How do I choose a photo lab?

Maybe you have just read the free module welcome to film; maybe you just aren't happy with the lab you've been using, whether it's your first or your twentieth. Whatever it is, you want a new lab. Where do you start?

Well, a lot depends on what sort of lab you want. The obvious place to for us to begin is with minilabs processing colour negative film, along with chromogenic black and white films such as Ilford XP2 Super that are designed to be processed in the same chemicals. After that we shall go on to specialist black and white labs, then pro labs and colour slide processing.

What makes a lab good or bad?

The most basic requirement is that they do not lose your films. Not all can meet this requirement. One reason we do not use mail-order labs is that if you do, the lab is not the only way to lose the film: you also have the mail at either end. Similar considerations, though usually with less of a risk, apply to 'depots' where the film is collected for sending to a remote lab, then returned to the depot for collection. We vastly prefer places where the processing is done on the premises. The films are harder to lose; they cannot easily pass the blame; and normally, you can speak directly with the person or people directly responsible for processing (or losing) your film. An old trick to minimize film loss, no matter where you have your films processed, is always to shoot your business card (or anything else with your name and address) on the first frame of every film.

lamp & shadow, pecs

Lamp and shadow, Pecs, Hungary

Quite frankly, we don't shoot very much colour negative: slides are easier to file and check, and of course nowadays, there's digital. On the other hand, negative films are much less critical when it comes to exposure, and the quality obtainable nowadays from most of them is superb: this is Agfa(now discontinued, of course). Frances shoots more colour negative than Roger, not least because she shoots less digital, but when we want colour, we want good quality. This was processed by Canterbury Cameras.

Assuming that they do not lose you films, you want them correctly processed. This means that the chemicals used are changed as needed, i.e. not worked to exhaustion. One lab we used -- a very good one -- was good because the operator thought to ask us how often the final (stabilizer) bath needed to be changed. The person who installed the machine had said 'never' but the operator was an enthusiastic amateur photographer and thought that this did not sound right.

Correct processing also means that the settings on the machine must be correct. Film processing is highly standardized, so there should be no problems there (note 'should') but it is a different matter if you are having prints made. Printers have different 'channels' for different films, and printing with the wrong channel may result in colour casts and odd contrasts even if the film is perfectly processed. Bad labs put everything through one channel.

 

Clean, undamaged negs

You want the negatives to be clean and undamaged. There are two main considerations here. One is the care with which negatives are handled after processing. We recall one lab where they not only put fingerprints all over the film (film should only be handled by the edges, never picked up between finger and thumb like a sheet of paper): they also slapped the film down on a filthy table to cut it into strips, with one end of the film actually trailing on the dusty floor.

This sort of carelessness is unusual (though not as unusual as it should be) but dirty machines are lamentably common. The dirt in question may result from the build-up of crud on transport rollers, resulting in scratches of various lengths parallel with the film, or dirty chemicals, especially a dirty final stabilizer bath, which has so much dust and debris in it that some of it sticks to the film.

 

 

Morro Bay, California

 

An image like this, with a lot of light tones in it, will mercilessly show up any dirt or scratches on the negative -- though the 'Digital ICE' feature found on most modern scanners will get rid of an awful lot, and you can usually clone out any other dirt. Which is all very well unless you want to print optically... Roger used a Nikon F for this, with a Vivitar Series 1 Solid Cat, though he forgets whether it was the 600/8 or the 800/11.

 

morro bay, light

Unless the lab is competent, cleaning the machine can make things worse. The worst negatives we ever had were processed on a Monday in a lab that protested, when we pointed out the defects, "But we cleaned it and replaced the chemicals this morning." The cleaning had clearly been so perfunctory that all it had done was stirred up the dirt.

Admitting mistakes -- and reprints

Finally, you want a lab that will admit it when they get it wrong. Unfortunately, this is not as simple as it might seem, and we have a surprising amount of sympathy with labs who try to throw all the blame onto their customers. This is because huge numbers of customers make very basic mistakes, then blame the lab. Unless you are willing to acknowledge when you have made mistakes, or to listen to the lab when they tell you what your mistakes might have been, you cannot really expect them to extend the same courtesy to you.

If the prints are so bad that you think they ought to be reprinted, explain politely and clearly what the problem is. Then again, if you have to explain, you are probably onto a loser anyway: a competent operator would have looked at the prints and reprinted without being asked. A bad one will be surly and argumentative and may over-compensate on the reprint, whether through malice or (more usually) ignorance. For example, we once asked for a reprint because of a very heavy cyan cast. The reprints had a heavy red cast...

