When I started making photographs again in 2005 I couldn’t afford a new digital camera, so long story short I bought a used Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 for $20 and some film and got to shooting. That necessarily meant I’d need to find a lab to process my film.

Walmart still processed and scanned color negative film, for about $6 I think. Money was tight for me then, but I could manage that price if I didn’t shoot too often. So that’s who I used.

I have lamented on this blog (here) the loss of easy, inexpensive film processing at drug and big-box stores. The by-mail labs I use now charge up to three times more than Walmart used to. But perhaps you get what you pay for.

I was looking back through old scans recently to update my review of the Kodak Retina Ia and was surprised and disappointed with the dull color. I didn’t see it then, as I had a lot to learn. I sure see it now. I don’t blame the camera — that Retina’s lens is crackerjack. I also shot Fujicolor 200, a film I know well. So I blame the processing and/or the scanning. I brought the scans into Photoshop hoping to improve them. I got better color at the cost of too much contrast, but I couldn’t tone that down without making the images too hazy.

Red Matrix
Gracie and Sugar

These aren’t bad images, but they could be better.

I did some quick checking of other images I had processed and scanned by Walmart, Target, Walgreens, and CVS, and think that I get noticeably better work from the by-mail labs I use now. The only in-store lab that did equal work was Costco.

In 2012 I bought a Retina IIa and put it through its paces with another roll of Fujicolor 200. I forget who I used to process and scan the film — probably Dwayne’s Photo or Old School Photo Lab. Can you see it like I do, how much more natural and nuanced the colors and contrast are in these?

Planting petunias

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23 responses to “Lessons learned in choosing photo labs”

  1. Dan James Avatar

    It would be interesting to go back to the original negs of the images you think aren’t “natural and nuanced”. Many mainstream places use high speed scanners that, as I understand it, assess the whole roll then scan it in one go, so you get the same settings for exposure, saturation etc across every image. Fine if you had taken 36 images of exactly the same scene in exactly the same light. But we don’t do that.

    So if you scanned those original negatives frame by frame, you might find you can get far better results.

    Trying to alter them in Photoshop is too late I think, like trying to rebuild a sandcastle with your bare hands after the tide has come in and turned it into a few mushy mounds. If the original scan isn’t good, then you can’t magically enhance them in Photoshop, you’re working with an image that’s already too “wrong”.

    Of course the actual developing of the film is a factor too, but I would guess from my own experience with home scanning that you can salvage far more from those original negs if you scanned yourself, frame by frame, with your own preferences, and the actual developing of the film was fine.

    But then it comes down to the balance of cost – in time and money. I scanned myself for a while but just couldn’t bear spending hours a week doing it. I just didn’t care enough about getting the final images perfect to warrant it. So I went back to a supermarket lab who 95% of the time I was really happy with.

    I think for anyone shooting film, the first question is how “perfect” do you want the final images, then the second question is how much time and/or effort are you prepared to commit to get that standard of image you’re looking for.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, it would be better to rescan the original negs and try again. I should do that sometime. I thought about doing it for the review rewrite but holy frijoles does it take a lot of time to scan negs. I was able to make the images okayer from the original scans and so that’s what I did.

      I still intend to buy processing gear and chemicals and start processing my own b/w this spring, but I dread doing all the bloody scanning. So tedious.

      1. Dan James Avatar

        I completely agree, I had a CanonScan, and the whole process was just laborious. I know a few people are going the route of “scanning” with a DSLR and macro lens (or extension tubes). Check out Frank’s experiment for example – https://whyfilmcameras.com/2018/04/01/film-photography-workflow-on-an-ipad/

        Might be a quicker and more efficient way for you to go?

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I used to have an Epson V300 and now I have a Canon CanoScan 9000 Mk II. Scanning is slightly easier on the CanoScan. I hope I can find a rhythm with it and be able to do it without much fuss.

          If I can’t figure that out I might try the DSLR route. But that involves buying more gear I don’t already have (i.e., and iPad).

          1. Dan James Avatar

            That’s the Canon scanner I had. Was straightforward enoug, just didn’t like doing it or the time it took!

            You don’t need an iPad, that’s just what Frank was trying, you can do the DSLR scanning thing with a desktop or laptop computer, because the “scans” are on the SD card of your DSLR and you then process them like any other digital image.

            You must have all the kit already except perhaps a light source.

