Is a professional photo lab worth the wait and cost?

Discussion in 'Film and Processing' started by jessemerz, Nov 1, 2010.

  1. I'm just getting into 35mm (and film in general, only done a bit of MF in the past) and could use some processing tips. My first few rolls were pretty much just test rolls to see if my old ebay Canonet QL17 was functioning, so I just brought the film to Fred Meyer (the local supermarket) for 1-hour developing. The raw scans looked pretty ugly with no editing; they severely lacked contrast and had terrible color tints. Luckily they were passable with some serious post work in PS.
    I'm wondering if 35mm negative scan always look this ugly (my guess is no), and if not is this the fault of the old camera, or the cheap-o 1-hour developing? Or could it be due to the fact that I bought the cheapest film I could find at the drug store (Fuji Superia X-Tra)? Would the shots come out significantly better if I brought them to the local professional lab? The only reason I ask is because I don't want to pay twice as much and wait 7 extra days for them to develop if it won't make a big difference.
  2. Generally the 1 hour photo is not as good as a pro lab. Keep in mind that the one hour guys are set up for the masses. Not custom work - not high quality - and certainly not custom color correction and balancing.
  3. Yes, it's worth it.
    However, every lab (pro or otherwise) is different.
    I have used 1-hour $2.99 processing at the drugstore; the processing is fine, the scans are terrible. They serve (at best) as proofs, to see if something is worth getting a better scan of. But they are 3 bucks a roll, all in! I have used a highly regarded professional / fine art lab, and gotten results that I was unimpressed with, for something like $25 a roll. Better than one-hour processing, but not great. I have used another highly regarded (but tiny) pro lab and gotten great results... but with high, per-frame prices and long waits because they are not a volume operation.
    My favourite lab is a compromise. It's a "pro-ish" lab inside a camera store. They use Noritsu mini-labs ... nothing fancy, but capable of good results. Their staff know what they are doing. I get my negs and 6-megapixel scans back in 2 or 3 hours, and pay $11.
    The short answer is, try different labs to find one you like. And it's unlikely that your favourite lab will be in a drug store (unless you happen to know the lab operator and they are peculiarly committed and knowledgable.)
  4. I'd say you'd most likely get a better scan from the local "pro" lab. At the least, you might be able to specify the resolution of the scan. I've taken C-41 films to a couple different labs lately. The one I use locally is more of a "pro" lab, IMO than the other one I took another roll to. Much better scans.
  5. I should specify that I am doing the scanning myself, I am just referring to the processing. That said, it sounds like the processing will not be much different between 1-hour and the pro lab. Does this sound accurate? Thanks everyone for all the useful input!
  6. Depends. Some cheap places do a fine job of processing, some are horrible. Personally, I send it to a real lab because the cheap processing around here is the pits.
  7. Jesse, what scanner are you using? What scanner software? Do you have much experience scanning?
    My experience is that 35mm is very difficult to get good scans from at home unless you have very good equipment and some time to learn. I can't recommend any of the flatbed scanners for 35mm. I use an older dedicated film scanner (Minolta Dimage Scan Dual III) for 35mm that is OK. For serious work I would look for a 35mm Nikon Coolscan.
    All negative film will scan "flat", and that's not a bad thing. You can capture a lot of dynamic range that way, and then you "grade" the image to your desired contrast by applying curves. Color tints are trickier. I recommend trying good scanning software like VueScan; it comes with different color film profile presets you can try, and also allows you to sample the base emulsion color yourself, to get accurate color on each roll. Vuescan has a big learning curve, as big as scanning itself. With patience and study, you can get great scans. Like darkroom work, scanning is art+science and is a skill you develop over years.
  8. Thanks guys. David, that was just what I was looking for. I'm using higher-end Epson flatbed film scanners at my university's visual arts department that seem to do a great job (and the EpsonScan Pro software seems good also). I have found that the flat tones from the scans do allow for more dynamic range tolerance, but I thought there was something wrong when I saw the raw unedited scans after hearing so many stories of film photogs not doing any post work at all ("purists"?).
    Thanks again, take care.
