Where have the pro labs gone?

Discussion in 'Film and Processing' started by robert_crigan|1, Dec 10, 2010.

  1. G'day, general question here.
    When I was practising years ago, pro labs were plentiful. Their bread and butter was film processing and commercial printing. Nowadays, at least in Melbourne, Australia, there are far fewer pro labs around.
    I can understand why there aren't minilabs on every corner any more, and not many pros shoot film now, but isn't there enough demand for prints to keep labs open?
    I've been out of the business side of photography for so long that I no longer know how it works. In the old days you'd send proof prints for approval or layout. Then you'd send either trannies or repro prints for reproduction. Approval and layout are done electronically now and with printers using direct-to-plate, repro prints are gone too.
    I suppose wedding labs are still in business but what work are the rest getting?
    It looks like I've answered my own question but if there are any pros out there who can bring me up to date, please weigh in.
    Robert Crigan
  2. Robert, I got made redundant from my job as a darkroom hand printer in 2001, when the pro lab that I worked for went all digital. In fact, there were seven of us - myself as head of department - and my six staff who all went at the same time. That lab no longer does ANY traditional darkroom work at all. There's only one lab in my area (Leeds in the North of England) that offers this type of work, and they get so little of it that it's no longer a real department any more. They can cope very easily just fitting it in as and when they get any traditional printing to handle, which is very rarely.
    Does that help to answer your question?
  3. Thanks Fred, that helps to answer my question but raises another. I assume your lab is still producing prints but not in a darkroom. Are they the same type of pictures? For the same type of client?
    Are the skills required the same? Do people producing Pegasus prints needthe same skills you used as a hand printer? I should go behind the counter at my local lab and see how it's done. Maybe the operator opens the file, presses 'print' and doesn't take much interest in what comes off the last roller. Somehow I don't think so.
  4. Robert, as far as I know, any film work they receive, which according to the people I know who still work there is not very much, is scanned. All corrections and cropping are carried out on screen and printed with a frontier type machine. They are still wet processed through RA4 for colour and trad monochrome chemicals for black and white.
    When I left the lab there were about 75 people working there over all departments. (Hand printing, machine printing, film processing etc). At the last count the full workforce was 23 and the company had moved to smaller premises.
  5. As far as the clients go, yes , they are mostly the same people who always sent their work in. They just now all use digital cameras. The skills required for the type of work they now do are not the same as the type of work I used to do. They are more computer oriented. In fact the youngsters who now do this work have never been in a darkroom and, certainly at this company, are paid much less than were I and my darkroom colleagues.
    The working life of a technician these days is very different.
  6. david_henderson

    david_henderson www.photography001.com

    Surprised you have to ask. Pro labs have faded away because the commercial clients that were their bread and butter now do things different ways and photographers with the aid of sophisticated software do more of the process leading to the final application themselves. If any lab is used it may well be a retoucher rather than a traditional pro lab. Pro labs were often expensive even for commodity items, so there was a good incentive to miss them out of the chain when the possibility arose. The real drive for change didn't necessarily come from all photographers, its just that when they find themselves deeply undercut by alternatives using a then new digital technology, they themselves have to compete or die. There is only one full service pro lab in central London now, and that retains that status by individuals turning their hands to the work that comes rather than (say) by employing a dedicated b&w print department.
  7. Hmmm. Basically then, am I right to interpret what you're both saying is that the market for commercial prints no longer exists? When I was an architectural photographer, many of my photos were commissioned for display purposes in the client's foyer. I hated using pro labs as they were expensive, as David rightly reminds me, and with my markup the clients always resisted.
    Weddings were different and there's still a market there for prints of course, though the technology is very different. I was never into professional portraits but I imagine the same goes for that too.
    I suppose pro labs are going the way of typewriter repairers and camera technicians only they're taking longer to die. Once we nail how to control all the variables in the image chain we'll be able to get pro quality printing from any corner kiosk. Profiles anyone?
  8. They went the same place the buggy whip stores, and the video rental stores went. In America, this means they've turned into Starbucks and Cellular phone stores.
  9. James G. Dainis

