the pro labs.) My scanner can handle 35mm negatives, but I’d want a scanner that can do medium-format film too. I think I could get a serviceable one for around $200. After the initial outlay, though, I can process film for less than a buck a roll.

Two things hold me back. First, I processed a roll of film once, in high school, and I thought it was the most boring thing I’d ever done. Second, my life is busy enough today that I wonder where I’d find the time to mess with it. It is just so convenient to drop off or mail in film.

I know that some of you reading this process your own film. What advice do you have to offer me?

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Film is still a bargain compared to 30
years ago. Read about how this is true.

44 thoughts on “What’s a guy who still shoots film supposed to do?

  1. Earth Ocean Sky Redux

    New here, followed a comment you made at Preservation in Pink. Great blog.

    I used to process my own film in the days when I had time (and patience!). But like most, I’ve gone all digital but I admit to cheating on my Lumix and looking longingly at my old film cameras and wonder if I should make the giant leap backwards (or forwards, which is it?)

    I’m excited to see what advice you get…maybe if it’s all positive, it will be enough encouragement for me to go back to film. I am lucky where I am to still have two mom and pop camera stores that sell and develop film.

    Good post.

    1. Jim Post author

      We’ll see how the comments go today! I got an e-mail from a reader early this morning encouraging me to process my own, and even to do color — he says that if he can do it, so can I.

      I shoot digital too, most of the time. There’s nothing wrong with getting a film camera out from time to time just for nostalgia’s sake and just to get the look of film into your work.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Mike

    On average, it takes me about 15 minutes to process my b&w film — 10 for the developer and 5 for the fix. Washing is 10 minutes, but requires minimal attention, as does an hour for drying.

    Scanning one negative at a time on a flatbed scanner like my old Epson 2450 easily runs over an hour per roll, even though I hold the scanning resolution at 1200 since I seldom do anything other than publish on line.

    For 35mm you can save a lot of time by using one of the small automatic scanners that will suck in a whole strip of shots in a matter of minutes. You can probably find a such a scanner for $200-$300, but the reliability may not be ideal.

    Of course, you could do the full monty with a wet darkroom, contact sheets and silver prints, but then you are looking at real time.

    I’ve never much minded the amount of time required to do my own scanning. The results are superior to what you can get from anyone else doing it for you, and there is a lot of satisfaction in having complete control and seeing the results appear in front of you — much the same feeling you get from seeing the image gradually appear in a tray.

    1. Jim Post author

      Mike, thank you for sharing your experience. The other day, I scanned the film I developed in 1984. (I have an Epson V300.) The scanning wasn’t terribly time consuming. If I get into a groove with it, I think I can manage to do a 24-exposure roll in 20 minutes or so at 1200. I spent half an evening in Photoshop with those photos, however, breathing life into them — most of them were badly exposed. I’ll share some of those photos here next week.

      I have a demanding job and am raising teenagers, and also write this blog and am involved with my Michigan Road group. So as you can imagine, time is limited to take on new things. At least it is for the next few years until the nest empties. But I am leaning heavily toward buying some equipment and chemicals to process b/w and see how it goes.

      1. cinderelladobbs

        I wish I had a darkroom! I took a photography class in high school and loved processing and developing my own B&W photos back then!!! When we can get into a house (we live in a mobile home right now), I plan on having a dark room at some point! I wouldn’t mind learning color, especially if it is cheaper than having them done.

        1. Jim Grey Post author

          You can really process your own b/w without a full darkroom. You just need a processing tank and a dark bag. A full darkroom is really only truly necessary when you want to make prints!

        2. cinderelladobbs

          I know, but what fun is it to process your film without making any prints! LOL! We don’t even have camera yet, but a friend is giving my husband a Canon EOS Elan II, so I am looking into film again.

          During my research, I saw that there were some attempts to make a digital film cartridge! That would be an awesome thing to have! Then we could switch to digital when we run out of film! I wish someone had made this successful already. I want one!