        2. Jim Grey Avatar

          I don’t have a light source. That’s what the iPad would be for. I suppose I could buy a light table instead. I could use the K10D but I’m not sure I have the right lenses.

  2. Doug Anderson Avatar

    I might still be having my negatives developed by a lab if first CVS and then Walgreens had not shut down their mini labs. My return to film in 2010 was painless because I could shoot Ilford XP2 or Kodak BW400CN, have it developed in an hour, and scan it with the Canoscan flatbed I was already using for documents. The developing results were unpredictable. The CVS negatives were sometimes clean, sometimes dirty, and the operator at Walgreens often ignored my instruction to not cut the negatives into strips of four. (The Canoscan film holder could keep strips o

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I used to have CVS process and scan my film too. Their work was only okay, but I absolutely loved it that I could have scans in an hour, so I did it anyway. When I look back now at my work from that era I wrinkle my nose at those scans.

  3. Doug Anderson Avatar

    …of 6 reasonably flat. Not so strips of 4.)

  4. Dave Jenkins Avatar

    Wow! Your car went from red to silver! I had no idea scans could make such a difference! :o)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      So there’s a funny story about that. I totaled the red car in an accident. I liked it so much I bought another car just like it, except in a different color!


  5. Dave Jenkins Avatar

    Actually, what I would like to find is a lab that would simply process my negatives and return them to me. No scans, no prints. I would then cut the negative in strips of five or six, put them in Print File clear negative sheets, then scan them all at once on my flatbed scanner to make a contact sheet; then I would select the ones to receive high quality scans in my Minolta DiMage 5400 scanner.

    I have the equipment do my own color negative processing, but it’s a nuisance.

    In fact, the whole process is a nuisance. Maybe your way is the best way for anyone who’s not seriously trying to make money from his photography.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      All of the by-mail labs I know of will do “process only” on your film. The question is, will they send you the negatives back uncut? Uncut negs complicates shipping. You might contact some of them and ask. I know that when I send Dwayne’s slide film for processing they send the strip back to me uncut.

  6. analogphotobug Avatar

    Old School Labs will send the negatives back uncut for an extra $1 charge. I use them because I can send color and B&W in the same order and they give a decent discount for multiple rolls.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I figured some lab would do it (for a fee)!

  7. Gerald Avatar

    It seems I’m the exception here, but I absolutely love scanning! This is the point where you first get to see your precious photos, so I find it very exciting.

    I develop my own films, but I’ve used high street and mail order labs over the years in the UK. I’ve never seen one that doesn’t do process only and send the negs back uncut.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I love seeing the photos — it’s just all the time scanning takes that’s a hassle. The software that comes with the scanner isn’t great so I use Silverfast, which returns solid results but has a terrible, frustrating interface.

      The only lab left in my town is the big camera store downtown. I’m sure they’d return uncut negs if I asked.

      No need to apologize for anything. You made sense and that’s all that mattered.

  8. Gerald Avatar

    Sorry, meant to say that the labs I known have sent uncut negs if requested. 35mm negs see sent back in the plastic film cases.

  9. Gerald Avatar

    Me again! Apologising for my terrible spelling. This is due to fat fingers rather than illiteracy. Not that I’m implying I’m particularly literate.

  10. Marcus Peddle Avatar
    Marcus Peddle

    The best roll scans I’ve ever had were from the Walmart in my home town of Grand Falls, Newfoundland. I visited my parents in 2011 with a Nikon F6 and fifteen rolls of Portra 400. The woman who ran the machine seemed to know a thing or two about film. The lab was gone the past time I visited. My local lab in Gangneung can do good work, but film seems to be just a hassle to them these days. Sometimes I get home to discover that the film wasn’t aligned perfectly in the scanner and each photo has a black bar on one side and is missing 5% of its right side. Lots of overexposure as well. Now I send my film to a lab in Seoul that’s located in the film industry district and they do excellent work when developing, scanning, and printing film or digital photos.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My first wife, a pro photographer who when I met her processed her own, swore by this one gentleman who worked at the Walmart photo counter. No other fellow there was allowed to process her film. Just him. He was long gone by the time I started using them. So I guess it does matter who you get to operate the equipment.

  11. Daralynn Avatar

    Good old memories have sparked from reading your photo related blogs.What do you think about Shutterfly? I use them for my hobby work.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I used Shutterfly many years ago, at a time when they still processed film. I don’t remember why now but I switched to Snapfish for making things like greeting cards from my images. When I want prints, I use Costco or Walgreen’s.

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