    James G. Dainis Moderator

    In the days of film, there were few photographers who did their own darkroom work. They took it to the lab, got the film developed and had proofs and then selected the photos that they wanted the lab to print. If they wanted special processing done, crops, dodging, burning, etc. that cost extra. Now with digital cameras and the dry darkroom, Photoshop, Lightroom, etc. and a good printer, the photographer can do all that himself or edit the digital capture and send it off to Mpix or some other on line photo site
  10. In Manhattan ,(NYC) I know one lab in the Photo district who's chrome dept., used to process 4,000 rolls of E6 a day! They had multiple machines running from 6:00 AM until 10:00PM. Last time I walked by, it is now a Falafel, Panini and salad joint.
  11. Film photography is a shrinking business. The Pro labs close down when they have insufficient business to stay solvent. I can see film processing falling into a few large volume houses scattered around and for most people it will be mail order. As far as digital printing goes the labs also have to compete with CostCo and mail order places such as Mpix and home printing. Inkjet printers do a fine job these days. It's a tough world out there.
  12. I am in New Zealand I know no labs that does anlogue anymore other than maybe b/w processing with perhaps just 1 developer, afaik print might be done thru the frontier if that works.
    I always bought my film from the USA b/c 100 speed Provia might cost $28US equiv. with today's exchange rates. I have recently sent my Kodahchromes to the USA and I think I will switch my slide film processing to the USA as well.
    Here, they charge us maybe $16US for processing, $8US for mounting, and if you need $4US for numbering slides and maybe $8 or $10US for a speed change. There is one other lab I have yet to use but given the prices, I am just going to maybe use Dwayanes for all my other slides now too. They cost like $8.50US incl moutning and numbering and postal is $15US which is for 6 rolls.
    I could count the stuff I got new at shops here. 1 pro slide film, 1 pro neg film. One step up ring and I think that is about it. I have bought everything else in a auction or overseas auctions or e-stores. All my films are from B&H, even photo paper.
    It seems to me that the pro labs here where I am are no longer catered to hobbyist but professionals and maybe film freaks and they really charge you for it. Maybe the core of their business now are really printing for commercials like galleries, exhibitions, banners, metals, plastic bags, corporate cups, brochures etc ...
  13. The fundamental reality is that, with a decent digital camera as the taking device, almost anyone who cares about print quality can get very acceptable results by doing a few basics on a home computer and then uploading the files to get highly automated prints from a Fuji Frontier or the like. There is little (or at least, much less) need for skilled personnel on the printing end. So the only market for truly custom prints is serving those pros and finicky amateurs who both really maintain a high standard of quality and lack the skills or interest to do the digital darkroom work themselves. The size of the real custom print market is a small fraction of what it was a decade or two ago.
    Even among relatively unskilled people, digital darkroom work provides a cheap method to experiment and learn. Color balance off? Easy to tweak. Don't like the result? Just hit undo a try a different one. Want to adjust the overall brightness and/or contrast? Piece of cake, even if it takes you a few iterations to get what you want. And of course, with highly automated prints being so cheap ($2 - $3 US for 8x10 inches, versus make $8 - $10 from film at a lab), if your prints aren't what you want, it's cheap enough to re-do the whole thing.
    Also, a much smaller proportion of pictures is getting printed. Used to be that even routine proofing required one moderate-size print of every picture. But now quick and easy review on a computer monitor means that only the best get printed. Pro labs may not have made a huge margin on those 4x5- and 4x6-inch proof prints, but the volume was high and they helped cover the overhead.
    Even where film is still necessary or sensible or rationally used (e.g., there's no really high-quality, reasonably-priced alternative to the movements of a 4x5), the lab's role is less: process the film in well-maintained chemicals without scratching it, yes, but the printing work is much less. The photographer probably does flatbed scans at home to proof the shots, and then maybe sends a few of the best for drum scans, and then gets machine prints from drum scans, as tweaked in his own digital darkroom.
    Really, IMO, all of this is what's best about digital: it gives the average enthusiast photographer or lower-end pro much more control over the print than film ever did, while making high-quality prints much more affordable. (Really, even a wizard in the wet darkroom had a lot less control than the digital darkroom gives.) And of course the availability of nearly cost-free practice and experimentation is a real boon, too.
  14. Other nice thing about RA4 prints from digital input is consistency. Scan the neg, dial it in the way you want, and once you get there, it's the same over and over again.
  15. Well, it's to be expected that labs' film business would drop off, disappear even. What was puzzling me and what prompted me to pose my questions originally, was why print demand has also dropped precipitously.
    For a while I did my own printing with a Durst RCP but I gave it away; I wasn't really saving much. The time I spent in the darkroom was better spent drumming up new work.
    Despite the ease of colour printing now, it's still not worth my while doing my own. I'd rather send it out (for far less than it used to cost) and concentrate on photography.
    As Ray says, shooting film makes no commercial sense nowadays. And as Dave says, the ability to get consistent prints at low cost from digital makes it attractive for photographers to themselves do much of the work lab personnel used to do. Nevertheless it appears there are far fewer prints sold now than in the film days. Are we just using less paper?
  16. david_henderson