The most common fault is a colour cast, and this has to be quite bad on machine prints before we ask for a reprint. There have however been times when this has happened. One of the easiest ways to get their attention is to hold a flesh tone next to your own hand and ask if they really think that the colour cast is acceptable. Do not be put off by 'no-one else has complained'. Even if this is true, you can point out that this is not your concern: you are complaining, even if no-one else does.

Colour casts with black and white chromogenic films such as Ilford XP2 Super are not really cause for complaint. Yes, it is possible to filter them out, but it requires time and effort and willingness and skill, any or all of which may be in short supply. We cheerfully accept almost any colour cast with chromogenic prints, treating them as references only: we then print on silver halide paper in the traditional manner, guaranteeing true black-and-whites, or we scan and correct as best we can in printing. 'As best we can' because monochrome ink-jet printing can rarely compare with silver halide and is often subject to colour shifts according to the light under which it is viewed (metamerism).

civil war, woodsmoke

American Civil War re-enactor

As received from the minilab, the 10x15cm/4x6 inch print was a rather nasty yellow and far too contrasty, even from Ilford XP2 Super (a fairly low-contrast film). This is a print on 'real' (silver halide) black and white paper, sepia-toned, but sepia toning in Adobe Photoshop is still likely to look better than the vast majority of attempts at neutral black and white printing via inkjet. Small departures from neutrality are very clear in plain greys; add a good bit of brown, as here, and the colour balance can wander quite a long way before it ceases to look convincing. Frances shot this using her Bessa-T and 50/1.5 Sonnar with 2x yellow filter from B+W.

Minilabs

The first and most important thing to realize about minilabs is that there is very little connection between price and quality. The knowledge and enthusiasm of the staff are of far greater importance. As a general rule, dedicated shop-front minilabs, or mini-labs in camera stores, are better than minilabs in chemists' shops (drugstores) and supermarkets, but we have encountered many exceptions in both directions: superb minilabs in supermarkets, and utterly hopeless minilabs with their own shop-fronts. Mail-in labs are mostly pretty good, as are pro labs -- but again, there are plenty of exceptions. The worst negs we have ever had (scratched and filthy, the Monday specials mentioned above) were from a so-called pro lab in Virginia, and some of the best were from a mini-lab in our local chemists' shop in Birchington -- the one mentioned above where the operator asked us about changing the stabilizer.

imperial rear

Imperial 11x14 inch camera

 

The bail back and top braces reveal it as a Mk. II; the Mk I was convertible by the user with a bail kit and (single) brace kit, supplied at no extra charge.

There is a very slight cyan tinge to this image, taken from a machine print from negative film; the tinge is all the clearer because of the warm, pinkish background colour of the module. Until the rise of digital imaging, machine prints were often the quickest, cheapest and most convenient way of producing publicity pictures for distribution. Yes, multiple transparencies, shot as camera originals, were cheaper --until you ran out of them.

Today it would be entirely possible to scan the original negative and adjust the colour in a much more satisfactory manner, but a colour cast this slight in a near-white background would not normally be grounds for demanding a reprint of the proofs. Then again, today, almost any sane professional would shoot this sort of product shot on a digital camera.

Prices

Mail-in labs are usually cheapest, then shop-front, supermarket and chemist/drugstore labs, then labs in photography shops, then pro labs. If you take the cheapest mail-in labs as the base price, then you are typically looking at 1.5x to 2x this price in shop-front, supermarket and chemist/drugstore labs, 2x to 3x this price in a photography shop, and 3x to 5x this price in a pro lab.

The only real extra you are likely get in a pro lab is a water wash instead of a final stabilizer bath (though this would be extremely unusual). Water wash will give better archival permanence, but there is little agreement on exactly how much difference it will make -- not least because so much depends on storage conditions. Even stabilized negatives should last for a good few decades: permanence is vastly improved as compared even with the 1980s, and 1980s negatives are mostly just about printable today.

Time, money and quality

In any lab, you pay a lot for a fast turnaround. Typically, with a mini-lab, a 4-hour or even same-day turnaround is 30-50% more than overnight, and 1 hour is 50-100% more. In a pro lab the surcharges can be 100% and 200%. The only thing you are paying for is to go to the head of the queue. The minilab delivers the pictures in the same time, regardless: normally 35-45 minutes.

Mail order is cheap but slow: turnaround times can reach 3 weeks at peak seasons, and this is another reason why we don't use mail order. 'Depot' processing is normally at least as expensive as a minilab, with turnover from 28 hours to 7 days: again, not something where we can see the point.