  3. RRAlexander

    I’ve been developing B&W negatives at home, then scanning with an Epson V600, which does a good job of scanning more than 99.9% of the time. A friend recently got a V700, which is capable of scanning more negatives at one pass.
    Yeah, developing is somewhat time-consuming. I usually listen to music while doing that. But the biggest problem I have is dust, since I live on the edge of the Mojave Desert. I’ve found that adding a drop of dishwashing liquid a couple times during the rinsing process, then using Kodak’s Photo-Flo at the end eliminates the majority of the dust. Though developing negs is a bit boring, the act of pulling the long negative off the reel and holding it up to a light to look at it seems to balance it out for me – I get more enjoyment out of that part of it than I probably should.
    I occasionally shoot color film and get it processed at Costco, which is very consistent. Results from the other local one-hour places are universally deplorable. Though scanning the color negatives is also time-consuming, it does save a bit of money, and I have more control over the digital end of it. If you have a scanner, you can cut some of the cost off the film you HAVE to send out.
    I only have a small tank that will develop two 35mm reels at a time, but I rarely shoot more than 2 rolls of 35mm in a day (and usually not that much). If you’re going to batch process every couple of weeks or so, a 4-reel tank might be a good investment, though you will use more chemicals.
    I gradually moved away from “all digital” to “mostly film” and recently acquired enough equipment to set up a darkroom in my garage. Though it is time-consuming, I enjoy film considerably more than digital. When I get through the film process, I feel like I’ve accomplished something, which is not always the case with digital.

    1. Jim Post author

      I still shoot 50% digital. You can’t beat it for instant results and easy handling.

      I can only imagine the dust problems you have. Dust isn’t a problem where I live, but dog hair sure is — I find it everywhere.

      I almost never have more than one roll to process at a time, so a tank that handles one or two rolls of 35mm or one roll of 120 would do fine for me.

  4. Ben Cotton

    It’s been a while since I did B&W developing, but in 8th grade, I spent countless hours in the darkroom processing something like 60% of the film for my middle school yearbook. B&W is pretty easy, you just want to make sure you get your temperatures right. I’ve only done color a few times, and it was slides, but I don’t remember it being monumentally harder.

    One thing you might try is to see if any nearby universities have a camera club. They may be willing to let you crash their party to try your hand at a few rolls before investing in your own setup.

    1. Jim Post author

      Everybody says that b/w isn’t that challenging. I’m inclined to just buy the tank and chemicals and have a go at it. I can afford it, and then even if I still end up sending most of my film out to be processed at least I can do it if I want.

  5. pesoto74

    I got back into film because I was never satisfied with the b&w conversions that I could get with digital. Sometimes I would get a result that I liked, however it was a lot of work. For me it is a lot simpler just to use b&w film to get b&w images. One thing I am doing now as far as developing goes that I hadn’t done before is using one-shot developers like Rodinal and HC-110 more. I like not having to mix up a lot of solution and then worrying if it will go bad before I use it. Both Rodinal and HC-110 seem to last forever. I also use one of the fixers that don’t smell bad. My current favorite is the one by Eco-Pro. I also don’t use stop bath. Instead I just rinse with water before adding the fixer. I use what I think is called the “Illford method” to wash at the end. You fill and empty the tank three times shaking 10, 20, and then 40 times. After washing I always use a little Photo-Flo. The whole process from loading the film to hanging it to dry rarely takes more than 20 minutes. Another thing that I have done this time around is what is called “stand developing”. This seems to be used mostly with Rodinal. Here you use a very small amount of developer and just agitate once at that start and then once again in the middle of the process. The time this takes is usually and hour. I have gotten some very good results doing this with slow films. I found it to be perfect for films like Neopan. http://www.digitaltruth.com/devchart.php is a good place to get info about film and development times. Anyway it can be a fascinating subject. Better stop before I run to the comment word limit.

    1. Jim Post author

      I’ve read about stand developing. Sounds plenty easy. I think that if I take this plunge I’ll try traditional methods first. I think I’d probably do the Rodinal or HC-110 too, to avoid the mixing and worries about waste.

      I hear you on b/w digital conversions. I’ve done some and it just never satisfies like real b/w film.

