Photography

Lessons learned in choosing photo labs

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?

Matrix
Planting petunias

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Film Photography

Film photography has never been less expensive

The other day I read this great post about how to save money on your film photography. There’s no denying that the more film you shoot, the more your costs go up. It makes a person want to economize.

some_film

Digital photography is a better deal after you get past the sunk costs for gear. You just have to stick with a camera for the long haul. My everyday camera is a wonderful Canon PowerShot S95, arguably the best point-and-shoot digital camera you could buy when I got it in 2010. I’ve taken about 10,000 photos with it and it still delivers great results after all these years. It cost $400 new, and I’ve added spare batteries and an SD card for, generously, another $100. That works out to about 5 cents a photograph. I shoot more freely with digital so let’s say that half of those images are throwaways. That’s still only a dime a photograph.

The cost of entry can be far lower with film. You can pick up great used bodies for pennies on the original dollar. For example, my semi-pro Nikon N90s SLR body cost just $27 and I picked up a solid 50/1.8 lens for it for $50. It’s a fabulous kit. But because of ongoing costs for film and processing, no matter how many photos I shoot with it I’ll never get down to 10 cents each. Actually, I calculated it using my least expensive film and processing options. 10,000 shots cost 33 cents each, for a total cost of $3,300!

Still, film is a bargain today compared to when film was the only game in town.

I shot film as often as I could afford it in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I paid $3 to $6 per roll depending on format. I remember 126 film being the least expensive and 120/620 being the most expensive. Processing and prints at my friendly neighborhood Hook’s Dependable Drugs ran about $7. To cut costs I usually mailed my film to Clark Color Labs, which did the work for about $4.

Total cost was $7 to $13 per roll. Adjusting for inflation from 1980, that’s $21 to $33.

Today I buy 35mm Fujicolor 200 for $2.75 per roll. The camera store downtown will process and scan it for about $8.50. My least expensive option costs just $11.25.

I often shoot black-and-white film in 35mm, and sometimes 120 negative film. I typically pay $5-7 per roll. I mail this film to Old School Photo Lab for processing and scanning, which costs me $17. That’s $22-24 per roll at the high end.

This is still real money, though. I’ve shot 34 rolls of film in the last 12 months. If I use $16 as a rough mean cost per roll, I’ve spent $544. You can buy an entry-level DSLR or a very good point-and-shoot for that kind of money!

By all means, then, trim your costs as much as you can. But if film and processing had been as inexpensive when I was a lad as it is now, I would have taken a lot more pictures!

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Film Photography

Where can you still get film developed? (2018 edition)

Oh, for the days when you could drop your film at any drug store or big-box store and get processing, scans, and prints. Walgreens, CVS, Target, Walmart, Costco, Meijer, et. al., used to offer one-hour or overnight service. No more. If they still take film, they send it to a commercial lab. Turnaround time is a week or more, and they throw away your negatives.

Where can you get your film processed, then? And keep your negatives?

Try your town’s camera store, if it has one. I live near Indianapolis, where Roberts Camera still processes 35mm negative film. I never order prints, just scans, which Roberts burns to CD. The scans are 3130×2075 pixels at 72 dpi, big enough to print 11×17 enlargements. They turn color film around within two business days and black-and-white film around in about a week. I haven’t used them for b/w film yet but they charge only about $8 to develop and scan color film. That’s about as inexpensive as you’ll find.

But what if you aren’t close to a camera store? Or if you shoot film they can’t handle, like medium-format (120) film, or an uncommon format like 110 or 127? That’s when I turn to one of several by-mail labs around the United States. I’m going to recommend the ones I use. I’d love it if you’d share the ones you use in the comments, especially if you live outside the United States.

Dwayne’s Photo

Dwayne’s in Parsons, KS, is perhaps the granddaddy of all by-mail labs. They’re consistent in quality and speed and their prices are reasonable among the by-mail labs so they’ve gotten a ton of my business. Their Web site is dwaynesphoto.com. 

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Dwayne’s processes, prints, and scans 35mm, 120/620, 220, 127, 110, 126, Disc, and APS films. They process color and b/w negative and color slide films.

Ordering from Dwayne’s straight outta the 90s: you have to print out and fill out order forms, the right one for the kind of film you’re sending. When you send them more than one kind of film you have to fill out multiple order forms. They do take PayPal via these order forms now, at least. Here’s hoping Dwayne’s upgrades to electronic ordering.

Processing and scanning one roll of 35mm or 120 color or b/w negative film costs $10. Slide film costs $13.50-$15 depending on format. Other services’ prices vary.  Return shipping costs $5 for the first roll and 50 cents for each additional roll. They don’t offer prepaid mailing labels so have your postage stamps ready.

Their 35mm film scans are 2740×1830 pixels at 72 dpi. For an extra $5, you can get scans of negative films at a whopping 6770×4490 pixels at 72 dpi, which is big enough for poster-sized prints. Other formats’ scan sizes vary.

You can choose to download your scans or have them mailed to you on CD; the price is the same for either service. I go for the downloads and Dwayne’s pretty consistently emails me a link to them within a week of receiving my film. (Slide film takes longer.) I’ve not ordered prints from Dwayne’s.

Dwayne’s can handle any curveball I throw them. Recently one of my old cameras broke the film as I started to rewind it. I stuck the camera into a dark bag, coiled the film into a black film canister, marked the can “Loose Film Open in Darkroom,” and sent it to Dwayne’s. They processed it without skipping a beat.