  9. C-41 commercial developing is automated by machine. Assuming the operator follows the instructions, maintains the machine, and uses fresh chemicals, one place is very much like another. The main difference is how they physically handel the film. If your negatives are not scratched or have finger prints on them, they are being handled correctly.
    I have my color film developed only at Costco. The do a great job, it takes an hour or two, and it costs about $2.50.
  10. I shot this with a cheap plastic 35mm toy camera (a Beirette VSN2 with a Meritar lens, guess focus and guess exposure), on Fuji Superia 200. I got it developed at a supermarket minilab, develop and cut only, no prints, for less than $4. I scanned it myself on a 5 year old Canon 8400F flatbed, with the stock Canon toolbox software it came with. I "processed it" in Picture Window Pro 5, but I did virtually nothing to it. It's almost just the straight scan, but I do scan at full resolution and in 48-bit mode. And I've got many others like this, done exactly the same way. So, I would have to say that despite other opinions posted here, it's very possible to get good work done this way. However, you should consider the following:
    You're never going to get this good of a scan from a minilab, because it's only going to be a JPEG, and a rather small one at that (only the size of scan they need to make the little prints they give you, basically). But, as opposed to scanning and printing work, development of the film itself is pretty standard, and even a pro type lab wouldn't do much different.
    It's 35mm film, so if you don't want to scan grain, don't use ISO 400 film like Superia XTRA. Use ISO 100 or 200 film for best results.
  11. 1)always use super fresh film. The Superia Xtra 400 is actually very good film - just make sure it is not expired yet (check expiration date on back). Expired film gets a very heavy, ugly grain and color cast issues.
    2)Take your film to Costco, or drop at Walmart send out box, or use some place that still develops a lot of film, every day. Your a student, so I wont recommend a pro lab - too expensive. Costco is really your best bet. My guess is your roll was ruined by the drugstore processing. They probably dont do much film anymore and the chemicals were old. The equipment and chemicals need regular use or problems develop.
    3)No, the scans should look great, with little editing required. Again, Costco will scan at 2000x3000 resolution with devecent quality. Of course, anything can always be improved upon, so a little post processing will make things even better, but the $25,000 minilab scanners and software were designed to get great looking prints with little human interface - good results off the bat.
    4)check out
    This is Flickr's (Yahoo's) film group, and you will learn much there, much more than here. There, there will be posts AND images to help you learn. Also, other groups like should you want to try developing yourself.
    5)Welcome to Film, and Have Fun!
  12. Let me clarify: when I say the local 1-hour places did a crummy job, it was because they scratched the film, opened up canisters and let light in, etc. Bad stuff. And on top of that, they weren't any cheaper then sending it out to a good lab like NCPS which for about the same price, gives me super clean negs, sleeved in pages, with 2000x3000 scans.
    If you get good clean negs for cheap, then go with it.
  13. Yes, NCPS is a great option too, for your select rolls with a lot of good shots. In that case, spend the $10-15 and get the roll developed and scanned there. But for ordinary, having-fun-with-the-camera snapshot rolls, use Costco.
  14. BJs, Walmart, and Target no longer do film dev here. When they did, it cost $6/roll. No Costco nearby. I could take it to CVS or something, but again they scratch it up and then charge me something like $8. I'd rather just mail it for $10.
    It really depends. If you can get development for a buck or two and they take reasonable care of your film, it's awesome. If you get crummy developing and it's expensive, it's just not worth it.
  15. Superia 400 is actually quite good - I've had some great results for it. If anything, it comes out too contrasty/saturated. I can think of three things off the top of my head that might have gone wrong:
    -Improper exposure. A QL17 isn't a a young camera, it might be miscalibrated.
    -Lab chemistry problems. The danger is that if the 1-hour lab isn't being diligent and doesn't refresh their chemicals often enough, you'd get a bad processing job.
    -Scanning trouble. Scanning color negatives is a bit of voodoo - it took me a while, using Vuescan with the lock exposure/lock film base color trick and levels-by-channel fiddling, to start getting consistent results.
  16. It's all about how much the employees care since many pro labs use the same equipment as your drug store 1hr. Years ago, I was fortunate enough to work at an Eckerd pharmacy where the manager cared a LOT. Now that I no longer work in photo labs, I bring my film to HIS store whenever I'm in that area. IMHO a "pro lab" has a much better CHANCE of caring about your film and their quality of work, but it is only a chance, not a guarantee.