  6. Jennifer S

    I did black and white developing in high school and found it really creative and fun. There’s so much you can do to alter each print individually… and sometimes get unexpected results. My dad used to process his own film and had the equipment set up in a bathroom in the house. Color sounds a little intimidating… but I’m sure you could handle it.

    It’s sad there’s nowhere convenient that still develops film in your area. (It’s probably the same thing here. I haven’t used anything but digital in about ten years.) This is another technology that kids today will consider totally antiquated. My son found an audio cassette the other day, and I had to perform a tutorial so he’d understand how it works. The idea that you have to fast forward and actually wait to get to the point on the tape where the song you want to listen to is… and then flip it over for more songs? Crazy.

    1. Jim Post author

      Printmaking is where the creativity is — processing film is just chemicals and agitation and waiting. I won’t set up the printmaking side of a darkroom — just the processing side. I’ll scan my negatives and go digital with them from there. I’ll probably set up in a bathroom like your dad.

      Don’t tell your son about 8-track tapes. It’d make his head explode.

  7. Cooking Film

    Hello Jim, and first of all, forgive me for my poor English.

    For me, home developing black and white film, allows me to get the results I want out of a certain film. I can choose the developer, the dilution, to control the time, the contrast, the grain… all of this is part of the whole process of shooting film. Like Jennifer said it is indeed a creative and fun process.

    Many times I get home from work and after taking care of my son, bath, homework, dinner, spending time with him, etc… I put on some music and it’s like a therapy. It’s just me, the chemicals and the clock. My 10 year old sometimes likes to help which is great. I’m sure you will have fun and your photography will benefit a lot.

    If you are really thinking about doing it, it’s not hard at all, go with Rodinal or Agfa R09 (as it is sold in Europe) or Adox APH09. It has a long shelf life and if you use it at high dilutions it will last a long time.

    As for the scanner I use a cheap Canon 9000F and it’s a pretty fast scanner that delivers very decent results. On top of that it scans 35 and 120mm film.

    Jim, once you start doing it, you will never look back. :)

    1. Jim Post author

      I’ve been wondering which scanner to buy. I like my Epson V300 but its lack of 120 capability really brings me down. Thanks for recommending the Canon.

      I’ll give processing my own a try. Maybe I’ll find a way to fit it in and that won’t be as hard as I worry it might be.

  8. Lone Primate

    Oh, Jim… do it! Go the whole nine yards, really. These things are only going to get rarer and more expensive. Shoot and shoot and shoot, and then pick a day you’ve got time, and make a day of it. Your laundry day. :) You have a hobby that’s got real charm, and something not many people do anymore, but it means something to you. My two cents… go “pro”. Then nothing can hold you back. :)

    1. Jim Post author

      Yes, that’s for sure. The selection of films keeps shrinking along with the availability of processing. I doubt it will entirely go away anytime soon, but I am sure we’re not done seeing processors quit the business and films stop being made.

  9. Eric

    I’m going to join the chorus here. Process your own. It will save you tons of money (after the initial investment). I only process C-41. Unlike most, B&W intimidates me, while C-41 is just so cut and dry, it’s hardly art.

    For a scanner, I use the Epson V500. It does 120.

    Film, like vinyl records, is coming back. It’ll take the normals some time to figure this out, but trust me.

    1. Jim Post author

      Really? B/W intimidates you? I’ve never heard of such a thing! But really, whatever works for you.

      I’m sure film photography will be a strong niche for some time to come, but like digital music, digital photography is going to dominate and that’s that!

  10. Chang

    Hi Jim, I stumbled upon your blog as I tried to find out more about the Olympus XA which is on its way to me. Nice blog!! I have read a number of your personal articles as well :)

    Anyways, I recently started developing my own B/W film, and Im also a supporter of the rodinal stand development.

    Pretty easy, load the film into the developing container (in the changing bag), mix the chemicals, pour it in, agitate for a minute (like really 60 seconds) and you leave it there for another 59 minutes.
    You can go about doing what you want for an hour, a few minutes off wont make a difference, and after that another 2 mins for rinsing with water (I dont do a stop bath), and 5 mins for fixing. And thats that!

    Effectively, it’d be about 10 mins of real work (once you get the hang of it), and the rest of it is just waiting.