    david_henderson www.photography001.com

    Robert. A lot of the prints made by the Pro Labs I dealt with in London were temporary- to show clients, account directors and others not versed in the interpretation of negs and slides what their application would eventually look like and to act as a control for the subsequent production process, so the exposure and colours had to be pretty close to spot on. Of course nobody knew which photographs would be chosen and if the client would change everyone's mind. So lots of prints got made, most of which would be binned in a matter of days. The costs were huge, not least because the people commissioning the prints were not spending their own money, but passing on marked-up costs to clients that often didn't understand the production process well.
    Today, none of this is necessary, and by and large any prints that get made today are the final product.
  17. Many labs are no more but others are still chugging along. The reason I started photomfa.com was to document and help the remaining film labs stay in business even if processing film is only a small part of their business.
    I also see analog photo services becoming a cottage industry which is I have added the option of free classifieds for people who want to offer film developing from home.
    If you have any questions feel free to contact me.
  18. Dave, you hit the nail on the head when you said 'any prints that get made today are the final product'. All those intermediate prints have been replaced by files.
  19. My film is going 700 miles via mail now. The lab has an easy mail order system. I find it easier then driving 50miles one way to a lab.
  20. @Ross, is that all? Mine is from New Zealand to Dwayanes for the rest of my slides now given NZ charges more than double even when the USA has international postal.
  21. There are 2 pro labs in Worcester, MA.
  22. Could it be that places like Costco are doing a good enough job? Personally, their prints and enlargements are stunning. I don't know what more a "pro" shop could do. As for their prices, I don't know who they do it.
  23. Brian, the answer is the smart software in the Fuji Frontier, along with "just good enough and really fast" film scanner. Also, competition has made RA-4 papers really good. Fuji Crystal Archive is darned nice paper. Of course, the "look" of the paper no longer matters, the look is all software, "better" paper now just gives you more color gamut.
    Last Costco I was in (Waltham, MA), the mini-lab was next to the front "opening". I won't call it a door, it was a 20 foot wide row of "hot air wind doors". Dirt and sand blew in from the parking lot in winter. Not so much as a wall or low divider between it and the parking lot. A place I'd never consider bringing my film near. Of course, other Costco stores may not have had their floor layout done by an idiot.
  24. Costco is really addressing another market Brian. If you wanted your print cropped to specifications, with the sky burned in, the shadow side of a building held back and the red cast from a nearby brick wall removed, you'd likely not take it to Costco.
  25. John, those air curtain doors, combined with the positive pressure applied to the interior of the building, means that though dirt comes in on customer's shoes and clothes, it doesn't blow in. Unless they've really messed up the balance, any airborne particulates passing the door are heading toward the parking lot.
    Or at the Costcos around here, toward the pizza and hot dog area.
  26. I've found Frontier prints pretty good but a bit boring, it is just std gloss but flat .. you don't get the shimmering effect with inkjet semi gloss/luster papers. there are labs that do that but more expensive.
  27. People who think that places like Costco can replace what a custom lab does are grossly misinformed or simply have basic needs. Try getting a unique print size, for example, or offset and uneven borders. Color management isn't as accurate and the fine adjustments to the image requiring good taste and years of imaging experience just aren't possible. They can cover the basics, and they do that well, but it's about the same as getting a meal cooked by a pit stop diner versus a four star restaurant. The ingredients and tools might be the same but it stops there. Unfortunately, too many people are of the mind set that it's all the same and that's why custom labs are gone. Also, most places that called themselves custom labs never had a clue what that meant because they didn't have the demanding customer base that only existed in and around major cities. It's hard to sell a lot of first class seats when people can only afford coach.

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