  17. You have two choices short of a professional lab. The first is find a grocery store etc that still sends its film off to a large central processing lab rather than doing one-hour. The big labs that run a lot of film do a reasonably good job. They check their chemicals and equipment frequently because if they screw up, it's not one or two rolls, it's hundreds of rolls. Also for the people working their developing film is their only job, not something they do between stocking shelves and ringing up the cash register. They've had more training and experience and should know what they are doing. If they offer a premium service pay the couple of dollars extra. Second choice is to find a good local one-hour lab that is a standalone operation (or at least part of a camera store) as opposed to part of a store. Like with the central lab, if processing film is all they do (maybe they also sell cameras but that's OK) they are likely to be better at it than when it's just a side business. We used to have a MotoPhoto across the street from my office that was very good. Unfortunately they closed down when the landlord jacked up their rent. With any lab, test before you send them something important. One last thing "flatbed film scanner" is a contradiction in terms. Several companies sell flatbed scanners with accessories to do film, some people like them and the latest models seem to be much better than the old ones. But I think the consensus is that flatbed scanners do not scan film nearly as sharply as the dedicated film scanners where the film goes in a holder and slides in and out of the unit. Just my opinion.
  18. [T]est rolls to see if my old ebay Canonet QL17 was functioning, so I just brought the film to Fred Meyer (the local supermarket) for 1-hour developing. The raw scans looked pretty ugly with no editing; they severely lacked contrast and had terrible color tints.
    It may well be the supermarket scanning, or the supermarket film processing. But presumably their rolls for others look okay, so I tend to suspect the camera. Maybe the lens is bad and/or the exposure was way off.
    Have you checked the lens for haze / fungus? Set the aperture to f/1.7 or whatever is the maximum on yours, set the shutter speed to B, cock the shutter, open the back, hold down the shutter release, and look through the back o the lens into light. Do you see haze, or major spots, or scratches, or anything? Because if it looks anything other than clean and clear, that may well be your problem.
    Gross exposure errors can also cause trouble. How did you set the shutter speed and aperture? Did you just let the camera use auto exposure? If so, did you set the film speed correctly? I suggest that you take a modern camera whose meter you know works, set it for the sensitity or film speed (sometimes erroneously called "ISO") of the film in the Canonet, see what shutter speed and aperture it indicates, and manually set them on the Canonet. That way you know your exposures are okay. (Using slide film will also tell you, as visual feedback, whether your exposure is okay--but I suspect the supermarket won't to one-hour processing of slide film.)
  19. Pro labs are worth every penny you spend to get your film processed right. Why spend $7 on a roll of film and spend $5 to have it improperly process by someone who has had about 5 min training. I know that pro labs do use the same machines sometimes as el cheapo processing but there is a huge difference in calibration of the equipment.
  20. Frankly, I'm shocked that anyone would have to ask if paying more means anything. YES, it matters. Why don't you ask for a sirloin burger next time you're at McDonalds too and then compare what you get to what a restaurant that has a real chef would make you.
    The typical lab in a "cheap-o 1 hour" place is set up so that idiots can run the machine with minimal training. Everything of a custom nature has been locked on purpose so that even a good technician can't do custom work there. It's a one size fits all setup to produce something that the store can sell without too much hassle, but you can't compare it to what happens in a truly custom environment where people are allowed to work their machines using years of experience.
    You shouldn't have to wait longer at a custom lab either, but you will pay more. Also, if it's taking 7 days, I doubt that you've found a custom lab but rather a front for a mail order operation.
  21. My local one-hour processors (drugstores) do a lousy job--all of them. Only one pro lab nearby and it's a 45 minute drive. The drugstores don't keep their equipment clean, and the negatives have either scratches, hair, or dust marks--sometimes all three. Plus the scans are low resolution, and the scratches, hair, or dust marks appear on the scans. Good for snapshots with throw-away cameras.
    I would say that if you value good quality go to the pro lab. It's a shame that they are getting fewer, but that's the way it goes.