 

'Japanese' bridge, park, Moncontour

 

 

Labs often have problems with soft-focus shots. They can print them fine, but they assume that there is something wrong with your camera or lenses (or presumably, for a few minutes of panic, with their equipment). It may be as well to warn them when you take the pictures in.

We normally used to shoot soft-focus on negative film rather than slide, because exposure is so critical, but nowadays we tend to use digital: either the Nikon D70 with Lensbaby or Dreamagon, or M8 with Thambar.

park bridge

Cultivate a relationship with the operator

This is fundamental. A good, keen operator will work with you to get the best possible results. Someone who is there because they were told to go there, as a replacement for someone knowledgeable, may not even know what a good result is, let alone having the faintest idea of how to achieve it. One of the best minilabs we ever used was transformed when the skilled and enthusiastic operator left and was replaced with a girl with no knowledge or understanding whatsoever. She was a nice girl, and willing to reprint without demur, but she wasn't really interested, so she was never much good.

In some labs there is only one operator, but if there is more than one, you need to build up a relationship with all of them -- or get your films developed and printed only when your favoured operator is there. In a very few labs, all the operators are good: we have encountered a couple like that, but only a couple.

chonor lodge

Chonor Lodge, Dharamsala

If you scan and print from commercially processed negatives, there is very little that you cannot correct in Adobe Photoshop or other high-end programs. Even 'crossed curves' (different colour biases in the shadows and highlights) can be corrected, and a little dirt is easily dismissed by Digital Ice. On the other hand, it's easier and quicker if you have a clean, well-processed neg to begin with. Frances shot this with her Alpa 12 S/WA and 35/5.6 Rodenstock Apo Grandagon on 6x9cm Kodak Portra and printed it 'wet' using Tetenal chemistry.

Looking for a lab

The most obvious starting point is personal recommendation, though you have to be careful. Even fellow enthusiasts may be willing to compromise their standards in return for lower prices; labs can and do change (as in the example a couple of paragraphs back); and there is always luck. Someone who has been pleased with a couple of films may recommend a lab that just happened to deliver their best possible work on those two occasions, or they may be unusually undemanding.

Another obvious approach is to talk to the lab. If they are enthusiastic, it generally comes across, though you also have to allow for the fact that they may recently have had a bad experience with an 'enthusiast' who is more interested in talking than in paying to have his films developed and printed, and who is convinced that he knows more than the minilab operator, even when he doesn't.

The best time to talk is after having a test roll processed: that way, they can see you are serious. Ideally, shoot an especially demanding test roll.

Include frames with large expanses of light-coloured sky (good for spotting, well, yes, spots -- and dirt); large areas of a dominant colour, with another colour, preferably a flesh tone, against it (good for spotting machine-bias colour casts); fine detail (good for spotting sharpness -- believe it or not, some labs deliberately defocus their printers so as to 'lose' dirt and scratches); high contrast, such as tree-branches against the sky (good for spotting dirty enlarging lenses, which will flare and reduce contrast); flesh tones or neutral greys or preferably both (good for spotting colour casts); subjects with bright highlights and deep shadows (good for spotting 'blown' highlights and grainy, greenish would-be blacks). Overexpose some of your shots by a stop and two stops; underexpose others (or the same ones) by the same amount.

More and more labs operate by developing the film, scanning it, and then printing the scans. Although this makes for a different balance of errors and misfortunes, the basic considerations remain the same, so the tests remain valid.

 

Misty morning, Chengde

 

 

A picture like this can tell you a lot about fine detail (the trees against the sky), contrast and maximum black/white (the sky and the deepest shadow), dirt (in the light areas) and how the film and the lab between them can handle over- and under-exposure: bracket +/- 1 and 2 stops. If the print is less than satisfactory, look at the negative under a powerful (10x) magnifier: what is not on the negative cannot be printed. Be alive at all times to the possibility that you have exceeded the limits of your own skill or the limits of your equipment and materials.

misty morning, pagoda, chengde

Do not expect perfection. You will never get it. If you reckon they are competent, start talking. "This was clever: I never thought it would print that well..." and "This is really good. Do you do all the printing or do I have to look out for the times you're here?" If you reckon they are incompetent, walk away. What is there to gain from talking? Shoot another roll, with the same sort of demanding subjects, and have it developed and printed elsewhere. Even if it takes you three or four rolls, you still won't have spent very much, and you will have learned a good deal about machine printing.