    Furthermore, you can try to find a bigger film developing container (the same steps above apply). As far as i know, the largest I’ve seen is one that can contain 5 rolls of 35mm film. So thats 10 mins of work for 5 rolls of 35mm film! :)

    Scanning might be a bit more time consuming, i guess that depends on your scanner though.

    Cheers!

    1. Jim Post author

      Chang, thanks for stopping by and I hope you’ll keep reading. Thanks for the encouragement. I’ve decided to try b/w processing — even if I don’t like it for whatever reason, I can afford the risk (in equipment costs). I’ll start with 35mm, which my current scanner can handle. If I really take to it, I’ll upgrade the scanner later to handle 120.

  11. Derek

    Do your own black and white! It’s cheaper, easier, and faster, don’t have to wait. Even the scanner I am using can do 120 is under $150. I might even do my own color in the near future, since I am a control freak. I heard something about dust and hair you worry about. Dry your film in a cabinet or closet can help, I also bought a air purifier from goodwill for $5. Also, each time before scan, wipe the scanner off with microfiber cloth, and then use a plastic pump blower to blow off any dust on the film and the scanner surface. I see you mention about being boring. Well for black and white you can simply do this if you are as lazy as I am http://dehk.wordpress.com/2010/12/28/using-unicolor-motorbase-developing-roll-film-with-small-tank/ . For color you’d need something like a Jobo to regulate the temperature.

    I think developing is not the painstaking part, scanning is, however, since I control each step, I can easily control the outcome.

    I heard about the labs you send your film to, I hear good things, but just to give you another option, i send my film to Old school photo lab in Dover NH http://www.oldschoolphotolab.com , they are also great, $11 processed only shipped both ways per roll, pretty much any size film and any type. As a matter of fact I just sent a roll of portra 800 out today to them. Had to return back to them since I am not happy with the lab in cleveland even though it’s cheaper.

    I’d strongly recommend you to get a scanner. since lab scans are not necessary the best, they don’t know what you want. And also start doing your own bw. Might be fun, something for you to master!

    If You need anything just give me a holla,

    1. Jim Post author

      Derek, I’ve decided to invest in some processing equipment. I’m going to buy a tank that can handle 35mm and 120, and some b/w chemicals, to start. I have a scanner that can do 35mm so I’ll try shooing some 35mm b/w and see how it goes with processing and scanning. If I hate it, well, it was worth a shot. If I like it, then I’ll consider upgrading to a scanner that can handle 120 too. I’ve been okay with the lab scans I’ve gotten — the CVS scans were on the grainy side, the Costco scans were WONDERFUL, and I’ve seen everything in between.

      1. Derek

        I keep hearing good things from costco, but I don’t think there’s any around here.

        Great news! Music to my ear, bout your investment, can’t wait to see the results.

  12. Kenn Alan

    What’s your time worth? How many rolls will you save p until you mix your fresh chemicals? Printing is one thing, but I prefer leaving the film developing to the professional; labs.

    I found this through Googling “Processing 620 C41.”

    Best,

    Kenn

    1. Jim Grey Post author

      Kenn, time is why I still haven’t bought any chemicals or equipment, six months after writing this post. It remains less time-intensive for me to just drop my film into an envelope and send it off.

  13. rangerdon

    Color – C41 – is easy. Some b/w films are also processed in C41 – lets you use a different asa/iso for each frame. Ilford, as I recall, makes one. Temperature regulation is more critical for color, and especially transparency film, but the solution is an easy one: Use a dishpan, filled with water, and heat the water to the right temp with a fishtank heater. Also, use a Weston thermometer to make sure that you have accurate temps.

    Time is also critical for color – use a good Gralab timer or similar. Probably all digital now. Actually, digital timers on cellphones or pads should work just fine.

    Good dryer for film is a cheap hair dryer.

    Edwal FG7 used to be the best BW developer.

    And Costco is still doing film and scans, so I’d suggest them unless it’s work of Ansel Adams nature.

    Printing is where the true art comes in. Not hard to set up a b/W darkroom – color is much trickier, I’d stick with B/W. And the equipment is now available for low cost, used, I’ll bet. Durst or Omega enlargers.