  22. You will see a big difference from a pro lab, with film half the battle is in the printing. You could use decent film, take perfectly exposed images only to have it all ruined at the lab stage.
  23. jtk


    The "best" C41 processing does not involve "fresh" chemistry. The best, as with chromes, is with replenished chemistry that's monitored by professionals.
    Fresh chem is unstable as it gets used and it's different between fresh batches. Replenishment leads to stability and consistency and pro labs are proud of's one of the things that makes them stand apart. Continuous/roller processors are designed to work sorta-ok with unskilled staff...they use small batches of fresh chemistry rather than replenished because the staff isn't skilled . The best machines are "dip and dunk" type ( eg Refrema) using large tanks of carefully monitored and continuously replenished chemistry...which becomes better over time.
    The other concern about minilabs is the stability of the film after processing. Some minilabs use short cuts.
  24. Every roller processor I have used uses replenishment. The replensihment tanks are filled with the replenishment chemistry and the roller processor keeps track of how much film is processed and replenishes as requiered. Even the konica ecojet system use replenshiment in the form of rep tablets and a water tank to add the correct amount of water.
  25. Frankly, I'm shocked that anyone would have to ask if paying more means anything. YES, it matters. Why don't you ask for a sirloin burger next time you're at McDonalds too and then compare what you get to what a restaurant that has a real chef would make you.​
    Gosh, I suppose I should not have waited for my TV set to go on sale at the big box store and purchased exactly the same model from the high priced exclusive home theater store instead, at serveral hundred dollars more. I am sure I would get a better picture if I had just purchased from that up scale store. And I should never have barganed with the car dealer on the price of my automobile; I should have paid the sticker price. Of course no one here would think of purchasing photo gear or supplies from mail order houses like B&H, Adorama, or Amazon. We all know that price matters so we all puchase at full MSRP or greater from the "up scale" photo store. <BIG GRIN>
    Writing of food. I buy most of my meat at Costco and get a better cut at a lower price that at most grocery stores or butcher shops.
    Yes, of course sometimes price does matter. We have all seen "deals too good to be true", and they usually are. I stay away from those like poison.
    But C-41 developing, unlike printing, is an automated process. Most "Pro Labs" use the same equipment as the the 1-hour labs. As long as the machines are maintained, the chemicals fresh (or properly replenished), and the operators trained, one result is much like another. That is why I try to use a store like Costco that develops many rolls a day.
  26. One hour labs have their time and place. I use my local CVS Photo lab because they are cheap and the people are nice. However, I know that my film will come out a little dusty and have minor scratches. When I have more money and I need something to come out well, i use a good lab and the results are worth it. I don't have to worry about dust or scratches and good lab work+scans can really make you feel like a pro.
  27. Well it depends what equipment each lab has. A roller processor is not the same as dip and dunk with nitrogen burst aggitation. The results could/should be be the same but the equipment is not. Some photographers won't let their films go anyway near a roller processor for fear of scratching and some have had thousands of rolls developed with roller processors with no problems. A nice clean roller processor that is well maintained and has controll strip run regulary and is using correct auto replenishment could be better than an old manually replenished neg line when someone keeps forgeting to mark down the films processed. On the other hand it could go the other way too.
    • [But C-41 developing, unlike printing, is an automated process. Most "Pro Labs" use the same equipment as the the 1-hour labs. As long as the machines are maintained, the chemicals fresh (or properly replenished), and the operators trained, one result is much like another.]
    Well that's where you're totally wrong. First of all, most pro labs use dip and dunk machines so it's not the same equipment as the 1-hour labs. A professional lab runs control strips and based on the analysis, they're able to see things happening before they become problems so they can take the appropriate actions. Nearly every parameter of the process is independently adjustable in a pro lab.
    Such constant attention doesn't happen at the 1-hour shops. When they finally notice that their machines have a problem, they just dump the chemistry and start over. That's all their kind of operation will allow. Of course, that would be after many orders were compromised or ruined. I've run both kinds of labs and there's simply no comparison.
  28. John you must know then that control strips can be run through roller processors and that the rep rate can be adjusted for each step in the process as well as being able to control the temperates. Sure it may not have the same amount of control as a dip and dunk but C41 is not really the most difficult chemical process in the world. There are advantages to dip and dunk but whether a particular labs C41 process is in control or not will come down to who is working there and probably who is in charge of the business.