One other question to ask is whether they are willing to lock the automatic colour balance and exposure on their machine. At the beginning of a sequence with large areas of dominant color, or unusually light or dark backgrounds, you shoot a 'standard' or 'average' negative (typically a person against a mixed background of foliage, sky and buildings). The machine is then locked at this colour balance and exposure level, avoiding colour casts dictated by the machine, or over- or under-exposed prints.

Developing and printing

It is a fair comment that film development and printing are completely separate arts, but equally, we have always found a very high degree of correlation in quality between the two. After all, the only way you can make good prints is from good negatives, and if they can't be bothered to make good prints from good negatives, it is very likely that they can't be bothered to make good negatives either.

Black and white labs

These are a rather different undertaking from colour labs and our first recommendation would be to do it yourself: there is a free module in the 'How do I...?' series about developing your own film. It really is cheap and easy.

If you don't want to do it yourself, our next recommendation is Ilford XP2 Super. This is a 'chromogenic' black and white film that is designed to be developed alongside standard-process colour films (Kodak C41 and compatible, which all are) in minilabs and pro labs. Indeed, it should only be processed in these chemicals. Conventional black and white processing will work, but results are unlikely to be impressive, whereas when developed chromogenically XP2 can be very impressive indeed. If the lab says, "Oh, no, we can't do black and white," point to the 'C41' on the cassette and explain that you only want the prints as references, i.e. not fully colour balanced. If they are any good they will leap at the challenge. If they still try to put you off, let them. Do you want to entrust your films to people like that?

ilford box 3

 

door. loches

Our recommendation for this ISO 400 film is all the stronger if you plan to scan your negatives rather than enlarging them in a traditional wet darkroom. Because the image in XP2 is made of dyes, not silver grains, it scans far more willingly than most conventional films, with far fewer problems with 'grain aliasing', an interaction between the grain and the scanner that makes grain look worse than it is, and sharpness lower.

 

Door, Loches

 

This is Roger's favourite shot from all the XP1 and XP2 that he has ever shot, and as such it appears disproportionately often in the site. But it is tonally gorgeous and very, very sharp: camera and lens were a Voigtländer Bessa-R2 and Apo-Lanthar 90/3.5.

As we say elsewhere, many devotees of obscure developers and development techniques would be hard pressed to meet this for technical quality. The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone; we have tried a range of toners, including selenium and sulphide, and most of them work pretty well.

 

 

If you insist on black and white conventional processing in a lab, there are basically three choices. There are amateur labs (ever fewer), 'shamateur' labs and pro labs. The last are dealt with under a separate heading as they often process colour slide and colour negative as well.

Amateur labs

These mostly operate on a depot or mail-order basis. Traditionally, they used 'seasoned' developers which were replenished rather than replaced. This allows superb consistency but normally involves a loss of up to one stop in film speed (because of hydrobromic acid build-up in the developer, if you're interested). The traditional way to compensate for this was by increasing development time, i.e. 'pushing' the film to increase its speed, but this in turn entails an increase in contrast.

It was also normal in such labs to process all films for the same time. This sort of 'one size fits all' development is less than ideal, as fast films may require development for twice as long as slow ones in order to achieve the same contrast. Because of the bias towards over-development, this usually meant that slow films below ISO 100 were badly over-developed (very contrasty), medium speed films of ISO 100-200 were slightly over-developed (a bit too contrasty), fast films of ISO 400 were developed about right (but lost up to a stop in speed) and ultra-fast films such as Ilford Delta 3200 and Kodak TMZ P3200 were under-developed (losing speed and contrast).

In practice, it may be that more and more amateur labs are functioning like shamateur or pro labs and being a bit more careful and selective, but our recommendation in either case is the same. Ask them what film they recommend, and what speed they recommend you use for it. That way, you will get the best you can. If you have a particular preference, ask them which Ilford film they recommend, or which Kodak film. If they cannot or will not answer that question, replying that they can handle all films without a problem, be suspicious.

In the UK, Ilford offers an all-Ilford mail-order lab, the only disadvantage of which is the fairly slow turnaround, typically a week.

Shamateur labs

The word 'shamateur' is of late 19th century origin (1896 in the Badminton Magazine) and derives from sportsmen who, although nominally amateurs, behaved like professionals and indeed in many case took money from manufacturers or other sponsors. 'Shamateur' labs are normally run by amateur photographers who process other amateur photographers' films for money. Most operate by mail order. Some offer only film processing; others do process-and-print packages, and custom printing.

