From Drop-Off to Pick-Up: A Rookie's Guide to Film Labs

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As a new film shooter, you may be trepidious when choosing a lab for the first time. Film has its language, a specific jargon often used to separate people who shoot as an ongoing practice and those who shoot a few rolls for fun. This film-specific language can become exclusionary, and often, you are intimidated to ask basic questions to ensure your film comes back to you the way you want it. Or, more likely, you don't even know what questions to ask.

I've worked at an NYC lab, Nice Film Club, for three years, overseeing processes from the ground up. I've diagnosed almost every film roll problem and answered hundreds of film shooters' questions about film photography, lab services, and troubleshooting cameras/rolls specifically. I'm here to distill that knowledge and tell you what to look for when choosing a film lab.

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Price Point

This is most people's starting place. Everyone wants the best deal for film development in a trade where prices seem to go up continuously. The question you have to ask yourself is, is a bang for your buck always the best option? What do you give up for a highly cheap film developing rate, and at what point do low prices and poor quality of service become mutually exclusive?

At Nice, we can fix the price point at $9.99 for our members. Keeping our quality high and our price affordable gives us repeat customers who trust the quality of our lab.

Be cautious around labs that offer one-hour turnaround times across the board for every order. Although it's tempting to have the immediacy of the scans, vying for film labs with a rush system in place is a much better solution. It isn't easy to ensure your film will be handled carefully if speed is the primary objective. In these conditions, it's possible quality control could be low. Consider if this is a deal breaker for you before dropping off at your lab of choice.

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What does my lab develop, how do they do it, and how well does it come out?

These are three questions you should have about any lab you choose. The first question is essential: What kind of film does your lab develop? Color (C-41) and Black and White are the two most basic kinds of rolls. This information can be found on the physical canisters before your drop-off. Special services include E-6 and ECN-2 processing, drum scanning, sheet development, and large-format printing. Say, for example, you found your grandpa's old roll of Kodacolor in a drawer, and you want to get it developed. It's important to know that the chemistry to process it is virtually nonexistent. Be aware of what you're dropping off in the future so you don't send your film somewhere it can not be processed. Check out a lab's website or call in to see what types of film they can develop.

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How is my film processed?

This is the second question you should be considering.

Most people have a romantic illusion of a film lab that every roll is hand-processed in a darkroom; this is not a viable option for most film labs with heavy customer volumes. This doesn't mean your rolls aren't being handled with care, but there are a variety of processes used to develop film, such as roll transport, dip and dunk, and compact film processors.

At Nice, all our developing information is available here. Do your research and decide what, if any, film processing type is best for you.

It's important to know what quality scans you will receive back. Often, labs only offer low to medium-resolution scans, which can be pretty disappointing from all the shooting effort. Nice offers your files as JPEGs at 2K resolution (3000 x 2000px for 35mm scans). Once you've seen your images, you can instantly unlock 4K 16 Bit ~180MB TIFF files on a per-scan basis. Figure out how high of quality your photos will be before dropping the film off.

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Am I getting my rolls push/pulled?

You've probably heard of pushing and pulling in film; what is it, and why might you want it? Pushing and pulling film are techniques used in film photography to adjust the film's adequate sensitivity (ISO). Here's a concise explanation:

1. Pushing Film:

Increased Sensitivity: Pushing film involves intentionally underexposing it during capture and then compensating for this underexposure during development.

Reasons to Push:

  • Shooting in low-light conditions without a tripod.
  • Achieving faster shutter speeds in challenging lighting.
  • Creating a high-contrast or gritty look.
  • When you only have higher ISO film available.

2. Pulling Film:

Decrease Sensitivity: Pulling film is the opposite, where you overexpose the film during capture and then adjust development accordingly.

Reasons to Pull:

  • Shooting in bright conditions with slow film.
  • Reducing contrast for a softer, more pastel-like look.
  • When you want to maintain fine details in highlights.
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How long will it take to get my photos, and how will I get them?

Most times, your lab of choice will provide this information, but if you have a deadline to meet, you must know a lab's limitations or opt for a lab that offers a rush service. Most lab's turnaround times are between 3 - 7 days; anything more than this is unusually long.

How you receive your photos is also essential in dropping off film. If you're a member at Nice, your photos are hosted forever under your account on the platform. However, this is one, if not the only, lab that offers this kind of service. Most labs send you a WeTransfer or Dropbox link through the email you give them upon drop-off. Make sure you don't give your lab a spam email you don't have access to, and consider setting an alert for when the scans come in. Nice alerts all its customers when their rolls are ready. For almost all labs, these files expire, so be sure to download all your files ASAP when you receive them.

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Do I want my film negatives back? Should I care about them?

After you receive your scans, many film fans will want to know what to do with your dropped-off negative scans.

What are Negatives?

Film photography negatives are strips or sheets of film that contain photographic images in a reversed form. Simply put, your negatives are the film inside your canister containing all your photos. They are developed, hung, and then scanned as a positive image.

What are Nevatiges used for?

Darkroom Printing: One of the benefits of saving your film negatives is to turn them into darkroom prints. In the darkroom, the negative is placed in an enlarger via a film carrier and projected onto a light-sensitive paper for a select amount of time to make an image. One of the benefits of having your negatives cut is that it is much easier to fit them into the film carrier and then place them into the enlarger.

Rescanning: When most people think of rescanning, they think of getting terrible scans and needing to have the scans redone out of necessity. While, unfortunately, this is sometimes the case, one factor that is less considered is a style change. Over time, the kinds of photos you take and how you want those photos to look can change. You might find yourself developing a specific style of picture-making. Having your negatives means you can rescan to have a consistent look with your photos.

Learning about your film: All the information about your shots is stored in the negative. From your film negative, you can tell if the film was underexposed or overexposed, how it was developed, how that negative will translate as a positive, any issues with the film you used, and any issues you may have with your camera. This is an invaluable resource in an artistic practice with a massive learning curve and prone to many errors. You can use the film negative to track issues and progress as you continue to shoot film.

Your lab of choice will almost always tell you about their negative policy, i.e., how long they'll store the negatives if they do cut negative storage, uncut negative storage, or both, and whether or not you want to keep the negatives. Decide beforehand if you wish to have your negatives back and how you want them stored to meet your needs.

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Choosing the right film lab is more than just picking a service; it's about finding a trusted partner for your analog journey. While cost might be an immediate consideration, delve deeper into their services, the care they extend to your films, and their dedication to quality. Armed with the right questions, you can ensure your needs, from resolution preferences to scan timelines, are met.

My experience at Nice Film Club has granted me a unique perspective on the essentials and concerns in this field. Remember, film photography is as much about the process as the end result. Your choice of lab plays a crucial role in that narrative. As you embark on your film journey, stay informed, make thoughtful choices, and choose the right lab for you.

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