  29. Generally I find "If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys"
  30. John you must know then that control strips can be run through roller processors and that the rep rate can be adjusted for each step in the process as well as being able to control the temperates.​
    Sure, but it seldom happens that way anywhere but in a custom lab. Replenishment rates can be individually adjusted in many machines, but in many cases it requires a service call that just doesn't happen, and remedial actions aren't very possible in 1-hour machines. Otherwise the pre-programmed "intelligence" of the equipment goes nuts. Many 1-hour labs don't even own a densitometer let alone use it. Fortunately, C41 is a forgiving process, unlike E6, but that doesn't mean the results are optimal and consistent. It does come down to the people and the management's willingness to do the right thing.
  31. I took some film to an unnamed local pro lab a couple of years ago. To be perfectly honest, there were defects in the processing and/or film handling. The processing wasn't any better (not as good in fact) as film I have sent through Walmart sendout service or the local Walgreens minilab. The pro lab was, however, more expensive.
    Hopefully, this experience was not typical of all pro labs, but so far I am not impressed.
  32. Yes Alan. I got food poisoning at a restaurant once and ever since then I've only eaten at McDonald's. Maybe you should find a really good custom lab first, then tell me Walgreens is better.
  33. it really depends. im 1-3 for local pro labs, all thousands of miles apart... One delivered my slides back with water marks, the other had a distinct black line across the top of the frame 2mm from the frame edge. The other was perfect. Got them back to me the next day as promised (cost extra, of course), and the slides were spotless and in high quality mounts. Today, however, all of my film goes through walmarts sendout service, which goes to Dwayne's photo.
  34. John,
    Feeling a bit snarky today aren't you?
  35. SNARKY? lol, well someone has to liven the place up.
  36. John,
    Your advice to find a good pro lab may be good. However, it is not always easy to do.
    The lab I referred to above is one of the relatively few "pro labs" left in the region, and it supposedly has a good reputation. (Well, let us say a mixed reputation, since I have heard both good and less good comments about the lab.) They claim to do premium work and have been in business for decades.
    When I asked him about the processing some fomapan 100 I was giving him to process he said he processes it "just like Plus-X." Unfortunately, processing fomapan 100 "just like Plus-X" is a sure way to overdevelop it. This tells me that this so-called "pro lab" is not actually very professional, or at least not very knowledgeable, despite the many decades he has been in business. In addition, some of the film he developed for me had water spots.
    Another time I took some C41 rolls to a professional photographer who had his own machine. The results were absolutely dreadful. I came to realize later that this person had very little business and because of lack of volume probably did not keep his process in control. This business failed not too long after he ruined my film, so my film is probably not the only film he ruined.
    Another time I took some black and white film to one of the older locally owned camera stores for processing. (It probably doesn't actually qualify as a pro lab, but it was not a chain store lab.) The film was processed OK, but the prints were terrible, not nearly as good as the drug store prints I used to get at the corner drug store when I was a kid.
    My own experience is that I have had better processing at Walgreens, Walmart (before they quit processing), and Costco than at the few professional labs I have tried. The processing at the lab you run no doubt does a much better job than the ones I have used, but it is not necessarily easy to tell the good labs from the bad ones without having the bad labs process and ruin a few rolls of film.
  37. You make a good point Alan. Most custom labs have been driven out of business by shoppers who are conscious of the price, but totally ignorant of value. Without enough volume to maintain quality control it's impossible to run a quality lab on a budget.
    As we've seen our volumes decrease, among other things we've had to increase replenishment rates to compensate, but due to the economy we can't increase our prices. We're already at a point where processing is almost done at a loss. There was a time when we offered different black and white film developers, but no one appreciated it enough to pay a penny more here than anywhere else. We still sort and give each film type it's own time, but I don't think anyone really appreciates it enough to pay us more for the effort. With the economy the way it is, I'm convinced that nothing matters more than the cost for all but a diminishing handful of customers. When it gets to the point where I can't maintain my own standards I'll be forced to close the last custom lab in NJ.

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