Standards vary enormously. The best are as good as the best pro labs; the worst are abysmal, though they do not normally stay in business long. You can find their advertisements in the small ads of specialist photo magazines.

 

Minas de Cobre, near Mertola

 

If you want to use roll-film (Frances shot this on 6x7cm with with a 'baby' Linhof and 105/3.5 Xenar) you may have to use a shamateur or pro lab even if you use XP2. Although many or perhaps all minilabs can process 120 film, the number willing to do so is very small. Fortunately our current lab, in a camera store in Loudun, is quite happy to do so, though only for film processing (not printing).

shed, minas

More than any other kind of lab, you get what you pay for with shamateur labs -- and even then, there are wild variations. The best will use your preferred developer (or at least, offer you a choice of developers) and take account of your development preferences. In fact, they do exactly what you could do for yourself if you developed your own film. The worst are 'one size fits all', just like the amateur labs of old, as described above.

A quick telephone call will normally tell you all you need to know, including whether the owner is a hopeless nerd: some are. The best are however incredibly helpful and knowledgeable and will in effect subsidize your photography by acting as unpaid teachers.

Pro labs -- and colour slides

Until the digital explosion, E6 (colour slide) labs were the staple of professional colour photography, offering 2-hour turnaround (faster for a premium) and, usually more or less as a sideline unless they catered to the wedding trade, C41 (colour negative) processing and proofing and possibly some black and white. They are now vastly reduced in number, even to the extent that it is worth considering doing your own colour processing. We do, using a Jobo CPE-2 (a Jobo ATL or Durst processor is even better) and Tetenal chemicals.

Then there was Kodachrome. In the 1970s, when he was an assistant, Roger used to courier Kodachrome to and from the London lab. He forgets now, but there was at least overnight processing and there may have been same-day. Today, there are only a handful of Kodachrome labs in the entire world.

Professional E6 processing was traditionally done using wire baskets full of spirals (for 35mm, 120, 220 and 70mm) and for sheet film 'hangers' that held the film at all four corners. These were dropped into large vats of chemistry; agitation was by bursts of nitrogen bubbles. The film baskets were moved manually, or sometimes mechanically, from one bath to the next. For black and white, agitation (still in deep tanks) might be manual as well.

storm light

Storm light, Monsarraz

The great thing about slide films is that the lab cannot 'correct' your images after you have taken them. The colour of the storm light is really dramatic here, and Roger deliberately under-exposed for extra drama. There is also a 'sparkle' in slide films that is often (though far from always) missing in negatives.

Such pro labs as survive in major cities can pretty much be taken for granted as excellent. This is not the same as saying that they are better than the best shamateur labs for black and white, or for that matter, better than the best minilabs for colour negative. They probably remain the best for colour slide, though the only normal alternative to colour slide, the dedicated mail order or depot-type lab, is also likely to be excellent. The only real problems are the prices, which can easily be twice as high as mail-order/depot for slide, and (as already noted) three times as high as a mail-order lab for colour neg. You are paying the extra for a complex cocktail of quality control, support, turnaround times and accountability, and only you can decide if it is worth it.

For black and white negative, the advice for a pro lab is exactly the same as for any other black and white lab. Ask them what film(s) they recommend, and what speed they recommend rating them. The speed will only be a starting point, as it always is with film speeds, but they are better qualified than anyone else to tell you what that starting point may be, given their chemicals and equipment.

The bottom line

When it comes to colour negative developing and printing, the quality of your lab is likely to be far more important than the brand of film you choose. In fact, you will only see any real differences between color negative films if you use high-quality labs. With colour slide and black and white, the differences between bad, indifferent and good labs are usually at least as clear as the differences between films, though the differences between films will be clearer than they are with colour negative.

pelopponese bay

Bay in the Pelopponese

This is from a 6x12cm colour slide, exposed in a Horseman back on an MPP Mk. VII camera with coupled 150/5.6 Voigtländer Apo Lanthar. Getting 120 slide film processed normally requires a pro lab, even if you are not shooting unusual formats such as 6-on-120.

Once you have a good lab, direct as much business their way as you can, but always remember that the quality of any lab can change literally overnight with changes in personnel, and that quality may drift gently downhill in any lab for a variety of reasons. Maybe the operator has a new baby and isn't getting enough sleep; maybe the minilab owners are trying to cut costs in the wrong places; maybe it's a simple mistake on their part, or even yours. Eternal vigilance is not only the price of freedom: it is also the price of keeping a good lab on its toes.

Go to the list of modules

or go to the home page

or support the site with a small donation.

© 2008 Roger W. Hicks