    Photoshop, unless it’s Elements, is WAY overkill. Most of the pros I know use Lightroom or Aperture. Or even Elements.

    Go for it!

    1. Jim Grey Post author

      I just got a Freestyle catalog and am thinking anew about buying processing gear. I shot a roll of Fuji 200 on New Year’s Eve and thought I’d drop it by the only one-hour lab I know of near me, a curiously expensive one, but when I got there I learned that they no longer process film. I’m really getting tired of sending film out and waiting up to two weeks to get my images back!

      I know I can build a processing “lab” and do it all in my bathroom. I work with images only digitally, however; I don’t see myself moving into printing any time soon, if ever. I don’t have space in my home for that kind of equipment anyway.

      I use Photoshop Elements. It’s good enough for me. I like to get the image right in the camera as much as possible. Elements is there for when I don’t get it right in the camera.

      1. rangerdon

        Good way to start – easy, one step at a time. If you decide to do E-6 — transparency — the fish tank heater, water bath, Weston thermometer and precise timer make it easy.
        Also mounts – GEPE are expensive, plastic but probably the best. On the other hand, the cardboard mounts that are heat sealed work fine as well.

        Good luck, have fun.

  14. James Jacocks

    B/W processing of film is pretty easy. I am a pro with an obscene amount of equipment–film and digital. Actually, I like to keep my personal stuff simple. Started with a closet lab and had more fun than is permitted. The thing is that use of time has to be fun and very low stress. Music is a great companion. So is a companion. Find a fellow enthusiast. Stand development is really easy and you can walk away and enjoy something else. The results are good too–auto contrast control and unidevelopment time. Am very nostalgic for traditional processes and admit that silver geletan prints are FAR better. For fun and serious art work my Bessa cameras are the most useful. They are compact and lenses are superb. Don’t think that there is a better way to shoot B/W. Love your blog. Photography is fun!

    1. Jim Grey Post author

      I do recall that the processing isn’t hard at all and isn’t even all that time consuming. It’s the scanning that stops me. It takes me an hour to scan a roll of 35mm and then an hour or two or three to process them in Photoshop. I love every minute of it, but I’m a busy dude and lack the time for it. So I continue to send my film out, because in a week or so it comes back all processed and scanned. That said, I’m still considering doing this anyway and figuring out if something else in my life can go to make room.

      1. James Jacocks

        I found that scanning takes more time than printing! With chemicals premixed, enlarger pre set etc., it takes me under 3 minutes to have a wet keeper in hand. Using RC paper, that means you’re a squeegee away from done. Hang the thing on a line and walk away. It humbles a digital print for sure. Organization saves time here as with everything. What could be easier? Oh, yes, Polaroids. (That is a sad truth. No more useful Polaroid films made. My opinion.) I never have enough good things to use my time on.

        1. James Jacocks

          The Polaroid films that I liked best were the positive/negative type for reprinting the shot. I admit ignorance as to Fuji instants. I will wait for your post with interest. If you have tried manipulations with the color films, please comment on the results. I have a couple of medium format prima donnas that can take pack film adapters. Thanks for the communications!

  15. Peter Paar

    If you haven’t tried developing yet you might want to look at “daylight” developing tanks (you can find them on Ebay). You won’t even need a darkroom. I processed my own film for over 50 years until health problems forced me out of the darkroom. Black and white is simple. Color slides (Process E-6) is simple as long as you watch the temperature. Color negatives (C-41) is a little more difficult and less forgiving of time and/or temperature errors. I agree with an earlier poster that B&W prints are far better than digital.

    1. Jim Grey Post author

      Yes, I’ve mapped it all out – a tank like you describe, a dark bag, and the requisite chemicals and I should be good to go. I still haven’t pulled the trigger, though. I think it’s in part butterflies over trying something new, but also I am quite confident that finding time to scan the processed negatives will be a challenge. I’ve done some negative scanning and holy cow does it take time. I so enjoy having someone else do that! But I’m shooting a lot more film this year, and at the prices of mail-order processing I am very likely to take this plunge very soon.

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