Old School Photo Lab

Old School Photo Lab, of Dover, NH, is the other lab I use a lot. They process, print, and scan 35mm, 120/620, 110, 126, 127, 828, APS, and 4×5 sheet films. They handle color and b/w negative and color slide films.

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You order and pay through their Web site, oldschoolphotolab.com. They used to undercut the other well-known labs slightly on price — and used to get the lion’s share of my business as a result — but recent increases have erased that advantage. Processing a roll of 35mm or 120 color or b/w negative film and getting their standard scans costs $17, including shipping both ways. Color slide film costs just a dollar more. They give discounts if you send several rolls at once.

What I love most about OSPL is that their standard 35mm JPEG scans are a generous 3072×2048 pixels at 72 dpi, for nearly poster-sized prints. No other lab offers standard scans that large, which makes OSPL still a good value. You can order giant scans, at 6774×4492 pixels at 72 dpi, for an extra $10 for JPEG or $20 for TIFF. Medium format scan sizes are similar.

When your scans are ready, they email you a link to where you can download them. If you want a CD of the scans, it’s 3 bucks extra and you have to wait longer to get them. OSPL prints digitally. I occasionally order 4×6 prints and they’re lovely.

OSPL used to be blazing fast but they’ve become popular and it seems to have slowed them down. Expect scans in one to two weeks; once recently they fell behind and I waited a month. Quality is consistent and good. The staff, and sometimes the owner, responds promptly and cheerfully when you contact them. The lab is active on Twitter and the feed is often a hoot. The same goes for their Instagram feed.

Willow Photo Lab

Willow Photo Lab of Somerville, MA, is the price leader. They offer processing, printing, and scanning of 35mm, 120/620, and APS negative films, in color and black-and white, through their Web site. They process b/w film by hand!

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Order and pay via their Web site, willowphotolab.com. Processing and scanning one roll of 35mm costs just $7. Other services’ prices vary a little. Shipping costs depend on how far away from Massachusetts you are; most of my orders have been $3. They don’t offer prepaid mailing labels, so get your postage stamps out.

Scans are skinty at 1536×1024 at 72 dpi, sent to you on a CD. That’s only large enough for maybe a 5×7 print, so I always order their higher resolution scans for an extra $1.60. They’re 3072×2048 pixels at 72 dpi.

I’ve not ordered prints from Willow, but unlike most other labs they still do wet-process printing on light-sensitive photo paper. A full set of prints costs just a buck when you order developing and scanning too.

Willow changed hands in early 2018; the whole lab packed up and moved from Missouri. The new owner has maintained the same level of quality and service. They’re not the fastest lab, probably because they’re so small, but their prices make up for it for me. When you email them with questions, the owner responds promptly.

The Darkroom

The Darkroom, of San Clemente, CA, is the SEO king of by-mail labs. Google “film processing” and see where they show up! They process, scan, and print 35mm, 120, 126, 110, APS, single-use cameras, and 4×5, 5×7, and 8×10 sheet film. They handle color and b/w negative and color slide films.

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The Darkroom offers online ordering and payment at thedarkroom.com. Processing, standard scans, the scan CD, and shipping both ways for a roll of 35mm color film costs about $17. Prices for other formats are similar. Scans come with every order, via both emailed download link and CD.

The Darkroom’s standard scans are puny, 1536×1024 pixels at 72 dpi. Other labs offer larger scans for about the same price. You can order larger scans, 3072×2048 and a giant 6774×4492 pixels, for an extra $4 or $9 per roll, respectively. I’ve never ordered prints from The Darkroom.

Scans are usually ready about 7 days after I drop the film into the mail. It takes up to a week longer for my negatives and the CD to arrive, but I expect that they’d arrive faster if I lived out west. I’ve never needed to contact The Darkroom for customer service.

Fulltone Photo

Fulltone Photo, of La Grange, KY, gets some of my business too. Their Web site is fulltonephoto.com. They process, scan, and print 35mm, 120, 126, and 110 film. They handle color and black-and-white negative and color slide films.

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You print and fill out their order form and include it with your film. When they receive your film they email you for payment info.

Processing and standard scans $7 plus shipping; their site doesn’t list shipping costs. Medium format films cost an extra 50 cents; black-and-white films are a dollar more across the board. Slide film costs $14-17 to develop and scan. Shipping is discounted when your order costs more than $15.

Standard scans are especially small at 1818×1228 pixels at 72 dpi, which is good only for a 4×6 print. Fortunately, for an extra $5 you can get scans at 4535×3035 pixels at 72 dpi, which will print to near poster size. Last time I used them, a few years ago, they returned your scans only by mail on CD. I’ve never ordered prints from Fulltone.

Fulltone has always done good work for me. They’re the closest by-mail lab to my central-Indiana home, which cuts shipping time. Fulltone has a lovely Instagram feed here that I enjoy following.

Film Rescue International

Sometimes you’ll find some very old, very expired film in a camera. Any of the above labs will process it, but they might not get good images because old film deteriorates.

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Send it straight to Film Rescue International, filmrescue.com. They process any film, no matter how old, and use creative darkroom and Photoshop techniques to coax the best possible images from it. They’re expensive, and they’re slow, but they do outstanding work.

I’ve used Film Rescue just once, for a roll of Verichrome Pan I found in a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye. That film had been in the camera for more than 40 years in unknown conditions, so I was afraid it might have deteriorated badly. They got good, high-contrast images from that film. They lacked “that Verichrome Pan look” but were crisp and clean.

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